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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2018

The Business of Show Biz: Playing Trans Roles

Tuesday, July 31, 2018   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Velina Brown

Q: I’ve been thinking about the Scarlett Johansson situation with the movie Rub & Tuck [in which Ms. Johansson was slated to play a transgender character]. I have always been eager to have a whack at whatever part looks fun or interesting. It’s such a competitive industry. If I have an opportunity to try out for a role that’s not just like me and I win it does that make me a bad person to accept it? I don’t think Johansson deserved to be so vilified. Others have played transgender characters with great success. Why do you think people came after her?

Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.


A: I get where you’re coming from. It is a competitive industry. Due to a feeling of scarcity, actors tend to want to go for everything to increase their chances of getting something.

 I don’t want to tell you which parts to take or turn down. But if you decide to go for and are successful in winning a part about a marginalized group to which you do not belong I suggest you think about whether you are going to be part of the solution to the challenges facing that group or part of the problem. If you don’t feel like thinking about such things, don’t be surprised if some folks, call out, “Hey buddy, tuck that in. Your privilege is showing!”

Actors from marginalized groups generally don’t have as many opportunities to work as actors from the majority groups and crave the opportunity to play well-rounded, non-stereotypical roles.  Therefore, when there finally is a substantial character that belongs to a marginalized group, actors of that group think, “Finally! A chance to play a great character that’s perfect for me!” So in the Johansson case, it’s understandably upsetting to the transgender community when the extremely rare transgender lead character in a big feature film goes to a cisgender actor.

You’re right that other actors, such as Jeffrey Tambor, have played transgender characters without vitriol. He was accepted by the transgender community in his role on the Amazon series Transparent. I suspect the community felt more comfortable with him because they had more trust in Jill Soloway, the non-binary creator of the show, who was writing from their experience of having their father come out as transgender at the age of 70. Perhaps the community trusted Soloway to choose the best person to portray their father’s transition.

That same level of trust did not exist for Scarlett Johansson and director Andrew Sanders. Both had previously been the center of controversy due to their insensitivity to the Asian community when Sanders cast Johansson as a Japanese character in Ghost In The Shell. Johansson’s flippant response to questions about her casting in Rub & Tuck, "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment,” didn’t help the trust level at all. In the face of a community’s pain, dismissiveness is not an effective communication style. It tends to turn concern to outrage.

To be fair, the transgender conversation has evolved quickly in the last few years while the film making process can move remarkably slowly.

As Travis M. Andrews observes in The Washington Post, “Only four years ago, the press stumbled over itself declaring Jeffrey Tambor brave and courageous for portraying a transgender woman in Jill Soloway’s Transparent. Less than 1,500 days later, the Internet erupted in such outrage when Johansson took on the role of Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, a transgender man who ran a Pittsburgh massage parlor and prostitution business in the 1970s and ’80s, that she dropped the role.”

It’s possible that Johansson and Sanders had been working on Rub & Tuck for years but by the time they were ready to announce their plans it was too late and what was once seen as “brave and courageous” is now cause for “outrage.”

The role of the media is powerful and, as such, its role in the culture is more than mere entertainment. It’s also a teaching tool. Tre’vell Anderson, writing in The Los Angeles Times, cites a 2015 poll released by GLAAD which showed that 84 percent of people say they learn about transgender issues and points of view through the media they view. Therefore, representation matters. At this moment, the progress of the cultural conversation may require that the story of a transgender character (especially a lead character based on a historical figure) be told by transgender artists.

As you consider roles and build your career, you will leverage the power of the media. In doing so, you also have a responsibility to the people who can be helped or harmed by that power. So choose wisely.

Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at


Elizabeth Finkler says...
Posted Friday, August 3, 2018
I'd like to see a column that builds on this "playing someone who isn't in your group" controversy. I'm not considered an actress of color (my color is pinkish white with light brown speckles), but I feel as if I'm locked out of parts for being a cis woman of [ahem] a certain age.