AUTHENTIC CASTING MATTERS

On Wednesday, 11 October at 7:15pm a stand-alone TV episode I wrote and directed, called FIRST DAY, will be broadcast on ABC ME. FIRST DAY is about Hannah, a 12 year-old transgender girl who’s starting high school. Having presented as male at primary school, it’s the first day she’ll wear a girl’s school uniform and go by her chosen name instead of the boy’s name she was given at birth. ABC ME is ABC TV’s dedicated children’s channel. FIRST DAY was commissioned through an ABC and Screen Australia joint initiative to celebrate the International Day of the Girl. The brief was to create a 20-minute stand-alone TV episode aimed at 8-12 year olds.

There is much to unpack in that paragraph and unpack it I will over the coming weeks, but today, I want to talk about the casting process. After hearing that FIRST DAY had been selected, Kirsty Stark, producer, and I, had our first meeting with the ABC. They were not only extremely enthusiastic and supportive of the project but they said they’d like us to try and cast a transgender girl in the lead. This had been our intention, but we weren’t expecting such outright support from the ABC. To be honest, I was still surprised they’d commissioned the project in the first place. 

After the initial euphoria wore off Kirsty and I had a reality check – yes, we wanted to cast a transgender girl in the role but the lead character of Hannah is in every scene. The success of the film hinges on her performance. What are the odds of us finding a transgender girl who has the courage to be part of this film, who can not only act, but who can carry the weight of this incredibly demanding role on her 12 year-old shoulders? Yes, we believe in authentic casting but we wondered, in this case, if it was even possible.

One thing became apparent over the coming weeks – if you think it’s impossible to cast authentically, you’re not looking hard enough.

The casting call Kirsty posted on her production company’s Facebook page, Epic Films, was shared over 370 times. We had 12 girls apply for the role. We had no money for casting, we had very limited resources, but we had 12 girls apply for a role we weren’t sure we’d be able to fill. Every girl that applied was brave, articulate and inspiring. They were each at different stages of their journey and they all have incredible futures ahead of them. We chose our Hannah from that 12.

Evie Macdonald is a 12 year-old girl from Melbourne. This was her first acting role and she nailed it! Without exception, everyone who was on set, who worked on the film in post-production, or who watched the film at any stage during completion commented on how incredible Evie’s performance is. We got lucky, you could say. We struck gold. But if we hadn’t tried, if we’d sat back and thought it was too hard, if we didn’t have the backing of the ABC, we never would have found Evie.

As far as I'm aware, it's the first time a transgender actor has been cast in the lead role of an Australian television episode. The fact that this will be screened on ABC ME and has been commissioned by the ABC and Screen Australia for children's television is especially groundbreaking. Again, I’ll unpack this in the weeks to come.

More and more transgender characters are appearing on screen but the tendency, especially in Hollywood, is to cast a cisgender white man in the role of a transgender woman. Casting a cis male in the role of a transgirl or woman is not an authentic portrayal of a trans woman. It’s reinforcing the ignorant and misinformed notion that a transwoman is really a man and being trans is about cross-dressing. Trans voices are crucial in telling authentic stories about trans characters.

As a white, cisgendered, middle-class lesbian, I acknowledge that FIRST DAY isn’t my story to tell, but as a white, cis, middle-class lesbian, I’m fully aware that I’m in a privileged position within my community and, as such, I have the resources to tell this story. By passing these resources onto Evie, not only does she have the opportunity to tell her story, but the story we set out to tell in the first place is so much better than it ever could have been without her.

There is much to talk about in regards to this project, particularly in the current political climate. I’ll do my best to talk through as much of this as I can in the coming weeks. I also have a feeling that once FIRST DAY has aired and people have watched it (or not), there will be a whole lot more to discuss and a whole bunch of people voicing their opinion.

By Julie Kalceff

 Photo credit: Nick Prokop Photography

Photo credit: Nick Prokop Photography