5 Things To Consider Before Casting A Straight Actor To Play Gay
Should straight actors still play gay characters? Well…it’s complicated…
By Steven Greenwood
James Corden’s recent appearance in Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of The Prom stirred a lot of discussion about the ethics of casting a straight actor to play a gay character. When issues like this arise, a lot of opinions tend towards a binaristic approach: either people argue that an actor’s sexuality should have absolutely no bearing on casting decisions whatsoever, or they argue that only gay actors should be cast as gay characters. People often choose one extreme and stick to it.
Queer culture is, of course, deeply invested in disrupting binaries and complicating prescriptive sets of rules. It is, therefore, my goal in this piece to avoid an absolute answer or clear-cut set of rules about whether or not “gay for pay” casting is okay. As Rachel Giese says, “Perhaps setting hard-fast rules isn’t the best way of framing the issue.” Rather, I present a set of questions that might help people better reflect on the impacts and implications of casting choices, without settling on a prescriptive answer about whether it’s right or wrong.
Asking and reflecting on critical questions – rather than simply trying to follow rules and guidelines – can be one of the best ways to understand the deeper reasonings and impacts of an artistic choice. Taking a step back to consider these five questions can be a first step towards developing a more informed, thoughtful stance on what happens in different scenarios where a straight actor is cast as a gay character. Rather than judging the situation as purely “right” or “wrong,” these questions can provide a more complex picture of the murky, complex waters of representation.
How does the project relate to celebrity culture and public figures?
Whether you like it or not, filmmaking is not simply the business of making films, but also the process of creating celebrities, public figures and (in the case of young peoples’ media) role models. Young people don’t simply watch Riverdale; they look up to actors like Camila Mendes and Madelaine Petsch. They follow these stars on social media, read their interviews, and learn more about them in Entertainment Weekly. While adults are less frequently invested in this “role model” approach to celebrity culture, they also often see celebrities as aspirational figures – or at least people they can enjoy following both on and off screen – and it is important for people to have public figures they can relate to.
Casting a straight actor as a gay character may be improving representation on screen, but it does nothing to improve representation off screen. While fans may get a new character they can relate to, they don’t get a new queer celebrity or public figure they can relate to, look up to, or even simply follow on social media. They see themselves on screen, but not in the real-life world of Hollywood; when this happens, the message that comes across can be something along the lines of “you matter as a story or an idea, but not as a real-life person who can live and work in the entertainment industry.”
This can be particularly harmful for youth: queer teen fans of Riverdale may get a plethora of new queer characters appearing in the realm of fiction, but their options for celebrity role models are much smaller (although Riverdale does feature some queer actors such as Lili Reinhart). Queer folks don’t just need characters we can relate to – we also need public figures and real-life artists. This is particularly important for people living in small towns or areas where they may have no access to queer role models in their everyday lives: someone like Lili Reinhart may be the closest someone has to seeing a real person who shares their experiences. Filmmaking can be as much about the public image and performance of the artists involved as it is the fictional world that is being created within the film.
It is important to reflect on the way a film exists well outside the world of the film itself. A film produces public figures, and also literally employs people and gives them jobs; a film set is, after all, a workplace. Diversity in the fictional story being told doesn’t always translate to diversity in the workplace culture where the film is being made: like any other modern workplace, film sets also need to consider equity and diversity initiatives and issues in how they create their workplace culture.
How much of the humour is self-deprecating?
Queer folks love to make fun of ourselves. Anyone who follows queer meme groups like “Sounds Gay I’m In” is likely aware that a huge portion of queer humour is self-deprecating. Queer culture often involves playing with and poking fun at our own stereotypes. For example, the queer classic But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) includes a scene where protagonist Megan’s (Natasha Lyonne) parents can tell she’s a lesbian because she eats tofu and likes Melissa Etheridge, and there are several scenes where gay characters try to engage in masculine activities like chopping wood, only to end up ineffectually running around screaming. While straight people often use these types of jokes to attack, demean or belittle queer folks, But I’m a Cheerleader plays with them in a way that resonates as empowering and relatable because they’re being reclaimed by the community.
The lines become blurred, however, when the person delivering a self-deprecating line isn’t actually a part of the group that the line is making fun of. If a gay character makes fun of himself for stereotypical gay traits, it’s funny because the joke is coming from within the community; however, having a straight person speak these jokes suddenly makes the situation a lot more complicated.
Tristan Coolman recently pointed out that James Corden’s casting in The Prom isn’t necessarily homophobic: while his character happens to be extremely feminine, his femininity is not used as the butt of jokes. However, when a character’s proximity to queer stereotypes does become a punchline, having someone who is not part of the community voice this humour complicates the scenario. This isn’t to say that they’re being homophobic by saying these lines; they are, after all, playing a fictional character. However, the tension created when self-deprecating humour is acted out by someone other than the “self” that is being deprecated is an issue to consider.
For example: one of my biggest issues with The Prom isn’t that James Corden is homophobic: rather, he seems to be trying so hard to not be homophobic that he often seems uncomfortable and restrained lest he accidentally let his character’s femininity become the butt of a joke. An openly gay actor would not have to tiptoe around this tension in the same way: casting a gay actor gives them the freedom to be self-deprecating without having to worry about the fact that they’re not actually part of the “self” that is being deprecated.
How do the characters treat each other?
Simon Gallagher points out how audiences are often shocked by how mean the characters in Boys in the Band are to each other, and one of the most popular challenges from RuPaul’s Drag Race is the reading challenge, where the performers jokingly point out each others’ flaws.
While often derided as a simple gay stereotype of being “catty,” this way of relating to each other has historical importance to queer communities. It goes beyond simply “being mean” towards a historically significant way of processing trauma, oppression, community belonging and identity, and can be a valuable form of community interaction. However, as Dorian Corey says in Paris is Burning (1990), this sort of interaction works because it happens between queer folks – the dynamic changes when someone from outside the community joins in. Corey points out: “If it’s happening between the gay world and the straight world, it’s not really a read, it’s more of an insult: a vicious slur fight.”
Drag Racefans, for example, seem to think that they can “read” the contestants on the show – since the contestants regularly read each other – by tagging them in mean posts on social media. However, when this sort of comment comes from someone who isn’t a drag performer (and who doesn’t know any of the performers on the show personally), it isn’t reading; it’s bullying (and, in the case of Drag Race fans, often racist).
Representing this sort of “cattiness” on screen becomes more complicated when the actors who deliver the lines aren’t themselves queer. If a lesbian makes a U-Haul joke about a friend, it’s playful; if a straight woman starts making U-Haul lesbian jokes, however, it’s harder to see the joke as being in good spirits. When a straight actress is playing a lesbian who makes these jokes, it’s more complicated; the situation is neither strictly right nor wrong, but one that needs careful consideration.
What are the characters calling each other?
There was a period of time in the 1990s when gay men were working really hard to reclaim the word “fag.” From Queer as Folk to Will and Grace, the word was used extremely frequently, both as a slur and as a reclaimed, prideful statement of identity. While this usage has died down since the turn of the 21st century, LGBTQ2IA+ people have a complicated history with a lot of terms (including the now-commonplace “queer”) that have been both self-proclaimed terms of identity and offensive slurs.
When a gay man proudly calls himself a “fag,” the situation is very different from when a straight person calls him one. When fictional gay man Brian Kinney from Queer as Folk repeatedly says “fag,” it’s empowering; when straight actor Gale Harold (who plays Brian) is the one saying the line, the situation becomes more complicated, and it’s harder to feel quite as empowered by the moment. As with all of these points, I’m not saying that the situation is wrong (I personally love all of the performances in Queer As Folk, even if most of the actors aren’t gay): rather, the situation is complicated and warrants consideration and reflection.
On a similar, but slightly different, topic: deeply rooted shame, self-hatred, internalized homophobia and similar topics are frequently explored topics in queer cinema. These areas can be extremely sensitive and hard to navigate. If characters are ashamed of their sexuality, it is important to consider the impact of casting a straight actor to portray this shame.
What is the makeup of the creative team?
When I initially heard about Andrew Garfield playing Prior Walter in the 2017 National Theatre production of Angels in America, I was hesitant. The characters in Angels in America constantly throw around slurs, make fun of themselves and each other for issues related to their sexuality, and experience extreme forms of shame and self-hatred; throwing a straight celebrity into the middle of all this tension and complexity seemed like a recipe for disaster. However, learning that playwright Tony Kushner himself wanted Garfield to take on the role eased my skepticism: behind anything that Garfield did onstage was a queer voice guiding the choice.
The performing arts are inherently collaborative, and having diverse voices behind the scenes is just as important as having queer actors. I’m a lot more comfortable with a straight actor playing a gay character if I know there’s a gay director behind the scenes overseeing the project to make sure it’s accurate and well-informed. As with my note about a film set as a workplace: considering who is making a film – beyond the actors you see on screen – can give a lot of perspective on the intentions and possible impacts of the choices being made.
As I stated in the introduction, it is my hope that this article is able to stir a more nuanced conversation about representation and performance in media. Rather than resting on an extreme statement of either “anyone can play anyone, it’s just acting!” or “gay people should only be played by gay people!” I hope that these five questions can help generate conversation that’s somewhere in between.
I also want to note that this article primarily addresses the issue of casting straight actors to play cisgender gay, lesbian, bisexual and pansexual characters; the issue of casting cisgender actors to play transgender characters carries a complicated history of violence and misrepresentation that warrants further discussion. The documentary Disclosure (2020) addresses how the repeated casting of cis men as trans women perpetrates harmful myths that trans women are “somehow men in disguise,” and how casting cis actors to play trans characters has a particularly harmful and violent history. For an insightful analysis of this particular casting issue, check out Disclosure (it is now available on Netflix).
STEVEN GREENWOOD is a PhD candidate at McGill University, where he researches the relationship between queer communities and popular culture. His dissertation explores queer reception of musicals, focusing specifically on how this reception has changed (and hasn’t) since the turn of the 21st century. He also writes and directs for stage and screen, and serves as the artistic director of Home Theatre Productions.