No way. Well, maybe? Sometimes. Okay — yes. Of course! We’re all human beings at the end of the day … and sexuality is on a spectrum, right? Acting is acting!

This whirlwind of contradictory answers flutters through my uncharacteristically conflicted brain every time I attempt to answer this question. It’s a debate we’ve seen time and time again, most recently when many high-profile names leapt to the defence of Jack Whitehall being cast as Disney’s first openly gay character. So I’m by no means the first person to speak on this seemingly unsolvable debate, but with the recent release of Supernova — Hollywood’s latest gay film starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci — I’m throwing my coin into the hat for good measure.

Gaslighting queer folk

Netflix’s Disclosure (well worth a watch) beautifully highlighted the importance of casting trans actors in trans roles — or should I say, the harm of casting cisgender actors in trans roles. But the casting of gay roles remains more of a grey area than you realise. As an actor and a gay man, I find myself caught in the middle of this debate, straddling both sides of the argument. On the one hand, I am increasingly protective of queer storylines being told by queer people, both behind and in front of the camera. But I am also someone who makes his bread and butter from pretending to be other people, with a core belief that the key to understanding one another is through our capacity to empathise and our ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes — a skill we actors are trained for. So what’s the answer? It’s a tricky one, but I think it’s fair to say that I am, at the very least, sceptical when I continue to see gay characters portrayed by straight actors.

This scepticism has little to do with my not being convinced by the various portrayals. On the contrary, many times I have been utterly moved. But being convinced for 90-plus minutes can almost make it worse when slapped in the face with the reality that, actually, none of the actors identify as LGBT+. In fact, a quick Google search reveals that, in some cases, the actors found the love scenes very ‘uncomfortable’ to perform. This never fails to laser away any affirmation felt from watching a queer storyline. I could go as far as to say that it is almost a gaslighting experience, leaving us with the underlying sentiment that gay stories are profitable, human-interest stories — often filled with trauma. But once the camera stops rolling, we are snapped back into the heteronormative reality of queer actors being sidelined because they are not as profitable or appealing as straight actors. Bizarrely, many straight actors are still applauded for being ‘brave’ and ‘vulnerable’ enough to put themselves in the (sparkly) shoes of a gay role. I suppose you can see the appeal for straight actors: queer storylines = trauma = dramatic role = awards success. Cynical, but true.

Rebalancing Hollywood

Sure, in a world of equal opportunity, we may be able to entertain the idea that all actors can portray all sexualities and have equal access to all manner of roles. But we are far from that world. Therefore, I am unwavering about my belief that there needs to be some serious rebalancing before we can embrace this idealistic approach. A rebalancing of the disproportionate number of straight actors playing LGBT+ roles in Hollywood. A quick look at the most popular gay films of the past five years highlights this effortlessly: Call Me By Your NameRocketmanBohemian RhapsodyCarol, The Favourite — in all of these, not a gay actor in sight. And now Supernova. Gay Times even published a list of the 10 most financially successful LGBT+ films of all time, none of which star a single gay actor. Zero. If that doesn’t tell us something about the need to rebalance our casting of queer characters, I don’t know what will.

One of the biggest elephants in the room when having this debate is the unfailingly irritating claim that: ‘if straight actors can’t play gay roles, then gay actors shouldn’t play straight roles’ — a reductive Devil’s advocate response which rubs me the wrong way. Why? Well, you’d find it hard to come by a gay actor who hasn’t faced the very real fear of damaging their career and limiting their access to straight roles by coming out publicly as gay. This is why it’s often advised not to do so. Whilst I’m no Hollywood A-lister, being publicly open about my sexuality is something I myself grapple with constantly as an actor, fearing that I won’t be taken seriously for the roles I want to play. Kate Winslet made headlines recently by revealing that she knows ‘at least four well-known actors’ who are ‘terrified’ of their sexuality becoming public lest it cuts their chances of being cast in straight roles (which, let’s be honest, is the overwhelming majority of roles).

A sobering statistic is that, to this day, no openly gay man has ever won the Best Actor Oscar. But over a dozen acting Oscars have been picked up by straight actors in LGBT roles, plus many more nominations. I can’t figure out why people seem more willing to suspend their disbelief when watching a straight actor play gay rather than a gay actor play straight — irrespective of whether the performance is believable — but one can certainly see why it feels discriminatory. And let me be clear: the oppressive system of queer actors being sidelined and deemed unemployable is not the same as straight actors being asked to take a step back for a while in order to create space for more diversity.

There’s also the argument that many of us gays feel pretty confident playing straight roles because — news flash — playing straight is something most of us are very used to doing, at least for the early years of our lives. By contrast, I would suggest that there are some parts of having a queer identity that straight actors can’t possibly understand, no matter how much research they do. Will this lack of understanding affect their performance? Perhaps not. But it does raise the question of whether we are looking for commercially successful performances or authentic ones.

To come out or not to come out?

But maybe things are looking up? Openly gay actors Jonathan Bailey and Andrew Scott both continue to land acclaimed TV roles as straight heartthrobs. Russell T. Davies’ It’s A Sin also showcased the undeniable authenticity of casting queer actors in queer roles. But amongst us gays, it’s not an issue that even we can seem to agree on. Russell Tovey recently said: ‘if you’re an actor, you’re an actor’. Ben Whishaw agrees, whilst adding that ‘[he] would like to see more gay actors playing straight roles’. Jonathan Bailey rather fairly told the Evening Standard that: ‘there just aren’t that many gay roles, so when straight actors go to take that space up, it’s eliminating the chance for other [gay actors]’. But for some of us, it’s still hard to forget Rupert Everett’s advice that he: ‘would not advise any actor, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out’, following his own career struggles. At the end of the day, queer actors exist. But when access to straight roles is limited, and even gay roles are being snatched by straight actors, what’s left?

Is the casting of Supernova offensive and discriminatory? No. Is it a step in the right direction for LGBT+ representation? Also no. So – I will continue to be sceptical when I see the next straight, white, strapping Hollywood actor announced to play the latest tormented gay role. But I’ll continue to keep an open mind, as long as Hollywood does the same.

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