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Director Silas Howard on stage at MTV's ‘Faking It’ screening at the Los Angeles LGBT Centeron on May 2, 2016 in Hollywood, Calif.Rich Polk/GETTY IMAGES

As the issues surrounding transgender rights break through into mainstream social consciousness, the film industry has been busy discussing who gets to play whom. Was it fair to cast the cisgender Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl? Did the Oscar-winning Chilean film A Fantastic Woman not owe its success to the presence of the trans actor Daniela Vega in the title role?

“I am always going to be an advocate for casting trans people in trans roles … [but] I’m not very dogmatic,” American director Silas Howard says. “My goal is to level it up, where trans people can play cis roles, too. I don’t want to get locked into a corner.”

Howard was visiting Toronto recently to celebrate the international premiere of his film A Kid Like Jake at the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival. Of course, he’s flexible on the subject of casting: A Kid Like Jake stars a gay man playing a straight man, a straight woman playing a lesbian and a boy who likes to wear princess dresses playing a boy who likes to wear princess dresses.

The gay man in question is Jim Parsons, the Big Bang Theory actor whose new production company commissioned playwright Daniel Pearle to make a movie version of his play about a liberal couple struggling as their princess-worshipping son gets ready for kindergarten. Parsons plays the psychologist father, Octavia Spencer plays a lesbian preschool teacher and Claire Danes plays the overprotective mother. Meanwhile, Leo James Davis was happy to don the occasional pink tutu for the role of the four-year-old Jake.

“Leo’s wardrobe is off the hook; he has all these amazing dresses and skirts, he mixes and matches with button-down shirts, and he’s been that way since age 2,” Howard said.

The gentle Jake, however, is not the story’s main attraction: The child never appeared in the original stage play and here, Howard shows him mainly at the top of the film as he plays dress-ups. The real action is the increasingly tense relationship between his parents.

“As a trans person who has been gender non-conforming for most of my life, at first it was counterintuitive to not show the kid, but then it became a very important decision because … I really wanted to turn the camera around and show the world that was having a lot of agency over Jake,” he said. “Jake was okay, but these decisions were happening around the threshold of the home, entering into society and all of a sudden you are at risk. … The messiness was interesting, I felt compassion for all the people involved.”

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Silas Howard, Jim Parsons and Claire Danes attend The IMDb Studio at The Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 21, 2018 in Park City, Utah.Rich Polk/GETTY IMAGES

Politically, the film about an upper-middle-class Brooklyn, N.Y., couple worrying about getting their kid into the right school is a relatively tame project for Howard. He broke into the movie business when his first film, By Hook or by Crook – about two young lesbians living a life of petty crime – premiered at Sundance in 2001. As a television director, he has specialized in series that feature gay and trans characters and, in 2015, he was the first trans director to direct an episode of Transparent, the Amazon comedy about adult children dealing with the revelation that their father is a trans woman. Little Jake, however, is miles away from any such reckoning.

“I don’t call this a trans film. Jake could be anything. He could grow up to be straight, a man who is very effeminate, he could grow up to be gay or trans. What I liked was the ambiguity.”

Howard recently directed an episode of Pose, the new FX series set amid the spectacular drag balls of New York in the 1980s. Growing up as a girl who was always mistaken for a boy, Howard is old enough to remember the era: He began adult life as a butch lesbian playing in a punk band in San Francisco.

“I grew up in the early nineties in the middle of the AIDS crisis, watching older mentors die and thinking, ‘Oh, people don’t care and they are going to blame you and they want you dead.’ High stakes. It gave me a lot of urgency in storytelling.”

Still, with all its eighties excess, Pose is hardly a doom-and-gloom proposition. Howard laughingly recalls the younger actors marvelling at the props, including cellphones the size of shoes, while he delighted in shooting the big-budget ball scenes.

The director is keeping his fingers crossed for a second season: The show hits a moment when the wider society seems ready to question its definitions of gender.

“It feels like trans identity throws into question so many things; it throws us this challenge,” he said. “We are messaged and sold a lot of products about how to be a woman and how to be a man and a lot of people suffer a lot of pain for not being the thing. There is something liberating about acknowledging that these are not all natural.”

In a fluid world, Howard is the guy who is up for the challenge.

Inside Out continues in Toronto to June 3.

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