Last week, Eddie Redmayne said that he believed, in retrospect, it was ‘a mistake’ for him to play the part of Lili Elbe, a transgender woman, in The Danish Girl. To this, he added that he would not accept the part today.

Rethinking casting choices

The Danish Girl is a biographical drama loosely based on the true story of two artists, Elbe (Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). Elbe is considered to be one of the first-ever people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Redmayne, an Oscar-winning actor, now believes the part should have been given to a transgender actor instead.

Redmayne is not the first actor to express regret for playing a role. Zoe Saldana apologized for playing Nina Simone. Saldana is of Puerto Rican and Dominican origin. Controversially, she used skin-darkening makeup to portray the great singer, songwriter, and civil rights activist. She initially defended her decision to accept the part, but last year said: ‘I’m so sorry. I know better today and I’m never going to do that again. [Simone] is one of our giants and someone else should step up. Someone else should tell her story’.

The BBC was also heavily criticized, including by the disability charity Scope, for casting an able-bodied actor (Charlie Heaton) as Joseph Merrick in the remake of The Elephant Man. Fellow actor Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis type 1, the condition that is thought to have caused Merrick’s physical deformities, said that he was not even given the opportunity to audition for the part.

Some will say that this newfound regret is ridiculous, as it defeats the whole point of acting. Brendan O’Neill of Spiked said ‘oi, Redmayne — just try acting. And stop pontificating’. It is of course true, that the point of acting is, well, to get into character and act. Pretending to be someone other than yourself and doing it convincingly is arguably the mark of a truly great actor — think Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

However, I disagree that an actor’s identity should not be taken into consideration at all. Redmayne played the role of Lili beautifully. And John Hurt did not need to have a deformity in real life for him to perfectly capture the character of Joseph Merrick in the 1980 version of The Elephant Man.

But an actor will undoubtedly draw on their personal experience when deciding how they will portray a certain character. The fact that Olly Alexander is himself gay may have been part of the reason why he was able to give such a memorable performance as Ritchie in It’s a Sin. Alexander has spoken about his experience of homophobic bullying at school, which drove him to self-harm. This discrimination undoubtedly helped him to capture the stigma that gay men like Ritchie would have encountered during the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s. As Adam Pearson said: ‘As actors, you bring your baggage to the table. Everyone has that inner-darkness; that inner-self that they can tap into’.

So, who should get the part?

It’s worth noting that ethnic minorities, transgender actors and disabled actors are still underrepresented in film and television. For example, disabled people make up 18 per cent of the UK population, but only 6.5 per cent of them are represented on screen. The implication is that the industry is short-changing them when it comes to providing opportunities for disabled actors. Needless to say, it is still overwhelmingly the case that able-bodied actors are almost exclusively chosen to play disabled parts.

Still, while an actor’s identity and personal experience are valuable assets when it comes to casting choices, they are not the only things that matter. Let’s take another character that Redmayne played; the world-famous scientist Stephen Hawking. Hawking suffered from Motor Neuron Disease and was wheelchair-bound for most of his life. Redmayne gave a highly adept performance as the paralysed genius in The Theory of Everything — bagging an Oscar for his superlative acting skills. But Redmayne, as we know, doesn’t suffer from MND. What’s more, no apology has been uttered for snatching the role from another actor who does have it. And what about Colin Firth? He has no speech defect himself, yet won an Oscar for his portrayal of King George VI in The Kings Speech. Should he now humbly admit that another actor with a real-life speech impediment would have done a better job?

Clearly, While Hawking and King George VI both had significant disabilities, this was not the only thing to consider when deciding whom to cast in these roles. Hawking was one of the world’s leading scientists, and King George VI took the throne at a tense time in British history following his brother’s abdication. These points matter too. An actor should arguably be judged on what they can bring to the character as a whole and not just on having shared certain key experiences with it.

I believe that Redmayne genuinely regrets playing Lili. But it’s also possible that he is protecting himself in the face of mounting criticism for having accepted the role.

I also believe that a transgender actor could have played Lili Elbe better than Redmayne. But the fact that Redmayne gave a memorable performance in The Danish Girl shouldn’t be dismissed. He was able to bring something unique to that part in the absence of having personal experience as a transgender woman. And this is what we should be focusing on: the ability of an actor to empathize with and enter the experiences and situations of another’s life that is not their own.

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