The transgender community is finally having their Hollywood moment. From Laverne Cox’s award-winning portrayal of Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black, to Caitlyn Jenner’s much-publicized transition that made for perfect reality television fodder and 2015’s critically acclaimed independent film, Tangerine, transgender issues have gained more visibility than ever before.
That increase is reflected in the numbers, too. GLAAD’s newest “Where Are We on TV Report” for 2016 – which has tracked LGBTQ characters on television for more than a decade – was released this month, finding the highest percentage of LGBTQ characters on tv since the report’s inception. While the number of trans characters has more than doubled – with Showtime’s Shameless being the latest series to introduce a trans character – the increase in visibility hasn’t exactly translated into encouraging results off screen. This year has proven to be the deadliest on record for transgender people, with 24 murders in the U.S., according to GLAAD. The 30-year-old organization called on increased and accurate media coverage of violence against transgender people, who are now more concerned than ever about what the future holds for them under a Trump administration.
The juxtaposition of both rising exposure and violence has led to an on-again, off-again debate in the film and television industry this year: Should cis gender actors be cast in trans roles?
Transgender actress Jen Richards was recently at the forefront of the conversation as she criticized the casting of Matt Bomer as a transgender woman in Anything, a yet-to-be-released film with Mark Ruffalo as executive producer. Richards, creator of the Emmy-nominated online series Her Story, said the casting of yet another cis-male actor for a trans role not only robbed transgender actors opportunities in Hollywood, but that it would result in more violence against trans people.
Ann Thomas, the founder of America’s first transgender acting agency, Transgender Talent, is trying close the gap between trans characters and the actors who play them. After a stint on Glee, Thomas realized that there was a need for transgender actors, but no resources to connect them with producers and directors. She created the agency June 2015, and is now seeing an immense increase in interest from studios. Rolling Stone spoke with Thomas to discuss the intersection of the trans community with Hollywood after she recently helped cast television’s first transgender child actor, who appeared on Modern Family in September.
How many casting calls are you getting for transgender roles since starting Transgender Talent?
I’m getting six a day and I was counting myself lucky to see one a week a year ago, so now it’s just accelerated massively. It just started snowballing. I’ve gotten as many as 30 people a week into auditions for industrials, commercials, theater and television shows.
What kind of trends are you seeing in the roles that you’re currently auditioning actors and actresses for?
It’s all over the place. I’ve seen just a really wide variety of them, in theater you get one kind – which is they’re tending to try and do lead roles a lot more, but they’re not necessarily casting trans people in those roles, though sometimes they are. Some people are making great efforts to find them.
We had one in Dallas that they wanted a lead that was trans and I found somebody. They had been pulling their hair out trying to find someone locally, but we didn’t find anybody. We had to fly in somebody from the East Coast to do it, but at least they were willing to go through that effort and I really appreciate what they did. I’m seeing more lead and co-star roles in theater right now than I am in television. I’ve seen hardly anything in film, since film is a longer developmental curve and I think people are waiting to see what happens with television first.
I thought we were out of the woods in bad roles, but then a spate of them came in; I got three in a row that I rejected the scripts for, they were so bad. When you have a right [to produce and develop trans acting roles,] you also have a responsibility to use that right properly. When the right you have is causing people to be killed, that’s going over the line for me. For 50 years, we’ve been presented as sexual predators, child molesters, criminals of all kinds. Or as an absolute joke that should not be taken seriously, like in The Hangover Part II. We don’t need that, because what it’s done is turn the hearts and minds of this country against us. We’ve had 60 pieces of legislation at either local, county or state level brought against the trans community in the last year, to try and curtail our rights – that’s totally un-American.It’s only been a minority though, a very small percentage.
There’s been much debate recently about the continued casting of cisgender actors in transgender roles. As someone who is interacting with both transgender actors and on film and television production, what is your perspective on this debate?
I actually have a very different perspective than what I have heard from almost everybody. I had my own business for 20 years and I understand a lot of the concepts of cash flow and how to make sure that works. You have to do things with the intention of making money, if you’re not doing that, you need to be a non-profit. Hollywood is not a not-for-profit organization. This is a for-profit organization. Every single corner of it is.
The only way you’re going to get money is to go to companies that do films or television shows that are for profit. The problem is we are not up to the point where we have the kind of trans actors who have the financial draw that you can build a show or movie around and expect it to do well.
You can’t just say, “From now it will be all trans people playing trans roles.” You’re not going to see that happen overnight. I believe we should have that eventually, but it’s going to take a while to get to that point. I’m going to really go out on a limb here and say that I think it’s going to be through trans men. Every trans man I have met and worked with has been just the most gentlemanly kind, nice thoughtful person I have ever met, and far more of a man than I could have been back before I transitioned.
If it’s a role where the person is being respected for who they are, then its going to be a positive experience no matter who plays the role.
What about the premise that the casting of cis gender actors in transgender roles leads to real life harm and violence to the transgender community?
It depends on how the role is written, because if the role is demeaning to trans people, no matter who plays it, it’s going to cause an impact, even if it was a trans person playing the role. Who plays the role doesn’t make the difference to me, it’s what the contents are that leads people to dehumanize us, and to consider us to be subhuman, and just trash that can be killed any time. It does lead to that.
But if it’s a role where the person is being respected for who they are, the decisions they make and treated as an equal human being with the other people on the cast, then its going to be a positive experience no matter who plays the role. I think it comes down to content and not “who.”
Jeffrey Tambor made a plea at the Emmy’s this year to give transgender talent a chance. At the same time, Mark Ruffalo also responded to recent criticism for Anything by saying he hears the transgender community. “It’s wrenching to see you in this pain,” he wrote. “I’m glad we are having this conversation, It’s time.” Do these high profile allies who are reaching out make a difference when it comes to more trans visibility in Hollywood?
Yeah, especially in film. Television they’re already doing that more, as far as I can see. When we as trans people see this stuff, we can tell immediately how much research they’ve done, it’s like the emperor’s new clothes. We can tell if all you’ve done as a writer, director or producer is just gone down to a local bar and interviewed drag queens. We can tell. Drag queens and trans people are not the same thing. The vast majority of us are not in bars. The vast majority of us are everyday, normal people with jobs, who are trying ti pursue careers who work in all kinds of different, interesting fields.
Even going through a local LGBT center isn’t necessarily going to give you a proper cross-section, because there’s a lot of people who don’t go ever to LGBT centers. So you have to actually dig to find the people who closely resemble the character you create on screen.
It will come as they start learning about us, but I think they’re also seeing what society is going to do as accepting us as people. We don’t have to be in front of the camera. We have lots of people who want to be behind the camera, who are very capable of learning these skills. Some of them have even gone to school for it already and are ready to hit the ground running if given a chance.
The response to the casting of transgender actors in transgender roles has increased since the founding of Transgender Talent. What are some of the challenges that transgender actors are currently facing?
It’s mainly economic because many of the trans actors don’t have the income opportunities of cisgender actors. Most people think that they just need to work harder and get better jobs – but that isn’t available to us. We got out and we try to get a job, we get thrown out of it because we’re trans.
It’s not as easy as getting a job at a local company that will pay for the classes and lessons that we need, that’s one of the things we’re trying to get across to Hollywood too – we don’t have the training opportunities. We can’t spend the $200 an hour on an acting coach when we aren’t even able to hold down a job at a local greasy diner.
We don’t have the financial backbone to go get the training we need to be the quality of actors they’re asking for. So we need them to provide us with the help we need a leg up, to give us acting lesson at prices we can afford.
CSA has stepped into the lead in getting trans people and other diverse groups auditioning lessons. SAG-AFTRA helped substantially with those.
What we need is not just one or two day seminars, but ongoing affordable lessons for acting, directing, producing and writing. The most significant need is for acting lessons, due to the number of roles being offered already, which is only bound to increase.
What does the first transgender child actor on TV, Jackson Millarker, mean for casting?
I’m just happy he is in the role that’s the right role at the right time on the right show, I’m really happy for that, because he’s going to make a huge difference for this country. I sure hope they ask him back, I think he could make a difference, he could show people what a little trans boy is like and which bathroom he belongs in.
Being able to have a hand in Jackson Millarker’s casting was a landmark moment for your agency. What has been most rewarding for you so far on your journey running Transgender Talent?
I know that people would think seeing Jackson on Modern Family would be – it’s very good but it doesn’t come anywhere near as close as the heartfelt feeling I have when I’ve twice now gotten a gig for a homeless black trans girl and she’s gotten paid, and I’ve had to go find her on the streets to give her her paycheck. That just makes me cry, even if it’s not enough money to get her off the streets, it helps her about, she’s really trying.
Nobody on the political spectrum that can say bad about that. That’s the whole point of this country is to get people to reach for their dreams and help them to become established and self sufficient. If we keep building this the way it’s building right now that it’s going to keep increasing in quality and quantity, i think we’re going to see more roles, and more quality out of the people, as we get more training, and more experience, so i think it’s just continue to go up from the time being.