Actor Eddie Redmayne, though surely a perfectly nice person, is currently making me want to start hurling things at him with irritation. With not one but two roles in which he played dressup with marginalised identities in 2014 and 2015, he’s most decidedly on my shitlist. As a high-profile actor, he really does get to pick or turn down roles depending on taste and the direction he wants to take his career, and his decision to take on these roles reflects a greedy, crass, base desire for critical acclaim and awards nominations, knowing full well that actors in positions of social dominance tend to get praised for playing the Other, while those who are not are rarely even offered access to these roles. When they are, it’s usually in the setting of indie films with low distribution, and most of the public never sees them — and they’re certainly not listed for awards opportunities.
First we have The Theory of Everything, in which he played at being Stephen Hawking. Aside from having some big problems surrounding disabled experiences, the film had a nondisabled actor in a lead role featuring one of the most famous living disabled people, and that was a problem. There are plenty of wheelchair users, including some with ALS, who could have taken on the role and done an excellent job with it, and yes, the filming might have required some adjustment to reflect their impairments, but that would have made it more authentic. Redmayne’s role was justified on the grounds that the filmmakers wanted to show Hawking’s life, and needed someone who could walk and mimic gradual progressive disease, but that doesn’t hold true at all. Do we cast children in adult roles because we need someone who can successfully pass a child earlier in a film? No, we cast a child for the role in earlier scenes in the character’s youth, and then transition to an adult actor. The casting decision could have included a disabled actor with more mobility for standing and walking scenes, and someone with a more progressed state of ALS or a similar disability for scenes further along.
Instead, the creators made a very conscious choice to cast a nondisabled actor in cripface, knowing in part that he could serve as a star vehicle, that the film would achieve incredible political acclaim, and that the actor himself would be praised for his deep research and method acting. They made much of interactions between Hawking and Redmayne (Hawking, it sounds like, genuinely enjoyed working with him and spoke appreciatively of the role, and I don’t want to devalue Hawking’s voice or take it away from him, but I’d be curious to hear his thoughts on cripface and whether he thought another actor would have been a better fit). Redmayne exploitatively used the role as a career opportunity instead of saying that he felt unqualified because he doesn’t have an evident physical impairment of any kind.
These kinds of things hurt. They hurt a lot, as a reminder that the world has no interest in disability unless it involves the rare successful, high profile, ‘good’ sort of disabled person, and that it has no time for disabled artistic talent. Perhaps the filmmakers seriously considered a disabled actor, but I doubt it. I would honestly be surprised if casting calls had included mention of disability or encouraged disabled actors to apply.
And then he played Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl. For those unfamiliar with the story of Lili Elbe, she was a Danish painter who worked in the 1920s and ’30s and became one of the first high profile transgender women living in public. She endured a number of crude gender confirmation surgeries in an era when surgery in general was a bit spotty and gender confirmation surgeries in particular weren’t well studied or explored. She ran serious risks to address her gender dysphoria. Ultimately, she died of complications from an attempted uterine transplant. As a woman at the forefront of trans experiences and the trans movement, she’s a personal icon for me and many other transgender people — Christine Jorgenson, another high profile trans woman, didn’t start transitioning until the 1950s (notably, in a 1970s film roughly about her, a cis man was also cast in the lead role). These handful of pioneers represented something huge, particularly in an era when no doubt scores of trans people lived in the closet, perhaps not even realising that transness was a thing until they saw these trans women openly talking about their lives.
To see a cis man in the role of any trans woman is insulting, transphobic, and deeply offensive. To see him playing Lili Elbe, a woman who fought and died on the forefront of the trans frontier, is heartbreaking. I cannot even begin to tell you how upset and dismayed I was by the casting, and I know the feeling was shared by many trans people. Again, I knew that it was the result of a base desire to score points in Hollywood for playing an edgy, innovative, challenging role, and again Redmayne made much of his ‘research’ with the trans community, with selected trans people being trotted out to praise him. Again, I do not want to devalue their voices and their experiences, including those of trans people who consulted with Redmayne, whether they genuinely supported him or wanted to make the best of a bad job and try to reduce the harm done by the role.
But the fact is that again, we see a marginalised community utterly ignored and devalued. There are a ton of amazing trans actresses out there and their numbers are growing daily. A fair number resemble Elbe, for that added authenticity that filmmakers often claim they need in biopics. Yet, again, they chose a cis man, reminding the trans community that we do not matter, that we are garbage, that anyone can play at our lives, taking us on and off like costumes, making dollies of us. For trans women in particular — few films revolve around trans men to begin with, and cross-casting for trans women carries a really complex social burden, though cis men or women shouldn’t be playing trans men either — these situations cause heartbreak over and over and over again.
Identities aren’t like professions, or hair colour, or superficial traits. They are identities, and we cannot cast people who do not share those identities. It’s one thing to have ‘neutral’ roles into which anyone can be cast. I encourage this kind of casting, along with subsequent adjustment to acknowledge the actor’s identity and work it into the characterisation: I want to see disabled people appearing in neutral roles, rather than purpose-built ones. I want to see people of colour appearing casually rather than being only cast in roles written for people of colour. I want to see roles that are neutral with regards to sexual orientation or gender — if it’s important that a character be a woman, why does she have to be cis, as is the assumption unless she’s explicitly trans, in which case she gets played by a man?
I’d like Eddie Redmayne put back in his box, now, and I’m also very much like Hollywood to stop with this. It’s not hard to find people to play these roles, but it requires respecting identities enough to care to cast them properly. If you’re going to profiteer on supposedly edgy and radical films, have the decency to ensure that the actors you cast share the experiences of the characters you’re depicting.
Image: Wellcome Images, Flickr