The media’s microscope has been focused like whoa on Eddie Redmayne (that’s kind of what happens when you win Best Actor at the Oscars). Well in new Eddie news, the Internet got all kinds of excited today when the first photo from Redmayne’s upcoming film The Danish Girl was released. The film is a biopic in which Redmayne plays Lili Elbe, a transgender woman who, in the 1930s, made history by being one of the first people the world knows of to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
The film will be directed by Tom Hooper (The Kings Speech, Les Misérables) and also stars Amber Heard (Zombieland, Pineapple Express).
This movie has been a looooooong time in the making. In fact, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, and Gwyneth Paltrow have all been attached to the project at one point or another over the last several years. In fact, it was beginning to look doubtful that Elbe’s life story would ever reach the screen.
BTW, here’s a photograph of the gorgeous real-life Elbe.
Redmayne, who won his Oscar portraying Stephen Hawking and Hawking’s struggle with ALS, is no stranger to taking on physically diverse roles. Just as there is controversy in the differently-abled community regarding actors who are traditionally-abled taking on disabled roles, there is similar controversy in the transgender community about cisgender stars playing trans roles. The argument is that trans actors are almost never cast in cis roles, and so to have cis actors cast in trans roles severely limits performing opportunities for trans actors. Which, let’s be honest, is super fair.
For every Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black, a trans woman actually playing a trans character, there is a Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, a Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, a Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent, and, in the near future, both Eddie Redmayne and Elle Fanning will join the club (Fanning is set to star as a young trans man in the upcoming Three Generations). It’s not only that these cisgender actors are playing trans roles, it’s also that when they play the roles they’re receiving the highest accolades for their efforts (both Swank and Leto won Oscars, Tambor won a Golden Globe). The message is a disquieting one: as cisgender actors are rewarded for playing trans roles, transgender actors are pushed to the sidelines, watching stories about their community being told by those who are not a part of it.
When Redmayne spoke to The Telegraph earlier this year, he addressed this concern and explained why he still felt justified playing this role:
“There is an incredibly valid discussion for why a trans actress isn’t playing the part, because there are so many brilliant trans actresses, and I’m sure there are many who could play this part sensationally. But one of the complications is that nowadays you have hormones, and many trans women have taken hormones. But to start this part playing male you’d have to come off the hormones, so that has been a discussion as well. Because back in that period there weren’t hormones.
There’s also a great history of cisgender, cis people sort of gaining on the back of trans stories, and I absolutely understand that that is not cool. But I hope firstly this is a specific period piece, and really is set in its time, in which the bravery that it took, if you were in your mind not of the same gender as your physical being, to undertake when there was no question . . . no one had done it before. So it was basically death or . . . But the absolute need to be authentic and strive to be comfortable in your own . . . or to be your own gender, was pretty formidable and brave to me.”
Credit where it’s due, Redmayne is thoughtful and sensitive in his evaluation of this situation. Still, his argument doesn’t hold as much water as I think he wishes it did. The truth is, whether a movie gets made or not is often dependent upon whether there’s a movie star attached to the project. As of yet, we don’t have trans movie stars in Hollywood. This is not an excuse, but rather an explanation of the reality.
So, yes, Redmayne, rocks a red lip and we all know he will act his heart out in this film (and probably be 100% excellent). But the larger issue remains that if we are going to be telling trans stories in Hollywood (and we should), then we need to be making trans actors trans movie stars and allow the trans community to be central in the telling of their own stories.