Transgender representation from Hollywood to Montreal

We spoke to Montrealers who are part of the trans and film communities about working in the industry as times change.

Lily Jewers-Smith

Hollywood has come under fire in recent years as casting directors continue to give transgender roles to cisgender actors. For Lily Jewers-Smith, a trans woman who works in video editing in Montreal, the message this sends is “not a good one. Let’s start there.”

“It’s gross; I don’t think it’s respectful,” Jewers-Smith said. “If you’re going to create an empathetic character, you need to start from a place of respect and [casting a cisgender actor] just completely makes sure that’s not going to happen. No matter how much of a good actor you are, if you don’t understand that experience, I don’t really trust you to do a delicate job with it.”

Though the casting of prominent actors like Jared Leto and Scarlett Johansson in trans roles could be seen as a calculated choice in terms of desired box office revenue, Jewers-Smith said there’s more at play than just figures. “One thing I’m thinking of is the show Transparent with Jeffrey Tambor or The Danish Girl with Eddie Redmayne. They’re stars, but I don’t think they’re big enough draws to really justify their presence as a lead. It feels like a bit of a cop-out,” she says, adding that she believes this choice relieves directors of having to pay attention to sensitivity.

“Why do you think a cis man is the best analog for a trans woman?” Jewers-Smith asked. “The answer is a bit too obvious: that’s what they think we are.”

Jewers-Smith recently worked as an editor on a film called The Lower Plateau, which was unveiled at Montreal’s Festival des films du monde in August. Outside of making videos for friends and fun, The Lower Plateau is the first real project she’s taken on, one that afforded a generous amount of creative freedom as well as an inclusive atmosphere.

“I was pretty lucky, actually,” says Jewers-Smith. “It was a small team — eight or nine people, and I wasn’t the only trans person working on it. The team was mostly women, especially gay and bisexual women, so even if I had been the only trans person, I never felt out of place.”

Atif Siddiqi. Photo by Eisha Marjara

Atif Siddiqi, a Montreal-based performer and actor, says the filmmaking scene in general needs some work in terms of being more LGBTQI+ inclusive. “I know that actors can play anything, but I’m a great believer in authenticity. Somebody else who doesn’t have that life experience can only pretend.”

They said a prominent issue trans actors face today — aside from not being cast in the roles that represent them — is a lack of scripts that paint an accurate picture of the community. “Whenever you’re playing a part that’s been written by someone else, you have to serve the writing,” Siddiqi says. “So that can be problematic, depending on how well the writer is informed. How well is the director informed about the community and the representation?”

Siddiqi suggests collaborating with the community during the writing process as well as the casting process in order to avoid the perpetuation of problematic stereotypes. “Throughout my time as a performer, whenever I’ve had to work in commercial productions, for the most part, it’s been a lot of sex worker-type roles that I’ve had to audition for or play.”

They also said that by giving trans roles to cis actors, a message is being sent to the world that there is no talent within the LGBTQI+ community. “Then, the employment issue gets perpetuated,” Siddiqi says. “People who are gender non-conforming or queer are traditionally underrepresented and underemployed. So, the same people end up working more, and getting more credit and it doesn’t help the community in any way.”

Jewers-Smith echoed this thought. “You can always hire us,” she said. “There are a lot of trans artists, musicians, sound people, photographers… We’re everywhere. If you can give a trans person a paycheque, I think that’s a great place to start.”

“Both places have their own issues,” Siddiqi says, comparing Montreal to Hollywood. “I’m hopeful that things are changing, and this dialogue needs to be out there in the film community at large — that people who want to write transgender characters into their productions should do their research or collaborate in the community.”

Jewers-Smith suggests viewing trans films created by the community as a way to support them. “We’re actually making things about ourselves, and that doesn’t seem to be getting much attention,” she says. “Maybe get out of your comfort zone a bit and enjoy some stuff that is actually reflective of who we are.” 

Montreal’s LGBTQI+ film festival Image+Nation will screen films made by and for the community at various venues from Nov. 23 to Dec. 2