Quentin Lee on the challenges of casting trans characters as an Asian male director

The cast of Quentin Lee’s “White Frog”

Director Quentin Lee has earned a reputation for exploring themes of intersectionality in his work. He’s been praised for his films The People I’ve Slept With, Shopping for Fangs, 0506HK and White Frog. His projects have teamed him with Justin Lin, John Cho, Joan Chen, BD Wong and Tyler Posey. Most recently, he explored his transition to fatherhood as a single gay man in Gay Hollywood Dad. The film earned him a Queerty nomination for Best Documentary.

As Lee embarks on his next project, The Searching of Chris and Adri, he faces challenges regarding the casting of transgender roles, and how he, as a cisgender man, creates an authentic transgender experience in the film.

Lee shared his thoughts with Queerty.

A few years ago, an aspiring screenwriter named James Sorenson befriended me on Facebook. Living in Boise, Idaho, James is a transgender male in his 40s with a passion for reading and screenwriting. When I met James, he was a librarian. We started chatting and he sent me a screenplay titled Bullies about a Chinese American man living in Boise and raising a gay pre-adolescent son. I was quite moved by the screenplay and tried to make it with a director friend. Sadly, that project didn’t come to fruition.

I encouraged James to write something more personal and perhaps even something with a transgender male protagonist, a character sorely missing in mainstream narratives. Last year, James started writing a screenplay based on his experience as a transgender male. Over time, it evolved into Chris and Adri, a drama about the coming of age and love story of a pre-transition transgender male, Chris, who falls in love with Adri, a transgender female.

Related: ‘Gay Hollywood Dad’ creator on sex and dating: “It’s always a bit of a buzz kill having a baby”

Besides discovering his own gender and sexual identity, the protagonist Chris also discovers himself as a visual artist, albeit at a later age. This double self-discovery touches me as a queer person of color and artist myself. At its heart, this project questions and explores representation. Since I’m not transgender, what right do I have to a transgender story? And if I were transgender, should I be limited to representing transgender people? I deal with issues of identity every day as a queer person and a person of color in America trying to make films that make a difference for people who have been persecuted or overlooked because of their identity.

As an out filmmaker, it was my job to encourage James to write something as personal and real as possible. It’s important to do it as a traditional no-budget indie film so that we can freely tell the story we want to tell without commercial or political constraints.

As a director who has given first feature debut roles to stars like John Cho, Randall Park, Chris Zylka, and Hayden Szeto, I want to cast the leads for Chris and Adri and incorporate them as part of the creative team early on. Hence I’ve written breakdowns for the leading role of Chris, a pre-transition transgender male, and the leading role of Adri, a trans female.

Here’s where I need the community’s support. If you’re interested in the roles or know anyone who might be, you can directly send headshot and resume to [email protected] or apply on the Backstage website.

We are open to female actresses or transgender male actors for Chris and to male actors or transgender female actors for Adri. We are also open to an age range and transitioning actors.

As an artist contributing to the debate of trans vs. cis actors, I want to encourage both trans and cis actors to apply even with my special consideration for trans actors. Sebastián Lelio, director of A Fantastic Woman has said that even though he cast a transgender actress in his film, he didn’t just consider only transgender actors because he would hate to likewise tell a transgender actress that she cannot play a cis role. I believe that we artists are not in the business of closing debates and fixing political positions. Instead, it is our job to question, explore and open up discourses and political positions.

As the director of Chris and Adri, I promise you an artistic adventure as I try to bring alive the vision of the writer. Let’s make a fun and meaningful film in this pioneering adventure together while speaking from our hearts. Thanks in advance for your feedback.

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