The following is a brief follow-up to an essay I wrote for The Toast.
“But, like, there just aren’t any big name trans actors. That’s why the role went to…”
Well, yes and no.
Talk to any recent college graduate who has spent even a few minutes on a job search site, and ask them what they see. In all likelihood, you’ll get a response along the lines of, “All these ‘entry-level’ jobs require several years experience! How am I supposed to get experience if I can’t get a job?”
That’s exactly how it is for trans actors trying to make it. So often, the only roles they can find are that of “Sex Worker #1,” “Murder Victim #3,” or “Human Punchline #4.” By Hollywood standards, those roles are filler, not jumping off points. I find it hard to believe that there are too many casting directors who look at those in these roles (which, face it, these aren’t necessarily “roles,” per say, but really just “featured extra,” at best) to find their next leading lady.
The conventional approach to finding acting jobs doesn’t really work for trans people. It’s not, “drama club –> fine arts college –> theatre work –> small TV role –> small movie role –> larger movie role.” Rather, in a lot of cases, it’s “drama club –> fine arts college –> theatre work –> TRANSITION –> dead body on TV –> sex worker on TV –> butt of a joke on TV” (also, feel free to move “transition anywhere in that timeline,” just replace anything after that with the big 3 trans acting roles).
Instead, those who “make it big,” have often relied on a strange, zig-zaggy path to pseudo-stardom.
Take, for instance, Laverne Cox. Cox’ TV/film career started (and likely would have ended) where many trans acting careers do: guest spots on Law & Order: SVU in 2007 and Law & Order in 2008. Now, here’s where her career had to follow somewhat of a random trajectory: in 2008, she appeared as a contestant in the VH1 reality show, I Want to Work for Diddy. From there, her next TV appearance was in the role of “Sex Worker” (seriously, her character didn’t even have a name) on the HBO series, Bored to Death. She then went on to co-host a short-lived reality TV series called TRANSform Me, before ultimately being cast in Orange is the New Black.
What a totally bonkers path! And, it should be noted that this comes AFTER she graduated from a prestigious, New York fine arts college.
But, I’m sure Jared Leto faced similar struggles breaking in to the business, right? Wrong. At age 20, he made his first TV appearance. No, not as a dead body or a sex worker, but rather, as “the hip, motorcycle-riding bad boy” (Wikipedia’s description) and love interest to Hilary Swank’s character (fun fact: Swank and Leto are both cis actors who have played trans characters to critical acclaim…) on a short-lived ABC sitcom. From there, he made another guest appearance on a sitcom, playing a “football player” in an episode of the NBC sitcom, “Almost Home.”
From there, Leto was cast in roles on My So-Called Life in 1994, and in films like Prefontaine, The Thin Red Line, Girl, Interrupted, American Psycho, Requiem for a Dream, and Fight Club.
Now, why the huge discrepency in career paths? Was Cox any less qualified than Leto? No, not really. Then why did he find himself in the position to climb the Hollywood ladder while Cox (who is, arguably, the most famous trans television actor ever) would have remained stuck in “the big 3” roles for trans people throughout her entire career if not for some reality TV luck? Because no one wants to hire trans performers.
So, next time you say, “but there just aren’t any trans actors,” remind yourself of the college graduate staring at the job listings in disbelief. They won’t gain experience unless there are people out there willing to take a chance on them. Hollywood needs to do this. Give trans actors and actresses a chance, even if it takes you outside the comfort zone of plopping them into the “big 3.”