After the planned film Rub & Tug sparked a tense controversy in 2018 over the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the role of a trans man, the producers behind the project are giving it new life — and a new direction — as a TV series.
New Regency announced Tuesday that Emmy nominee Our Lady J, a trans television writer who worked on FX's Pose and Amazon's Transparent, will pen the script for a new pilot, about Dante "Tex" Gill, a gangster in 1970s Pittsburgh who became entangled in the city's so-called Massage Parlor War.
The show will focus on Tex, a trans man, and his inner circle, many of whom were forced to fringes of society as LGBTQ individuals. He used to run a string of massage parlors as fronts for prostitution, and Rub & Tug will delve into this "illicit business empire" as Tex defends his turf from rival criminals, corrupt politicians, and the law, according to a description.
Casting has not been revealed at this time, but a press release says the creative team "is committed to casting a trans actor as the show's lead."
"Tex's life story is like no other, and the rich landscape of this unexplored moment in time has truly captured my imagination," Our Lady J said in a statement. "I couldn't be more excited about the opportunity to write a gangster drama based on such a fascinating and diverse web of queer characters. The show is about the promise of reinvention, and the peril of losing oneself in the process. Tex Gill was out and proud in an era — the late 1970s — when living authentically came with the price of social ostracization, leaving him vulnerable to a life of crime and lawlessness. Having grown up in Pennsylvania myself, I'm also excited to delve deep into Pittsburgh's underbelly as it unspools the story of Tex's remarkable life — it's also the story of a city's struggle for rebirth and a proud community's efforts to make its voice heard."
New Regency acquired the rights to journalist Brendan Koerner's research and writing about the Massage Parlor War, as well as the life rights of Cindy Bruno Gill, Tex's widow, in 2018. That July, Johansson was announced to play Tex in a film directed by Rupert Sanders, which became the focal point of a reignited conversation about the negative impact of cisgender actors constantly portraying transgender characters on screen. Stars like Hustlers' Trace Lysette and Sense8's Jamie Clayton and organizations like GLAAD spoke out against the project.
The backlash intensified when Johansson issued a comment through her publicist that said her critics could "be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment" — referencing cis actors who previously garnered major awards attention for playing trans roles. Johansson later recognized that she "mishandled that situation."
"In light of recent ethical questions raised surrounding my casting as Dante Tex Gill, I have decided to respectfully withdraw my participation in the project," Johansson said in a statement announcing her departure from the film. "Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I've learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive. I have great admiration and love for the trans community and am grateful that the conversation regarding inclusivity in Hollywood continues."
Development on Rub & Tug remained quiet until this week. In addition to Our Lady J's involvement and the to-be-determined lead actor, Koerner and Cindy Bruno Gill will serve as consultants on the show.
"I am excited to be working with Our Lady J and New Regency to honor Tex's memory by telling his story the way he would want to be remembered," Gill said. "Tex was transgender at a time when being transgender meant facing great discrimination, yet he was fearless about being himself in a way that inspired those who knew him to be proud of who they were too. Our Lady J is the perfect person to give voice to Tex's story, and I know he would be proud of the evolution of this project."
Yariv Milchan, chairman and CEO of New Regency, didn't reference the past controversy in his statement, but said that "Tex's antihero story deserves to come to life in a show that will embrace the politics of power, gender and sexuality.
"Our Lady J's acclaimed status writing for and with the LGBTQ+ community will bring authenticity and dignity to this rich world of characters," he added, "and we have no doubt it's a series that will resonate with audiences everywhere."
Nick Adams, GLAAD's director of transgender representation, commented on the news in a statement obtained by EW: "Industry leaders are hearing, and even joining, the call to hire talented and experienced transgender storytellers like Our Lady J to tell trans stories. Authentic trans stories are compelling and largely untold, and when told well they attract acclaim from audiences, critics, and award shows, as we've seen with Pose and A Fantastic Woman."