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Jared Leto (left) and Jennifer Garner in Dallas Buyers Club. Leto won an Oscar for his portrayal of a transgender character in the 2013 film.

‘You play us but we can’t play you’: Scarlett Johansson’s trans role in new film spurs backlash

Unbowed by criticism of her casting as a transgender man by trans actors, who say they are never considered for non-trans parts, actress points to non-transgender actors who won acclaim for playing transgender roles

Scarlett Johansson’s plan to portray a transgender man has sparked a backlash from many who object to actors who are not transgender playing trans roles.

Earlier this week, it was announced Johansson would star in Rub & Tug, a film about prostitution ring leader Dante “Tex” Gill, who was born Lois Jean Gill but identified as a man. Since the announcement, transgender actors and advocates have criticised the production for not casting a trans actor in the role.

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Johansson, who is also producing the film, further inflamed critics with a statement to the website Bustle, via her representative, that said criticism “can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment”.

Tambor, Leto and Huffman have received acclaim for playing trans characters despite not being transgender themselves. Tambor won two Emmys for his performance on Transparent, though he departed the show last year after he was accused of sexual misconduct by two transgender women: actress Trace Lysette and his former personal assistant, Van Barnes.

Scarlett Johansson plans to play a transgender man in an upcoming film, Rub & Tug. Photo: AP

Leto won an Oscar for his performance in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club . Huffman was nominated for an Oscar for the 2005 film Transamerica.


Lysette was among those who disapproved of Johansson’s intentions. On Twitter, she wrote: “So you can continue to play us but we can’t play y’all?”

“Not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived,” wrote Lysette.

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Jamie Clayton, a transgender actress who stars in Netflix’s Sense8, dared Johansson and the filmmakers to cast trans actors in non-trans parts.

“Actors who are trans never even get to audition for anything other than roles of trans characters,” Clayton said in an all-caps tweet. “That’s the real issue. We can’t even get in the room.”

Scarlett Johansson plays a cyborg in Ghost in the Shell. Critics attacked her casting for the role. Photo: Jasin Boland/Paramount Pictures

Representatives for Johansson didn’t respond to messages for comment.

Johansson has come under fire before for playing a role that critics said should have been played by an Asian actress. In last year’s Ghost in the Shell , she played the robot character known in Masamune Shirow’s original manga series as Motoko Kusanagi.


Critics called it another example of Hollywood’s long history of using Caucasians to portray Asian characters. Mamoru Oshii, director of the original anime adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, defended the casting because Johansson’s role was a cyborg with no fixed race.

Rupert Sanders, who directed Ghost in the Shell, is set to direct Rub & Tug.