Straight Actors, Gay Roles

Should Hollywood cast gay roles with only gay actors? The debate rages on.

by Eric Peterson

In late September, when my feeds and timelines were packed with news about the coronavirus, remembrances of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and anxiety about the upcoming election, a trailer for a new movie started to generate a lot of excitement. Well, excitement might be the wrong word. The comments I saw, even before I hit play were of the “who’s chopping onions?” variety, with lots of crying emojis.

This welcome distraction is called Supernova, and it’s scheduled for a US release date later this month. At first, it appears to be about two men in mid-life driving around England in an RV. Soon, they are revealed to be a gay couple with an easy, familiar banter. Before the trailer is over, we learn that one of them is suffering from the early onset dementia, and fears he’ll soon become a burden to his partner. The film stars Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci.

It looks to be a four-hankie weeper, and many of the folks who crossed paths with me on my socials seemed genuinely excited about the film. That is, when they weren’t sniping with each other about the casting choices. No one disputes that Oscar winner Colin Firth and Oscar nominee Stanley Tucci are gifted actors. I didn’t see a single criticism about their ability to convincingly play gay men; indeed, both have done so in the past to great acclaim (Burlesque, A Single Man, The Devil Wears Prada, Apartment Zero), and the Oscar campaigns for this film have already begun. No, most of the concern centered on the fact that both Firth and Tucci are confirmed heterosexuals off-screen.

One camp lamented the fact that gay actors had not been tapped to play these particular roles. The other had a familiar mantra that “they call it acting for a reason,” insisting that it shouldn’t matter who an actor is in his personal life if he can convincingly play the part. Back and forth they went, each trying to win an argument against an opponent unwilling to bend. Eventually these online volleys petered out as they often do, more from fatigue than anything else, with neither side being moved one way or the other.

Colin Firth (L) and Stanley Tucci (R) in SUPERNOVA

Before I continue, I’d like to emphatically state that 1) this trailer made me cry the first three times I watched it, 2) I admire these two actors immensely, and 3) I will certainly see this film. Aaaaaaand, I sort of wish that they’d cast gay actors in the roles. I will now take your questions.

It’s just acting! Of course, you’re correct. And in a perfect world, the sexual orientation of an actor should have no bearing on the roles they play.

Aha! I win! Not so fast. We don’t yet live in that perfect world. It’s fairly well-documented that as soon as an actor comes out of closet, they forfeit any straight romantic lead they might have otherwise been considered for. And until that is changed, movies like Supernova are the only opportunities to carry a film out actors have.

We should be celebrating the fact that a movie like Supernova even exists. It’s true that thirty years ago, there weren’t any out actors — and that most of the straight and closeted actors in Hollywood would have shied away from gay roles. This is indeed progress. But one step in the right direction doesn’t mean that we’ve achieved equity.

But I really like these actors. As do I. But this argument isn’t about Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth; it’s about actors who came out and aren’t being considered for good parts. It’s about actors who won’t come out because they’ve seen what happens to those who do. It’s about ensuring that actors who do come out have vibrant careers — because as important as it is to celebrate our stories on screen, it’s more important to celebrate our out and proud LGBT brothers and sisters in real life.

But Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci are amazing allies. Oh, so you wouldn’t like it if a known homophobe played a gay role. Perhaps it does matter who someone is off-screen?

So how do we fix it? We give amazing out actors like Matt Bomer, Sarah Paulson, Neil Patrick Harris, Amandla Stenberg, and Zachary Quinto opportunities to get the jobs so long denied them. We worry about giving opportunities to the disenfranchised before we bend over backwards to provide “opportunity” to the folks who have always controlled everything.

But I want to see this movie. As do I. I’ll see you there (metaphorically, perhaps, given the pandemic). At the same time, I’ll wait for the day that an out actor plays an honest-to-goodness straight romantic lead that depends on an audience investing in the love story being told on screen, and I’ll see that movie multiple times. I hope you’ll join me.

(he/him) I’m a funny, serious, outgoing, introspective, #diversity & #inclusion practitioner. Finished my first novel.