Why Transparent Creator Jill Soloway Will Never Cast a Cisgender Person in a Transgender Role Again
Jill Soloway believes that TV—specifically the niche, creator-driven series streaming on platforms like Amazon—has the power to change the world.
Her show Transparent, loosely based on her own parent’s gender transition, certainly has changed the conversation about transgender issues. Her second potential series for Amazon, I Love Dick, starring Kevin Bacon and Kathryn Hahn, is waiting for an official pickup. Soloway chats about being a feminist showrunner and how she now feels about casting cisgender actors (those whose gender identity corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth) in transgender roles.
Your feminism influences the kinds of stories you tell, but how does it affect your role as a producer?
I try to bring a feminist, collectivist, cooperative, collaborative way [of doing things] to work, meaning that I question all the ways we’ve been told that TV is made. I think the traditional patriarchal way of making film is like the Dark Ages. The things that we’re bringing to filmmaking are the sorts of things you’d find in Silicon Valley, where people have very transparent processes, where people are encouraged to take risks and make mistakes. You could call it feminist, or you could call it Millennial.
Do you think it’s important to call it feminist?
I do. I’m happy to call it feminist.
Having dealt with backlash for casting Jeffrey Tambor to play a trans character, do you think about casting trans roles differently now?
Yes. I would unequivocally say it is absolutely unacceptable to cast a cis man in the role of a trans woman. Ever. I know that sounds ironic coming out of my mouth, but at this point I would throw that down as absolute.
I think when you look back at what went on for us over the past few years, we did everything and anything to make it OK, and I can name four reasons, story-wise and show-wise, that Jeffrey was the right person. You know, I think a lot of people will give you those [reasons]. They’ll say Jeffrey is a great actor. They’ll say that as a famous cis man he got the kind of attention for the show that we never would have gotten [with a trans actor]. I could personally tell you that in terms of my own parent’s gender presentation, that Jeffrey looked and felt much more like my parent than a trans woman or a fully transitioned person would have, because my parent was at the beginning of their transition, as was Maura.
I could come up with a lot of cis-cuses—cis excuses—about why my choice shouldn’t be questioned. But I actually feel the opposite. I feel like our choice should absolutely be interrogated. And we’re in a post Transparent world. We’re in a post Tangerine world. We’re in a post Dallas Buyers Club world. Nobody should be that ignorant right now to cast a cis man in this role. If anybody has been reading the Internet they understand how awful it is for trans women to see cis men portraying them. It’s an insult.
What do you say to the argument that where a character is in the transition process makes a difference when casting?
Then find an actor who is at that point in their transition. Or don’t tell the story. I just don’t know if it’s the place of a cis man to be attempting to investigate how it feels to be trans. I think if a cis man is writing or producing a story about a trans woman and they’re casting another cis man in the role and they’re not willing to bring in trans people to reflect back and say, this works or this doesn’t, then they have to cop to the fact that they’re creating a projection that allows them and their cis male friends to live temporarily in a trans world as a creative fantasy. And that part of their fantasy is living in a trans world with other cis men and without any other real human trans people in that world with them. These people have to cop to that fantasy.
The old arguments that there aren’t enough trans actors, there aren’t enough trans writers and directors, they’re just old arguments. People need to begin to make the effort to pull trans people into the industry, to identify, find, train, promote and distribute the works of trans people about trans people.
What are you developing with your new production company, Topple?
We are in the day-in, day-out attempt to topple the global patriarchy. We are looking at what you might call intersectional voices, meaning women, people of color, trans people and queer people who are willing to tell stories from their own point of view. People who have been objects in other people’s stories, we’re offering them the opportunity to be subjects in their own stories.
Why do you think viewers are ready for these kinds of queer feminist narratives now?
Well, it’s not just queer, feminist narratives, but also people of color. If you look at Atlanta, Donald Glover’s new show, Aziz Ansari doing the same thing [on Master of None]. I think in the past media was this sort of siloed experience, meaning I as a creator might go to a network and pitch a half-hour and they’d say, “Where’s your rootable white male protagonist?” They’re really focused on as broad an audience as possible on network television. Whereas at Amazon, what Jeff Bezos is doing is questioning and upending and disrupting a whole bunch of different kinds of business models. What is offered to me as a creator is the opportunity to make something that feels like somebody’s favorite show. Not everybody’s favorite show.
Does TV have the power to change the world?
Oh yes! It already has! By TV you mean streaming, right? I think sometime soon we’re going to needs some new words. But whatever it is that we’re doing, I’ve already seen it change the world.
Transparent, Season 3 debuts Friday, September 23, Amazon Prime Video