About 16.9 million people tuned in Friday night to watch Bruce Jenner tell ABC’s Diane Sawyer he was transitioning from male to female.
The interview not only scored “20/20’s” highest ratings in 15 years, it sparked a national conversation about transgender issues in America. But Jenner’s high-profile coming out, some experts say, could end up having a ripple effect on Hollywood as well.
“For me it was as big as the moon landing,” veteran casting director and producer Marci Liroff told TheWrap. “Hollywood always loves to get on the bandwagon of what’s trending, and so we’re going to see more and more transgender stories that are more inclusive.”
Liroff, whose credits include “Mean Girls,” “Footloose” and “E.T.,” is in the middle of shopping around her latest project, “Myrna,” a dramedy about a trans actress trying to navigate her new life and career as a woman. The series, which had a successful FanBacked campaign, has three seasons of material ready to be filmed.
Liroff believes Jenner’s interview could be a game-changer when it comes to increasing the visibility of transgender people on TV and film.
“Jenner’s interview truly was historic, and it was such a huge teaching moment,” Liroff said.
Already 2015 is shaping up to be one of the biggest years for the transgender community — at least when it comes to Hollywood.
Amazon proved it was a force to be reckoned with when its original series “Transparent,” about an aging father who begins living as a woman, won two Golden Globes. Laverne Cox of “Orange is the New Black” — who made the cover of Time magazine last year — was recently cast in a new CBS drama, “Doubt.” Fresh off his best actor Oscar win for “The Theory of Everything,” Eddie Redmayne will be taking on the role of Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery, in his next movie, “The Danish Girl.” And Elle Fanning will play a transgender teen in the upcoming film “Three Generations, ” starring Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon.
“Things have definitely changed for the better,” trans actress and star of “Myrna,” Marlo Bernier, told TheWrap.
But while Bernier believes Jenner’s public transition has been an important milestone for the transgender community, the real measure of progress will be whether Hollywood casts trans actors irrespective of their characters’ gender identities.
“Hopefully in the very near future, casting directors and producers of shows and films will see the woman or man in front of them solely as that and not with the trans prefix,” Bernier said.
An annual study by GLAAD found that Hollywood studios are still lagging when it comes to films representing LGBT people.
Examining the 114 films released by the seven largest movie studios last year, the study found that 17.5 percent of them included characters identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. None were transgender.
But even though transgender storylines are becoming increasingly more visible — at least on TV — most trans roles still go to straight actors.
Hollywood has had a long history of trans people being portrayed by cisgender performers; John Lithgow in “The World According to Garp,” Hillary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry,” Felicity Huffman in “TransAmerica,” and Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyer’s Club” were either nominated or took home an Oscar for playing transgender.
On the TV side, much of the same: Olympia Dukakis played the lovable Anna Madrigal in PBS and Showtimes’ “Tales of the City.” Rebecca Romijn took on the role of trans woman Alexis Meade in “Ugly Betty” and, most recently, Jeffrey Tambor in “Transparent.”
“The industry continues to look increasingly out of touch by comparison, and still doesn’t represent the full diversity of the American cultural fabric,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis recently told the Associated Press.
Hollywood has begun responding. When producers of ABC Family’s “The Fosters” were casting the role of well-loved supporting trans character, Cole, for instance, they insisted on hiring a transgender actor.
“ABC Family is a network that builds its storytelling on authenticity,” the network’s Executive Vice President of Programming and Development Karey Burke told TheWrap. “The more authentic experience that we can create for our audience the more successful it will be.”
The role eventually went to transgender actor Tom Phelan. Phelan joins a handful of other trans performers, including Candis Cayne (“Dirty Sexy Money”), Harmony Santana (“Gun Hill Road”), Alexandra Billings (“Transparent”), and Alexis Arquette (“Pulp Fiction,” “The Wedding Singer”), who have played trans characters in mainstream media.
“They bring their own unique experience to the role,” Burke said. “That expression by definition is informed by that truth and it’s our belief that truth will translate.”
Another ABC Family show, “Becoming Us,” an unscripted drama about an Illinois teenager whose father and girlfriend’s father are both transitioning, will air in June.
“I absolutely believe that the Bruce Jenner interview opened hearts and minds in this country in an unprecedented way,” Burke said. “The next generation will no longer be defined in binary terms as we move forward.”