Queer actors playing queer roles shouldn’t be the tall order Hollywood makes it out to be

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

Hollywood has had an enduring love affair with rewarding cisgender, heterosexual actors for occupying LGBTQ+ roles. Tom Hanks, Charlize Theron, Sean Penn, Jared Leto, Hilary Swank, William Hurt, Christopher Plummer and Nicole Kidman have all picked up Academy Awards for depicting queer characters, while Timothée Chalamet, Felicity Huffman, Eddie Redmayne, Cate Blanchett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cher, Rami Malek and Olivia Colman are part of a lengthy list of actors nominated for their efforts. 

Consider this: No out LGBTQ+ actor has ever won an Academy Award for depicting an LGBTQ+ character. The closest we’ve ever come was Joel Grey’s 1972 win for Cabaret, though the emcee’s ambiguous gender/sexuality is never stated outright. Plus, Grey didn’t come out publicly until 2015. Billy Porter holds the rare distinction of winning a major award as an out gay man depicting an out gay man for his turn on Pose.

Rewarding the depiction of queer existence by cis/straight people has a rich tradition that continues to this day. Most recently, there was the announcement that Normal People’s Paul Mescal and The Crown’s Josh O’Connor would be playing lovers in the new World War I period piece, The History of Sound. Many were quick to voice their concern at history’s repetitive nature. “We’re tired,” commented Tony nominee James Cusati-Moyer, adding: “It’s a no.” Others recognized this while contending with their excitement for two of Hollywood’s biggest players taking on the project. “Okay yes, yes cast gay actors in gay roles, but also… yes, hot, I dig it,” wrote literary agent Connor Goldsmith on Twitter, expressing a “both things can be true” argument.

Earlier that week, actress Julianna Margulies was on CBS This Morning promoting her role on The Morning Show when she was asked about the pushback around her playing a gay character. “I can understand that,” she said. “My response also would be [that] we’re all making assumptions as to who I am and what my past is and what all of our pasts are.” She then added that when it comes to race and gender, “that’s a whole different story, and I 100% agree with that.” This comment reminded me of a recent one made by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who was called out in a similar way for his role in The Power of the Dog. “I also feel slightly like, is this a thing where our dance card has to be public? Do we have to explain all our private moments in our sexual history? I don’t think so.” 

What both are more or less articulating is quite interesting in noting that we’re still living under a cis-hetero power structure in assuming that, unless someone declares they are not cisgender or heterosexual, then they must be by default. Still, I think the argument from some gay actors would be the lack of opportunities afforded to them in comparison to their straight counterparts.

“My issue is not with these actors or with this project,” an out gay actor who wishes to remain anonymous told me about The History of Sound. “My issue is with the systemic problems that bar people like me from even being considered for roles like this. With the way that the system is rigged to disadvantage people like me, I didn’t even know about this project. I was not granted the opportunity to audition for this role. It gets really annoying when I receive a script for a really good gay role, and the note at the bottom will say, ‘The offer is currently out to Harry Styles.’ It just gets exhausting.”

It’s not that LGBTQ+ actors aren’t granted any opportunities. Jodie Foster, Zachary Quinto, Cynthia Nixon and Neil Patrick Harris are just a few out LGBTQ+ actors that have played straight to great acclaim that come to mind. It’s more about the lack of opportunities for LGBTQ+ people to occupy roles aligned with their lived experience.

It’s an issue even more outsized for people in the trans community, who continue to sit and watch as cis people are offered — and often awarded for — their performances as trans people (see: Boys Don’t Cry, see Dallas Buyers Club, see: Transamerica, see: The Danish Girl). Trans actors are already disproportionately boxed out of opportunities in Hollywood, so to not even grant them the opportunity to play trans roles is adding insult to injury. In a sign that the times are slowly changing, the uproar has begun to bear results. Halle Berry and Scarlett Johansson are just two actors that backed down from playing trans characters after receiving backlash. “The public thinks of trans women as men with really good hair and makeup and costume,” actress Jen Richards noted in the Netflix documentary Disclosure. “And it’s reinforced every time we see a man who’s played a trans woman off-screen.”

“I now understand that I should not have considered this role and that the transgender community should undeniably have the opportunity to tell their own stories,” Berry said.

Production on the film, however, appears to have halted after Berry backed out, thus showcasing the real indignity. In the case of Rub & Tug, the film Johansson dropped out of, there appears to be greater equity. The film is being reconfigured into a television series written by Emmy-nominated writer-producer Our Lady J with a commitment to cast a trans actor in the leading role.

Will the backlash over The History of Sound result in something similar? Likely not. Mescal and O’Connor are too bankable of stars and, with openly gay director Oliver Hermanus at the helm, the project seems to have curtailed larger scrutiny… for now. But the larger question looms: If out LGTBQ+ actors aren’t afforded the opportunity to know about these roles (which, it should be noted, remain few and far between), let alone audition for them, how can we get to a place where out LGBTQ+ stars can be bankable, too?

“It’s a bit of the ‘which comes first, the chicken or the egg?’ scenario,” notes actor Matthew Risch, highlighting the ways in which out actors, like himself, are often not given the runway to allow them for flight. What does he want to see happen next?

“If we wanna live in a world where we can cast based on talent, we have to first have equal employment for out queer actors… and we don’t,” he says. “So since we’re rarely getting cast as heteros, shouldn’t out queer actors be given the opportunity to become more bankable by playing ourselves? I say yes.”

If you enjoyed this story, check out Evan Ross Katz’s recent interview with Bob the Drag Queen!

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