Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club: Why can't we cast trans people in trans roles?

When will TV and film start opening the door to transgender actors, asks Paris Lees

Are you one of the millions of Corrie fans still mourning Hayley Cropper? The lovely Julie Hesmondhalgh, the woman who played the much-loved café owner – notable for being the first transgender character in a British soap opera – says the role would go to a transgender actor if it were cast today. I wish this were true.

Across the Atlantic, male actor Jared Leto recently picked up a Golden Globe, and is favourite for an Oscar, for his performance as a trans woman in Aids drama Dallas Buyers Club. Set in the mid 1980s, the film tells the true story of a straight Texas electrician, Ron Woodroof, who, after contracting HIV, helped transport pioneering anti-Aids drugs into the US in defiance of the medical establishment. Leto’s character, Rayon, is his partner in righteous crime.

However Leto’s awards success  has not been without controversy. His Globes acceptance speech was roundly condemned online after he referred to his character Rayon as a “beautiful creature”; one website responded with the headline: “The Golden Globes gave Jared Leto an award for playing a trans woman because Hollywood is awful”. To make matters worse, Leto has spent much of the publicity trail cracking jokes about cross-dressing – which is odd, tasteless you might say, considering he plays a deeply troubled trans woman and not a panto dame.

So if I’m honest, as a trans woman, I watched Dallas Buyers Club expecting to be offended. I wasn’t. It’s great and you should probably see it. And it’s wonderful to have a trans person’s story in a film that is being enjoyed by millions of people worldwide. Is it depressing to see another male actor playing a trans woman? A little. Is he any good? Yes. He had me in tears.

But is it an Oscar-worthy performance? No. As a transgender campaigner I’ve met a great many trans people. I can’t speak for all of us, but I know a fair few and probably more than you do. And Rayon isn’t quite like anyone I’ve ever met.

“They’d look good on me,” she sighs, staring at a barmaid’s cleavage. Later someone points a gun at her crotch and jokes about giving her “that sex change” she’s “always wanted”. So Rayon clearly sees herself as female and wishes to be female bodied. Why, then, does she remain silent as everyone, even her friends, refers to her as “he”? I’m sure trans women in Texas in the 1980s did face such rudeness, but would they really have accepted it without comment? Rayon never blinks. Apart from trans people, who will pick up on this? Most viewers will have never knowingly met a transgender person. Also, while Woodroof was a real person, Rayon is a fictional character, introduced to highlight Ron’s “homophobia”. I expect the producers brainstormed the most extreme sort of gay they could imagine and settled on “a tranny” – because everyone hates those, right? Rayon isn’t a person, she’s a function.

Hollywood does occasionally produce trans characters of depth. Who would argue that the Oscar-winning Hilary Swank was anything less than brilliant as murdered trans man Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)? Contrast this, though, with Felicity Huffman’s approximation of a trans woman in Transamerica (2005). The producers worked closely with trans consultants, yet still ended up with an unlikely scene in which Huffman pees standing up, Mrs Doubtfire-style. I don’t know any trans women who would do that and if I’d been on set I’d have told them so. But I could be wrong. I haven’t been to the loo with all trans women.

For truly accurate portrayals of trans people, cast trans actors, I say. Not everyone in the trans community agrees though – some say that casting “regular”  actors is a positive step, which acknowledges that many trans people “blend in”. Many trans people do blend in. But wouldn’t it be better for those trans people to blend in themselves? On screen? If you’re one of the 1.5 million Brits who, like me, spent much of 2013 glued to online streaming service Netflix, you probably already know about prison comedy-drama Orange Is the New Black. The show boasts an abundance of racially diverse female characters and my favourite is prison hairdresser Sophia. Played by Laverne Cox. Sophia is transgender and so is Laverne. She’s perfect, but not just because she’s trans. She can act too. And the more audiences see Laverne and other trans actors – Harmony Santana and Jamie Clayton, for example – the less impressed they’ll be with transgender pretenders such as Leto.

Friends in casting tell me their first choice is to cast trans people in trans roles nowadays. What a shame we don’t have more established trans actors, or at least none on which Hollywood would gamble a big-budget film’s success. Until we encourage acting talent from diverse sources, that seems unlikely to change any time soon. So yes, watch Dallas Buyers Club and by all means enjoy it, but, when Leto’s on screen, keep an eyebrow raised.

‘Dallas Buyers Club’ is released on Friday

 

Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital