How Matt Bomer's role in Anything sparked a controversy and a conversation
Timothy McNeil was stunned to learn his film, Anything, was the source of controversy within the trans community — especially because he considers himself an ally.
“I don’t know why I was surprised,” McNeil tells EW over the phone of the backlash. But after considering the matter for a moment, he reassesses. “I think I was surprised [because] people hadn’t seen the film yet.”
Anything is the story of Early (John Carroll Lynch), a suicidal, Midwestern man who relocates to Los Angeles and falls in love with Freda, his transgender next-door neighbor who works as a prostitute. In 2016, trans actors and activists including Better Things’ Jen Richards and Sense8’s Jamie Clayton criticized the news that Matt Bomer (Magic Mike), a cisgender gay man, would play Freda. His casting stoked frustrations over a pattern in Hollywood that sees cisgender male actors like Jared Leto and Jeffrey Tambor getting Oscars and Emmys for playing trans women, while actual trans actors still struggle to get acting jobs. The filmmakers were accused of perpetuating the myth that trans women aren’t actually women, but men playing dress-up. GLAAD partnered with ScreenCrush and trans actors last year for a PSA to explain why this can be so damaging.
Anything is getting its theatrical debut this weekend, and McNeil says he stands by his decision to cast Bomer. “The goal is for the trans community and all the actors in the community — trans artists — to not be looked at as trans at all and to be able to play any character in the universe,” the writer-director says. “That is possible, and that’s what we support.” At the end of the day, he adds, “Matt was Freda and if I had to do it again, I don’t want to start anymore controversy, but I stand by Matt Bomer and his courage.”
What follows is the story of a film made with all the best intentions that incited a much larger conversation about representation and the industry at large.
Anything began 11 years ago as a play of the same name, which McNeil wrote, directed, and starred in for the Elephant Theatre Company in Los Angeles. The story was born out of “outrage,” McNeil explains. “When we experience a particular segment of the community that is having their rights oppressed or repressed or they don’t have the same opportunities as the rest of society, we want to write about it. I’m kind of like that,” he says. “That was the impetus [for Anything] — the idea that the trans community particularly, the LGBTQ community, they were experiencing that kind of idea.”
The stage play starred McNeil as Early alongside Louis Jacobs as Freda. The production had a successful run “by Los Angeles standards” and caught the attention of Mark Ruffalo. (Yes, the Hulk.) Ruffalo had seen the play and reached out to suggest Anything become a feature film and that McNeil should direct. “So I wrote the film. I’m not an idiot,” McNeil says.
Lynch quickly joined the film as the new Early, though the project would remain in development for years. This was in part because McNeil worked at a “turtle-like” pace, partly because he lacked “the machinery of making a movie” that would come later with a producing team, and partly because he didn’t have a star with name recognition.
Indie filmmakers feel pressure to land bigger stars in order to get their films financed, and McNeil counted himself among them. Still, he says he was going to take his time in finding Freda. “I couldn’t do the movie without a Freda.”
He found an actor with star power when Ruffalo suggested Bomer, his costar in Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart. (The Normal Heart premiered on HBO in 2014, seven years after the Anything play debuted.) When he saw Matt Bomer in The Normal Heart, McNeil recalls, “I was stunned by the performance and I saw something in it that I thought he would make a wonderful Freda. What I didn’t realize after I met him is he was also an extraordinarily hardworking actor.”
Once Bomer came aboard, McNeil says that’s “when things started to pick up.” Without him, the film might never have taken off. But his casting landed the project in hot water with trans activists.
When Richards spoke out in 2016 in response to Anything, the film had already been shot. According to her tweets, Richards had auditioned for the film and “told them they shouldn’t have a cis man play a trans woman,” but that “they didn’t care.” She wrote about the issue in an essay for NewNowNext and commented further in a video on YouTube.
“This image of male celebrities in drag is what leads to laws like HB2, which made it a crime for me to use a women’s room when I went home to see my family in North Carolina,” Richards wrote. “Every time a cis man gets applauded for bravely portraying a transgender woman on screen, every time he picks up an award for it while sporting a tuxedo, we’re reinforcing the belief that at the end of the day, a trans woman is still really a man.” (Richards declined EW’s request for further comment.)
McNeil, however, doesn’t remember getting feedback of that sort directly from Richards. “She might have said that to somebody, but it wasn’t me and I don’t recall it,” he says. “But I certainly wouldn’t have said, ‘I don’t care about that,’ or something like that. I would’ve had a conversation with her.” He confirmed that he didn’t hold open auditions for Freda because Bomer was already set. “We didn’t hold open castings for the role or consider any other actors or actresses, trans or not, for the role, as Matt became involved with the project at an early stage and we felt then (and still feel today) that we were extremely fortunate to have him.”
Bomer has yet to publicly respond to the controversy. Clayton, it appeared, was blocked by Bomer’s official Twitter account after she posted her frustrations on social media. The actor was not available for an interview or to comment on this story due to rehearsals and previews for Broadway’s Boys in the Band, according to his rep.
Ruffalo tweeted about the casting controversy in 2016 after the production had already wrapped. “To the Trans community. I hear you. It’s wrenching to you [sic] see you in this pain. I am glad we are having this conversation. It’s time.” He added in a separate tweet, “Matt poured his heart and soul into this part. Please have a little compassion. We are all learning.”
McNeil employed other trans talent for roles in the film, both in front of and behind the camera. Roxy Wood and Gia Ryan played the other two trans parts opposite Bomer (a third role was cut during edits), and trans composer Isley Reust provided the score. This inclusivity “wasn’t a conscious effort,” McNeil says, but “the natural flow of things.” He says he hoped his story would “move” people, and so he found himself leaning on associate producer Kylene K. Steele, a trans woman, for guidance. Steele told IndieWire she helped modernize the story; the director tells EW that Steele assisted Bomer in getting to the “heart and soul” of Freda’s experience.
That experience becomes apparent when Early finds Freda unconscious on the ground. Freda had been brutalized by a trick on the street, but she later asks Early what her options are when employers seem wary to hire trans women. In another scene, an uncomfortable dinner captures how Freda can’t walk through life without others seeing her as abnormal. Just as McNeil strives for a future where trans people aren’t solely defined as trans, Early comes to see Freda as a kindred spirit: Both are crippled by loss, both feel forgotten, and both find new life with each other.
“If there was a movie that’s going to be at the heart of a controversy for the trans community, about casting or how their stories are told, I was happy it was this one,” McNeil reflects. “I still believe that the controversy surrounding the casting of Matt is an assertion of rights, and in my mind that’s what the movie at its bottom is; it’s an assertion of rights for the community, and if somebody comes to that movie because of the controversy and they see it, then it will be helpful for the movement. I know that’s a strange answer, but that’s the truth.”
Anything is a movie made before a time when the trans rights movement had gained its prominence in pop culture — before even Caitlyn Jenner came out on the cover of Vanity Fair. Stars like Laverne Cox and projects like Transparent have helped expand trans visibility in the industry, and as a result, the conversation has become louder. As Ruffalo said, filmmakers, still, “are all learning” to catch up.