Trans Actors: Why Jared Leto could learn from Laverne Cox

Damien Ryan

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Jared Leto at this year's Academy Awards
Jared Leto at this year’s Academy Awards

This year’s Academy Awards saw Jared Leto take home the statue for Best Supporting Actor. In a startlingly beautiful performance, Leto played Rayon, an HIV-positive transgender woman. It’s a delicate role and Leto plays it superbly. There’s admirable mix of beauty, bravery, strength and fragility in his performance. He physically disappeared inside his role and has been in a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor trophies all awards season, and deservedly so.

However, Leto’s representation of transgender individuals has ended as soon as the cameras stopped rolling. Throughout the movies promotion and the ensuing awards season, Leto has affectedly erased the struggles of transpeople, in particular transwomen, from his mind and from the promotional junket.

In an interview with Fusion.net, Calpernia Addams, a transwoman with an inspiring story of her own, described how she helped Leto prepare for his role. Addams went so far as to record all of Leto’s lines for the film so that he could listen to the audio while he prepared for filming. She has described how she wants her clients to have a deep emotional and psychological understanding of what it is to be a trans person in the US. Addams served in the navy before coming out as a transgender woman. She embarked on a relationship with Navy private Barry Winchell, who was murdered by fellow Navy members when they discovered the relationship. Addams first experience of the acting world was training actor Lee Pace to portray her in Soldier’s Girl, a film depicting her own relationship. She has also worked with Felicity Huffman for her role in Transamerica.

Addams concluded her interview by saying, “I hope Jared takes that moment to acknowledge the trans community and their struggle.” She graciously added, “but those sort of bigger questions aside, I think he did an excellent job with the role.” I’m thrilled to say that Leto did thank Calpernia on the Oscars stage, but his dedication “to those of you out there who have ever felt injustice because of who you are or who you love, tonight I stand here in front of the world with you and for you“ falls flat for me.

Leto and his team still struggle to truly recognise the trans community, without whom Leto would never had picked up the Academy Award. “It’s really important that he doesn’t look like a woman,” quipped his hair stylist, Chase Kusero, who presumably presided over the greasy ombre look he sported at the ceremony. As if there would be no greater tragedy than a cisgender heterosexual actor looking remotely feminine, even when being awarded for playing a female role.

At the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Leto left his straight privilege shine bright when called out by a female heckler. “Trans misogyny does not deserve an award,” shouted the heckler at Leto. “You don’t deserve an award for playing a transwoman, because you are a man,” she added. This was an opportunity – a point where Leto could have acknowledged his privilege, to have graciously thanked the transgender community and to have shone a spotlight on the struggles faced by trans people everywhere. Instead he chose the ‘reverse racism’ approach (‘reverse trans-phobia perhaps?’) and declared “so you would hold a role against someone who happened to be gay or lesbian – they can’t play a straight part?” “Then you’ve made sure people who are gay, people that aren’t straight, people like the Rayons of the world would never have the opportunity to turn the tables and explore parts of that art,” he added.

Leto is seemingly blind to the fact that as a straight white male in Hollywood he would have certain privileges over others. We could count on one hand the amount of trans roles there are in cinema, a minuscule number of which go to trans actors; the same actors who are almost never considered for cis gender roles. Somehow, in his warped logic, Leto feels that if he didn’t play Rayon, then Neil Patrick Harris shouldn’t be allowed play Barney Stinson (a false equation between trans people and gay people). Completely ignoring the fact that transactors are not represented, even in trans stories. Leto played a fantastic part in Dallas Buyers Club, and I cannot fault his performance. And maybe if this was a world where cis roles often went to transactors, I wouldn’t be bothered by Leto’s silence. Sadly, we don’t live in that world just yet and Leto has done nothing to help ensure we ever do.

Laverne Cox with politician Tommy Wells. Courtesy of Tommy Wells
Laverne Cox with politician Tommy Wells. Courtesy of Tommy Wells

At this same point in time, in the alternate acting universe of television, we have Laverne Cox. Cox has just been named as “the woman we’ve been waiting for” by Buzzfeed, and I could not agree more. Poised and eloquent, approachable yet striking, Laverne Cox is a perfect example of why we should let trans actors do the talking and play trans roles. As a breakout star from the surprisingly successful Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, Cox has taken her platform and absolutely ran with it. The role itself is revolutionary for trans-representation in the media.

Cox plays a former fire-fighter who is imprisoned for comitting credit card fraud in ordert to pay for her transition. While in prison she is denied access to her estrogen pills. “What’s interesting about Sophia’s storyline,” Cox says, “is that, usually when we see trans people on screen their stories are all about their transition, but this is a health care issue. And just because you’re in prison doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have health care.” Sophia is often slandered for her status as a trans-woman in the series, but we are offered fascinating glimpses in to her personal life: her frayed relationship with her wife and son, as well as the difficulties of meeting people who knew her before her transition.

Cox expressed her appreciation of the show’s unique viewpoint to Buzzfeed, “Everything about the prison-industrial complex is designed to dehumanize the women who are incarcerated. So, it means so much to me that our show is about doing the exact opposite.” Since her turn on Orange is the New Black, cox has used her newfound celebrity to highlight issues faced by trans people in the United States and worldwide.

She has co-produced a documentary entitled Free CeCe! Which deals with the imprisonment of trans woman CeCe McDonald. McDonald was sentenced to 41 months in a mens prison for stabbing a man who attacked her for being a trans person. Cox has planned for the film to not only shine a light on McDonald’s story, but also to highlight the violence faced by trans women of colour. “I’m kind of tired of talking about trans women being killed at a disproportionate rate, but it just keeps happening. And we’re not doing enough about it.”

Cox is a born star. She’s a talented actress, endlessly endearing and passionate, a perfect choice for a TV show like Orange. It’s disheartening to hear Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée ask “Are there any transgender actors?” when pushed as to why he cast a cis-male in his films. Well, maybe had he looked, he would have found an array of talented trans-actors. How will we ever know if we continue to eliminate them from consideration?

Laverne Cox speaks at the GLAAD Awards. Image courtesy of GLAAD
Laverne Cox speaks at the GLAAD Awards. Image courtesy of GLAAD

As Cox puts it, “it is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist.” So maybe, the next time we’re planning to clear-up at awards season with a film about trans issues, we should let a trans person do the talking.

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Damien Ryan