What It’s Like to Be a Trans Actor in Hollywood
This is the first installment of ScreenCrush’s new franchise Our Hollywood, a month-long series about the past, present and future of transgender visibility in film and television. Stay tuned throughout June’s LGBTQ Pride Month for in-depth profiles with photos shot by Amos Mac, essays and exclusive videos.
It would surprise few to learn that Hollywood history hasn’t been kind to the transgender community. From the earliest days of cinema up to today’s newest releases, film and television have used trans identities as punchlines and plot twists, to instill fear and disgust, and to erase trans and gender non-conforming1 people from the screen. In 2015 and 2016, only two trans characters appeared in major studio movies, and both were used as punchlines — Benedict Cumberbatch’s parody of a non-binary2 person in Zoolander 2 and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her trans woman in Hot Pursuit. Beyond the crowning achievements of Tangerine, Transparent, and Laverne Cox’s Emmy nomination, the big and small screen have yet to cast trans actors in an abundance of authentic, substantial and ongoing lead roles.
What does Hollywood need to do to change that? And what is it actually like for a trans person to work in the industry today? To find out, ScreenCrush asked eight trans actors who are helping to change representation onscreen: Alexandra Billings (Transparent), Elliot Fletcher (Shameless, The Fosters), Trace Lysette (Transparent, Blunt Talk), D’Lo (Looking, Sense8), Rain Valdez (Lopez), Alexandra Grey (Transparent, Drunk History), Jazzmun (When We Rise) and Ian Harvie (Mistresses, Transparent). They told us about the importance of positive depictions of trans people in scripted media, why they shouldn’t be cast only as trans characters but in all types of roles, and why cisgender3 actors in trans parts is problematic.
The First Time I Saw a Trans Person On Screen
D’Lo: Media is probably the only way that people get to see themselves reflected. Being that I’m a person of color, I didn’t grow up seeing anything close to me racially or ethnically. The one time I saw a trans person on TV, a transmasculine4 person, I felt both freedom and jailed up in less than 30 seconds. It was me watching this whack-ass talk show. A trans man was on it, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, freedom! There’s my life. I could be that.’ And then the minute he started talking about his life, the whole audience just started mocking him, making fun of him, and I was like, ‘Never mind. Let me get back into this closet, lock this up real tight.’
Ian Harvie: Probably the first time I saw something that was close to a trans image or what I thought was a trans image was in the movie Tootsie. I was young, and to see somebody play with gender like that was really fascinating to me. It was probably the first time that I recognized in myself that I wished that I could change my gender, become that other gender. In that film they just made it so easy [laughs]. Slap on some makeup. I realize that it’s not a trans film, [but] it was the first time that I related to someone changing their gender.
“It was no wonder my family didn’t know what to do with me because these movies kept telling them that I was going to grow up to be a villain.” – Rain Valdez
Rain Valdez: Growing up watching television, there weren’t any positive representations of trans women that I saw. If anything there was a plethora of negative depictions of trans women, particularly Soapdish and Ace Ventura [Pet Detective]. When I was watching [Soapdish] with my family, we were having a really good time and we were laughing until we got to the end when Cathy Moriarty’s character was outed and then she was made to be the villain. That is when I got really uncomfortable. My family would look at me wondering how I was feeling. It was no wonder my family didn’t know what to do with me because these movies kept telling them that I was going to grow up to be a villain. It had a huge impact on my life. I was very fearful to grow up.
Elliot Fletcher: The first trans image I saw in TV and film was actually kind of positive for me. It was Angel from Rent. I just fell in love with her. We never really know if she is trans or if she is gender nonconforming or non-binary, but that was the first exposure I had and I thought she was so cool.
How Hollywood Has Gotten Trans Representation Wrong
Trace Lysette: We are perpetually the victim or the villain or the sidekick. I think we’re just tired of being the token. We want and are able to play leading roles and I think we can carry a film. I think we are interesting. I think our stories are complex and compelling. I think that people want to learn about us, whether we play trans or not. We’ve been through a lot of stuff that can aid our character work. I think it’s kind of our secret weapon that people don’t really know is there because we are survivors and we’ve been through so much. That they have yet to discover how much magic we can bring to a project.
Jazzmun: I think [Hollywood has a] limited scope of how our lives are, how colorful and evolved our lives are. They tend to go to sensationalism. The sensationalism of Jerry Springer [where being trans] is a secret that nobody knew, that I’m hiding out. I don’t live my life like that. Nothing about me is hiding out.
Ian Harvie: Not including trans people – actual living, breathing trans people – in telling a trans story. In the writing, in the acting, in the directing, in the production. I would say that trans people should be part of every aspect of the storytelling in order to get it right.
Alexandra Billings: I think they misunderstand us, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you that that’s partly our fault, that we’re not clear. We’re not clear and we’re not loud enough. We don’t understand our own power, and when we do understand it we cerebralize it. You can’t expect someone to know your life and then blame them for not being there. That’s unfair and it doesn’t make any sense. We’ve got to get loud and we’ve got to get current. We’ve got to be present in the thing that we are in, not live in the past, not live in our own shame, not live in our own regret, not live in who we were. Accept, love and cherish and honor all of that so we can be present in the person we are becoming. And then we got to explain that, clearly.
Why Trans Visibility Matters
Ian Harvie: If when I was younger, had I seen positive trans roles in film and TV, yeah, of course my life would be different. My life would be different because I would have felt like I had existed a lot sooner than I did. I don’t feel like I existed until I met my first trans person, and they weren’t on TV. I didn’t know they existed, and I didn’t know I existed as a result of it. Had I seen someone when I was younger I might have known who I was, and it might have saved me from a lot of struggle.
“I would have felt like I had existed a lot sooner than I did.” – Ian Harvie
Alexandra Grey: I get so many messages from teenagers and people all over saying how much seeing me in a small role made a difference. Imagine [if] they saw me all the time, what kind of thing that would do for them.
D’Lo: When you normalize the lives that should be normalized then everybody who thought that they should mock someone or judge someone is like, ‘Oh wait, we all aren’t making fun of them? Oh okay, I won’t either.’ It’s just as simple as that. Bullying only happens when other people allow it to happen. The minute it is not cool to bully somebody, then the bully stops.
Rain Valdez: There have been about nine trans women murdered this year alone, mostly women of color. About 27 trans women murdered last year, also mostly women of color, and about 2,000 transgender people murdered in the last eight years. I hate to say this but I feel that Hollywood played a part in perpetuating the hatred that there is now. I think as a whole and as an industry we need to start taking responsibility for that and start creating stories to reverse that effect, and start humanizing us in a way that we have never really seen before.
Should Cis Actors Play Trans Characters?
Alexandra Grey: I know there’s this whole controversy with cis actors playing trans roles. My thing is that I really don’t care. I’m an actor, I’m serious about my craft, and I believe that anyone can play anything, but I think what the fight is, is we’re saying we’re not even given the opportunity so at least give us the opportunity to play ourselves. And I’m grateful that I’ve been able to do that, but I now want that to be more than just a one-off or a punchline. I’m ready for people to see me more.
Alexandra Billings: When you have a cis actor playing a trans character they look at it from the outside in, and so they are playing at characteristics or behavior. We don’t do that because that’s inbred [in us]. Being transgender isn’t learned behavior, it’s genetic. And that’s something they will never understand.
Elliot Fletcher: My advice to a cis actor playing a trans character right now is: don’t. Because it’s really important that trans people play trans characters in film and TV.
What a Trans Actor Brings to a Trans Role
Alexandra Billings: Experience. It’s not something I have to act. I don’t have to find that within myself. It’s spiritual, it’s emotional, it’s historical. We’re a tribe that has been around since the beginning of time, so that’s in me. It’s not even something that occurs to me. I just am trans, I don’t have to be trans.
“If performance for a lot of trans people is a mode of survival, that makes us the best f—ing actors.” –D’Lo
D’Lo: I had to try to be a girl for so long in my life. Studying and watching women, how they walked and how they held their books and how they sat and how they behaved. And I had to study that stuff for my f—ing survival. That kind of life makes you observe things on a whole lot of levels. I can sense danger in less time than it takes my partner. All those things happen [when you are] a person who has had to constantly hide and constantly disguise. If performance for a lot of trans people is a mode of survival, that makes us the best f—ing actors.
Alexandra Grey: I definitely think my life experiences have helped me [become a better actor]. Most of the trans roles I’ve done have been battered women, women battling with suicide, depression, violence. A lot of that has been taken from my own life and I think that really helps me when I go into these audition rooms and I just sort of leave it all there.
Why Trans Actors Should Be Cast in All Types of Roles
Trace Lysette: When I first started acting, I was told to not disclose that I was trans and was told to go out for regular cisgender female parts. Now that I’m out there and it’s known that I’m trans, I think sometimes that might hinder my opportunity in snagging a big cis role.
I believe that for us to move forward we have to be cast in not just trans parts, but cis parts, especially the ones that are bigger. We rarely get to play the protagonist.
Elliot Fletcher: I want trans people to be cast in more than just trans roles. I would love to play a cis character. I would love to play a Jedi, a supervillain, a superhero. That would be so, so fun.
Jazzmun: I can be the nurse. I can be someone’s lover. I can get married.
Rain Valdez: We could play anyone. We can play a doctor, we can play a teacher, we can play a superhero or Catwoman. But we need to have those opportunities considered. We need the opportunities to go into a room and show our talent, and put the gender aside. If we can do that then I assure you, you would be meeting a lot of talented folks.
How Can Hollywood Do Better?
Rain Valdez: It is time to start reversing the shaming, reverse the vilifying, reverse the stigmatizing and fetishizing, and start humanizing trans people.
Start creating stories that are more accurate and start creating stories where we are being loved or romanced, because we do have those in our lives, we just rarely ever get to see it in the media.
Trace Lysette: How do we get to the place where a trans person can be a leading role? I think it’s just breaking that glass ceiling. It’s someone higher up taking that risk and granting the access to really let us shine. It’s someone having the faith in us that we deserve to be seen and heard and not minimized.
D’Lo: Hollywood can introduce non-binary and trans roles into a lot of different areas by sticking our community in the writers room, in sessions with casting. I know that there are people who are really trying to do that at a lot of the networks, and I appreciate that, [but] I don’t think that it’s done enough. In the same way that you would want a network to be sensitive to a marginalized group, whether that is race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, the same goes for trans and non-binary people.
The Future Hollywood I Want to See
Trace Lysette: One where we’re leading a film or series, or talking to each other. How often do we get to see trans people interacting with each other onscreen? We have friends. Hello? We’re people. We’re not just this isolated unit all the time. I would like to see us carry a project. I would like to see us become household names. I would like to see not just trans kids look to us as [role] models, but also cisgender kids.
Rain Valdez: The future Hollywood that I would like to see is run by women and trans people. I would like to see trans people in different genres. It would be great to see a trans person in a romcom where she is not the butt of the joke.
“I want you to celebrate all aspects of a transition… and not limit me to a pair of breasts and hair and some makeup.” –Jazzmun
D’Lo: I want to see complex stories. I want to see trans people of color, I want to see their lives being celebrated. I want to see the family that accepts [what] their trans child looks like, the Muslim family, the Christian family, the Hindu family, the Buddhist family. I wanna see the family stories talk about their trans members. I want to see the trans serial killer, but have it be complex, you know? I want to see a transgender private detective who solves crime and helps his clients.
Elliot Fletcher: I want to make sure that every kind of experience is shown in TV and film because there is no one trans experience. I want there to be a movie starring a trans man or trans masculine person where they don’t go on hormones and they don’t have surgery because that’s a really legitimate trans experience and you never see that. I want to see a trans guy in a movie where he wears makeup and he does drag. I want more trans men of color in everything, and I want more trans people of color in everything.
Jazzmun: I want [Hollywood] to invest in my community. I want you to give my community opportunities to freely express themselves. I want you to make a commitment and create relationships with us so that we can evolve and grow in the process. I want you to celebrate all aspects of a transition and to come to some understanding that transition is constant and there is no one road to it. A to Z, and maybe I stop at B and be okay with that. And be willing to want to explore that and not limit me to a pair of breasts and hair and some makeup.
1Gender non-conforming: A person whose gender expression does not conform to conventional expressions of masculinity or femininity. Not all gender non-conforming people identify as transgender, and not all transgender people identity as gender non-conforming.
2Non-binary: A term used by some people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the conventional categories of man and woman, and/or outside of the male and female binary. They may define their gender as falling somewhere in between man and woman, or they may define it as wholly different from the above terms.
3Cis or cisgender: A person whose gender identity matches the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
4Transmasculine: An umbrella term for a person who identifies on the masculine side of the gender spectrum who may or may not identify as male.
*Correction: The language used to define 'non-binary' has since been updated for clarification. It is worth noting that the above terms are not universal to all people of trans, gender non-conforming, and/or non-binary experience.