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Transgender film casting controversy really comes down to acting abilities

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The first photo of Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of transgender pioneer Lile Elbe in “The Danish Girl” surfaced last week, reigniting a conversation about acclaimed performances by cisgender (non-trans) persons in transgender roles.

The film, based on David Ebershoff’s novel and inspired by the true story of Danish artists Einar and Gerda Wegener, follows Elbe’s journey as one of the world’s first known gender-reassignment surgery recipients.

Plot aside, controversy, particularly in the trans community, has focused on the Hollywood trans politic and its significance as so many roles are played by cispersons. Not only are cisgendered people filling such roles, but their portrayals are also being celebrated as valuable to the integration of trans people into popular culture.

As an actor I would never suggest that another actor shouldn’t play a role.”

— Laverne Cox

Last year Jared Leto won an Academy Award for his depiction of a trans person in “Dallas Buyers Club,” and Jeffrey Tambor took home a Golden Globe for his role in “Transparent.” In the music world, the music video for the intentionally named “We Exist” by Arcade Fire features Andrew Garfield transforming into what has widely been perceived as a transgender woman.

But to exclusively be enraged by cisgendered actors in transgender roles, critics ignore the business of the casting decision as well as the actor’s job.

Filmmakers cast movies based on talent, yes — as was likely the case with Tambor—but also on the potential for the actor to bring in viewers—Leto, who had not acted for years, and Garfield.

“Andrew Garfield the ‘Spider-Man’ guy in an Arcade Fire video is going to make headlines,” actress and trans activist Laverne Cox told Bustle. “People are going to click on it and talk about it. If I were asked to do the Arcade Fire video, I don’t know if it would have the same king of attention.”

Now an Oscar winner, Redmayne will be a great face for the film, and will likely bring in viewers who would not give the film a second thought otherwise.

Complaints about the lack of trans actors playing trans people are justified, but complaints about specific actors in trans roles are not. Redmayne’s acting capabilities, as proven in “The Theory of Everything” if proof is necessary, are more than up to par for the part. To claim another actor should be in the role discredits his acting abilities. 

“As an actor I would never suggest that another actor shouldn’t play a role,” Cox said. “I want to play a wide variety of different characters, and I think that cisgender actors, I’m assuming, want to do that as well — that’s the nature of being an actor.”

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