Silence of the Lambs' villain Buffalo Bill has long been a thorn in the side of trans people. For many, he was the first example of trans representation they saw, and became their only touchstone for what a trans person is. Jen Richards is working on changing that.
Richards, who's appeared in Better Things, Tales of the City, Nashville, and Mrs. Fletcher, is joining the CBS drama Clarice, about FBI agent Clarice Starling's (played by Rebecca Breeds) career after the events of Silence of the Lambs, in a role that will address the legacy that Buffalo Bill has left on trans people.
In a virtual event for the premier of the show, the 2020 Out100 honoree said her character comes into Clarice's storyline "in a way that her transness isn't central," but that "her identity as a trans woman prompts her to discuss with Clarice the complicated legacy of Buffalo Bill."
Initially when she was approached by the show, Richards thought she would help the writers and producers "craft the character and make sure some younger, prettier trans actress had a good experience on set." In the end, she ended up being the perfect one for the role.
She said that she was excited that the writing team wanted to "address the complicated, horrible legacy in a way that didn't reduce it to that one issue" and also introduce a "trans character that was part of the story but didn't reduce it to a stereotype."
In the documentary Disclosure, Richards talks about when she first decided to come out and opened up to a friend.
"Do you mean like Buffalo Bill?" the friend asked. The response broke Richards' heart.
"Like her only point of reference was this disgusting, psychotic serial killer who hunts women in order to kill them and skin them in order to wear their bodies, to literally appropriate the female form," she said.
Richards posted on Instagram celebrating the role. The show's creators, she wrote, "knew that the character of Buffalo Bill created untold pain for trans people. Too often victims in real life, we were only ever shown as monsters. The team wanted to put to that right, especially after seeing [Disclosure,] and worked with Nick Adams at [GLAAD] to make sure trans people, both on and off camera, helped shape a more authentic and empathetic story." She added, "I'm proud to be part of this new take."
Richards has long been an advocate for trans actors playing trans roles. In Discosure she talked about how bad representation leads to real life violence. "In my mind, part of the reason that men end up killing trans women out of fear that other men will think that they are gay for having been with trans women is that their friends, the men whose judgment they fear, only know trans women from media and the people who are playing trans women are the men that they know," she said. "When you see these women off-screen still as women, it completely deflates the idea that they are somehow men in disguise."
Recently, we've seen fewer and fewer movies casting cis actors to play trans roles. Last year, Scarlett Johansson was replaced as the lead in the biopic Rub & Tug about trans gangster Dante "Tex" Gill with an as-yet-to-be-named trans actor, and Pose and Transparent writer Our Lady J was brought on to rewrite it as a TV pilot.
While more and more trans actors are being cast in trans roles, there's still a lot that needs to be done to undo the damage that films like Silence of the Lambs has done. It's not just about seeing trans women as women, it's also about making sure people don't see us as deranged and violent psychopaths, and with her role in Clarice, Jen Richards is helping to make that happen.
Clarice debuts on Thursday, February 11 at 10PM ET/PT on CBS.