Should straight actors play queer roles? Refocusing Hollywood’s most misunderstood debate

Earlier this year, It’s A Sin – a Russell T Davies-directed drama set during the AIDS crisis – became Channel 4’s third most successful show of all time. In casting the show, Davies made a decision that he hoped would lend the story authenticity; all his queer characters would be played by queer actors. In doing so, he highlighted a wider issue around casting straight actors in LGBT+ roles. “Gay is not a performance,” he told Pink News. “I don’t think gay is performative. I genuinely think that casting gay as gay now is the right thing to do.” In the process, Davies’ stance reignited an ongoing debate – should straight actors portray queer characters?

On the other side of the debate, some feel strongly that stepping outside their own experience and inhabiting the life of another person is an integral part of the actor’s job description. “I will fight to the death for the right to suspend disbelief and play roles beyond my experience,” insisted Cate Blanchett, who played the eponymous Carol in Todd Haynes’ 2015 film. Rachel Weisz, who has played numerous queer women in films such as Disobedience and The Favourite, said similar. “It’s about becoming and representing someone else… I’m not anyone that I play, otherwise I’d just be in a documentary.” Actor Ruby Rose agrees. “Cate Blanchett said it really beautifully and I’ll butcher it… [but] that’s what an actor is,” she tells NME. “I think we would be in a weird place if only gay people can play gay people and only straight people can play straight people. I personally love Grey’s Anatomy so if they had to fire everyone and hire only real doctors – oy vey!”

Regardless of where you stand on the question of casting, one simple fact is true: straight actors are overwhelmingly the ones bringing queer characters to life in the mainstream right now – such as in new drama Supernova, released last month and starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as a gay couple. These same opportunities are not currently being extended to LGBT+ actors as frequently. American author, critic, producer and activist Susie Bright sees this as a crucial point. “Actors want to play all the great roles, they don’t want to be held back! That is the nature of any actor,” she says. “They are understanding about the civil rights needs to see a a gay [bankable] ‘name’ actor playing an important homo role, but their true wish and freedom would arrive if we lived in a world where it didn’t matter. Where ‘gay’ could play straight, and ‘straight’ could play gay, and only the performance mattered. That would be real freedom. Gay men want to play leading romantic heterosexual roles, and then turn around the next day and play a gay character. And lesbian actors? They want a chance to play a lesbian who isn’t a whispering, elegiac waif who can’t seem to fuck to save her life. Who isn’t a saint or a lost cause. Who isn’t a martial arts pro or a ghost. They want to play a full woman’s character, no matter what her sexuality is.”

Olly Alexander It's A Sin
The cast of ‘It’s A Sin’. CREDIT: Channel 4

While it’s possible to count the amount of out queer actors portraying straight romantic leads on one hand, many of the leading LGBT+ films of recent years – from Call Me By Your Name and Carol, to Brokeback Mountain, Milk and Love, Simon – all featured (as far as we know) straight actors in the leading roles. Moreover, these films put across a narrow definition of queerness: predominantly white and cisgendered.

Meanwhile, a 2012 survey conducted by leading union Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) found that a third of respondents believe that casting directors are biased against LGBT+ performers when making hiring decisions – and among queer respondents, that belief increased to 53 per cent. Nearly all of the actors, filmmakers, acting union representatives, and experts NME interviewed for this piece said that they personally know high-profile actors who are not publicly out as LGBT+ because they fear losing work. When actors do choose to come out, they can be typecast and subjected to abuse on the job: in SAG-AFTRA’s study, over half of its LGBT+ respondents had heard homophobic comments on set.

Actor and producer Dalila Ali Rajah, a member of SAG’s LGBT Committee, has personally experienced “being hit on by people in the industry assuming that because I’m bisexual, I want to do a threesome.” She also has friends in the industry who have been passed over for roles because “[filmmakers] didn’t want to deal with the PR of having an out actor play a straight role.” Giovanni Bienne, chair of acting union Equity’s LGBT+ Committee recalls one agent advising him to ‘act straight’ during an audition for a heterosexual role, while a principal at drama school once told him that as a gay man of Italian heritage, he would only ever play “gay ice-cream men”.

Cate Blanchett in Todd Haynes’ ‘Carol’. CREDIT: Alamy

Meanwhile, straight actors are not limited in the same ways. “There’s a trope that has been going on for ages that if you’re a straight actor playing a queer character it’s such a stretch for you to do that authentically and you deserve all the awards – it’s so brave to put yourself in a place where you could be considered part of this ostracised group,” says Ali Rajah. Canadian actor Kathleen Munroe, who starred in comedy drama Strangers and is now committing to casting queer actors in queer roles as a director, takes issue with this same idea. “Using the exploration of queerness by straight people to enrich their own experience or understanding, or to push themselves into ‘brave’ territory, I find inherently problematic,” she says.

The freedom of expression that actors like Blanchett and Weisz speak passionately about defending is not always extended in the direction of queer actors, who face being pigeon-holed into a narrower selection of roles if they come out in the industry. “Typecasting is an issue – we see queer actors being told they’re not ‘gay enough’,” says Bienne. For Black actors, Ali Rajah adds, there are even fewer opportunities on offer. “I’ve found that in the intersection between being Black and being queer, there are less roles, period,” she says. “It’s so scary for a Black actress to come out of the closet, it really is.“

A lack of representation also disproportionately affects trans and/or non-binary actors – who are rarely afforded the opportunity to portray cis characters. Meanwhile, actors such as Eddie Redmayne, Hilary Swank, Elle Fanning and Jared Leto have all received widespread acclaim and awards nominations for portraying trans characters; often in stories that hinge upon violence and tragedy. Cast members of Pose – which features the largest cast of trans actors in TV history – have previously spoken out about how predominantly casting cis actors in one-dimensional trans roles, while limiting trans actors, helps to further marginalise the trans community. “We’re more than capable, not only of telling our own stories but telling stories in general,” said Indya Moore, who is non-binary and plays Angel in the show. Later, during the same interview with MTV in 2018, Moore’s transgender co-star Mj Rodriguez highlighted the need to cast trans and non-binary actors in all manner of stories. “If this is your way to ‘challenge’ yourself as an actor, then I think you should let us challenge [ourselves] and let us play some cis roles; we’ve been asking for it for a very long time,” she said. “If someone can do that and play our roles, then I think it should be allotted to us.”

“We have to fix the lack of representation”
–director Kimberly Peirce

Hilary Swank is one cis actor who received this kind of widespread industry acclaim; her portrayal of Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry won her an Oscar for Best Actress. Her casting also proved controversial – and two decades after starring in Kimberly Peirce’s 1999 debut feature film, Swank told Variety that a trans actor would be better suited for the role.

The casting for Boys Don’t Cry lasted five years. “I went far and wide and auditioned any single human being who had the capability of playing that role – I looked at everybody and I was looking for a trans man,” Peirce tells NME. “I auditioned hundreds and hundreds of people over many years; and at the end of the day, when it worked out with Hilary [Swank], it wasn’t because she was straight. It was simply because of all the people, all the trans people and everybody I had interviewed over the years, she was the one person who had whatever it was: the acting training, the acting talent, and the ability to transform herself. She was the person who was able to most bring that character to life at that moment.”

“I was fortunate that I researched with trans people,” Peirce says. “Hilary worked with trans people in preparation for the role, because she wanted to honour the human being that she was trying to bring to life. And we had a pretty queer set. I was figuring out if I was trans – I wasn’t sure – and now, I’ve kind of realised that I’m sort of transy. I’m probably a trans-butch.”

On the question of whether it is important to cast LGBT+ actors in LGBT+ roles wherever possible, Peirce “want[s] to be careful about ever drawing a line saying a queer person can’t play a straight role or a straight person can’t play a queer role. Even though I’m very pro-representation, and I want to see all queer people get all the roles, I don’t want to draw those lines. We have to fix the problems of a lack of representation in order to get a place where everybody can move around within the economy. I feel passionately about that.”

“As of 2018, 61 straight actors got an Oscar nomination for playing a queer character,” Bienne points out. “Only one out gay actor has been nominated for an Oscar for playing a gay man – Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters. It’s extraordinary,” he says. “Either straight actors are 61 times better than queer actors at playing queer roles, or there are structural inequalities. Who’s in control of the narrative?”

Who controls the narrative is a pertinent question – and as director and actor Desiree Akhavan once put it to The Independent, it’s crucial that LGBT+ stories have a “a queer hand at the wheel”. Representation – both in leading roles and behind the scenes on every level – is an important part of the picture. “This stuff starts at that level of the industry – producers and financiers of studios deciding: what is the valuable content?” Munroe says. “I think things will change substantially when we get a more diverse crop of people at the top of that chain.” Diverse crews also, inevitably, result in richer, better-informed storytelling. Munroe says that working on Strangers was a “gamechanger” – though the show also starred straight actors Zoë Chao and Meredith Hagner in leading roles, the narrative was being led by a largely queer team. “That’s an example of that scenario being a positive experience,” Munroe says. “They were open to learn and grow and be pushed – they were not the ones defining aspects of queerness.”

“We need room for nuance and discovery”
–actress Kathleen Munroe

“It feels different on the set – I remember feeling energised,” she continues. “None of my energy was being reserved to navigate a potentially uncomfortable situation with a man in a position of power, or someone who doesn’t understand my identity. There were no little quips here or there about things that would make me uncomfortable – which has happened on a lot of sets, to every woman I know in the industry. This felt like home. There was room to play and expand because I was not coming up against a narrow definition of what a queer person might do, or what a power dynamic might be in a relationship between two women. There was room for nuance and discovery.“

Recalling her experiences working on the first season of Amazon drama Transparent – which employed over 50 trans or non-gender conforming actors or crew members – Susie Bright credits Joey Soloway and the show’s “bohemian, intellectual, boundary-pushing crew” with the show’s success, which shocked “the suits”. The show’s Golden Globes win in 2015 was “a glorious unexpected night,” she says. “We gathered in an empty bar of a hotel, and just basically hugged and kissed all night, laughed and laughed. Thank god I brought pot brownies on the train.”

Casting an LGBT+ actor in a film with virtually no other queer voices in positions of power, meanwhile, is a quick fix for an industry-wide lack of mainstream representation, and can leave actors in an awkward position, expected to effectively endorse the story’s credentials. “I actually ended up not taking a role in a film for that reason,” reveals Munroe. “I was the only queer person in the conversation… and I felt like I was lending authenticity to it.” The film in question ended up being shown at highly regarded LGBT+ film festivals “with not a single queer person to be seen.” Bienne says that Equity knows of members finding similar issues. “A show might be writing a trans storyline, with no trans writers on staff, so they think – we can ask one of the actors to do that. It’s completely inappropriate,” he says. “I can’t go into specifics but there has been a case of that happening recently: somebody hired as an actor, and asked to consult. That still happens.” Susie Bright has observed something similar when she assists producers, publishers and writers with specific casting enquiries – often, they’re inadvertently looking for an activist “who’d like to market their life alongside the dramatic material. That’s fine,” she says, “but own it! It’s a bigger ask (and I might add, a more costly ask).”

Sex Education
‘Sex Education’ was one of the first shows to employ an intimacy coordinator for sex scenes. CREDIT: Netflix

As part of a wider shift to change the way sets operate, an increasing number of more recent films and TV shows featuring queer characters – including Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, and the smuttily informative Sex Education – have begun hiring intimacy coordinators. It’s a practice developed by movement director Ita O’Brien, who has spent the last six years putting together a series of guidelines for the industry. As well as supporting actors with challenging subject matter – and shooting scenes that may overlap with their own personal experiences in potentially traumatic ways – another focus is conveying realism, particularly in sex scenes. Her involvement is partly the reason the portrayals in these shows feel fully-realised and true to life; together with the director, each beat of a scene is meticulously choreographed and consented to before filming begins. It’s also about interrogating the role of bravery in creative expression. “Before the Me Too and Time’s Up movements and the development of the codes of conduct, you’d hear statements like: ‘Oh you’re an actor, you should be able to be naked, you should be able to have any degree of sexual content, and you should be brave,” O’Brien says. “There’s an assumption that basically an actor shouldn’t have boundaries.”

It’s a misconception that she wants to challenge. Recognising the need to support actors in filming certain scenes also opens up a space for acknowledging that depicting certain storylines might prove traumatic for actors with similar personal experiences. It also ensures that sex scenes are inherently realistic, rather than shaped by misconceptions and the male gaze.

“The way lesbian sex scenes are shot… just makes me sick,” Susie Bright says. Bright acted as a consultant on Lana and Lily Wachowski’s 1997 film Bound – a film frequently praised for its rich depictions of queer women’s sexuality. “It’s like nobody learned anything from Bound,” she says. “I did that movie as a tutorial.” Pondering the role of intimacy coordinators, Bright wonders if it will lead to a shift. “I’m curious to know that answer, myself. I always thought I pioneered the field without ever being given a professional path.”

“Not everything has to be a trauma narrative”
–Giovanni Bienne, LGBT+ committee chair

Now, says O’Brien, “we’ve got these depictions of intimate expression that we haven’t had before. It’s about recognising where things didn’t serve the communities they were supposed to be telling the stories of.”

And representation across the board perhaps holds the key: when filmmakers are setting out to tell LGBT+ stories, it’s important to consider who is in control of the narrative, and who these stories serve. “We’re still pretty new to mainstream queer definitions, and when we’re putting the definition of queerness in the hands of people who aren’t queer,” says Kathleen Munroe, “we’re risking continuing a trend that has been happening since the beginning of cinema, which is that of one group of people dominating the storytelling.”

“People like Russell T Davies don’t come out fully formed,” adds Bienne. “They have to come from somewhere. I can count the out gay actors who are big enough that they can green-light a movie on one hand. And so you need to start working on seeing these people in other roles – cast trans actors in roles where their identity isn’t even part of the plot. Not everything has to be a trauma or coming out narrative. Most actors don’t become bankable overnight – you have to support the base.”

“I want 20million other stories, from all over the place, with stories that aren’t centred in whiteness or straightness,” says Ali Rajah. “I want to decentralise and de-anchor the idea of universality as cis-het whiteness, so that we really get a feel for what the world is really like. That’s what I think art is for,” she concludes. “To expand the mind and illuminate the spirit. Ultimately it starts to change the world.”