By the numbers, the state of transgender representation in Hollywood has come a long way. But, when it comes to letting trans people tell their own stories or stories from their community on-screen, there's a long way to go.
Just this summer Scarlett Johansson withdrew from playing a trans man in Rub & Tug following outcry from the transgender community and a legion of trans actors demanding that trans people be allowed to tell trans stories.
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In the new period drama Colette, starring Keira Knightly and Dominic West, a historical world of feminism, misogyny, and transgenderism before such a term existed are laid open to the audience, with the typical struggle of trans actors being flipped on its head. Director Wash Westmoreland not only filled his spin on the queer life of French novelist Colette with supporting trans actors, he filled them in cisgender roles.
"I'm always interested to see how open producers, directors, and writers can be to the idea of something else," said Rebecca Root, who plays the exuberant journalist Rachilde. "I think it's very important to remember that, as an underrepresented minority, we should be getting those opportunities to portray people from our own experience."
Root even recalled the generous receptiveness of Westmoreland when she asked to read for the part of Missy, played by Denise Gough in the film, who would likely classify themself as a transgender man were they alive today. "It'd be interesting if you had a trans woman playing a trans man," said Root. "It's sort of going backwards or playing against my type, but why not? If you have a cis person playing trans and a trans person playing cis, why can't you have a trans woman playing a trans man?"
Rebecca Root (left) and Jake Graf (right)
Jake Graf, a longtime friend of Root's, takes on the role of Gaston De Caillavet, an acquaintance of Colette's (Knightly) husband's (West) who reads her palm and foresees a convoluted future for her love life. "Being a part of a project like this, having studied Colette in school, knowing how much she did for the women's movement, and how much she did for queer politics and queer rights and so on and just moving forward - it's amazing to be a part of it all," said Graf.
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While a transgender man playing a cisgender man can look revolutionary on paper, for Graf fewer things have ever felt as natural. "I've always just felt like a guy," he said. "Since I was two or three years old I knew that I was a man despite everyone in the world telling me otherwise. For me, playing this part was the most natural thing. My whole life it feels was spent kind of playing a woman when, obviously, I wasn't a woman, and that felt a lot stranger and a lot more unnatural to me than playing this man."
Colette is out in theaters today. Watch the trailer again below and keep an eye out for Graf.