Over twenty years ago, we had all sorts of trouble casting the initial off-broadway production of my play Jeffrey, a comedy focusing on a group of gay men at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Many agents and managers warned their clients not to even consider the play; one especially toxic agent told her actors that if they appeared in Jeffrey, they would never work again. Among the many reasons I will always treasure that original cast is their fearlessness: they ignored the warnings, and gave superb performances, and their careers blossomed (that cast included John Michael Higgins, Tom Hewitt, Bryan Batt, Edward Hibbert and Harriet Harris.)
Today I read about a couple of, shall we say, less than bright TV actors. One of these guys gave an interview about how, even though he was playing a gay character on a TV series, he had enormous problems kissing men; then he patted himself on the back for getting on with such a terrible task. Another young moron has left the cast of HBO’s True Blood, because his character was becoming involved in a gay relationship. HBO blessedly refused to back down. Among my questions is this: had this second actor ever watched True Blood, which is an extremely gay-friendly show, created by a brilliant, gay, Oscar-winning screenwriter and director, and being aired on the network which brought us, among many other fantastic shows with gay leading characters, Six Feet Under, Looking and The Normal Heart?
When actors play gay roles, especially straight actors, they tend to win awards – William Hurt got an Oscar for playing a windowdresser in Kiss of the Spiderwoman. The smart actors tend to pursue gay roles, because the stories are often fresher. The smarter actors also refuse to distance themselves from their characters, by making endless references to their wives and children in interviews.
Being an openly gay actor brings a certain set of challenges, because an actor’s personal life is scrutinized by the media. Happily, there are now many proudly gay actors, who are photographed everywhere with their spouses and often their kids. Fans love having access to a star’s romantic life, and these fans are equally happy to devour a People magazine cover story on Ellen’s wedding to Portia, or a photo of the gifted screenwriter Dustin Lance Black kissing his boyfriend, the Olympic swimmer Tom Daley.
For years, every time an actor came out, the naysayers would still claim that audiences would never respond to a gay leading man. This is, of course, nonsense: Matt Bomer has been playing a straight heartthrob for years on White Collar, and Jim Parsons heads the cast of The Big Bang Theory, the most popular sitcom on TV right now. News programming and the most successful morning shows are filled with terrific and beloved gay personnel, including Anderson Cooper, Robin Roberts, Sam Champion, Thomas Roberts and many more.
I’ve often written gay characters, and when straight actors have sometimes been cast in these roles, they’ll worry that they’re not gay enough, and ask for advice. This can be adorable. Although I once attended a production of Jeffrey in London, where some of the cast, with the best of intentions, were being ridiculously campy. As I explained to them, “You don’t have to do anything extra to play a gay character. Please – you’re English. It’s enough.”
There have been political debates over the casting of straight actors in gay roles. I most often believe in casting the best actor for any given role, and sometimes I’ve been surprised by which cast members turn out to be gay or straight. Casting gay actors in straight roles is never an issue: gay actors have been observing straight people all their lives, so the subject matter isn’t foreign.
So for those two actors who’ve been so troubled at the thought of playing gay: then don’t. Pass the paychecks to someone with a greater range. And get over yourselves.
And by the way, the photos at the top feature Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, two hugely successful Hollywood leading men who lived together for years, back when such guys were termed “merry bachelors.”