In a welcome change of pace, the 93rd Academy Award nominations featured some of the most diverse choices in recent Oscar history. However, the acting nominations continued to contribute to a well-established trend, namely straight performers being nominated for their portrayals of queer characters. Some of the most recent examples of this were seen at the 2019 Academy Awards, where Rami Malek and Olivia Coleman were both presented with lead acting awards for their portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters in Bohemian Rhapsody and The Favourite, respectively. A further example can be seen from this year with Viola Davis receiving a Best Actress nomination for her excellent performance as Ma Rainey in George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The continuation of this trend brings with it the re-emergence of an unresolved debate: should straight actors play LGBTQ+ characters?
As with any industry, film and TV should be inclusive, and it’s important that we make sure that minority stories, roles, and opportunities are never exploited. This is an ongoing discussion, with new points predicted to arise for and against the argument in the future. This discussion will offer a fair and balanced snapshot of the current views, all of which are important to consider, as any conversation regarding the representation of minorities is always important and should be discussed openly.
Yes, Straight Actors Should Play Gay
Stating that only gay actors can play gay roles sets quite a limiting precedent. Where should the line be drawn? Should the same be said for class, nationality, physical ability, and age? If a casting director is looking to fill a role that is for an English, middle-class, thirty-year-old, should only actors who actually are all of these things be eligible? It’s pretty clear that this shouldn’t be the case, so why should it be for sexuality? Restricting gay roles to only gay actors could result in opportunities for actors becoming hugely limiting, restricting them from being offered roles outside of their own experiences. Isn’t the point, and often the real challenge of acting, to become whatever the role demands? Cate Blanchett, star of Todd Haynes’s lesbian romance Carol, has famously defended the right to play gay saying, “And I will fight to the death for the right to suspend disbelief and play roles beyond my experience.”
Furthermore, how can casting directors ethically determine if an actor is gay or not? Sexuality shouldn’t be required to be disclosed when auditioning. Of course many actors are openly gay, but the majority of well-known actors are publicly assumed to be straight. Star of Francis Lee’s queer drama Ammonite, Kate Winslet recently shed light on this discussion in the Sunday Times stating that: “I cannot tell you the number of young actors I know – some well known, some starting out – who are terrified their sexuality will be revealed and that it will stand in the way of their being cast in straight roles.” Therefore, limiting gay roles to only openly gay actors could rob a closeted queer actor the chance to lean into their own queerness and explore their authentic self. During the release of teen conversion therapy drama, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, lead star Chloe Grace Moretz wasn’t openly gay, and she faced backlash for taking the titular role. However, she has since been in queer relationships, and warned against assuming actors’ sexualities. Despite what tabloids and gossip columns would have the public think, the sexuality of actors is nobody’s business but their own. Requiring an actor to confirm or deny that they are gay when auditioning for a gay role could have incredibly damaging effects to those questioning their sexuality and run the risk of discriminatory casting decisions.
Just because a character happens to be gay doesn’t mean that this is their defining character trait or the most essential element to their narrative journey. In Hong Khaou’s drama Monsoon straight actor Henry Golding stars as Kit, a gay British Vietnamese man who returns to his country of birth in order to spread his parents’ ashes. The film is undoubtedly more about his cultural identity than his sexual one, so it’s not unreasonable to say that Golding doesn’t need to be gay to effectively play this character. He was asked about this debate in the October 2020 issue of Attitude magazine, and he had this to say: “I’m going to accept this role because of the journey it represents in this man. It’s not a journey into his queerness, it’s a journey into his history.” Golding discusses how Kit’s journey and experience felt similar to his own when he moved back to his birth country, Malaysia. Therefore Golding’s personal experience here allowed him to excel in this role, which a gay man without said experience might not have performed as well in.
There’s the matter of visibility, too, and it’s a universal truth that stars sell tickets; if a film has A-list actors there’s an increased likelihood of it performing well. Chances are the latest Tom Cruise blockbuster is going to do better than a low budget independent film with an unknown actor in the leading role. Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule. The nature of LGBTQ+ stories representing a minority of society unfortunately means that there just aren’t as many high profile projects as there are for straight stories. If a smaller production can manage to attract big-name actors, its chances of success are better. However, just like high profile LGBTQ+ stories, high profile openly LGBTQ+ actors are less common too. Therefore limiting these films to openly gay actors only creates another unnecessary barrier against breaking into the mainstream that the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t need to impose on itself. A well-intentioned sensitive performance from a straight actor as a gay character can genuinely help get a picture financed, seen, and distributed where it previously may not have. Harry Macqueen’s Supernova is an example of this. Its casting of Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci has without question helped its visibility, and both actors portray their characters with sensitivity and care. Is any damage done? It appears not.
No, Straight Actors Shouldn’t Play Gay
It’s no secret that discrimination against gay actors in the past has damaged their careers. If actors were found out to be gay they ran the risk of never working again. Mark Patton’s experience on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is proof of this and has been detailed in the fascinating documentary Scream Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street. The heavily criticised gay subtext in the horror sequel resulted in this up-and-coming leading man failing to receive any further film roles. Thankfully, this film has found its audience and Patton has, after years of criticism, found fans that enjoy the queerness of the film and his performance. So it seems unfair that gay actors should be beaten out for gay roles by straight actors, who have enjoyed the privilege of careers free of discrimination whilst in some cases gay performers have lost their livelihoods because of their sexuality. As recently as 2009, Rupert Everett stated that coming out damaged his career, as he found it harder to get roles after he publicly declared his sexuality.
There is the question of authenticity too. If your character is an Irish, working-class woman, the chances are an Irish working-class woman is going to give you the strongest portrayal of your character. Therefore the same could be said for sexuality. If we take Russell T Davies’ excellent HIV/AIDS TV drama It’s a Sin as an example, we can see how important this can be. Davies has stated that all of the gay characters in It’s a Sin are portrayed by openly gay actors. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is a significant historical moment very close to the heart of the queer community, one that deserves to be handled with care. The knowledge and connection to the experiences portrayed would arguably not have been conveyed as strongly with a straight cast. However, the cast is only half of the equation, and this is where a balance may be found. The writing is just as important as the acting, and queer collaboration is vital to tell authentic queer stories. Hollywood has a history of profiting from the inaccurate retelling of stories from marginalised communities. In the instance of queer storytelling, the more queer voices involved, the less likely this is to happen again. Queer talent behind the camera is just as, if not more, important than in front of it.
This collaboration is also important to avoid offensive and hurtful stereotypes of gay people from straight actors. This is a risk that is always present when someone from outside the LGBTQ+ community portrays someone from within it. It’s been proven countless times that it’s perfectly possible for a straight actor to play a gay character with respect, but the counter of this is also true with certain actors not managing the same. James Corden came under fire for his work in Ryan Murphy’s 2020 musical The Prom. He played a gay theatre star using tired, dated stereotypes, to the point that it’s actively uncomfortable to watch a straight man portraying a gay character in this manner. In this instance it’s quite possible that these criticisms were also partly due to his general unpopularity as an actor, as there are examples of other straight actors playing more stereotypically camp or flamboyant versions of gay characters that have received high praise.
The most damage can be done, though, is in the miscasting of trans characters. This is the case when cisgender actors portray transgender characters; see Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl or Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, among countless other examples. So while the overarching debate has a less clear answer, when it comes to trans casting it’s much more definitive. Trans people are without question the most vulnerable and misunderstood in the queer community and their portrayal should always be conveyed by a non-binary or transgender actor. If this isn’t the case, it undermines trans people’s existence and contributes to dangerous stereotypes that are largely learnt from poor media portrayals, directly impacting the real lives of trans people. Sam Feder’s excellent documentary Disclosure offers a thoroughly engaging and intelligent discussion of trans representation by trans people, and is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Trans casting aside, there’s no absolute answer for straight actors playing gay, but there doesn’t need to be. A certain fluidity to this debate should be adopted, reflective of the ever-evolving, label-free view of gender, sexuality, and queerness. Yes, some of the most loved queer classics feature straight actors, and have become cornerstones of queer culture without being damaging to the community. However, moving forward and with queer talents emerging at a much higher rate and more prominent visibility than before, it feels like a disservice to have brilliant queer actors overlooked for straight ones. It makes sense to have queer people telling queer stories: it’s that simple.
However, it’s dangerous to say that straight actors can never play gay roles. Perhaps a step forward for the industry is to consider that if a straight actor is cast, it’s worth looking into their ethics and morals. Are they an ally to LGBTQ+ community? If not, they aren’t right for the role. What’s most important is that bringing a queer character to life on screen must be done with care, collaboration, and consideration, and there should be room for creative talent of all sexualities in this process.