Andrew Garfield In Arcade Fire's "We Exist" Video

Arcade Fire’s video for pro-LGBT anthem “We Exist” featured a powerful performance from Andrew Garfield as a young man exploring and finding transcendence through his gender identity. It was our favorite video of the week. But some took issue with the casting of a cisgender actor in the role. Laura Jane Grace, the transgender singer of Against Me!, tweeted, “Maybe when making a video for a song called ’We Exist’ you should get an actual ’Trans’ actor instead of Spider-Man?” She also compared the performance to a white actor in blackface. Now Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and the video’s director David Wilson have responded to the criticism at length in an interview with the Advocate.

As background Butler tells the magazine that “We Exist” (which is about a conversation between a gay son and his father) was specifically inspired by the antigay culture of Jamaica, where it was written:

“There is a very kind of homophobic undercurrent, even in a lot of popular music and dancehall music, where there is a lot of violence against gay people. And we were in Kingston, and we went to this kind of film event and met some gay Jamaican kids and just kind of talked to them and realized that they were constantly under the threat of violence. For me, I get kind of used to being in this sort of extremely liberal bubble — where we have Whole Foods and people are tolerant. And you can kind of trick yourself into thinking that the world is that way. For me, it was really eye-opening to hang out with these kids who, if they were going to dress differently or express who they were, there was this real tension.”

Wilson tells the Advocate that he did consider casting a trans person, but “Andrew’s commitment and passion toward the project was just overwhelming. For an actor of that caliber to be that emotionally invested in a music video is just a very special thing. It just completely made sense.” Butler adds:

“Once something gets on the Internet, it works its way into people’s lives in a way that I think is pretty powerful. For a gay kid in Jamaica to see the actor who played Spider-Man in that role is pretty damn powerful, in my opinion. … There was just so much thought and love that went into the video I don’t personally see it as negative.”

He also added that he could “totally see the sensitivity of the issue.”

Butler also talks a bit about his awareness of anti-gay sentiment when he was growing up in Texas.

“The Montrose neighborhood of Houston was like the gay village, and Montrose was like a slur, and then there was gay bashing, and I remember that being in the news. This was all when I was like 12, 13. This was my first awareness of this kind of thing. I was relating to it from a small town.

’Normal Person’ is talking about similar territory where it’s like this overwhelming pressure to be normal and to fit into a certain mold and you can feel that pressure because you are gay or you can feel that pressure because you’re goth, or because you like wearing pink or you don’t wear name-brand shoes, or you’re into hip-hop and you’re a white kid or you’re into rock music and you’re a black kid. There’s just incredible socializing pressure that’s on kids and adults. And I think that both of those songs are reactions to having felt that feeling. I felt that a lot in my own life. I think it’s a pretty universal feeling.”

You can read the entire interview here and watch the video again below.

Comments (22)
  1. Seems like an unusually levelheaded and not unusually earnest response. Pretty hard to be mad at that, no?

  2. What? There’s no Whole Foods in Montreal…

  3. i don’t think that was really a ‘response’…just an explanation.

  4. Look y’all, I’m with Win on this one. Laura Jane Grace lost me at the blackface comparison. I feel for the LGBTA community and consider myself a staunch A, but Andrew Garfield playing a transgender woman in a role that is supposed to be uplifting, and most certainly is uplifting, is not like blackface at all and she’s kind of silly for making the comparison. Blackface is ALWAYS done in jest. It is never done to inform or with any sincerity whatsoever.

    Remember when gay people all over America were livid when Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal starred in “I Wish I Knew How to Quit You?” Me neither.

    • The blackface comparison may not be the most apt, but Grace has a very good point: Trans* people exist, and so when you’re filming a video for a song called “We Exist” it couldn’t hurt to cast someone who is actually Trans*. It’s not as if Trans* actors and actresses don’t exist.

      And I may be remembering things quite differently as a gay man, but I remember some pretty significant controversy and criticism from the LGBT being leveled at Brokeback Mountain due to having straight actors in gay roles. Frankly, I think such criticism is justified. LGBT actors and actresses are marginalized in Hollywood, and few if any get the chance to play hetero or cisgender roles (because the LGBT community is told we are not as marketable or believable); so LGBT roles are currently one of the few opportunities they have in the industry to advance. If directors continue to cast hetero or cisgender people in these roles though, what’s left for LGBT actors and actresses?

  5. Props to Win for not turning this into a “Where’s The Beef?” article with what could have been one of his usually confrontational statements. I can see the thinking that having a transgender actor play the part may have been more appropriate, but I think Laura was completely in the wrong comparing Andrew playing the part to an actor wearing blackface. I feel like Arcade Fire and Andrew and everyone else involved had the right intentions and a good message and to me it seemed in poor taste to be criticizing the casting in the video. So again, props to Win for taking the high road with this one.

  6. People are over complicating this. I don’t think too much thought went behind the casting, Andrew was an actor they knew and worked with before and he really wanted to do it, so they let him. Laura Jane Grace is angry for the wrong reasons. It’s not the same as black face because race is a physical trait and being trans isn’t always something that is visibly recognizable. Trans roles should not always have to be played by trans actors but that being said there definitely should be more casting of transgender people in general in Hollywood.

    • Agreed. And I also feel as though transgender individuals shouldn’t be defined by that descriptor, meaning it would be much more refreshing to see a FTM/MTF transgender person perform in roles that highlight the gender they themselves identify as. Transgender people shouldn’t only be available for trans roles in films.

      And I love Win’s point that it could be a very powerful image to see the guy playing Spiderman in this type of role. What I think Laura Jane Grace’s critique should be aimed at is the very few roles designed to empower transgender people. I wish her comments offered more constructive criticism than destructive.

  7. A really intelligent and earnest commentary on the thought process that went into this video. I’m glad he shared it.

  8. Acting is about understanding a character, Andrew Garfield clearly has a sensitivity and an understanding for the character he is portraying in the video because that is his job as an actor, and he succeeds beautifully with this in the video, Jesus, so does that mean you have to really be royalty to play Henry V or maybe Bryan Cranston shouldn’t have played Walter White, they should have got a real chemistry teacher to do it, maybe even have murdered to play Richard 3rd?! Her argument is utterly ridiculous!

    • While I agree with your underlying sentiment, I think we need to be careful not to play with false equivalences. Being a transgender individual will most likely carry a lot more emotional and physical baggage than being a chemistry teacher. I think what Grace was attempting to express was the notion of a lack of visibility in the arts for transgender individuals. And a video for a song titled “We Exist” would have been the perfect backdrop for a transgender person to be granted that visibility. But like I mentioned in an earlier post, the issue shouldn’t be that Andrew Garfield landed the role, it should be that there aren’t many roles written about these types of characters.

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  10. Of course only transgender actors should play transgender characters. Just like Cate Blanchett shouldn’t have played Bob Dylan, or Neil Patrick Harris a straight womaniser, And angels everywhere want to know how the heck Tilda Swinton got cast as Gabriel when it was obvious a real angel should have gotten the role.

    It’s acting. You don’t have to be in real life what you are portraying on screen. Would anyone argue that a transgender actor shouldn’t play cisgender characters? Of course not.

  11. Criticizing an actor to portray something they are not seems contradictory to the definition of “acting”.

  12. This got me thinking actually. Would a transgender actress be willing to take the role and convincingly look like a man for the role? This video would require her to do so on the first takes. I don’t think all transgender actresses could look or act like a man if the role demanded it.

  13. A fine explanation, but I wonder if it would also be just as exciting for LGBTQ Jamaicans to see a transgender person with a band they really like.

  14. here’s the thing: i don’t necessarily think it’s useful to continue applauding white straight cis dudes for being so brave for taking on roles in which they play gay, trans* or otherwise queer characters (eg. Jared Leto in DBC). while LJG’s blackface comment seems misdirected, if not inflammatory, i totally can understand her sentiment. it’s not necessarily brave to play a trans* person on screen. it’s brave to be a trans* person in life.

  15. i <3 allies. but the song isn't called "Allies Exist." it's called "We Exist." so the casting of a white straight cis dude kinda negates the whole titular sentiment, don't it?

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