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All Of Us Strangers paul mescal andrew scott
Paul Mescal in All Of Us Strangers, 2024(Film Still)

Do queer roles really need to be played by queer actors?

Paul Mescal, Josh O’Connor and Jacob Elordi are a few of the straight actors who have recently been accused of going ‘gay for pay’, prompting a widespread debate about queer representation

It’s a Hollywood cliche that, for a straight male actor, playing a gay role is a shortcut to an Oscar (alongside starring in a film about the Holocaust, disability or mental illness). There have been many prominent examples (Tom Hanks won Best Actor for playing a gay man with AIDS in Philadelphia (1993), Sean Penn for starring in a biopic about gay civil rights activists in Milk), but if such a strategy exists, it’s no longer as viable today: it certainly didn’t out for Bradley Cooper this year, whose performance as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro was snubbed, or Paul Mescal, who wasn’t even nominated for All of Us Strangers.

But there is still a residual sense of prestige for the straight actor playing gay, and while they are far less likely to be described as “brave” for doing so, it still seems to be a mark of seriousness, a way of proving your chops. In fact, now that it tends to be associated with auteur-led, independent cinema rather than middle-brow Oscar bait, it’s more clouty than ever before. In recent months, a flurry of new productions have been announced in which straight actors – or least, actors who are not publicly gay – will play gay characters. Paul Mescal and Josh O’Connor are set to star in The History of Sound, a historical drama about two men who fall in love while travelling through Europe and recording songs in WW1. Jacob Elordi – who never actually does anything gay in Saltburn, even if Barry Keoghan drinks his cum out of a bathtub and then later fucks his grave – will be starring in Swift Horses, a period drama set in the 1950s in which has a love affair with Babylon’s Diego Calva. Nicholas Galiztine, meanwhile, is emerging as the potential new king of gay for pay, with roles in Mary and George (as a gay duke), Red, White and Royal Blue (a gay prince) and Handsome Devil (a gay rugby player).

The question of whether straight actors should play gay roles is a long-running debate which tends to centre around the politics of representation: some argue that it’s an insult to marginalised people, who deserve to see themselves portrayed authentically on-screen; others say that, if we are too prescriptive, we risk outing actors who are either closeted or private about their sexuality – in one ugly example of this playing out, Heartstopper’s Kit Connor (then only 18) was hounded into announcing he was bisexual. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a straight actor playing a gay role; the more important question is whether gay actors can play straight roles. And while there are exceptions, the answer is still “not really”. While I wouldn’t cast Jason Statham as Marsha P Johnson, actors should be able to play against type and to inhabit characters outside of their own identities – the problem with the industry today is not everyone is given this opportunity.

While gay actors do play straight roles, there are still significant barriers within the industry. “I think it’s always difficult when you’re an actor and you are a minority, in whatever shape or form, because there are more roles for people who are not – straight, white posh guys, basically,” says Hannah*, a casting director who spoke with Dazed and asked to remain anonymous. Landing a role as a straight character is particularly difficult for gay actors who are younger or less established. “Someone like Andrew Scott is at a fame level where he is going to get offered loads of roles, gay or straight, and he can make decisions. It’s different when actors are at a level where they don’t have that kind of control over their career and are at the mercy of whatever is coming their way,” Hannah continues. They might not be enthusiastic about the role of “catty best friend” but they need to pay their rent, and there is a financial incentive to allow themselves to be pigeon-holed.

“It’s always difficult when you’re an actor and you are a minority, because there are more roles for people who are not – straight, white posh guys, basically” – Hannah, casting director

Where authentic casting does happen, it can be a double-edged sword for gay actors. “I go up for specifically queer stuff far more often than I go up for general parts, which is clearly a product of diversity and inclusion,” Lewis, an actor and gay man, tells Dazed. “It’s good in the sense that at least I’m getting seen, but it does mean I’m only getting seen when it comes to queer roles.”

For casting directors, finding queer actors for queer parts also presents certain challenges. Under both UK and US labour laws, you’re not allowed to ask someone to tell you their sexuality before you hire them. Casting directors can get around this, to some extent, by telling agents that they’re looking to cast LGBTQ+ people, but they can’t demand a disclosure. This means that when they’re casting for a gay role, they will encounter people whose sexuality you simply don’t know and who are reluctant to volunteer that information. “Some actors are able to move through the world without a spotlight on their sexuality, which makes it easier for them to play parts that are both straight and gay,” says Hannah*.

The problem, according to Hannah, is that maintaining this kind of privacy is harder than ever. “As a culture, we are so obsessed with biography. I get the sense that historically, there could be more of a distance between actors and their public, but partly due to social media, that distance has gotten compressed,” she says. However well-intentioned the demand for queer actors in queer roles might be, it can form part of that process: how can we assess whether a performance is authentic without knowing the sexual identity of the person behind it? Taken too far, it’s easy for us – as the viewing public – to believe we are entitled to that information.

While there is no single way of “acting gay”, casting straight actors as gay characters can still shape the kind of representation we see on-screen. In an old but enduring dichotomy: masculine, straight-passing gay characters tend to be weightier, more complex and substantial; feminine gay characters – while there are exceptions – still tend to be more light-hearted or comedic. This reflects a larger cultural bias, and the sexual identity of a particular actor in a particular role is not always relevant (Jonathan Bailey, for example, is both gay and pretty masc). But if you are a gay actor who presents feminine, you’re still liable to find yourself pigeon-holed as the sassy sidekick, and you’re almost certainly not going to be cast as a straight character, or even a character whose sexuality is unmentioned and irrelevant: Generic Bloke #2.

“If a person presents a certain way, it can sometimes be difficult for a casting director to see past that,” says Hannah. “If an actor comes across as really serious, the idea of them being light and comedic can be slightly beyond your imagination. In the specific instance of sexuality, I think it definitely could be a problem if you don’t get given the opportunity to show your range and play against type.” We should straight actors camp it up, sure, but let more feminine gay guys play butch characters too: we won’t achieve true equality until Joe Locke gets cast as a hard-man gangster in the next Guy Ritchie film.

We all want “better” gay representation, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that looks like. The quality of a performance, and the diligence which an actor puts into constructing it, can be just as important as their identity. “If a straight man is super talented and super hot, then no one’s gonna care he’s playing gay, but it’s different if it’s James Corden going ‘oooooh darling!’” says Lewis. “Maybe I’d prefer to be represented by a gorgeous, sexy, well-adjusted straight guy than a clapped gay man… I just don’t know.”

“To reduce queerness to something that is very definable and recognisable based on the past sexual experiences doesn’t necessarily serve the work in question” – Kyle Turner

According to Kyle Turner, a film critic and the author of The Queer Film Guide – 100 Great Movies That Tell LGBTQIA+ Stories, there is a rich history of independent queer auteurs working with straight actors: Pedro Almodovar and Antonio Banderas in Pain and Glory (and many other films); Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore in the work of Todd Haynes; Joseph Gordon Levitt in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin; Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. Because these performances are in the service of the vision of queer directors, we are probably less likely to consider them inauthentic – I’d certainly be more enthused about watching a straight actor in a Todd Haynes film than, say, Ben Platt playing Disney’s tenth “first gay character” in a live-action remake of The Emperor’s New Groove. 

“One of the things that often gets overlooked in this conversation is just because a gay actor is playing a gay role doesn’t mean that that gay role or the gay actor is going to be good. There’s a lot of gay actors who are not very talented,” says Kyle. “To reduce queerness to something that is very definable and recognisable based on the past sexual experiences, that we as the audience may or may not be privy to in the first place, doesn’t necessarily serve the work in question.”

Focusing on actors alone ignores the bigger picture – the vitality of queer cinema is as much about screenwriters, directors, producers and the people who control the money. The fact that John Waters – one of the 20th century’s most significant queer directors – cannot secure funding for his projects is surely a greater affront to queer culture than whoever gets cast in the next adaptation of a YA romance. “Filmmaking as an industry has to change for the things in front of the camera to more meaningful change as well,” says Kyle.

Even if a straight actor playing a gay role is not a moral crime or something which inevitably dooms a performance inauthenticity, it still comes down to a question of fairness. “If I was doing a play, I would try to give a gay person a job,” Lewis says. “Because I just know that if you’re a femme gay actor who’s not a star, you’re not getting cast as straight people. It’s not that ‘queer actors must play queer roles’; it’s about giving people work and opportunities. I don’t see how you can make rules about who should play who, but I do think it is worth rebalancing that injustice.”