Queering the pitch: should gay roles only be played by gay actors?
Far from progressive, Russell T Davies’ recent remarks on the suitability of straight actors playing ‘gay’ roles are conservative and reactionary
Russell T Davies, the hugely talented writer behind such dramas as Queer as Folk, Years and Years and the successful relaunch of Doctor Who, is no stranger to controversy. Throughout his career, he has attempted, largely successfully, to take subjects that have either been marginalised or ignored altogether and drag them into the mainstream. His highly anticipated new series, It’s A Sin, is no exception to this. It deals with a group of young gay men who are affected by the AIDS crisis, and follows them throughout the 1980s, from the early days of carefree sexual experimentation to the sombre, frightening awareness of their mortality, as the spectre of illness and death spreads throughout their community.
It has been promoted as one of the key dramas of the spring, and features an eclectic cast including everyone from household name actors such as Keeley Hawes and Stephen Fry to younger thespians including Years and Years singer Olly Alexander in the lead role of Ritchie. Alexander professed himself delighted to be cast, saying “I’ve been a fan of Russell T Davies ever since I watched Queer As Folk in secret at 14 years old. His work helped shape my identity as a gay person so I’m absolutely over the moon we’ll be working together.”
It is therefore unfortunate that Davies has given an interview to the Radio Times which has raised the unanticipated question of heterophobia. He has stated that It’s A Sin has cast between 40 and 50 gay actors and has been unapologetic in deliberately casting as many as possible. His rationale for this was to claim that “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. It’s about authenticity, the taste of 2020.”
It is now unremarkable to see out gay or bisexual men and women playing a wide variety of roles
Leaving aside questions of what “the taste of 2020” actually is, apart from lockdown, social meltdown and fear of pandemics, Davies, a highly intelligent and thoughtful man, has ventured into dangerous territory here. To say that “acting gay is a bunch of codes for a performance”, summoning up the idea of a Kenneth Williams or Charles Hawtrey-esque figure mincing and camping away, may well have been true when Davies was much younger, but it was not the case when he was making his ground-breaking gay drama Queer As Folk with the straight actors Aidan Gillen and Charlie Hunnam in the lead roles, and it has not been most people’s idea of the presentation of gay men or women on screen for a considerable time. The controversy of Brokeback Mountain in 2005, when it was a novelty to see major Hollywood stars playing gay men in love, now seems a lifetime ago.
Davies has not helped his case by other remarks he has made. Elsewhere in the interview, he compared the idea of a straight man playing a homosexual one to that of an able-bodied man playing a disabled one, or a white actor blacking up, before concluding that “Authenticity is leading us to joyous places”. It is therefore unfortunate that his much-celebrated “authenticity” could quickly be dispelled, first by his admission to The Guardian that many of the gay actors in It’s A Sin are playing straight roles, and secondly by the fact that the high-profile lead actor in his peerless series A Very English Scandal playing the closeted homosexual Jeremy Thorpe was none other than the openly heterosexual Hugh Grant: the series was made in 2018.
The reaction to his remarks was not a positive one. The gay actor James Dreyfus, a consistent critic of what he has seen as the hypocrisy and double standards of his industry, remarked to The Times that “I’m not completely convinced [Davies] understands what ‘acting’ actually involves, i.e., inhabiting a totally different character. There have been some superlative performances by straight actors playing ‘gay’”. He cited the example of Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, who appear in the forthcoming film Supernova as a long-term couple whose final holiday around the Lake District is coloured by the inescapable knowledge that the Tucci character is suffering from early onset dementia. By all accounts, it is heartbreakingly sad and affecting, but much of the praise for the film has centred around the fact that the loving gay relationship at its heart is presented as unremarkable: the poignancy arises from the certain knowledge that they will be torn apart by the unstoppable cruelty of the remorseless disease.
Dreyfus, who has a supporting role in Supernova, was more expansive on Twitter:
Back in the late 80’s/early 90’s, during the AIDS crisis, the homophobia, the secrecy, the Equality Shows etc, I was always dreaming of the day when being gay was no longer an issue. When we were no longer defined as ‘gay actors/people’. Just people. Call me naive, but I thought that was what we were all aiming for. Speaking personally, & for myself only, I always felt that being same sex attracted was the least interesting thing about me. Clearly, we have swerved so far from that dream. It was a legacy I thought would help gay youngsters in the future. Foolishly, I presumed ‘equality’ meant not being treated any differently to anybody else. Not be given special dispensations or put into boxes. Anyway, that was my own personal dream. I know lots disagree. Fine.
He concluded, wryly, with the famous John Lydon quote, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
The contrasting perspectives of Davies and Dreyfus have cut through to the nub of what it is like to be gay and in the entertainment industry in 2021. On the one hand, the evolution of the profession has reflected modern society. Unlike two decades ago, when most openly gay actors found their careers largely restricted to the stage and to character roles in film and television, it is now largely unremarkable to see out gay or bisexual men and women playing a wide variety of roles. At the time of writing, Luke Evans is playing the lead in ITV’s new drama series The Pembrokeshire Murders, and the star of the successful Netflix thriller programme Ratched is the acclaimed actress Sarah Paulson.
Both have been open about their sexuality throughout their careers and it has done them no harm; Evans has appeared in heroic leading roles in films as eclectic as The Hobbit and The Three Musketeers, as well as villainous ones in the Fast and the Furious series, while Paulson has had an enviable range of parts in film, TV and theatre. And they are by no means unique: the A-list likes of Andrew Scott, Ben Whishaw, Tessa Thompson and Kristen Stewart have all found that their openness about their sexualities has made no difference to the success of their careers.
It is telling that there is no openly gay actor who is a leading action star in the way that Vin Diesel is
Yet it would still be untrue to describe either society or its microcosm in the film and television industries as being entirely accepting of gay men and women. There are at least two major A-list Hollywood stars who have long been rumoured to be homosexual, but are unlikely ever to come out in their lifetimes, for purely pragmatic reasons: some of the markets in which their films are most successful, such as China, India and the Middle East, are considerably more conservative, even homophobic, than America and Europe, and if they were to make their sexuality an integral part of their personae, it is likely that the films in which they starred would perform less successfully at the box office. It may well be that cinema continues to move away from the idea that a major film star can be responsible for a project’s financial success, which instead lies with brand familiarity and state-of-the-art special effects, but it is telling that there is no openly gay actor who is a leading action star in the way that, say, Hugh Jackman or Vin Diesel are.
Questions of discrimination and homophobia have been central to Hollywood for decades. While actors such as Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins, Cary Grant and Joan Crawford have long been regarded as secretly gay or bisexual, the hard-working studio publicity machines took care to present their stars as the epitome of upstanding all-American heterosexuality. They may have struggled with the outrageous character actor Ernest Thesiger, a man who the obituarists might have suggested “enjoyed his privacy”. Thesiger made a somewhat unlikely soldier in WWI, and upon his return, when asked how his experiences had been, replied with shock “Oh, my dear, the noise! And the people!”
The only gay actor who seriously looked as if he might break through decades of convention and homophobia and have a career as a leading man on his own terms was Rupert Everett, whose early roles in such films as Another Country and Dance With A Stranger might have led to glittering mainstream success, had it not been for the uproarious candour of his interviews: a tradition that has persisted to this day, to journalists’ delight. He was given another chance at stardom after the success of his supporting role in the Julia Roberts romantic comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding, and made a more than credible romantic lead in the Oscar Wilde adaptations An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, but his long-held ambition to write and star in a big-budget action film as, in his words, “a gay James Bond”, in a story designed to be “much more violent and aggressive than the Bond movies”, was derailed by the spectacular failure of his film with Madonna, The Next Best Thing.
Drama and comedy work best when the most suitable actor is cast for the role
Everett has been vocal about the way in which he has believed being gay has put paid to his chances of a more successful career. He commented that “There were three or four big films, when I was successful, that the director and the other actors wanted me to be in and that I was absolutely blocked from by a studio, just for the fact of being gay.” One of these was the 2001 Nick Hornby adaptation About A Boy, in which Everett would have been perfectly cast in the lead role of Will Freeman, a selfish and egocentric wastrel who reluctantly finds himself drawn into a friendship with a lonely young boy: Everett claimed that the producers were frightened off by the idea that casting a gay actor in the role might have led to some subconscious association with paedophilia. This may have been a typically provocative remark on his part, or an accurate reflection of studio paranoia, but it is hard not to agree with his remarks that “People mostly said to me: ‘Oh, but you’ve been so difficult and you’ve blown everything for yourself, you’ve sabotaged your own career.’ To a certain extent, it’s true, but to a certain extent, it isn’t.”
Everett would of course have made an excellent Jeremy Thorpe, but it would have been unfair to have deprived Grant of the chance to give what may be his finest performance to date, even including Paddington 2. Yet it is hard not to feel that Davies’s remarks are in their own way conservative and reactionary, rather than progressive. For all of the strides in representation on screen when it comes to casting diversity and ableism, there is still the undeniable truth that drama and comedy work best when the most suitable actor is cast for the role, regardless of their colour, sexuality or gender. It is this that casting directors should be aspiring to, rather than an empty exercise in box-ticking. Let us hope that It’s A Sin is a stellar example of great, thought-provoking drama with a perfect cast, rather than simply an opportunity to shoehorn actors into parts both homosexual and heterosexual because of their sexual orientation.
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