Much of the difficulty in addressing the issue of whether a ‘gay actor can play straight’ is due to its being conflated with the issue of homophobia. The two issues are entirely distinct. Homophobia is loathsome, but distinct from the technical matter of sexual orientation and casting. So stay with me….
Studio X is casting a part for a basketball player and needed someone 6′ 6.” You’re 5′ 5″, but you know a thing or two about basketball and you get yourself in there somehow. When you walk in, the casting person starts the internal calculation: Hmmmm. Too short. The part is for a very tall person. Why are they here? Hey, look, he can act. But still totally wrong. Or right. Hmmm…. I don’t know that any of these thoughts get verbalized, but I’d put money in escrow that these comprise some of the thoughts of the casting director.
Next: Studio X is casting a part for an African American, and you’re white. But you think you’ve got an angle on this part, you think you can change their mind, and you get yourself in there somehow. When you walk in, the casting person starts the calculation: Hmmmm. The part is supposed to black, this guy’s white. What the fuck? Okay – hey, look, he can act. Let me think… The writer says the guy is black but the story point is not bound to race one way or the other…Hmmmm…. OR: …. This is crazy, the story point makes it unavoidable that this guy is African American, there is just no way….
In both these circumstances, we have casting issues based not on the acting, politics or human tolerance for one another, but on observable characteristics of the actor that are counter to the part as described by the writer. The casting person is forced to challenge that character breakdown, to see if your abilities can overcome that preconception. And sometimes you can, absolutely. I once got a part that was described as black – but there was ZERO in the scene about race. I think the writer just said that to make sure the casting of parts was racially diverse. Anyway. You can beat it, but you’re challenging an existing concept for the part.
Next: Studio X is casting for a straight male romantic lead. You’re a gay man but of course who the fuck cares about that and there’s nothing in your headshot or resume about your orientation. And yet…. Oh…. yet….. You’re exhibiting some of the physical mannerisms associated with being a gay man. I’d say there are three categories here – 1. those who can be identified from 100 yards as being gay because a combination of manner, physical expression, and vocal inflection are all working at the same time, 2. some who maybe have something as minimal as a slight vocal inflection that hints to their orientation, and then 3. those where you don’t have the first damned clue about their orientation. And I will say that this last group has the best shot of being cast in straight parts because their orientation remains unknown to the outside observer and thus doesn’t arise as something that needs to be overcome with regard to the character as described.
There is no difference here between one’s mannerisms identifying your sexual orientation and, say, an accent giving away your geographical origin. Some parts need a British accent, and casting people generally won’t give a shit where you’re actually from as long as your accent is authentically British. And if you had an actor who protested this, who said his ‘Americanism’ was part of who he was and part of his hard-earned identity and so why should he put on a British accent…. Well, obviously this would be absurd. We’d easily come to the determination that the actor can be considered unprofessional for not bringing in what was necessary for the part. So why should sexual orientation, and its occasional observable characteristics, be any different? (And, I should add, I’ve known straight guys who’ve exhibited The Gay Accent, and it’s not any easier for them. The point holds – there is a perception based on observable characteristics, and that perception is part of the casting equation.)
From a teaching angle, having this conversation is perilous. One encounters the seeming contradiction: An openly gay actor, proudly so, no problem there, but yet you try to talk about this issue and the actor potentially goes ballistic on how dare you bring up as an issue my orientation and how that may or may not be exhibited? That’s what I would call the mistaken conflating of technical acting issues with the larger issue of sexual orientation and politics and society and tolerance and all the rest. The emotions and frustrations that many have felt in dealing with with homophobia in their lives – we need as best we can to mute those emotions so an honest conversation can occur regarding casting.
Part of that conversation… Does the gay actor in question really want to play straight parts? Because there are some who I think have no interest. And if that’s the case, then fine. I mean, I don’t know that Mario Cantone or Nathan Lane are interested. And those are a couple of careers that anyone can admire. So no problem – but let’s be…. shit…. I was about to say, “Let’s be straight about it.” Damn.
But for those who do have an interest in being seen for all parts, and yet have that accent, I would recommend developing the ability to turn it off during the audition process. How? Look – acting is make believe through technical means. There are many straight actors who have ‘played gay’ successfully by creating, from a combination of imagination and observation, the behavior of a gay man. So, the reverse must be possible. I mean – speaking of Nathan Lane, that scene in The Birdcage where Robin Williams tries to train him on how to act straight is fucking hilarious, and part of its humor is from the honesty of the attempt to create ‘straight guy’ behavior, and the emotional journey that brought up. I believe part of the obstacle here is that the effort to ‘act straight,’ even just entertaining the discussion about it, seems in some way a refutation of the often emotional, hard work that was done to acknowledge one’s sexual orientation in the first place. Again, we need to separate those emotions from the technical work at hand, and once we do, and truly open up the ability to observe both ourselves and others, the work is not so difficult. It’s just work.
Outside the audition process, that’s over to the individual. The history of Hollywood is rife with a bazillion tales of the rumored and actual homosexuality of seemingly every lead actor and actress, many a strong leading man whose actual sexuality was revealed only much later, even after their death. It has been gossiped about, magazined about, it has been dramatized (Little Dog Laughed being my favorite, brutally funny treatment of the topic), it’s highly personal. I can’t speak to whether an actor who is known in the broader community as gay, or whose orientation is already known specifically to this casting person or that casting person – whether in 2012 that affects his professional opportunities even if he turns off the accent during auditions. It shouldn’t affect casting decisions, yet it probably does, and the world is what it is – hopefully evolving toward some enlightenment. My point here is simply a technical one, that if you exhibit The Accent, that may well be an obstacle to your day-to-day casting sessions. To me it is not a political issue, but rather a professional one: the aware, observant, and versatile actor should develop the ability to turn it off on a dime for the casting process. An actor by definition is saying to the world they can be whatever the storyteller wants them to be to service a story. You don’t want to interfere with that process if you can help it.