Scarlett Johansson drops out of transgender role in 'Rub and Tug' after widespread backlash

Chris Riotta
The actor was lined up to star in the film as Dante 'Tex' Gill, a real life crime kingpin who was born a woman but identified as male: Getty

Scarlett Johansson will no longer play a trans male character in the upcoming film Rub and Tug after receiving widespread backlash for the casting decision.

“In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project,” the actor said in a statement provided to LGBT+ focusing news outlet Out Magazine. “Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realise it was insensitive.”

Ms Johansson was lined up to star in the film as Dante “Tex” Gill, a real life crime kingpin who was born a woman but identified as male. The move angered many trans actors and queer activists, who argued that there was an entire roster of trans male actors to play the role instead of her.

Jen Richards, a transgender writer and actor, celebrated Ms Johansson’s decision to withdraw from the film in “the spirit of generosity”.

“I am going to take Scarlett Johansson at her word that she listened to feedback, realised that despite her intentions this was going to cause harm, and made the right decision to step down,” she wrote in a tweet. “Well done.”

The film, directed by Rupert Sanders, is a fact-based portrayal of prostitution in the 1970s and 1980s. Gill, who was born Lois Jean Gill, operated a prostitution ring through his massage parlour in Pittsburgh.

“I have great admiration and love for the trans community and am grateful that the conversation regarding inclusivity in Hollywood continues,” Ms Johansson said. ”While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante’s story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film.”

While many criticised the casting decision, some argued women should also be able to play trans roles.

Barry Paris, Gill’s cousin, told The Wrap that the crime kingpin “would be laughing his a** off” at the debate surrounding the film role.

“That wouldn’t be as important as how he wanted the world to see him,” he said. “I think it’s slightly more likely he would have liked to be played by a man because he identified as a man … I’m sure he would have liked to have been played by a transgender man, but in his day that was very rare.”

Gill died in 2003 at the age of 73.

In her statement, Ms Johansson brought attention to statistics revealing a decline in representation among LGBT+ characters in major films.

“According to Glaad, LGBTQ+ characters dropped 40 per cent in 2017 from the previous year, with no representation of trans characters in any major studio release,” she continued. “My production company, These Pictures, actively pursues projects that both entertain and push boundaries. We look forward to working with every community to bring these most poignant and important stories to audiences worldwide.”