These cis actors won awards for playing trans characters – but is that fair?

Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club and Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry playing trans characters for which they won Oscars.

If you’ve ever typed ‘transgender movie’ into Google, it’s likely you’ve been met with a number of films that feature cisgender stars playing trans roles.

But who should actually be celebrated for playing trans characters? It’s a question that arises every year around awards season as celebrities flock to red carpets in hopes of a golden statue. 

Over the years, there has been a notable trend of awarding cisgender actors with career-defining accolades for depicting trans people on the big screen, and many people are unhappy about this. For example, Monica lead Trace Lysette has criticised the Academy for the organisation’s lack of trans actor nominations.

Lysette’s performance in Monica – where she plays an estranged trans woman caring for her dying mother – has been tipped by many as Oscar-worthy. Yet, Lysette’s only notable nomination for Monica to date is for the Independent Spirit Awards.

Emily Browning (L) and Trace Lysette (R) in Monica. (Andrea Pallaoro)
Trace Lysette (R) in Monica. (Andrea Pallaoro)

“It’s tough to want to be real about this awards journey and about how much bigger it is than a simple trophy. Not only for me, but my community — I think a lot of it is based in survival,” Lysette shared with Variety

“And being a late bloomer — I’m 42, I’m a transsexual woman. And as a minority in this business, I often feel invisible.

Should a cis actor ever play the lead in a transgender movie?

“I sometimes wonder if a cis actor went to Venice and got an 11-and-a-half minute standing ovation for playing a trans role, I feel like the Academy would be coming in their pants and the press opportunities would be insane.”

“So it’s disheartening,” Lysette added. “But I’m trying my best to lean into the good. However it pans out, the work has already changed people’s lives. And so that’s what I cling to.”

Lysette’s sentiment rings clear and the celerbation of cis actors playing trans characters is prominent: from Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl to Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry.

Here are a few other actors who have won major awards for their depiction of trans characters.

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Jared Leto as trans woman Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club wearing make up with a cream and pick scarf over their hair.
Jared Leto, who played a trans character in Dallas Buyers Club, was awarded an Oscar in 2014. (Focus Features/Dallas Buyers Club)

Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club

In 2014, Jared Leto won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Dallas Buyers Club.

Leto plays Rayon, a trans woman with HIV, in the 2013 biographical drama directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. 

Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a man who imported illegal HIV/AIDS medication for his community. Rayon helped Woodroof’s cooperative scheme. 

As he accepted the award, Leto said: “To all the dreamers out there around the world watching this tonight in places like the Ukraine and Venezuela, I want to say we are here and as you struggle to… to make your dreams happen, to live the impossible… We’re thinking of you tonight.

“This is for the 36 million people who have lost the battle to AIDS and 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. Thank you so much and goodnight.”

In the run up to the 2014 awards season, Leto told E! News that in 1991, his Los Angeles roommate died of AIDS. 

“I rented a room in a three-bedroom apartment and one of the rooms was rented by a man who was dying [of AIDS]. I was there during his final days,” Leto also shared.

Leto had strong competition in the Best Supporting Actor category with Bradley Cooper for American Hustle, Michael Fassbender for 12 Years a Slave and Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall Street, as well as Barkhad Abdi for Captain Phillips.

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Matt Bomer plays trans character Freda in Anything, Freda has dark hair up, hoop earings and a pearl necklace.
Matt Bomer plays a trans character called Freda in Anything. (Paladin)

Matt Bomer in Anything

Fellow Travelers‘ Matt Bomer was awarded Best Actor in a Supporting Role at FilmOut’s San Diego LGBT Film Festival for his portrayal of a transgender sex worker in Anything

The 2017 film is based on a play of the same name and follows a suicidal widower (John Carroll Lynch) in Los Angeles nurturing a friendship with Freda (Bomer).

Upon the news of Bomer’s casting, many shared that they believed a trans actor should take the role. 

One such individual is trans musician Mya Byrne who wrote an open letter to Anything’s executive producer Mark Ruffalo for Huffington Post.

“There are many qualified trans actors and writers who could have played in and advised on the construction of the scenes you’re about to edit into a motion picture. They will lose more work because of this,” Byrne wrote at the time. 

Byrne also added: “We know you have good intentions. But those intentions have far-reaching after-effects that you, as cis men, don’t experience.”

Mark Ruffalo, Anything’s executive producer, responded to the casting criticism on his social media.

Ruffalo posted: “To the Trans community. I hear you. It’s wrenching to you see you in this pain. I am glad we are having this conversation. It’s time.”

“In all honesty, I suggested Matt for the role after the profound experience I had with him while making ‘The Normal Heart’.”

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Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena getting a mugshot in Boys Don't Cry.
Hilary Swank received a Best Lead Actress Academy Award for playing a trans in Boys Don’t Cry. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry

Playing Brandon Teena, a transgender man who falls victim to a brutal hate crime in Kimberly Peirce’s 1999 biographical dramatisation, undoubtedly elevated Hilary Swank’s career.

Swank received a Best Lead Actress Academy Award for her depiction of Brandon Teen’s heartbreaking story. 

Boys Don’t Cry initially had a limited release but after mounting acclaim, and making three times its budget at the box office, the film was labelled one of the best films of 1999.

Initially assigned an NC-17 rating, the film’s classification was later adjusted to an R rating.

Though Boys Don’t Cry’s dealings with the controversial subject matter were praised widely, individuals in Brandon’s real life criticised the film for not portraying events realistically. 

Even though the role gave Swank acclaim, she has since re-evaluated her position on cis actors playing trans characters

“I mean, trans people weren’t really walking around in the world saying, ‘Hey, I’m trans,’” Swank told Variety

“Twenty-one years later, not only are trans people having their lives and living, thankfully, [although] we still have a long way to go in their safety and their inclusivity.

“But we now have a bunch of trans actors who would obviously be a lot more right for the role and have the opportunity to actually audition for the role.”

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Jeffrey Tambor as trans charcter Maura in Transparent. Maura is an older woman, wearing glasses, a grey cardigan and red striped top.
Jeffrey Tambor as trans charcter Maura in Transparent for which he received an Emmy. (Jennifer Clasen/Amazon/Transparent)

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent

OK, so Transparent isn’t a movie, but we felt this TV series deserved an honourable mention as it ties in with the ‘cis people playing trans characters’ debate.

When accepting an Emmy for Best Lead Actor in a Comedy for his performance in the television series Transparent in 2016, Jeffrey Tambor implored industry decision makers to employ transgender creatives.

“To you people out there, you producers and network owners and agents and you creative sparks, please give transgender talent a chance,” he shared.

“Give them auditions. Give them their story. Do that. And also, one more thing: I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television.”

Furthermore, two years prior, in 2014, Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender actor to receive an Emmy nomination.

In Transparent, Tambor played the lead character of Maura Pfefferman from 2014 to 2017 across all four seasons.

The show followed Maura’s coming out and, in later seasons, focused on her life as a parent, partner and existing as an older person transitioning. 

In 2017 Tambor was accused of sexually harassing his co-star and personal assistant, both of whom are transgender, and he was fired from the show a few months later. 

The actor spoke about the situation on Gilbert Gottfrien’s Amazing Colossal Show where he noted he in “no way ever, ever intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable”.

“So, regarding how I left the show, I just want to make it really, really clear for your listeners out there that I’m not this guy,” he also added. 

“This cast [of Transparent] was amazing… it was sort of raucous, it was wonderful, irreverent, loving and personal, and we told personal stories… and I got to play Maura and it was vital for the [LGBT+] community.”

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