opinion

Opinion | 'When it's right - and when it's wrong - for a straight actor to play gay'

"And vice versa."

2020-11-09

Words: Chris Clynes

Why might an actor be cast for a role? Characterisation, height, hair colour, voice quality, availability and… sexuality? In 13 years of being an actor, I have never been asked about my sexuality in an audition, and I have been chosen for both straight and queer parts. Yet this seems to be a hot topic for discussion in the light of various gay roles in high-profile films being played by publicly straight actors. [Pictured above, Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in the upcoming Supernova].

Take Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding, who landed a role in Monsoon, playing a gay character. Golding has had to defend this casting decision by saying that the journey of the character doesn’t hinge on the fact that the person is gay. But would it be a problem if it did? Acting can be an extremely tough profession and gaining any role is a real achievement, so to reach the career heights that he has should surely be cause for congratulations, particularly when it is widely accepted that actors with an Asian heritage, like Golding, are vastly overlooked in Hollywood. 

Some people believe that gay characters should be exclusively portrayed by actors who are gay themselves, and furthermore, publicly out and proud. 

Actor Chris Clynes (Picture: Provided)

This belief, I am told, stems from an apparent lack of opportunities available to gay actors in the film industry, particularly in Hollywood, which made me wonder how a producer or casting director would know such personal and often private information in order to commit such discrimination. Do they ask, “You’re not gay, are you?” in auditions? I very much doubt it. Are they covertly researching the sexuality of actors to assess suitability? Possibly. 

The question is, are they intentionally casting straight actors to play gay roles? Maybe, but why? Would the film flop if the lead actor was publicly gay? I believe the answer to that question is rather disappointing. I am told much of Hollywood (and perhaps the British film industry) think this would indeed affect profits. I don’t believe this way of thinking to be right. I hope that at some point someone will break the mould and create positive change, even if it means losing out on a few cinema ticket sales due to societal homophobia. Perhaps a film would be more successful if the protagonist were gay?

If actors are being discriminated against because of their sexuality, then, of course, this must be addressed and steps taken to create a more equal playing field. But does this mean gay characters should only be played by openly gay actors? 

Where do you stand on straight actors playing gay? (Picture: Steven Van/Unsplash)

Sexuality can be personal, evolving or simply unimportant to an individual who may also feel no shame or fear, but simply that their private life should be kept that way. The fantastic Ben Whishaw once said that as an actor it can be detrimental to reveal one’s private life, as the job of an actor is to create a world where an audience can immerse themselves, which is harder if said audience know too much about the actor’s offscreen life. It’s a sentiment that I understand, while also recognising that every industry needs visual representation of LGBTQ people, because the world has a long way to go. 

In terms of roles, sexual preference is only part of the story. An actor’s job is to research and understand the broader intricacies of what makes a character tick. The writer-director of a multi-award-winning short LGBTQ-themed film I appeared in did not identify as LGBTQ herself, she was simply gifted enough to understand the complexities involved to successfully tell such a story. In Gentleman Jack, a personal favourite, straight actress Suranne Jones magnificently and convincingly plays a lesbian in a story which is heavily, but not exclusively, influenced by the character’s sexuality. 

I believe two things are of prime importance here: first, that LGBTQAI+ stories are being told on TV and in films, in Hollywood especially, to not only reflect society, but to actively aid a shift towards global tolerance and acceptance; and second, that no actor — straight, gay, bi or otherwise — is discriminated against because of their sexuality. After all, aren’t actors supposed to play… other people? 

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