The future of the Rub & Tug movie is in doubt. Scarlett Johansson had initially been cast to play Dante "Tex" Gill, a massage parlor owner who was a major part of the Pittsburgh crime scene in the 1970s and 80s. Gill's story is complex and seems like something that could have a lot of cinematic value. However, Gill was trans and identified as a man, whereas Johansson is a cisgender woman, which made her casting subject to a lot of criticism from those in the trans and larger LGBTQ community. The actress dropped out of playing Gill as a result of the backlash, but now the movie may not be happening at all. Johansson had this to say in a statement to Out Magazine.
"While I would have loved the opportunity to bring Dante's story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film."
Scarlett Johansson added, "I have great admiration and love for the trans community and am grateful that the conversation regarding inclusivity in Hollywood continues." Her decision to walk away from Rub and Tug was widely praised by those in the LGBTQ community and was seen as a pivotal moment. This, despite the fact that her initial response to the backlash was widely criticized, as she compared her casting to Jeffrey Tambor's role in Amazon's Transparent. Trans actors are very poorly represented in Hollywood and there has been demand to see these performers tell more stories, especially in a case such as this where Dante Gill identified as a man.
Admirable as this decision may be, it has had an impact on the business side of things. Scarlett Johansson, who stars as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and has proven herself to be a very bankable star outside of that, can get butts in seats. Rub and Tug was looking at a production budget of roughly $30 million before marketing. While it almost certainly should be a trans actor playing Gill on screen, it may not make enough business sense to make the movie without a big star in the role. It's a catch-22, no doubt. Trans actors can't get exposure without being given the chance to star in more meaty roles, but studios aren't likely to risk money on a production without some sort of assurance they will get a return on their investment. It's where the business side of making movies really becomes detrimental to progress.
Rupert Sanders, who previously worked with Scarlett Johansson on Ghost in the Shell, which was also subject to some major whitewashing controversy, is still attached to direct Rub and Tug, should it end up moving forward. Johansson's company These Pictures was also on board, but it's unclear if the company will still be involved, given her departure. It will be interesting to see how this ends up unfolding. If this movie does get made with a trans actor, it will be a major step forward for Hollywood. For the moment, sadly, that seems to be a big if. This news comes to us courtesy of The Wrap.