While conversation about transgender issues has become part of the national dialogue during the past year and people haven’t finally backed off on labeling actors who portray trans characters as “brave,” four decades ago it was quite a different story. In 1975 Chris Sarandon won wide acclaim and an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for his unforgettable portrayal of Leon in Sidney Lumet’s fact-based Dog Day Afternoon, about a frazzled New Yorker (Al Pacino) who aspired to rob a bank to finance sex-reassignment surgery for his transgender lover (Sarandon). Sarandon recently chatted with Los Angeles Times about the film, now an acknowledged masterpiece, and his performance.
When he first auditioned for the role of Leon, based on the real-life Ernest Aron, he was asked to alter his initial interpretation a bit. Lumet told him he was great but he wanted less Blanche DuBois and more Queens housewife. “So I came back and did it again, and that was it,” Sarandon recalls.
As his entree into film acting, Sarandon was cautioned by certain people close to him about playing a trans character.
“I admit to people having said that to me,” he revealed. “But it seemed to me to be really aside the point because first of all it was a great script, a great group of people to be working with and a great part. That is the way I looked at it. I said if people are going to perceive me one way or another, I will prove them wrong some other way. I can’t pass up this chance to do this wonderful part.”
The actor also remembered that he spoke to people in the LGBT communities as research for insight into his character.
Sarandon told the Times:
“I had a very close friend who was gay and was in a show I had been in. We had remained friends. I said to him, “Do you know anybody in the tranny community?” He said, “Yeah.”
I said, “Is there someway we could set up an evening where I can sit around and talk with some people that you know?” I remember it vividly. I made a spaghetti dinner at his apartment on Barrow Street with three or four [transgender people].
We sat around and ate spaghetti and talked for four hours. I asked questions like when was the first time you came out in drag? They were truly people who were in the wrong body. It was a real education for me in understanding what the whole transgender world was about.
Asked if transgender people have spoken to him about his performance as Leon in the years since the film’s release, Sarandon says no.
“It is interesting that has not happened,” he said. “I had a number of experiences where gay men would come up to me and come on to me quite boldly right after I did the movie. But I was not sought by transgender people because maybe at that time it was such a taboo.”
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the classic crime drama, Pacino will be interviewed by Brett Ratner before a screening of the film October 10 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has just released the 40th anniversary edition of the film.
Watch a clip of Sarandon as Leon below.