The media is buzzing about a new film called About Ray, a movie starring Elle Fanning as a transgender teen trying to find his way through life and struggling with his absent father about hormone replacement therapy.
The trailer, which appeared on Vanity Fair, stars Naomi Watts as Ray’s mother, who is completely on board with her son’s transition, and Tate Donovan, who plays Ray’s absent father, who is seemingly resistant to HRT. Susan Sarandon play’s Ray’s grandmother, who appears to be there to just ask uneducated questions like, “Why can’t she just be a lesbian?”
Based on an idea by Director Gaby Dellal [On a Clear Day] and written by Nikole Beckwith, the indie film had a $5 million budget and is described by the Hollywood Reporter as “an exploration of identity that centers on a New York City teen, Ray (Fanning), transitioning from female to male and her single mother, Maggie (Watts), who is coming to terms with having to raise her only daughter as a son.”
When the movie was announced in November of last year, TheAtlantic ran an article titled, “Is Elle Fanning Taking a Role from a Transgender Actor?” which stated, “That’s not a question for actors; it’s a question for producers and directors. Fanning did not literally take the role from a trans actor, because it was not offered to a trans actor.”
Therein lies the issue, a person who is transgender was never considered for the role because Hollywood has “no bankable transgender teens” in the acting pool to cast as the main character; but that never stopped Eric Schaeffer from casting an unknown trans actress named Michelle Hendley for the lead role in Boy Meets Girl.
When asked about trans roles going to cisgender actors and actresses, Michelle Hendley said in an email, “I’m happy to see fabulous cisgender actors bringing visibility to trans issues, but I will be happier when I get to see those roles played by fabulous trans actors. Works like Transparent and Dallas Buyer’s Club are helping more than they are hurting (in my opinion), but as long as my community is being represented by cisgender people there is more work to be done. ”
Despite the visibility and progress the transgender community has made in the last year, Hollywood still seems reluctant to cast transgender talent in movies that represent our community. About Ray feels more like a Transparent than a Boy Meets Girl or even an I Am Cait because once again we have another writer and director telling a transgender story from the eyes of the cisgender community. At some point, Hollywood needs to allow us to tell our own story instead of it being interpreted for us.
In her essay to The Atlantic, trans filmmaker Andrea James said, “Playing a trans character is one of many roles that actors seek out for a big career payoff via industry recognition,” James continued, “Physically transforming for a role, like gaining or losing weight, or becoming unrecognizable through makeup and effects, is a tried-and-true way to generate awards buzz.”
If recent awards and nominations are any indication, Elle Fanning may just end up with an award. In the last couple years alone, Jill Soloway and Jeffrey Tambor won Golden Globes for Transparent and Jared Leto took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Dallas Buyers Club. Cisgender actors who have also been nominated for Oscars for playing trans-face include Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, and John Lithgow in The World According to Garp.
The pendulum is swinging in our direction however; Sense8 has introduced us to trans actress Jamie Clayton, The Bold and the Beautiful has a storyline with trans male actor Scott Turner Schofield and Orange is the New Black, now in it’s third season, features actress Laverne Cox, but movies like the highly panned Stonewall farce which erases the trans voice from history or Transparent, which participates in trans-face, decided to hire a bankable cisgender actor [Jeffery Tambor] instead of a qualified trans actress.
Unfortunately, About Ray is just one of the movies releasing this year that will tell a transgender tale with a cisgender lead role. The Danish Girl, a period peace that stars Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe – one of the first known recipients of reassignment surgery – will hit the theaters November 15, 2015, and there is already Oscar buzz for Redmayne’s portrayal. The Mirror in the UK reported in May that Redmayne “has been tipped to win his second Oscar for his performance in The Danish Girl.”
Our success and exposure seems to be coming from Television, Netflix and Amazon Original Series, but small screen aside, Hollywood will continue to reuse the same formula for making movies until there is a paradigm shift in casting trans actors. “I’m through being an exception.” Ray states during one emotional scene in the trailer; so are we Hollywood…so are we.
About Ray hits theaters on September 18th, 2015.