'Anything' Producer Defends Bomer Casting And Problematic Trans Woman Portrayal

This weekend, Anything opens in theaters. Written and directed by Timothy McNeil, the film follows a widower, Early Landry (John Carroll Lynch), as he transitions into his new life in Los Angeles and becomes romantically involved with Freda Von Rhenburg (Matt Bomer), a drug addicted transgender sex worker.

Bomer’s portrayal of Freda was stereotypical at best. A dramatic, aggressive sex worker, Freda had little to give for trans representation. Over the summer, it came to light that at least one trans actress, Jen Richards, had auditioned for the film and and had taken the opportunity to tell the filmmakers how harmful it is to cast cis men in trans women roles.

Nonetheless, Bomer was cast, and his archetypical depiction of Freda was complemented with the film’s attempt to pass off Early’s controlling behavior as “love,” a trope that has too long been a part of transgender representation on screen. It was surprising to learn that Anything had a trans woman working as associate producer, Kylene K Steele, consulting on the script and coaching Bomer on his performance.

INTO spoke with Steele about her work on the highly problematic Anything, and why she thinks it’s OK that Bomer was cast as the trans woman lead, despite it upsetting her own community.

You’re a trans woman and have been involved in other media projects before. How did you first get involved in Anything?

First,“trans woman.” I don’t like labels. I don’t like that word. I mean, it’s not anything disrespectful. It’s just that I’m a human as a woman. You know, what do we have to have trans in front of it to be a woman? I think that we’ve lived so long in years of being trans, why can’t we just be women and human beings? That was there. I think that we kind of got off on a strange foot.

We have to put [trans] right in everybody’s face? I agree to an extent that our own self-awareness is very important but it should not define who we are. And when we do that we just open a door for all the other stigmas to come forth before we even get to present ourselves. I’d like to address that right there.

Now, as a person who lived through transition and going from male-to-female–and finally now a woman by federal law and by surgery and all the above–that this film was first brought to me by a friend who I met at a party, [producer] Louise Runge. She brought the film to me and said, “I have this script. I want you to read it.” I said, “Okay.” And she said, “I want your feedback on it.” So I read the script, I thought the script was good. And then I said, “You know what? It still needs to be updated because things have changed over the years. The terminology changed. Society changed a bit.”

So I said, “We need to make it more mainstream–more understanding of why the character is in this situation. And why she is struggling with these problems.” She said, “Okay.” She reached to the writer to [work on] making this real. We all sat down and had coffee and talked and discussed the importance of making society understand why she was in these situations. Why she is living this life and why society is pushing her to be like that? He was like, “Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.” I said, “Well, that’s what we want to do. We don’t want to her to be stereotypes. This is what everybody does. We need to understand the social role. The jobs that aren’t available to these people because they’re trans and they’re different. We need to understand why she’s addicted to these pain pills.” He said, “I get it.” And so he rewrote. I went through it again. I said, “This is right. I feel like this is confidentially what we need.”

What was your favorite part of being a producer of the film?

The all-inclusiveness! I felt like my word was important … everyone from the cast to the crew treated me with the utmost respect. Our actors–I think working with John was amazing. He was just so down-to-earth and such a great person.

Working with Matt was great, too! He was so open to understanding Freda to a full spectrum. I told him–you know, he had a lot of material to work with from his own life being a man whose gay. And openly gay! And living in the South like I grew up. I told him, “You really have to be guarded when you were younger and people found out you were gay and how different you were perceived.” People around you were very simple minded because they didn’t have as much exposure to alternative lifestyles.

Everybody didn’t see me as trans, they saw me as a producer. I think that’s very important. They looked at me as a human being and not a gender identity. That’s what I really loved about the experience.

As a producer, what were your responsibilities for the film?

I read the script, I wanted people to identify more–to understand why Freda was in her situation. The circumstances she was put in, there was family not involved it, in her life. She was rejected. I want them to understand the hardship that trans women face. I wanted to make sure that we made that story real and understood.

I think a lot of people today in the trans community don’t realize 10 years ago it wasn’t as easy as it is today. It takes a long time for society to be more accepting. My responsibility is to make it authentic and real. My responsibility is to be there with Matt and to go through every bit of that script together and that he understands what Freda was going through in that moment and that part of the script. … My job was to make sure there was justice done to Freda, that the script makes sense, that there was an accurate depiction, and to be there to provide material feedback to the director Tim [McNeil] or the producers on set.

There’s been an outcry against having a cisgender man playing a trans woman. I know you don’t like labels, but that was a big part of the conversation. Did you have a hand in Bomer’s selection to play Freda?

I had no selection. This film was already passed with him as the lead as Freda. That’s the way that films are made. I had no issue at all with a cis man playing a trans woman. I think it’s the character’s ability. If you want to play a tree, then you can play a tree. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. I was watching a film on the airplane–it was called Call Me By Your Name–and those male characters are straight but they’re playing gays. No one makes an outcry about that. I think the people who were pointing fingers were trying to gain social media exposure for stuff to drum up behind it. I think they were uninformed by what had happened.

I had actually produced the movie and was behind it with the other producers. So I don’t think it’s a problem. I think actors throughout history have been playing different characters. I mean drag! You have back in the Shakespearian era you have men play as women. If you can do the job, you can do the job. If we label ourselves as trans and keep doing that, I think trans people separate ourselves even more. Understanding – that’s what we’re going for. Understanding and acceptance in this world.

On that note, going off some of some other complaints and articles online, do you think it was the right choice to make Freda a drug-addicted sex worker when this image of trans womanhood is already so pervasive?

Let’s just face the reality: you have to look at the facts. Like I said, 10 years ago when this statement was made, it wasn’t the same world that we’re in today. I don’t think all trans women are sex workers but you have to look at the facts that is still going on today. I don’t think that it marginalizes that’s all that what we are. No, that’s ridiculous! I think that that is really redundant and it’s silly.

It’s OK to make a point, yes. People don’t realize before Jen Richards and Jamie Clayton stepped into view Even Janet Mock, she said herself–she was a sex worker, too. Make sure she helped her family and stuff. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It is what it is. Just because we did it in film and we made that depiction is silly. It’s a fact. You can’t deny truth. So it’s there. But trans people have other opportunities in this world. I’ve met nurses, I met lawyers who are trans. It’s not say that’s the only option.

Have you seen the film by chance?

I have seen the film.

Then you see in the middle of it, she decides to change her life. She says, “I can do other things.” That’s the key thing about our film: we want to understand that there is hope, there is change, that things are getting better. So that’s what we wanted for people to see. It’s not the only option but we wanted the character to relate to the trans person who might be going through that situation. They might also say, “Hey, I can do something better. I can do something else.” I think that’s what’s important. I think that you want it to be real–to be authentic. You want to show that that character can metamorphosis and change into someone different.

What would you like to see for the future of trans representation in film?

I would love to see them do everything! I would love to see trans people do anything they want. I think it’s a whole thing. I think that it should not come down to what’s between your legs or what’s under your hair and between your heart. Like Dolly says, “There’s a brain underneath this hair and a heart between these boobs.” I think that it doesn’t matter. We never know, as trans people, when a male actor is onstage, if he has one testicle, no testicle, a foreskin; if woman has ovaries or not. Why is it such a focus for trans people that they’re trans, that they have a penis or a vagina? It should just be “human thing.” Trans people deserve the same of respect and they deserve the same amount of opportunity. That’s where I stand. I see there being no boundaries. I would love to see a trans woman play a woman on stage. And a trans man play a man on stage.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t asked you about?

I think that as trans people we’ve lived so long as trans I think we know it’s time to start being seen as humans. It’s really tough for me myself as this woman who was withdrew. I was three genders in my life: male, trans, and finally female. Which is where I want to be. I think it’s important not how society sees it but how we see ourselves and then reflect that to society and live in that. Leave the labels behind–see each other as human.

Photos by Rob Kim/Getty Images

Eli Erlick

Eli Erlick queer trans woman, PhD student, and director of Trans Student Educational Resources.