Should actors play roles outside their demographic?

Hugh Sheridan in a promotional image for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch". Photo: Sydney Festival.

In the wake of the Hedwig and the Angry Inch casting controversy, Gary Nunn investigates the issue of actors playing roles outside their demographic.

When the Sydney Festival recently cast Hugh Sheridan as the lead in one of its flagship shows for its 2021 season, ripples of excitement flowed through the city’s theatre-loving community. 

Hedgwig and the Angry Inch has a cult following as a musical-comedy film and stage show. It tells the story of a genderqueer rock singer who is coerced into having botched gender-affirmation surgery, all set to a tubthumping soundtrack.

But ripples of frustration rose up elsewhere.

The Queer Artist Alliance Australia wrote an open letter to the show’s producers, the Sydney Festival and Sheridan himself, stating that Sheridan “is a cisgendered male [a man whose gender corresponds with his birth sex] and this role should go to a transgender actor” – calling for his removal.

“Not acceptable”

It has opened debate on a complex issue: should privileged actors play roles outside of their own demographic?

The group argued that it’s “not acceptable for the Australian industry to lag behind the rest of the world and ignore the existence of hundreds of talented trans performers that are here in Australia.”

They also questioned the “power structures that allowed Hugh to accept the role in the first place,” suggesting that “it’s clear there was no advocate for the trans community on the creative team.” It took aim at the broader team: “directed by a straight, cisgender woman backed by an almost exclusively non-queer team.”

The show’s producers heard this complaint and pulled the show from the season altogether, stating it’ll be “postponed.” The Sydney Festival fully backed their decision. 

This leaves many creatives suddenly out of a job at a time COVID-19 has decimated the arts industry. 

It also paves the way for some robust discussions about representation, seats at the table, trolling, cancel culture, cultural appropriation and the very essence of art.

Hugh Sheridan

One of the sad ironies of this story is that Hugh Sheridan was reportedly being trolled by the LGBTQI community which he recently come out to. 

He revealed last month that he has been with men and women – but prefers not to be labelled.

Hugh Sheridan. File photo.

The toll Hedwig’s cancellation is taking on him is only starting to become clear. Media reports have pictured him leaving hospital after reportedly seeking mental health treatment, and emerging with a bandaged wrist. 

Home and Away actor Penny McNamee, whose sister appeared alongside Sheridan in Packed to the Rafters, wrote an Instagram post alluding to the trolling he was experiencing.

“Hey musical theatre friends, we have to stop supporting open letters written by outraged colleagues. There are ways to have civilised and safe conversations – either by sending private emails, making phone calls or speaking face to face,” she wrote.

“Starting a social media pile-on is not only dangerous for the mental health of those involved, it is also leading to the cancelation of shows … and work for many our friends and colleagues who are already struggling. Let’s change the way these issues are being raised.”

The trans community’s response

Performer Jordan Raskopoulos has been outspoken on this issue, this week releasing a video that was “as much an audition tape as a commentary about diversity in media” saying: “As a trans rock singer and comedian this is up there as one of my dream roles. As Australia’s premier trans rock comedian, I wasn’t asked to audition.”

Jordan Raskopoulos weighs into the Hedwig and the Angry Inch debate. Video:
Jordan Raskopoulos/YouTube.

Describing Hedwig as a show that was “significant in helping me to understand my own relationship with gender,” Raskopoulos told the Sydney Sentinel: “The problem isn’t that trans people aren’t getting trans roles. The problem is trans people aren’t getting ANY roles, not even trans roles. We’re excluded from telling our stories and the first step to rectifying that is making sure that trans people are at the table.”

There’s some solid evidence for the argument that casting trans people in trans roles leads to something that trans people argue is too elusive in the arts: being cast in a cisgendered role.

Pose, Ryan Murphy’s TV series about New York’s 1980/90s Vogue ballroom scene was groundbreaking for casting every trans character with a trans actor. It became part of the show’s charm: characters such as Electra Abundance are played by actors with, arguably, less craft and professional experience, but all of the lived experience. The show shines with authenticity as a result. 

More than that: it has led to a remarkable pay-off; following its success, its leading star, Mj Rodriguez, who plays Blanca, was cast as a leading lady – Audrey – in Broadway show Little Shop of Horrors. It was a clear example of a trans woman, cast as a trans woman and given a rare mainstream opportunity to prove herself in that role, going on to be cast in a cisgendered starring role. 

Speaking to the LA Times about the casting, Rodriguez said: “I’m trans. But that’s me — that’s not the character that I play. I play trans characters, I play cis characters, I can play monsters, I can play cartoon characters. I can do anything I put my mind to. My goal is to play a character, and have people see the character.”

Pose stars Mj Rodriguez and Indya Moore discussing cisgender actors playing trans roles. Video: MTV News/YouTube.

Pose’s trailblazing casting was a departure from films such as Transamerica, where Felicity Huffman, a cisgendered woman, played a trans woman. Or even more recently, the much-lauded TV series Transparent where the lead trans woman was played by a cisgendered man, Jeffrey Tambor.

Asked about this casting, Raskopoulos highlighted a key difference between Sydney Festival’s Hedwig production and the acclaimed TV series: “The reason that Transparent was so groundbreaking was not for Tambor’s performance but rather for the fact that so many trans people were involved in that show at all levels of production.”

Since the show’s release, its gender nonbinary creator, Joey Soloway, who based the story on their parent coming out as trans, has seemingly stepped away from that very casting decision, saying: “The time has come when it is unacceptable for cis men to play trans women.”

It works the other way, too. As a result of backlash, both Halle Berry (in 2020) and Scarlett Johansson (in 2018) pulled out of big movie roles where they were cast to portray trans men.

Speaking to the Sydney Sentinel recently, transmasculine actor Zoe Terakes said it’s a process to get to the point when anyone can play any role: “Until you have trans actors playing cisgender roles, then that statement about ‘anyone being able to play anything’ actually doesn’t ring true.”

History of Hedwig

It’s worth noting that Hedwig’s creators themselves take a different view.

Responding to backlash, performer John Cameron Mitchell and writer Stephen Trask insisted Hedwig is not trans and the role does not need to be played by a trans person.

In a joint statement reaction to the Sydney Festival’s cancellation, they said: “Though we’ve always been so pleased to hear trans folks find resonance in the character’s journey to find his/herself, it’s really through drag and performance that Hedwig does so, creating a persona that is ‘more than a woman or a man’ and making ‘something beautiful and new’ out of trauma. Drag is a mask available to all and that’s why anyone should be able to play Hedwig.”

This has been reflected in the traditional casting of Hedwig: in film, the role was played by John Cameron Mitchell and on stage Neil Patrick Harris won a Tony for his performance; both cisgendered male actors.

Neil Patrick Harris wins the 2014 Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical. Video: The Tony Awards/YouTube.

The essence of acting?

There are those who question the direction the arts will take if actors are discouraged from performing roles outside of their own demographic or personal experience. The very craft and point of acting is to be creative, imaginative, and forensically researched; to depict lives outside of our own and to encourage empathy. 

Associate Professor Ian Maxwell, Chair of Sydney University’s Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, says that technically, acting is pretending – so portraying the lives of others is possible.

“That can be done badly or well – depending on if there’s been a careful process of research, empathy and careful work” he tells the Sentinel.

Technical questions must be weighed with ethical and political ones, he says, in a push and pull process for casting directors and producers: “Some would say of course artists can take up perspectives that aren’t their own; I get a bit nervous when ethical arguments dictate shoulds and should nots.”

That said, he stresses these are all important considerations to balance: “It’s pretty marvellous these questions come up; one of the roles of culture-making is to stimulate and provide space to have these kind of conversations – where we can slow down the intensity of the arguments and give them room to breathe and be heard.”

The producer’s decision, Prof. Maxwell says, was a brave one: “I don’t think it’d surprise any of us to think a commercial imperative is at the forefront of a producer’s mind, which is why I think it’s really brave to say hang on, we do have to stop and rethink this. A whole lot of performers are losing their gig; this isn’t done lightly.”

Theatrical tradition vs doing it well

There’s a theatrical, Shakespearean tradition of theatre roles going to actors with a different gender identity from their character. In Shakespeare’s time, it was common for men to play women. 

In 2017, the inverse became true when Kate Mulvany won rave reviews as Richard III. But some authenticity was layered to the gender-reversed role via Mulvany’s disability: childhood cancer left with her with similar spinal issues as the ‘hunchbacked king’ so personal experience here counted in casting Mulvany over an able-bodied actor.

Part of the modern tradition comes down to how well it can be done without lived experience. 

Independent artist and producer Maeve Marsden, curator of the Queerstories podcast, says that straight actors playing queer characters comes down to something different from homophobia: instead, how convincing straight actors are, and questioning the celebration of them (at the Oscars, for example) for the ‘bravery’ of “portraying our trauma.”

“People always talk about whether actors are ‘allowed’ to play characters who have marginalised identities they don’t share, but they don’t talk enough about what is best, for the work of art in question and for the industry,” she says. 

“In nearly every film or TV show I’ve seen that has queer characters, the work is elevated if the actors (and writers and directors) are queer. There’s more nuance, it feels more real.” 

Where the power sits

There’s a justified fear that, by demanding only trans and queer actors portray trans and queer characters, we typecast and silo them, shutting off opportunities to play cisgendered and straight characters. 

A lot of this comes down to where the power sits, the politics of the moment, and where to draw the line. Punching up is more acceptable than punching down.

People of colour can and should play any characters, including traditionally white ones – but we rightly wouldn’t accept this the other way around – because of where the power and representation currently sits. 

There are so many demographics to consider: class, for example, is a tricky one. Rich people have often portrayed poor people, and will continue to do so in Hollywood.

Jordan Raskopoulos says: “I believe any actor should have any opportunity to perform any role. That’d be a utopia. But we don’t live in a world where that’s the case.

“Trans people aren’t neutral enough to play minor roles and there are often claims there aren’t trans people with enough experience / clout. Transgender performers have very few opportunities to perform or contribute meaningfully in telling transgender stories so we need to ensure transgender people at least have an opportunity to play themselves.”

As for whether Hedwig is trans or not, this, Raskopoulos says, misses a key point: “This is a show about gender. About physical transition. Surgery. About missing out on opportunities you deserve / are entitled to – about having your life fall to pieces and picking yourself up again after transitioning, And you should cast someone who has lived experience in all those things. Because that’s interesting. And maybe explores the role in a way that hasn’t been done before when done by a cisgendered performer.”

The content of the show is important. When Opera Australia cast Caucasian actor Julie Lea Goodwin as Puerto Rican character Maria in its 2019 production of West Side Story, there was understandably a debate around casting and race – and allegations this was a whitewashed production.

Julie Lea Goodwin played the Latinx role of Maria last year in Opera Australia’s West Side Story. Photo: Julie Lea Goodwin/Facebook.

The show is about racial tensions, so it seemed myopic for the company to overlook the Latinx talent available in Sydney – the same actors who may not get cast in roles because of their ‘look’ (read: race).

What diversity supporters say is that straight and white actors have long played roles outside of their demographic; now a balance needs redressing. 

When society starts to become more equal, people become more relaxed about, for example, straight actors playing gay characters. But the issue of trans equality is political because it’s years behind the progresses made in the sphere of gay equality, which accounts for the backlash around trans people first telling their own stories, before we allow any more cisgendered people to presume to do it for them. 

From trolling to constructive conversation

One actor has been hospitalised, dozens of embattled arts professionals are out of work and the trans community is hurting at what they see as poor decisions from people who should’ve known better in 2020.

How do we move forward and heal from this incident?

Ginger Gorman, social justice journalist and author of bestselling cyberhate book Troll Hunting, says: “This set of circumstances should make everyone incredibly uncomfortable. We need to look at this is a complex, nuanced way and bring our whole humanity to it,” considering the real life harm a social media pile-on can create, such as job loss, deep shame and stigmatisation and PTSD.

“We need to consider the dynamics at play here. I’m a huge ally of trans people. I’ve reported for many years on the excruciating and unfair ways trans people are marginalised. Therefore, we do also need to ask: Why do trans people feel so angry and unheard, that they feel predator trolling a stranger is their only option? If you feel powerless, you can feel that lashing out is your only choice.”

Those in creative industries have hard questions to ask themselves, she says: “When we are making art or reporting on issues, at what point are we co-opting the voices of others? In what situations does exploring the identities of others actually help us empathise with those people whose experiences we don’t share (as opposed to seeking to remove their voice)? To me, there’s a danger in being so woke that there’s no room for expression or understanding.”

She says that by elevating in their work marginalised voices to a wider audience, professional communicators –  artists or journalists – themselves gain a deeper understanding so that they can go on to be stronger, more authentic allies.

As for how we move forwards, her advice is simple: “What we need here is not hatred, but a huge dose of radical empathy. Let’s start listening.”

Gary Nunn is Editor-at-Large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1

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