Lili Elbe – lets celebrate good news


Recently, there was an announcement that Eddie Redmayne would be starring as the lead in a film about Lili Elbe, one of the first people in the world to undergo gender re-assignment surgery in the 1930s.  While for me personally, this was positive news, for some in the trans community, this was something that shouldn’t be celebrated but attacked, with words like transphobic being used in the dark ill-informed forums of the internet…………

But why ?  Well it turns out that some people seem to have one or all of three issues.  Firstly, that in taking the role, Eddie has denied an up and coming trans actor of the chance to star in a major production and “break through the glass ceiling”, secondly, that because he isn’t trans himself, he can’t know what its like to be trans and thirdly, because the writers aren’t trans or the lead, that it will be a poor representation of trans issues and will be awful as a result.

Really ?  That’s a real shame.

Firstly, lets remember it’s called acting.  The vast majority of people performing roles on screen, stage or film have no experience or qualifications to play some of the roles they represent.  It doesn’t mean they can’t empathise with the role, doesn’t mean they can’t come to understand what it means to be the role they’re portraying, even that they don’t do any research in preparing for the role or a good job !!  Actors take these roles on for a number of reasons, obviously money is one, but then there’s also the ones who take roles because they believe in them and want to ensure that the story is told.  We should celebrate that someone as high profile as Eddie is wants to be part of this project and that it marks a step in acceptance where trans culture is becoming more mainstream and understand and accept the possibilities this opens up, rather than “assume the worst”.

Secondly, how do the people making these objections know if a trans person wasn’t screen tested and found not to be good enough ? As has been the case with other trans roles recently.  Although I’m not an encyclopedia of available trans actors, I always wonder who these people are that are looking to break through into films who are being denied. For a project like this, casting a trans lead is one consideration and an ideal one if you can achieve it, but its not the only one if you’re charged with making the film.  Let’s remember, each film is a business undertaking and investors are primarily looking for a return on any investment they make.  It seems reasonable therefore that another consideration will be which lead can attract the sponsorship to facilitate it being made as well as being believable in role.   Studios will also want to influence the cast lead from their preferred pick list of actors.  Realistically therefore, any casting choice will always be a “trade off” between a number of factors, including the actors profile, previous box office records, perceived fit as well as availability for the role.  Not ideal, but necessary.

Thirdly, depending on what period of time the film covers, it may not be a role that a trans person is comfortable with portraying.  It could mean they would be required to play a pre and post transition version of themselves for instance, which could present issues for them that they’re not comfortable in portraying.  Sure you could cast two people, pre and post transition for example, but this can create issues with continuity, shooting schedules etc.  None of these can’t be overcome, but it makes the process more complex.

Lastly, why assume that the finished product will be rubbish ?  There are an increasing number of precedents and good practice examples now appearing which show that this needn’t be and isn’t the case.  Orange is the new black and transparent for example.  Shouldn’t we be thrilled there is genuine interest in having these stories told and that they’re becoming part of mainstream culture ? Yes, it would have been great if a trans person could have been found to play the lead but that day will come, possibly as a result of the possibilities projects like this open up. In the meantime, lets say “thankyou”, trust that the writers and actors will do a good job of telling it and move on.

As a footnote, if you would like to know more about Lili and can’t wait for the film, or maybe would like to see how the film mirrors the original book then you can buy the book via amazon at the following link.  It’s genuinely an incredible story and well worth a look !

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