Finally, a Film With a Trans Man Lead Hits the U.S. (and Defies Trauma Clichés)
Transgender men have rarely seen themselves reflected onscreen since Hillary Swank played Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry 20 years ago. Even then, that role—assumed by a cis woman—ended tragically.
Scott Turner Schofield, best known as the first out transgender actor to break into daytime television in the The Bold and the Beautiful, is about to change this lack of representation.
The Conductor tells the true story of Antonia Brico (Christanne de Bruijn), a Dutch musician who becomes the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic in the 1920s. Schofield plays Brico’s fictional best friend and advisor, Robin. The fact that he is trans is not discussed until two-thirds into the film.
Not only does the motion picture portray a trans man, it’s also one of few to cast a trans man in a trans role. (Trans actor Silas Howard is one notable exception in the 2001 movie By Hook or by Crook, a film that largely missed mainstream recognition.)
But it's not the scenes in which Schofield plays a musician that will captivate audiences of The Conductor: It's the shattering moment when his character soberly stands in front of Antonia in a wig and dress, and explains that he, too, once navigated the world as a woman.
Trans viewers, in particular, will appreciate how unsettling this scene is: Schofield had to wear a prosthetic chest for hours during filming.
“I was sick as a dog for weeks afterward,” he says in an exclusive interview with NewNowNext. “It was like my whole chest. I had this insane cough, and my breath and my ability to speak all locked up.”
Because Schofield had difficulty getting through the scene in one take, it was spliced together with multiple cuts. Presenting as female gave the actor such dysphoria, in fact, that he literally became ill, a pain that translates on camera when Robin explains how he first transitioned in order to perform (at that time in New York City female musicians were barred from many concert spaces). Transitioning, Robin tells Antonia, allowed him to find his identity.
“It was a painful way to get to [authenticity],” Schofield says, reflecting on acting in the scene. “But I felt like it was worth it. I love that [Robin] just gets to show [himself], and [Antonia] is accepting and loving of him. Then he goes back and we don't talk about it anymore.”
From there, The Conductor spends so much time exploring the ways in which Robin helps Antonia musically that his gender identity becomes a non-issue. Rather, what drives his character is unrequited love for Antonia, who’s too absorbed in her music to notice. Though Antonia has a love story with concert organizer Frank Thomsen (Benjamin Wainwright), this romantic arc is still trumped by Antonia’s hunger to conduct.
Here The Conductor delivers American audiences an almost unprecedented trans narrative: The film is so busy with Antonia Brico’s feminist plotline that it doesn’t care to agonize over Robin’s transition. Last year, trans reporter Samantha Allen joked that no trans film had been made without a mirror.
While Robin’s story arc is secondary to Antonia’s, none of his scenes feature the classic “looking glass” moment that has been used to translate the anguish of dysphoria in movies like The Danish Girl. Robin’s story defies the trauma trends in trans film representation.
Oliver Whitney noted in a piece for them that the hit Boys Don’t Cry was the only cinematic reflection of transmasculity he experienced.
“Based on what I saw, trans men were either targets for rape and murder, or hyperaggressive men who were ostracized from the queer community,” Whitney wrote. “I wanted to be neither.”
Robin is embraced as a trans character, but it’s not central to his story. More importantly, trans viewers get to see a trans man play Robin, something they didn’t see in Swank’s Oscar-winning turn as Brandon Teena.
Those are the kind of narratives that Schofield has been pushing to bring to Hollywood, and one of the reasons he's a trans consultant for HBO’s hit series Euphoria. Schofield is taking on such consulting gigs in hopes of putting himself in the right places with the right people in an industry that has few roles for transmasculine actors like himself.
“I'm getting to work with directors and writers and producers, and I'm getting to be somebody who knows my stuff and show my creativity,” Schofield says. “I'm really hoping that will help people see me as somebody who can play roles because that's what I'm here to do.”
The Conductor, produced out of the Netherlands and directed by Dutch writer and producer Maria Peters (best known for Sonny Boy), came out last year. It premiers for the first time in Northern California. at the Mill Valley Film Festival Saturday, October 5, and Sunday, October 6. It’s not yet slated for distribution in the U.S., so American audiences will have to wait a bit longer. Tickets for the premiere for The Conductor can be found here.
An earlier version of this article stated that the premier was in L.A. The story been updated to reflect the correct location.