Susan Sarandon Says The Time To Tell Transgender Stories Is Now With 'About Ray'

"Consciousness has no gender, and we have to focus on that."
Jason LaVeris via Getty Images

In "About Ray," Elle Fanning plays a transgender teenage boy who desperately wants to undergo transition with hormone treatment and gender confirmation surgery. But before Ray can transition, his parents must give written consent, which his single mother Maggie, played by Naomi Watts, is hesitant to do for reasons relating to Ray's estranged father. On top of dealing with his mom's reluctance and the anxiety of moving to a new school in his currently female-presenting body, Ray also lives with his grandmother Dodo (Susan Sarandon) and her girlfriend Frances (Linda Emond), the former of whom doesn't understand why Ray "can't just be a lesbian" like her.

That's what "About Ray," directed and co-written by Gaby Dellal, explores through the lens of family and tolerance: the difference between gender identity and sexuality, and the fact that being transgender has no relation to being gay, straight, bisexual or any sexual identity. Many trans narratives in film and television fail to properly educate on or even broach this important distinction. But instead of hammering the facts and educating with straight drama, "About Ray" takes a different approach with relatable humor. The movie functions mostly as a family comedy, as the three generations of the family learn how to accept Ray for who he is.

The Huffington Post sat down with Sarandon following the world premiere of "About Ray" at the Toronto International Film Festival. Although the actress still had a cough from her recent Burning Man excursion, Sarandon expansively told us about the importance of telling stories about trans people in film, her personal experience with intolerance, a recent chat with Jazz Jennings and how she hopes for a future where trans actors and actresses are more present in the industry.

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I really enjoyed Dodo in this. She’s the comic relief, but she also fills the important role of someone who doesn’t fully understand transitioning.

Someone who doesn’t understand the very basic definition, and that is that [there's a] difference between gender identity and sexual preference. I think that trips up a lot of people. So in a funny way we were trying to get to the heart of that to try to make [Dodo] understand. Of course, she’s frightened for her -- frightened for him -- and says [in the movie], “But I realize now that who you are and who I love is not changing. The rest is just the details.” I think that’s also really important to understanding that a person is more than the trappings that they’re in, their color, their age, their whatever. That consciousness has no gender, and we have to focus on that.

I sat down to dinner with four of my oldest friends, two gay women, two gay guys. One of the guys actually said, “It’s so self-indulgent this trend that’s going on. Can’t they just be lesbians?” I said, “No because he’s a guy. It’s not about that.” I said, “I can’t believe you said this. This is like my character coming right out of this movie! This is crazy!" [...] So I think that was my job, and to just give some comic relief.

But that’s a very important stepping-off point, to understand that gender identity happens early, early, early, early and sexual preference is much later. But other thing, people say, “Now she’s a he. But he’s with a girl ... so is that now a les -- What?" You know, this need to have labels to keep your world straight, to keep your world in order, is just getting blown up for so many people. I think that’s why it’s really scary, and that’s why it’s so exciting. The fluidity of everything for all of us means such liberation in terms of what a man is, what a woman is, what you can embrace, all across the line. We suddenly have crayon boxes that have 12 primary colors instead of five. How could you not go for that? How could you think that’s a bad thing? It just opens up the whole world. But at the same time, sometimes change is harder for some people.

Is that what led you to taking on this role?

I just felt the time was now, and I love Naomi and I love Elle. I had met her when I worked with Dakota [Fanning]. And though the script needed some finessing, I felt it was really important to humanize and to have an accessible story out there that was funny and not a documentary. It doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. But something that just made it easier for people to see and embrace what families are going through, because the acceleration is extraordinary, how many schools now -- the teachers are up to speed. I just was talking to somebody and her little girl went off to camp and came back and said, “I’m Steve.” And she went to her doctor and she said, “She’s insisting she’s Steve. She wants her hair cut, she’s Steve.” He said, “Well, go with it.” Five years ago that wouldn’t have happened, you wouldn’t have had a doctor that was that understanding.

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It’s happened very quickly, and I think it’s important to keep trans people safe and to help them be less marginalized. To take the scariness out of it and also to give options to those families who find themselves with a butterfly, with someone who is now going through this beautiful transformation. I was talking to Jazz [Jennings]. I met her when she was 11. And her mom was saying, “God, when we went through this there was nothing.” Now she’s 14. [...] So now the atmosphere, I think, has changed, and Caitlyn Jenner has helped somewhat. But Caitlyn Jenner is no more indicative of every trans person than the Kardashians are of every woman. [Laughs] That’s a very specific case and I think that was huge to have 17 million people tune in and hear sympathetically what was going on. But I felt this conversation needed to be had and it needed to be had quickly. We would do the best we could under these circumstances, but that it was now and needed to happen now.

Do you think the film's focus on the family and that it's mostly a comedy will make it more accessible to audiences?

I think it will be. And I think it will be criticized for being light-hearted. I think some people will want “Philadelphia,” but it’s not meant to be that. I think that it’s the kind of movie -- my mom is 92 and still can’t get over gay marriage. I think she could watch it and -- there’s some moments that kill you when she's tortured and when she's ecstatic that just break your heart. And I think Elle invests it with so much authority. You see how important it is to [Ray] and how clear he is about what’s going on. I think that can really affect people, and you don’t see it coming. Whereas if you were having really sad music, I don’t think it should be presented as something where you’re waiting for someone to die. You’re really waiting for someone to be born. It’s about authenticity and you want that for your kid. This is just a more extreme example of that.

That’s a beautiful way to put it. And speaking of criticism, there’s so much controversy surrounding a cisgender actor portraying a trans character. What is your perspective on that?

I look forward to the day when there’s a pool of bankable transgender people that could act. I don’t know if I was transgender that I would only be wanting to play transgender people. I would think that I would want to be playing a woman or a man and not a trans man or a trans woman. I can’t think of very many actresses at that age who are bankable or good enough to pull that off that are not trans, so I think we were so lucky to get Elle. But I think it would be fabulous [...] I don’t like to get into that argument because what does that mean, that I should be upset at all the gay women that took my parts? You can go on and on, but I think it would be great down the line. Certainly in the modeling world, you have a lot of trans people that are working.

So I would hope that the emphasis would not be on that conversation, but would be on whether or not we did a good job and Elle did a good job bringing you in, and making you empathize with this person and treated that person with respect and dignity. That that would be where the conversation would go. But let’s hope the day comes when there’s a pool of trans actors that could be going up for all kinds of things. I would hope to continue to get parts that are written for women my age that don’t go to someone 30 years younger, and I would hope there are more minorities that are in all kinds of parts that aren’t just prostitutes, and, you know what I mean? There’s a lot that could be changed in casting to represent the world. So we’ll see. I think right now the issue is very early on. What's your take?

I agree. I would hope to see more trans actors in the future. But it’s also whoever suits the role and the character best. OK, last question -- you’ve played so many different types of women throughout your career. What was it like to play a grandmother in this film?

I love women. You can’t run out of interesting women. When I played a mother in “Pretty Baby” everyone was up in arms. “That’s the end of your sexuality!” But mothers can be everything and grandmothers can be everything, and coincidentally, now I am a grandmother. I’m digging it and I think it’s funny that she’s the last to get on board in a way. [...] And when we had talked about this movie, I had said, “I think it’s easier for Elle and I to be closer than sometimes the mom.” Because the mom has to be disciplining, especially without a father around, and she and I had some kind of connection through music. That’s why, when I wrote the line, “the rest is just details," it was really important to have that scene. I insisted, I said, "You cannot make me that dumb and never come around."

You suggested that?

Yeah. I wrote that. I was probably influenced by "Cloud Atlas."

I love "Cloud Atlas."

Oh, I knew you would love "Cloud Atlas!" That's a test. Because people who sit through "Cloud Atlas" and the first 10 minutes are like "What's going on?" and they get very weirded out. Other people are like, "OK, let's just go with it."

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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