Acting is most certainly one of the oldest, most demanding and trickiest professions out there. But harder yet is what is known as ‘cross-gender’ acting. It is the art of an actor or actress portraying a character of the opposite sex and it’s been around for thousands of years.
The practice dates way back to Ancient Greece and Rome, where the actors were exclusively male and needed to play the occasional female part. Even the traditional Japanese Kabuki theater was at one point constituted by men only, and many believe to this day, ironically, that true femininity can be embodied solely by a man.
The opposite case, in which women play male roles, is far less frequent in history and not nearly as commonly seen as men playing women today either. This is true for social reasons (women were not even allowed on stage up until the late 1600s), but also for purely physiological ones too: it is considered that men have it easier portraying a woman’s part than vice versa. Now, the term ‘cross-gender acting’ strictly refers to dramatic portrayals of the opposite gender, distinct from transgender roles. However, for the sake of including some of the most impressive such performances in recent film history, we’ve broadened the term to encompass men and women playing transgender characters as well. In this list we have gathered the most memorable and shocking appearances Hollywood has witnessed over the past few decades and what remained behind the scenes.
You’ll find out to what lengths actors have gone to in order to fully embody their characters and what they represent and just where that got them.
15 Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I (Orlando)
Surely we all remember the 1992 Sally Potter film Orlando, in which Tilda Swinton stars as the main character, travelling across time and gender. The film won numerous awards and was even nominated for an Oscar, but what many overlooked in this picture (and unfairly so) was Quentin Crisp’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I.
At the age of 83, the English author and illustrator was asked to play Queen Elizabeth I, age 67. Though Crisp later talked about how kind and helpful everyone was during the filming process, he described it all as being "absolute hell". The most horrific ordeal in playing the part was wearing the costume, which was made up of a multitude of different, highly uncomfortable pieces that even left blisters on the actor’s body.
14 Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan (I’m Not There)
Another Elizabeth I in film, though that’s not the role that landed her on this list, Cate Blanchett truly outdid herself in the portrayal of renowned singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. In the 2007 biopic I’m Not There, Bob Dylan is played by a total of 6 actors! Staring alongside an impressive cast, including Heath Ledger and Christian Bale, each representing a different side of the legendary singer, Cate Blanchett is completely transformed, head to toe, from her usual refined, elegant self into a ruffle-haired, sleek 60s star. Director Todd Haynes even insisted she wear a suit exactly like the one her character wore in 1965.
13 Angelina Jolie as a naval officer (Salt)
Now this one might not necessarily qualify as a legitimate cross-gender role, since the character is only disguising herself as a man, but, boy, what a man she makes. Jolie’s character Salt from the movie of the same name is a CIA agent on the run. At one point in the film, Salt changes her appearance to look like a male naval officer.
To achieve this, Angelina Jolie went as far as covering nearly her entire face in latex – from fake ears and a fake nose, to a completely fake neck. Her appearance was so dramatically different, even her own husband and child couldn’t recognize her, when they came to visit her on set.
12 Michael J. Fox as Marlene McFly (Back to the Future Part II)
Of course, this list would not be complete without a few comic appearances, after all – that’s one of the most commonplace applications of cross-gender acting. In the sequel to the 80s cult sci-fi movie, Michael J. Fox plays a number of characters: Marty McFly, Marty Jr. and… Marlene McFly – Marty McFly’s daughter. And a pretty good looking daughter, at that.
11 John Travolta as Edna Turnblad (Hairspray)
If ever there were an actor you would never picture as female, it’s John Travolta. In this very lighthearted and feel-good musical that is 2007's Hairspray, Travolta straps on a 30-pound fat suit, wig and high heels to become the kind, work-from-home mom Edna Turnblad. This cross-gender performance required makeup artists to work on the actor for 5 hours each day before filming.
But despite all that, as Travolta himself mentioned in different interviews, he truly had fun with the role and enjoyed working with his plus-size personage. And in the end of it all, his attitude towards this work shined through the layers of clothing and makeup and delivered the heartwarming image we all fell in love with.
10 Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena (Boys Don’t Cry)
Here’s exactly why we expanded the cross-gender acting classification to include transgender roles, too. This list would by no means be complete without the mention of Hilary Swank’s Oscar-worthy portrayal of female born Teena Brandon, who becomes the male version of himself – Brandon Teena.
A dramatic film based on actual events and a real person, this film has surely touched just about anyone who’s seen it. And in order to make this happen, Swank did everything in her power to submerge herself in the life of her character. In an interview she recalled cutting her hair as the first step towards the role and then trying to pass as a boy on the street, every single day for four weeks, just as Brandon Teena had.
9 Cillian Murphy as Patrick “Kitten” Braden (Breakfast on Pluto)
Another very unexpected transformation took place on the set of the feature film Breakfast on Pluto, where actor Cillian Murphy, with his distinctly masculine air and deep-set voice, portrays transgender orphan ‘Kitten’. The film is set in a small Irish town and London in the 1970s, and is about a young transgender, abandoned at birth, trying to find her mother.
The sweet and incredibly optimistic character of Patrick "Kitten" Braden was "as far away as it gets" from Murphy, in terms of personality, and proved quite a challenge for him. In order to get a better understanding of the part and properly prepare for it, Cillian Murphy mentioned he went out to transsexual clubs and spent time talking and simply being around transgender people.
8 Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs (Albert Nobbs)
In this image the main character is female, as is the actress portraying her. However, she goes about living as a man for 30 years in order to make a living in the harsh conditions of 19th century Ireland. Though the film received very mixed reviews, Glenn Close’s performance raised no questions at all and earned her the nomination for the Academy Award in the category of Best Actress. Close had a 30-year long history with the role before filming even began, having played the part of Albert Nobbs in a New York stage adaptation of the short story, just at the beginning of her career. The many obstacles and difficulties she had to face in raising the money for the movie made this role all the more emotionally charged for her.
7 Halle Berry as Ovid (Cloud Atlas)
Sometimes, very rarely, you just so happen to come across a movie like Cloud Atlas where the amount of things going on is simply mind-boggling. For those who haven’t yet seen it, it is a constellation of interwoven tales, all set in different places and different times, on top of which the leading actors all play several roles – occasionally, of the opposite sex.
Halle Berry played a total of six characters in the movie, one of which was an elderly Asian male. In the futuristic world of Neo Seoul she portrays Doctor Ovid and is completely unrecognizable!
6 Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes (Cloud Atlas)
A brilliant actor with a characteristic voice and image that make Hugo Weaving him, this man baffles the audience with a downright hilarious portrayal of the jailer-nurse in a retirement home, which resembles a prison. The character, meanwhile, is as serious as they come and one of the fiercest in the whole movie. The absurdity of Weaving’s tall, vividly masculine figure and matching attitude clad in a woman’s uniform is beautifully comic and even charming.
To be fair to the creators of this film, it is also worth noting that each of the group of characters played by the same person share something in common. In Hugo Weaving’s case, all of his characters were mean, violent and obsessed with control.
5 Ben Whishaw as Georgette (Cloud Atlas)
Ben Whishaw’s characters seem to all never learn from their experience in life and remain seemingly indifferent, on a moral level. Present in five settings across the film as five different people, one of them is a woman and if you saw her – you would never be able to recognize her. Another astounding transformation was demonstrated in this uniquely diverse work of fiction even in such a minor role, as Ben Whishaw is turned into the adulterous wife of Denholme Cavendish.
4 Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps (Shakespeare in Love)
A classic by now, there’s plenty a good reason why Gwyneth Paltrow won an Oscar for her role in this movie. The American actress masterfully juggled a number of nuances in creating this beautiful work of art that was her character: she played a woman, who was pretending to be a man, in order to play the part of Romeo in a 16th century English theater. Among the things Paltrow resorted to for her role as Viola, was adjusting her center of gravity by placing a heavy beanbag in her tights.
3 Felicity Huffman as Bree Osbourne (Transamerica)
Despite having said in the beginning of this article that we’re not going to strictly abide to the definition of the term ‘cross-gender acting’, the tricky case of this specific film is right on spot with that definition. True, this is a transsexual role, but in reality we have Felicity Huffman brilliantly portraying a man, who is transitioning into a woman. For this awe-inspiring performance Huffman immersed herself in the world of transgender people, filling every spare minute of her time (even on set) with impressive amounts of research, which in essence is what enabled her to pull off this Academy Award-nominated and Golden Globe-winning film.
2 Jared Leto as Rayon (Dallas Buyers Club)
Perhaps it’s safe to say that this is one of the most controversial performances on this list and the reason for that may be simply that Jared Leto actually won an Oscar for it. The problem for most people who protested the director’s decision to cast Leto for this role was that it should have been an actual transsexual instead. This may be subject to debate, however one is certain: Jared Leto achieved an amazing metamorphosis for his part in Dallas Buyers Club.
According to the actor’s recollection of the experience, he never went out of character throughout the entire shoot. In addition to this, he lost well over 40 lbs in order to drastically alter his physique and, in his own words, change the way he felt the way others treated him.
1 Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener (The Danish Girl)
Last, but by no means least, yet another Oscar-winning transgender role. This pick is definitely among the reasons why the rules and definitions were bent for this list.
The Danish Girl stars Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe – one of the first people ever to undergo a sex change surgery. A major help in his preparation for the role was Lana Wachowski, who guided him towards the books that would help him understand and sink into his character.