Straight Guys For Queer Roles
Russell T. Davies, best known as the creator of Queer As Folk, has recently stirred up a lot of controversy by saying that straight actors should not be cast to play gay characters.
Davies made these comments whilst speaking to the Radio Times about his new show It’s a Sin, which follows a group of gay men living through the HIV epidemic in the 1980's.
Davies said, “I’m not being woke about this… but I feel strongly that if I cast someone in a story, I am casting them to act as a lover, or an enemy, or someone on drugs or a criminal or a saint… they are NOT there to ‘act gay’ because ‘acting gay’ is a bunch of codes for a performance.”
He went on to liken it to a white person ‘blacking up’ to play a black character, adding, “Authenticity is leading us to joyous places.”
This debate didn’t start with Davies’ comments, but it has certainly been thrust back into the headlines of morning shows. Piers Morgan and Benjamin Butterworth had their usual ‘Woke vs. Anti-Woke’ rapport going on Good Morning Britain, and people piled into comment sections across the internet to have their say.
Straight actors have been playing gay characters for a very long time. One needs only to look at James Corden’s recent performance in ‘The Prom’ to see a example of where it was not well received (Admittedly, Corden himself is a bit of a marmite figure, so this may be a factor in the icy reception)
But plenty of straight actors have taken on gay roles to critical acclaim, be it Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (1993), Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain (2005), Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) or Taron Egerton in Rocketman (2019).
I think it’s interesting how this topic is being framed as a ‘gay issue’ when I imagine many gay men either don’t mind, or actively support it.
After all, what great display of tolerance for homosexuality is there than being willing to humanise it via a moving performance?
Eric Stonestreet’s performance as Cameron Tucker in Modern Family (2009–2020) was even credited with helping Americans move towards acceptance of same-sex marriage.
So, ultimately, what is my opinion as both a gay man and somebody who enjoys watching films?
First of all, the notion that a straight actor ‘playing gay’ is in anyway similar to a white actor ‘blacking up’ is absurd.
A straight actor does not need to change his appearance to play a gay character — he doesn’t even have to change his mannerisms all that much. Contrary to popular opinion, not all gay men are limp-wristed, lispy queens with killer fashion sense. (Two out of three isn’t bad, eh?)
Secondly, the idea that straight men lack the authenticity to carry out a gay role misses the point of acting entirely. In performing, actors take on roles unlike their own experiences.
Jennifer Aniston played a mother in Mother’s Day (2016), despite not being a mother.
Charlize Theron won a Oscar for her portrayal of Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003). Wuornos had a horrific life full of sexual abuse, which drove her to prostitution and murdering her clients. Theron will have no idea of the depths of despair to which Wuornos will have plummeted; but she won massive acclaim for her role.
The point is, the life experiences of gay men are no more alien and abstract than any other. A good actor should be able to bring this to the screen.
Even the actors appearing in Davies’ It’s a Sin can’t really embody the authenticity that Davies claims to crave.
The characters in his show are living through a time of sky-high homophobia. The HIV epidemic was taking it’s toll on gay men, between 50% and 70% of the country thought homosexuality was wrong and some MP’s had even called for homosexuality to be made illegal in Britain.
The actors appearing in the show have all grown in the years after this, in a world where homosexuality has been increasingly normalised and ultimately accepted. They could never truly ‘appreciate’ the horrific homophobia that was prevalent throughout Britain in the 1980’s, but that doesn’t discount them from giving a brilliant performance.
Ultimately, I feel actors should be hired on the basis of their acting abilities. Whether or not they have lived authentically as the character they are playing doesn’t matter to me — and seemingly doesn’t matter to a majority of viewers, if film awards and public opinion is anything to go by.