For trans actors, getting cast isn't easy — especially up against Scarlett Johansson
'If we don't get the opportunities, we're not going to get the chance to become those bankable names'
If Alec Butler wants a part in a movie or a play, he's mostly had to write it himself.
The Cape Breton born, Toronto-based trans actor has written films and plays starring himself as things are "very dry" otherwise.
"It's disappointing and kind of depressing to be a trans actor in this country, in North America," he said.
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So he was disheartened to see yet another trans role going to a non-transgender actor — this time, Scarlett Johansson, one of the top grossing actors in Hollywood. She will play a transgender man in Rub & Tug, a film about crime boss Dante (Tex) Gill, who ran an empire of massage parlours. He was born a female but identified as a man.
"It shows her privilege," said Butler, of Johansson. "It's bad form on her part to take another role away from a trans actor who could use the work, use the exposure [and] portray a trans person more authentically."
Ahh, yes. The resemblance between Dante Tex Gill and Scarlett Johansson is striking 🙄 <a href="https://t.co/9jvMMgJDiJ">pic.twitter.com/9jvMMgJDiJ</a>—@AceOfBens
Acting is 'pretending'
Johansson will also serve as the film's producer. Trans actor Jesse Todd thinks the actress should have used that influence to say "this should go to a trans actor."
"Scarlet Johansson is a great actor, no one is denying that, but it's going to be so much richer if you actually have a trans actor playing that part." She faced similar criticism for playing a Japanese woman in 2017 flop Ghost in the Shell.
A representative for Johansson shrugged off all the backlash, quoted in the online magazine Bustle as saying: "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment."
Those are all other non-transgender actors who have earned acclaim and awards for portraying trans characters onscreen (in Transparent, Dallas Buyers Club and TransAmerica, respectively).
Quebec's Jean-Marc Vallée directed Dallas Buyers Club and doesn't agree with the backlash.
"[It] doesn't mean that because I am casting this type of role that I need to go to this type of person. This is the nature of acting. It's pretending," he said from Montreal on Wednesday.
"It's not about aiming for ... an astronaut because your character is an astronaut."
But Todd believes this role would be a particularly big one for a trans person to tackle because it is not about being trans or going through transition — as stage and screen stories about trans people tend to be about.
"It's not just about their body, not just about this bodily transition, not just about being a victim of violence, or rape or murder," he said.
"This could be a well rounded character, so let a trans person do it, because they're going to do a better job."
'I may never work in film again'
There are initiatives underway to put trans actors on the map.
Last fall, the Casting Directors Association of America held two open casting calls for transgender actors in Toronto and Montreal. In Los Angeles, there's now a major new talent agency called Transgender Talent, specifically devoted to representing trans actors.
It also helps that a few transgender actors have had breakthrough roles in recent years, most notably Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black. There's been lots of pushing for more opportunities and improved roles though.
Todd just had his first lead in the Canadian short We Forgot to Break Up. He's worried about what's next.
"I'm not in the industry. I'm not getting auditions. I'm not getting work, so it really just feels like this is all coming to an end for me," he said. "As soon as this festival circuit is up, I may never work in film again."
Danielle Solzman, a trans movie critic from Chicago, wants more producers and filmmakers to take chances on trans actors.
"There are transgender talent out there that are not getting the opportunity to become famous because we're not essentially being allowed into the room," she said.
"If we don't get the opportunities, we're not going to get the chance to become those bankable names."
With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson