Did we all learn nothing from Scarlett Johansson? Over the weekend Halle Berry discussed a new role she’s been eyeing—which happens to be a trans man. The entertainment industry and critics have discussed the issues with casting cisgender people to play transgender roles for years, so at this point it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have missed the memo. But beyond that, Berry also repeatedly misgendered the character she hopes to play during an Instagram Live interview.
After taking fire, Berry apologized on Twitter late Monday for her comments, and said that “as a cisgender woman, I now understand that I should not have considered this role, and that the transgender community should undeniably have the opportunity to tell their own stories.”
Speaking with hairstylist Christin Brown, as first reported by PinkNews, Berry said she’d initially been pitched the project just before she began working on her directorial debut, Bruised. Berry stuck to Bruised first, she said, because she wasn’t sure how much longer she would be able to pull off the role of MMA fighter Jackie Justice. With that film set to debut this year—pandemic contingencies notwithstanding—Berry is ready to tackle this new role. Or at least, she wants to be.
“She’s a woman that transitioned into a man,” Berry said of the role. “She’s a character in a project I love and I might be doing.”
“I want to experience that world, understand that world,” Berry added. “I want to deep dive in that like I did Bruised... And this world and who this woman was, is so interesting to me, and that will probably be my next [acting project].”
“That’s what I want to experience and that’s what I want to understand and that’s what I want to study and that’s what I want to explore,” Berry said. “It’s really important to me to tell stories, and that’s a woman—that’s a female story. It changes to a man, but I want to understand the why and how of that. You know? I want to get into it.”
The very notion that a trans man is a “female” role demonstrates that Berry has some misguided notions about trans people. Trans men are men and trans women are women—before, after, and without making any physical changes to their bodies. Then again, given Hollywood’s sordid history in representing trans people, as outlined recently in the Netflix documentary Disclosure, Berry’s misunderstanding is unsurprising.
Films and television that cast cis performers as trans characters perpetuate the idea that trans people are just playing dress-up—an issue writer and actress Jen Richards noted in the Netflix doc. “The public thinks of trans women as men with really good hair and make-up and costume,” Richards said. “And it’s reinforced every time we see a man who's played a trans woman off-screen.”
Casting controversies surrounding trans characters have been plentiful in recent years. Jared Leto won an Oscar for his performance as a trans woman in 2014’s Dallas Buyers Club despite the fact that his character, Rayon, essentially existed to further a cis character’s growth—and died once that task was complete. In 2015 Eddie Redmayne played trans painter Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl—which also stirred controversy but nonetheless earned Redmayne an Oscar nomination. In 2017, it was Matt Bomer’s turn; he played a trans woman in Anything, a film about a trans sex worker that received widespread backlash from the trans community. (Richards noted at the time that she’d auditioned for the role; “I told them they shouldn't have a cis man play a trans woman,” she wrote on Twitter. “They didn’t care.”) Oh, and there was also that embarrassing film 3 Generations, in which Elle Fanning played a trans boy.
And perhaps most recently, in 2018, Scarlett Johansson stepped away from playing a trans man and criminal kingpin Dante Tex Gil in Rub and Tug after yet another wave of backlash. “While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film,” she said in a statement at the time.
Evidently, that “conversation” is far from over.