Oscars season is coming up, which means we’re about to shower actors with awards and praise for their work. But the people who help them portray such stirring roles are rarely recognized. Calpernia Addams is one of those people.
“I recorded all of his lines from the script and he listened to that audio for months during his preparation,” explained Addams. Actor Jared Leto used her audio to prepare for the role of Rayon, a transgender woman living with HIV in the 1980s in the film “Dallas Buyers Club.” Leto’s performance helped he and the film earn six Oscar nods.
This isn’t the first time Addams has helped A-list actors portray transgender characters.
After 4 years as a field medic in the Navy, Addams came out as a transgender woman. Since then, she’s been an activist for transgender rights and was even portrayed in the movie “Soldier’s Girl,” a film about her relationship with Navy Private First Class Barry Winchell and his brutal murder. Addams’ first Hollywood experience was training actor Lee Pace to play her in the film. She’s since consulted for Felicity Huffman and, most recently, Leto.
Addams draws from her own experience as a transgender woman. Her coaching goes beyond portrayal: Addams wants her clients to have a deep emotional and psychological understanding of what it’s like to be a trans person in the U.S.
“It’s a lot deeper than just having a medical procedure or putting on lipstick,” relayed Addams.
“I talk about, just various aspects of transition, from how people often feel at different stages in their life, from childhood on up, to medical, social and legal steps they have to take,” Addams told Fusion. “And especially the way that trans people are treated by other people, because that usually really informs a role.”
But the marginalization of trans people is exactly why critics argue that transgender roles should go to trans actors.
“In a perfect world, I hope that trans people will get the majority of trans role, but we’re not there yet,” added Addams.
Despite strong support within the acting community for transgender actors to play both transgender and non-trans roles, they still struggle to get parts on the big and small screen alike. Less than 5 percent of recurring roles on major networks were LGBT and there were no transgender characters in 101 films produced by major studios, according to a 2013 report from GLAAD, a media advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and promoting the stories of LGBT people.
“It’s a bit of a vicious circle in that there are no trans people famous enough to open a film right now,” said Addams. “Yet trans people can’t get the work required to become that famous.”
Maintaining identity, even for those who “pass” as cisgender, is a challenge for many trans women, said Addams. Cisgender describes a person who identifies with the gender of the body they were born with.
“That sense that you could lose everything should anyone discover your history, that sense informs the way you live your daily life, even if no one knows,” said Addams. “A lifetime of criticism, mockery and violence can shut down a lot of aspects of a person’s soul. It requires a lot of strength.”
Only 17 states in the U.S. have job protection laws for transgender people. A disproportionate number of transgender people turn to sex work to pay the bills. Sex work plus a lack of access to medical care leads to increased HIV rates: a dire problem within the transgender community.
During his Golden Globes acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor, Leto did not thank Addams personally for her role in assisting him. He didn’t address the larger issues affecting transgender people throughout the United States either. In fact, he barely mentioned transgender people. "To the Rayons of the world, thanks for the inspiration," Leto said toward the end of his 1:30 speech at the Golden Globes.
That night after the Golden Globes, Addams posted a note on Facebook to inform her followers that Leto didn’t need to thank her.
“The writer who created the character, and Jared's work in interpreting the role are what deserve accolades,” Addams wrote. "Rayon is a character that Jared created from the material the writer created. I tried to give Jared my best insight into the experience of being trans. But I'm sure I was just a small part of the overall process.”
About 40 million viewers tuned in to the 2013 Oscar telecast on ABC, according to Nielsen. If Leto wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor on March 6, he'll accept the award in front of hundreds of millions if you consider the international audience.
Addams looks forward to the platform the Academy Awards stage could provide Leto if he takes home the statue for Best Supporting Actor this month.
“I hope Jared takes that moment to acknowledge the trans community and their struggle,” said Addams. “But those sort of bigger questions aside, I think he did an excellent job with the role.”