The picture is split into three frames: far left is a tall slim blonde White woman dressed in 1950s evening wear (actor Cate Blanchett); the middle frame is a middle aged white man, suited up, grinning in front of a microphone (actor Sean Penn) and the far right is a young white man with pronounced cheekbones holding a grand silky dress over his formal wear, with a sad expression (actor Eddie Redmayne)
Credit: Insider

Orientation opposites: should straight actors be allowed to play gay?

By Margaret Hartness

Margaret Hartness explains why sexual orientation should not stunt screen talent.

In 2015, at a press conference for his film Legend, Tom Hardy quietly shut down a reporter who asked about his sexuality with one simple question: “Why?”. Why was it anyone’s business? The reporter had no answer to give. Or, if he did, his flailing for an answer said it all. 

Celebrities are entitled to their privacy, but the line between being a public figure and keeping a private life has become compromised, as our fascination with their sexuality has spilled out into the colosseum of contemporary screen representation. 

Subsequently, some actors have taken a stance on the topic of portraying a character whose sexuality is not their own – typically, the heterosexual actor portraying a queer character, such as Darren Criss. After winning a Golden Globe for his role as Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, Criss vowed to Bustle to never play another LGBT+ character for fear of being “another straight boy taking a gay man’s role”. This is a conveniently timed declaration for a man who had moved on from playing an openly gay character on Glee four years prior. 

Acting is an artform of portrayal, of inhabiting an individual other than yourself. If such a sentiment were to be eroded, the suspense of belief and imagination in film and theatre would simply cease to exist. Articulated by Rachel Weisz, of Disobedience and The Favourite: “I see my task as not to tell the story I’ve lived”, she told Gay Star News, “When I played Blanche DuBois on the stage, I’m not an alcoholic. And I’m not interested in sleeping with teenage boys! But that’s the character. So I see storytelling as me becoming people that I’m not.” 

Looking to the past, Hollywood has long had a history of gay and bisexual actors playing straight roles, their orientation closeted out of necessity. From 1934 to 1968 the Hays Code became more stringently enforced, first introduced in 1930 to be a moral dictator of acceptable content in film, with depictions of “homosexuality” censored for being categorised as sexually perverted. Despite this, actors whose sexuality would have resulted in scandal have become our immortalised Hollywood stars, their passions burning beyond the camera: Marlene Dietrich was bisexual, and so potentially were Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn (who may simply have been a lesbian). Rock Hudson was gay. Others we may never know, and perhaps they would rather we didn’t. 

“Looking to the past, Hollywood has long had a history of gay and bisexual actors playing straight roles, their orientation closeted out of necessity.”

But not all queer actors want to project their sexuality for the world to see. If actors were restricted to playing those who share their sexual orientation, then consequently managers, agents, and casting directors must know personal information these actors may not wish to disclose.  Following this logic, it would forcibly out actors to the world and potentially pigeon-hole them into roles where sexual orientation is its defining feature. 

Chris New, who starred in the 2011 gay romantic drama Weekend, already feels this. Speaking to The Guardian, New expressed: “I’m known as being an out gay actor (…) In my work, I am increasingly allowed to engage in my culture only when that engagement centres on being gay. Being out has done nothing but restrict my career. In the current cultural climate I am invited to participate only on the basis of my supposed oppression. Nothing more is required of me. I live in a cultural ghetto.” 

“Sadly, the same level of respect cannot be directed towards James Corden in The Prom, who disgraced the screen with the most God-awful caricature of a gay man in recent years.”

Actors should be allowed to audition for any role, where the context is appropriate. Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory fame, who quietly came out as gay in 2012, expressed to the LA Times that Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain were the best choices for the roles, and one of the most touching gay movies and love stories he had ever seen. A credit which is seemingly deserved with the film now recognised as a pop-culture reference. Sadly, the same level of respect cannot be directed towards James Corden in The Prom, who disgraced the screen with the most God-awful caricature of a gay man in recent years. With the roles reversed, there are numerous performances to draw on. We have Neil Patrick Harris playing a suited womanizer on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Luke Evans in as toxic masculinity manifest-Gaston in Beauty & the Beast, Zachary Quinto as Spock in the Star Trek films, and Jonathan Bennet as Aaron Samuels in Mean Girls, of “out” queer actors who have played straight roles the list goes on.

When it comes to the casting couch, nuance is a much-needed approach. For every Brokeback comes a film or TV show where the casting of queer actors fits the sensitivity of the subject matter, or the director is seeking a particular authenticity or tone, like Russell T. Davies’ HBO show It’s A Sin with an all-queer leading cast. Discussing within the realm of LGBT+, the case of transgender actors has been omitted as it requires to be addressed separately (Eddie Redamyne recently spoke out in regret of his portrayal of a trans character in The Danish Girl).The existence of this discussion is evidence of the changing times, as LGBT+ roles and writing become more widespread on the screen. Look to the growth of the industry, not the constriction of its actors. High-quality acting thrives when actors are free to creatively inhabit.


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