Setting the Record Straight: Why Aren’t Gay Actors Allowed To Be Themselves?
Call Me By Your Name, the latest acclaimed movie by Luca Guadagnino— which has recently nabbed six Spirit Awards nominations and was also nominated for three Golden Globes— features two straight actors playing two gay characters who fall in love with each other.
This casting faux pas is becoming a regular trope in the Hollywood industry. However, independent cinema is not always better at honestly and inclusively reflecting in its narratives such intimate realities.
The Internet Movie Database listed 132 straight actors who have taken on gay roles — from Sean Penn in Milk to Julianne Moore in The Kids Are Alright (she played a gay character also in Freeheld).
But the list could grow even longer with recent examples. Carol, for instance, the 2015 Todd Haynes-directed drama about a passionate lesbian romance, starred Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, two amazing—but overtly straight—actresses.
Thirty years ago, Maurice, which was critically praised for depicting a gay love story at the height of the AIDS epidemics during the 1980s, also relied on actors— Hugh Grant and James Wilby—whose sexuality is different than the one portrayed on screen.
One could argue that decent actors need to be able to play a polar opposite of themselves. But the craft of acting, like any other medium, means also trying to convey an original and credible life perspective.
And who, if just for one time, could be better at transmitting the inner world and experiential richness of a gay individual than a gay individual?
Part of the problem is that, when it comes to representation in the movie industry, there’s no such thing as equality: not only straight actors (at least self-described as such) have always been more than homosexual ones; they have also had the privilege to play the small amount of queer roles available and, as a result, garner positive reviews praising their efforts in avoiding mono-dimensional characters.
In the past, coming out as queer often spelt the end of a career. In 2010, English actor Rupert Everett spoke to BBC’s Radio 4 about the reaction he received after the announcement that he was gay. “I did a couple of films, I was very lucky at the beginning of my career… and then [after coming out], I never had another job here for ten years probably and I moved to Europe.” Referring to Hollywood as “an extremely conservative world” pretending “to be a liberal world”, he said that “show business is ideally suited for heterosexuals, it’s a very heterosexual business, it’s run mostly by heterosexual men, and there’s a kind of pecking order.”
Nowadays, coming out doesn’t necessarily correspond to losing parts; nevertheless, gay actors seem still trapped into a dynamic that codifies them into straight roles.
Welsh actor Luke Evans, who publicly identified as gay, mostly played— in his own words—“quintessential, masculine characters” in films including Fast & Furious 6, The Girl on The Train and Beauty and the Beast.
If we look at television, there’s no shortage of examples of gay professionals mostly portraying straight characters: Neil Patrick Harris played How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson for almost a decade; Jim Parsons is still Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory and Cynthia Nixon played Miranda Hobbes on Sex and the City for six seasons.
On the other hand, television has been improving LGBTQ representation with groundbreaking shows such as Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black and Fox’s Star, both featuring transgender actors in transgender roles.
Only a few weeks ago, Ryan Murphy made headlines when he announced that his next series, Pose, will feature the highest number of transgender actors ever to appear on scripted television.
Overall, recent events show that there’s still a long way to go in order to not fail the new generations and, at the same time, provide them with a realistic and relatable thesaurus of storytelling.
Last July, Andrew Garfield claimed that, in order to prepare for his role as a gay man who’s been diagnosed with HIV in the London revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, he spent weekends watching RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“My only time off during rehearsals – every Sunday I would have eight friends over and we would just watch Ru. I mean every single series of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I mean every series. This is my life outside of this play. I am a gay man right now just without the physical act – that’s all”, he said during a panel discussion at the National Theatre.
It’s safe to say we can do better than this.