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Paris Lees column: Eddie Redmayne playing trans? Here we go again…

2015-03-01
And so it has come to pass. Publicity shots showing Eddie Redmayne dolled up as transgender pioneer Lili Elbe for his new film the Danish Girl have been released today, and so restarts the never-ending debate about whether or not people who are not trans should play trans people on screen. We've been here before. paris2 Back in 2012, I asked, in the Guardian, should non-trans actors play trans roles? Then, again, last year, the Independent asked me what I thought about Jared Leto playing trans in Dallas Buyers Club. I wasn't overly impressed, but I tried to be nuanced. Then, soon after, I had to tackle the issue again when, writing in Attitude, I revealed that Hollyoaks was introducing a new trans character, played by a non-trans woman. In each case I stated my personal belief – that it is more authentic to have trans people play trans roles – and posed lots of questions. I tried my best to be fair and acknowledge different points of view. I don't speak on behalf of all trans people and the debate certainly isn't over either within the trans community or outside it. One thing that most trans people do seem to agree on, though, is that we would like to see more trans people on screen. And that's not going to happen until the industry reaches out and encourages trans talent. It's all very well and good saying that ‘there are no trans actors’, but what is the industry doing to support trans people who want to act? Hollyoaks ran a series of workshops last year looking for trans acting talent, and the eager response they received show that there are plenty of trans people out there with dreams of acting. Like the rest of the population, trans people can be wannabes too, you know. Then there’s the great work being done at the BBC, which is working on a new transgender sitcom, Boy Meets Girl. After meeting All About Trans in 2012, BBC comedy exec Ian Critchley helped set up a competition through the BBC Writer’s room, looking for a comedy script that was respectful towards the transgender community, and encouraged transgender writers to apply. A good script was found, and, even better, a good actress to play the lead role. Who also happens to be a trans woman. Fame awaits for Rebecca Root. eddie trans We also saw Adele Anderson on the BBC's New Tricks last autumn – cementing her place as the first trans woman to play trans on British television (an honour she claimed almost 15 years ago, don't you know). And, of course, if you’ve been watching Banana, Cucumber and Tofu, you'll have seen Bethany Black playing trans woman Helen, the first time anyone has done this in a recurring series on these shores. Need I remind you about Laverne Cox? She plays Sophia on Netflix's Orange is the New Black. You probably already know about her. She's awesome. This is the context, then, in which Eddie Redmayne's images are released today. A media landscape where trans characters are increasingly being played by trans people. On the one hand, you could say that, with more and more trans people playing trans on screen, it doesn't matter if someone like Eddie plays a trans role every now and then. After all, why not mix it up a bit? Why not have trans people playing non-trans roles, too? On the other hand, you could argue that, as more trans people bring authenticity to trans roles, your Jared Leto's are starting to look increasingly silly and, well, unnecessary pretending to be trans women. But without any major trans acting stars – and by major I mean someone with the pulling power to carry the lead role in a big budget movie – I doubt the film industry will be catching up with television anytime soon. But I still haven't answered the question, have I? Should people who are not trans play trans people on screen? And what right does Eddie Redmayne have playing a transgender woman? You could, of course, have asked, last year, what right Eddie Redmayne had playing Stephen Hawking, a man with motor neuron disease, in the Theory of Everything. A role that earned him an Oscar. In that case, though, Eddie had the endorsement of the man himself. Lili Elbe is long dead, but I wonder how a living trans woman would feel about being played by a fella? All I know is this: when they finally make a huge, big-budget Hollywood film about my oh-so fabulous tale of rags-to-riches, if they even so much as think about casting a man to play me – even the lovely Eddie Redmayne – bitches, there will be hell to pay. More from Paris on attitude.co.uk Paris Lees column: An Open Letter to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan Paris Lees column: ‘After years of tension, LGBT people are finally a community’