How Straight Actors 'Playing Gay' Can Hurt the LGBTQ Community
Queer actors told us how they feel about Jack Whitehall reportedly being cast to play a queer role in Disney's upcoming 'Jungle Cruise' film.
Photo: Matt Wing / Alamy Stock Photo
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"It's complicated," sighs Peppermint. "Talented actors, casting directors, and everyone involved in the making of art should feel free to create in the way they see fit. In a perfect world, anyone would be able to play anything."
I'm talking to Peppermint—the first transgender woman to create a major role in a Broadway musical, Head Over Heels—because, once again, the question of cis/straight actors taking LGBTQ parts has hit the headlines, this time sparked by English comedian Jack Whitehall reportedly being cast in Jungle Cruise (which apparently isn't a gay porno). He's set to play Disney's first major gay character, despite being a heterosexual man.
It's not the first time such a decision has been made by Hollywood: Just last month it was reported that Scarlett Johansson was set to star in the upcoming film Rub & Tug, playing a trans man (she later dropped out of the project). Nearly all the lead gay characters in 2008 movie Milk—a biopic of legendary gay rights activist Harvey Milk—were played by straight men. In The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne played the lead, a trans woman. The list continues.
There's often outrage from queer folk when such announcements are made, but to outsiders, the reason for the upset is not always so obvious. Acting, by definition, is about transforming into a character; it's not about who you actually are. Polling from YouGov this week confirms that many share this view, with 70 percent of the British public seeing no issue with a straight person taking the first leading gay role in a Disney blockbuster.
"I do really think, ideally, anyone should be able to play a perfect part for them," Peppermint continues, "but right now, gay, trans, and queer people need to participate in the telling of their own stories. Hollywood has a terrible history of creating movies and making money off the experiences of marginalized people, without letting them have any input in the process."
To Peppermint, it's firstly a question of authenticity, not just in who gets to play a queer part, but how that part is written, developed, presented, and performed: "We need to recognize that art plays a role in how marginalized people are treated and viewed by society. A lot of the time, Hollywood makes these stories about queer, trans, and minority folks and they get it wrong: there's offensive material, tragic storylines, one-dimensional, stereotypical characters with little depth." (See 2015 flop Stonewall for evidence.)
Actor Nick Westrate agrees: "There's such a wealth of behavior, cultural history, and experiences that, as a queer person, you just know. As a straight person, there's so much you might miss, which years of research won't ever prepare you for." Gay people grow up learning how to assume straight characteristics, says Nick, as for them, code-switching is often a means of survival. "Our entire lives are sometimes premeditated on playing a straight person," he tells me. "Straight people playing gay might well do their research and watch Ru Paul's Drag Race, but they just can’t access the same depth of knowledge."
There's clearly a worry about the way queer characters are portrayed on stage or screen, but each actor I speak to makes it clear their concerns extend beyond just making great art: LGBTQ characters are often some of the only queer people visible in media, and with that platform comes great responsibility.
When Rebecca Root was cast as the lead in BBC Two sitcom Boy Meets Girl, both she and the show made history. When it debuted, in 2015, it was the first comedy/drama series on British TV with such a major role for a transgender character played by a trans actor. "I know the idea of being a role model doesn't always sit comfortably with everyone," Rebecca tells me, "but I'm not unhappy with that label. It's just about being seen—saying, 'That's me, and you too can do what I do.' Real representation isn't just about seeing a character you can relate to; it's about seeing real people working at the highest of level of the industry."
"Most people have never met a trans person, and many kids won't have knowingly met a gay person," says Peppermint. "There's immeasurable value in inspiring youth when you feel ostracized, outcast, or different. Seeing people like yourself thriving is huge, both for queer people, but also their friends and family." And, Peppermint adds, a cis man playing a trans woman, who then takes the wig off and appears at a premiere as a guy with a beard, only reinforces the dangerous narrative that trans women are men, not women.
A gay actor could use the platform of a Disney movie to speak about their own experiences, advance LGBTQ equality and be a visible queer figure for so many young people. Jack Whitehall, through no fault of his own, just can't do that.
While there's clearly rationale in casting queer for queer parts, there are practical realities of the industry to consider too. Casting directors are under pressure to hire who they see as the best fit for a part, and asking someone about their sexuality when they walk into an audition hardly seems a sign of progress. "My job is very much to get the right person for the right role," explains Amanda Tabak, a casting director based in London. "We would never ask someone's sexuality when they walk in the door—it's not relevant."
Amanda is clear that if there's a part for a Chinese person, putting up someone who isn't Chinese would be pointless (although whoever cast Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell clearly didn't see this as such a problem). "People's sexualities aren’t written on their chest," Amanda says. "It's not that which dictates whether you’re getting a job or not."
It's a perspective that actor Giovanni Bienne—the chair of acting union Equity's LGBT+ committee—can only half-sympathize with. Giovanni feels expectations of LGBTQ actors in auditions are different to those of their cis, straight counterparts. "I don't go out for a straight romantic love interests a lot, but my agent said they thought it would help—if I were to—for me to stay in character during the chat afterward," he says, adding that he's heard that casting directors like his readings, but ask if could he keep "it" up? "That just doesn't happen to straight actors. Sean Penn didn't audition for Milk, but if he had, they wouldn't have him blow the casting team away, and then be told that he couldn't keep the 'gay' up afterward."
Giovanni accepts that with lesser-known actors their sexuality might not be known to whoever is casting, but non-LGBTQ actors can, too, help level the playing field. "A friend of mine called me recently saying he was being seen for a gay part, but it didn't feel right," he says. "I said go out for it, this is how it is, it's about whether we get the same opportunities. In the end, in an effort to support us, he decided not to."
Another point raised time and time again by those struggling to comprehend the Whitehall rage is that, ultimately, entertainment is a business. "A-list actors playing LGBTQ roles brings awareness, but they also get people though the doors to see a film," says Amanda Tabak. But after a generation of gay actors were lost to the AIDS crisis, maybe the industry has a responsibility to help make those new stars in the first place, and to make Hollywood a less hostile place to be openly gay. "If we hear a straight person gets a queer part because someone is a bankable star, we've just lost another chance for that person to make a name as a queer person," says Nick. "It's simple."
Clearly, the casting of Jack Whitehall as Disney's first gay character isn't in and of itself the problem, however much of a missed opportunity, or a lazy choice, it might at first seem. The problems are that in casting straight actors in gay roles we're not benefitting from the experience that queer people bring to queer parts, we're not letting queer people tell their own stories, and we're contributing to the woeful lack of IRL Hollywood LGBTQ visibility.
Not one actor I spoke to thinks only non-straight people should play LGBTQ parts, or vice versa, but that a conscious effort needs to be made by all to help level the playing field. That means accepting that some queer people get written off for straight parts in a way that is imbalanced. It means understanding that LGBTQ people are a minority who need role models. It means not simply saying there isn't a queer star to take a part, but making one. And it means that if Disney is going to make a big deal about creating a gay character, they probably need to make a big deal about casting a gay actor, too.
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