Bright Lights Film Journal

Get Real: How Much Reality Do We Want in Acting?

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent

Isn’t it the job of an actor to play what he or she is not?

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It was Jeffrey Tambor who got me thinking about authenticity in acting. This past September, he won his second Emmy in so many years for his portrayal of Maura Pfefferman, nee Morton Pfefferman, in Transparent. After collecting his statuette, Tambor said this to the assembled listeners: “To you people out there, you producers and you network owners and you agents and you creative sparks, please give transgender talent a chance. Give them auditions. Give them their story. Do that.”1 So far, so good: a fairly typical peroration for an Emmy-acceptance speech and a noble wish. Before leaving the stage, though, Tambor leaned back toward the microphone for a final comment: “And also, one more thing, I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender on television.” Now that, if you think about it a moment, is an odd thing for an actor to say. If Tambor was a director directing a show about transgender characters or a screenwriter writing such a show, the statement would make more sense, but Tambor is not a director or a screenwriter, nor a production designer, nor a hair and makeup stylist, nor a technical adviser. He’s an actor. Isn’t it the job of an actor to play what he or she is not?

Screenshot from a documentary on the making of Touch of Evil

About the same time that Tambor won his Emmy, I was reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, In the Arena, which was published a little more than two decades ago. In the final pages of the book, Heston expends quite a lot of ink on a subject that has been much in the news again recently: political correctness.2 Among other things, he bemoans the modern taboo against having fair-skinned actors playing brown-skinned characters. Heston’s tone – part preachy old Moses, part gruff straight-talker, like the cowboys he played in The Big Country (1958) and Will Penny (1968) – made me want to argue, which I did in the margins of the book. Apparently he hadn’t seen A Passage to India (1984), in which Alec Guinness played an Indian; King David (1985) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), in which Richard Gere and Willem Dafoe, respectively, played Iron-Age Semites; or The House of the Spirits (1993), in which Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder, and Glenn Close all played Chileans. If he’d lived a bit longer, he could have seen Johnny Depp play a Native American, Emma Stone play a native Hawaiian, and Christian Bale take on his own star-making role of Moses, none of them particularly convincingly. Clearly the taboo Heston was so hot and bothered about was, at best, loosely observed. Besides which, considering how horribly he’d mangled a Mexican accent in Touch of Evil (1958), Heston seemed like a particularly ill-chosen messenger for such a complaint.

And yet I could see his point – or, at least, a point struck by his barrage of anti-PC fire. As an actor who took his art seriously and who enjoyed watching other actors ply their trade, Heston was lamenting the amputation of part of his profession. No doubt he was thinking of Laurence Olivier’s 1964-1965 portrayal of Othello at the National Theater in London, which many regard as one of the great performances of his stage career. The awkwardness of casting a white man as an African, in this particular case, is at least somewhat offset by the fact that that was undoubtedly how the author intended the role to be cast. To restrict Othello to only white men (as indeed it was for roughly two centuries) would be both an injustice and an unnecessary impediment to sensible casting, denying many potentially superb black actors the opportunity to play the part and denying us the opportunity to see them in it. However, the reverse is equally true. An acting universe without Olivier’s Othello in it, or at least the possibility of such an Othello, is a slightly less wondrous place.

We cringe when we see Heston in Touch of Evil and Alec Guinness in A Passage to India and Emma Stone in Aloha (2015) not because such casting choices are innately racist but because they break the magic spell of the movie, un-suspending our disbelief. Moral indignation is more rightly reserved for movies that use their casting – the Mickey Rooney character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) comes immediately to mind – to mock an entire minority group, using one buffoonish character as a synecdoche for collective debility. This, however, can be accomplished equally well (or badly, one might say) with an ethnically authentic actor playing the part, as anyone who has seen Stepin Fetchit’s films from the 1930s will know. The actor isn’t the problem. It’s the character who offends.

What Heston failed to appreciate was that audiences, by the mid-’90s, held actors – along with directors, screenwriters, production designers, and plenty of other film technicians – to a higher standard than they had when he began his acting career (though, obviously, not always to quite high enough a standard). Moviegoers of the FDR era happily accepted Sam Jaffe as an Indian man and Katharine Hepburn as a Chinese woman, and blithely ignored the fact that they were delivering their lines on echoing sets in front of painted horizons. Spencer Tracy won an Academy Award for playing real-life priest Father Flanagan in Boy’s Town (1938) without troubling to adopt the father’s Irish accent, don his wire-rimmed glasses, nor even style his hair in the clergyman’s neat, slicked-back manner, preferring the wavy locks he wore in all his films. Sixty-six years later, to win his Academy Award for Ray (2004), in which he played musician Ray Charles, Jamie Foxx lost over twenty-five pounds, glued his eyelids shut to simulate Charles’ blindness, attended classes at the Braille Institute, and spent weeks with the pianist studying his distinctive physical movements and manner of speech. Such exertions might sound excessively Method to some, but it’s hardly unusual for an actor today. Will Smith went to comparable lengths for the 2001 film Ali. Ditto Christian Bale for The Fighter (2010), Natalie Portman for Black Swan (2010), and Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant (2015).

Natalie Portmand in Black Swan

This is not to say that we today, any more than our forebears, expect reality (whatever that is) from actors. Jamie Foxx is not actually blind, and I don’t recall anyone suggesting that he should have been to play Ray Charles. What we, in fact, seek in acting is believability. Indeed, one of the joys of watching thespians practice their art is knowing that what we are seeing onscreen is not real, of enjoying the illusion precisely because it is that, an illusion. This is, in part, what makes an actor such as Ben Kingsley so captivating to watch. His chameleon-like ability to play just about anyone from anywhere – whether it be an Indian in Gandhi (1980), a Cypriot in Pascali’s Island (1988), an American in Bugsy (1991), an Austrian Jew in Schindler’s List (1993), an Iranian in The House of Sand and Fog (2003), or a Russian in Transsiberian (2008) – is a kind of performative magic that is enjoyable in and of itself. We know we’re watching Kingsley, and yet he could be anyone.

Ben Kingsley in Bugsy

The natural corollary of Tambor’s Emmy-night thought experiment, in which all future transgender parts are played by transgender performers, would be a world in which actors cease acting and, instead, are chosen based a single genetically acquired characteristic. Would we really insist that all homosexual parts be played by homosexual performers, all heterosexuals by heterosexuals, all Jews by Jews, all blondes by blondes, all left-handed people by left-handed people, and on down the list of attributes given us at birth? This would rob us of Ian McKellan’s King Lear and Richard III, Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote, Kate Blanchett’s Carol Aird, Hillary Swank’s Brandon Teena, Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking, John Turturro’s Bernie Bernbaum, Herbert Stempel, and Jesus Quintana, and many others, too numerous to count. That might sound like a stretch, but the distance between Kingsley’s Gandhi and Olivier’s Othello isn’t as far as you might imagine. Kingsley is only half-Indian, was born and raised in England, and spent weeks tanning himself to look appropriately dark for the role. One shivers to imagine by what method one would determine how much pure blood is necessary to play Gandhi or any other racially specific character.

Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry

Just as unsettling, Tambor’s proposal implies that gender identity is, or should be, the defining characteristic by which transgender actors are recognized, rather than the multiplicity of other talents they might bring to a part. Without intending to, Tambor proposed a model for segregation rather than inclusion. If one thing is certain it is this: acceptance and equality will not come when all transgender parts are played by transgender actors. It will come when transgender actors are offered all the same parts as their cisgender coevals – whatever the part, whatever the gender: male, female, or trans – based on ability. The possibilities, from an acting point of view, are tantalizing. Consider the remake of the 1982 Dustin Hoffman comedy Tootsie: a man born a woman playing a man playing a woman. An adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night would offer an equal but opposite opportunity. But so too would Sherlock Holmes or Blanche DuBois or the next historical character to be written into a film or television series. Why not give any one of those roles to a transgender star? Now that would be an actor’s dream.


Calvario, Liz. “Jeffrey Tambor Wins Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.” Indie Wire.

Heston, Charlton. In the Arena: An Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the referenced films.

  1. Calvario. []
  2. Heston, p. 574. []