10 major Hollywood stars who played transgender people on screen
After Scarlett Johansson opted to drop out of a transgender on-screen role this month, it would appear the era of cisgender Hollywood stars playing trans characters on screen is drawing to a close.
Studios are now finally getting the message that it’s not OK to hire a big-name Hollywood man, stick them in a wig, and call it representation.
But just a few years ago it was still very much the norm for established film stars to play transgender on-screen and often rake in awards in return, while actual transgender stars struggled to get cast in, well, anything.
Here’s just some of the actors who played trans on-screen.
Leto’s played HIV-positive trans woman Rayon in 2013’s Dallas Buyers’ Club, a film based on real-life groups who desperately attempted to secure HIV-treating drugs during the AIDS crisis.
A famously method actor, Leto reached out to a number of transgender people in order to guide his performance – and lost a massive amount of weight for the film.
The actor was praised by cis critics for his “brave” performance, and won an Academy Award for the role – but neglected to thank the transgender community during his acceptance speech.
When challenged over his casting at one panel event, Leto got into a heated argument with one trans critic, claiming.
He claimed that if only trans people could play transgender roles, only cisgender people could play cisgender roles, and “people like the Rayons of the world would never have the opportunity to turn the tables and explore parts of that art”.
As far as we know, no transgender actor has ever been cast as a cisgender lead in a blockbuster.
Redmayne stepped into the shoes of Danish painter Lili Elbe – one of the earliest people to undergo gender surgery – for 2016’s The Danish Girl.
The film was lauded by mainstream critics but largely panned by the LGBT community, who took issue with Redmayne’s casting and the film’s distorting of Elbe’s life story into an Icarus tale.
Director Tom Hooper admitted no trans people were considered for the role, saying: “Eddie was really the person I wanted to make the film with, and I was very passionate about that.”
He added that there is a “tremendous pool of talented trans actors out there”, but claimed there is “a journey to go on to make sure that talented trans actors have the same access to opportunities both in front of and behind the character as cisgendered actors.”
The Sherlock star’s appearance in Zoolander 2 feels so dated that it could have been two decades ago – but this ill-conceived casting came about in 2016.
Cumberbatch played non-binary character All, who is mocked for their unclear gender as everyone else obsesses over whether the character had “a hot dog or a bun”.
The scene, which would probably not have been so tone-deaf if an actual trans person had been involved in the creative process, was condemned by LGBT groups.
But cis screenwriter Justin Theroux defended the character, claiming the criticism was “much ado about nothing” and that it was actually a “very empowered part”.
Tambor’s turn as Maura Pfefferman in Amazon series Transparent has taken the sourest turn of all.
The veteran actor came under fire from day one on the Amazon series in 2014 for playing the most high-profile trans TV role in decades – even as he racked up a Golden Globe and two Emmy Awards for his role.
Showrunner Jill Soloway sought to remedy the anger by casting multiple transgender actors in supporting roles and hiring and training transgender people to work in behind-the-screen roles.
But the project came tumbling down after the show’s fourth season in 2017, when Tambor was accused of inappropriate sexual conduct towards co-star Trace Lysette and his assistant Van Barnes, both of whom are transgender.
Tambor was dismissed from the show, which will now conclude after a final fifth season – with his actions effectively putting the show’s transgender talent out of work.
The Amazing Spider-Man star donned a wig and a dress for a starring role in Arcade Fire’s music video for track “We Exist”.
The irony of a project titled “We Exist” failing to include any of the minority group it was portraying was not lost on the trans community.
Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace nudged the band: “Maybe when making a video for a song called “We Exist” you should get an actual Trans actor instead of Spider-Man?”
David Wilson said he considered casting a transgender person but said Garfiled “made sense” for the role.
He said: “I thought, Is this the right person — should we be using a transgender person?
“But then getting on the phone with Andrew, and Andrew’s commitment and passion toward the project was just overwhelming. For an actor of that caliber to be that emotionally invested in a music video is just a very special thing. It just completely made sense.”
The video earned a Grammy Award nomination.
Fanning played a male transgender teen May in 2015 release 3 Generations, which was initially titled About Ray.
Director Gaby Dellal claimed it would be inappropriate to cast a trans actor in the role, insisting: “The part is a girl and she is a girl who is presenting in a very ineffectual way as a boy.”
He added: “She’s not pretending to have a deeper voice. She’s just a girl who is being herself and is chasing the opportunity to start hormone treatment.
“So to actually use a trans boy was not an option because this isn’t what my story is about.”
The director later claimed the comments had been “misunderstood”, conceding: “The character of Ray is a he… whether he’s had surgery or started hormone treatment, he’s a he, and he’s a trans boy. But I feel that I was misunderstood, and I totally understand how that can happen.”
Dellal added: “It’s sad that trans actors haven’t been cast in roles that are particularly for them… but I really hope that our film finally coming out will continue the conversation.”
It may not be representation – but the makers of 2005 film Transamerica did at least get someone of the correct gender when they opted to cast the Desperate Housewives star as a trans woman, rather than putting yet another male actor in a bad wig.
Huffman was nominated for an Oscar for the role and picked up a Golden Globe.
In 2014, Huffman said that she understood why trans people wanted trans actors to play trans roles.
She said: “I certainly understand the sentiment that a trans actor should play a trans role. And I support it.
“What can I say… I think [transgender] people have been marginalised for a long time and I think you see that in people who are not trans playing them.”
Close was cast as a 19th century transgender butler in 2011 release Albert Nobbs, landing Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.
She said of the role: “I never think of Albert as a man. I always thought of her, even as Albert, as a woman, kind of wearing a mask.
“As far as getting in touch with her movement and her voice and all that, I would think back on the reality of what she must have gone through.
“I’m fascinated by the complexities of gender, and how people perceive others… eith Albert you have someone who was abused and abandoned as a child and disguised herself as a man for safety, and to get a job.”
In Boys Don’t Cry Swank played Brandon Teena, a real-life transgender man who was brutally murdered in a hate crime incident.
Swank was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role and was nominated for the Golden Globes.
The film was savaged by several people close to Brandon Teena in real life for mangling other details of the case.
His ex-girlfriend Lana Tisdel, who was portrayed in the film, launched legal action against the producers – saying: “I feel outraged at the filmmakers’ depiction of events.
“[They] have made a film that destroys the memory of Brandon as badly as the two killers destroyed his body. It is the second murder of Brandon Teena.”
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Murphy was Golden Globe-nominated for his role as a young trans woman in 2005 release Breakfast on Pluto.
He said: “With most characters you have a reference point, but I had none here whatsoever.”
Murphy met with trans people ahead of the role, adding: “What I noticed about all these transvestites I went out with is that they’re so quick and witty because they spend their whole life having insults thrown at them.
“They can be as bitchy as fuck, but it’s a total defence mechanism. [Character] kitten has that too, because the character has been hurt so much and has built up this shell.”