Ask a Trans Woman: Why Trans Actors Should Play More Trans Characters

Trans PeopleLorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times' "Ask A Trans Woman" Columnist.
Photo: David Meehan
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Lorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times' "Ask A Transwoman" Columnist.  Photo: David Meehan

Lorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times‘ “Ask A Trans Woman” Columnist.
Photo: David Meehan

By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—

I recently finished watching the new Netflix science fiction series, “Sense8.” I binged on it in a couple of big gulps. It’s that good. This column isn’t going to be a review of “Sense8” though. Instead, I am inspired to make an argument for trans actors playing trans roles.

“Sense8” was created, written and executive-produced by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski. The reason it is notable here is that one of the main characters in the story is a trans woman; written and conceived by a trans woman; and played by a trans woman!

Despite the Sci-Fi premise of the show, this character felt so real to me. She was a revelation.

In my own acting training, I have been told over and over to play what I know.

Indeed, one of the strongest influences that convinced me to begin my own transition was a former director who kept giving me the instruction to, “play myself.” From this, I became convinced that I needed to transition; not merely because I desired it, but because I believed it would make me a better and honest actor. [pullquote]Indeed, one of the strongest influences that convinced me to begin my own transition was a former director who kept giving me the instruction to, “play myself.” From this, I became convinced that I needed to transition; not merely because I desired it, but because I believed it would make me a better and honest actor.[/pullquote]

It is natural to seek out characters that represent who we are. We like to see ourselves and our experiences reflected on a flickering screen. It affirms our lives and reassures us that we are not invisible and alone. I think this is one of the primary purposes of art. It is a mirror that reflects more than just our outer image. At its best, it reflects our inner selves.

In the past several years, there have been more and more interesting trans roles being written for film and television. I have made a point of watching as many as I could.

Now, speaking strictly as an actor, I don’t want to say that actors shouldn’t be able to play roles that don’t directly reflect who they are in real life. The best actors can imbue any character they inhabit with a piece of themselves and a glimmer of their own truth. Frankly, acting would be boring if we were always expected to play exactly who we are.

However, film is a fairly unforgiving medium. Film, and to an even greater extent television, is a close-up medium.

As such, the job of the casting director becomes quite important. Proper casting can make or break a film or a series.

As audiences demand more “authenticity” in our entertainment, culturally aware casting rises in importance. Modern audiences will no longer accept men playing all the parts, nor will we stand for a film in which Mexican or Italian actors play all the Native American parts. [pullquote]Modern audiences will no longer accept men playing all the parts, nor will we stand for a film in which Mexican or Italian actors play all the Native American parts.[/pullquote]

Yes, I have seen a number of incredible performances of trans roles by cisgender actors such as Felicity Huffman in “Transamerica;” Chloë Sevigny in “Hit or Miss;” and most recently Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent.”

The one flaw all these performances share for me is that I can never quite forget these are actors, playing a role.

This brings me back to “Sense8” and the remarkable Jaime Clayton as trans hacker Nomi Marks. There was so much that I connected within that character; so much I identified with. Here was my life, my reality, reflected in art.

I assure you, I am not a telepathically connected super hacker. But, I found the performance utterly relatable. I was more able to forget that I was watching an actor giving a performance, and simply be immersed in the character and her story. It was exciting. It was interesting. It was great art!

I felt similarly while watching some of the trans characters played by trans actors in “Transparent.” Alexandra Billings was mesmerizing to me. Ian Harvie required zero suspension of disbelief. Here were trans people playing trans people—playing their truths. [pullquote]I felt similarly while watching some of the trans characters played by trans actors in “Transparent.” Alexandra Billings was mesmerizing to me. Ian Harvie required zero suspension of disbelief. Here were trans people playing trans people—playing their truths.[/pullquote]

I felt similarly watching Laverne Cox in “Orange Is The New Black.” “Harmony Santana in the film,” “Gun Hill Road” was heartbreaking in her authenticity.

I haven’t the faintest idea if Billings, Cox or Clayton or any of the others are anything like the characters they played. That didn’t matter.

What mattered was that they were instantly believable as those characters. I didn’t have to be convinced. I didn’t have to work to forget the actor playing the role. I could immerse myself in the story and enjoy the subtler nuances of the characterizations.

Acting is a tricky thing. The best performances should not feel like acting. The best performances should feel real. They should make you think about things other than what a good job the actor is doing. [pullquote]I don’t want to see trans actors in trans roles for fairness or because it is politically correct. No. I would like to see more trans actors playing more trans roles because it elevates the form.[/pullquote]

I don’t want to see trans actors in trans roles for fairness or because it is politically correct. No. I would like to see more trans actors playing more trans roles because it elevates the form. It makes for more interesting, engaging, exciting, relatable and even thoughtful films and television. It helps tell better stories.

It is quite simply better art.

Also, I would like to work more. There is that.

Slainte!

* Lorelei Erisis is an actor, activist, adventurer and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at: askatranswoman@gmail.com.

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