Should straight actors playing gay be a fossil of the past?

A discussion with “Ammonite” director Francis Lee leads to an excavation into the complexities of representation

In the spare, drafty room, two lovers take to a narrow bed built for a spinster. The tension between them is electric; the floorboards creak, the candles flicker. Within moments, demure Victorian nightgowns are hiked up, unfastened and flung aside. The sex is fumbling at first, then feral, culminating in the younger and less experienced woman climbing on top of the other and orgasming with abandon. 

This vivid, frantic scene arrives around the midpoint of Ammonite, an otherwise quietly brooding biopic about Mary Anning, a poor, 19th-century amateur paleontologist, who lived on England’s Dorset coast where she discovered significant fossil specimens. Kate Winslet plays her with a consuming devotion to her work and a hair-trigger temper. Mary is palpably lonely and understandably bitter that the expensively-educated men who take credit for her findings are not half as smart as she is. 

One man even has the nerve to dump his young, depressed wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) onto Mary for safekeeping so he can tour Europe unencumbered. Joke’s on him: The two women’s initial hostility to this arrangement gives way to long, smoldering looks across the rocky, windswept shoreline. Eventually the two fall in love.

As with with his arresting debut God’s Own Country, British filmmaker Francis Lee’s fictionalized account of Mary and Charlotte’s actual lives defies most queer film clichés: Their struggles never tilt into full scale tragedy, there is no tormented coming out arc and, best of all, no one dies. Ammonite, however, isn’t simply a petticoated, sapphic meet-cute. It’s an arthouse film about emotional isolation and female agency that also happens to feature two prestige heterosexual actresses (both best known for the sort of tasteful Oscar-winning period dramas that you can watch with your grandmother) ravenously going down on one another. 

“British filmmaker Francis Lee’s fictionalized account of Mary and Charlotte’s actual lives defies most queer film clichés.”

Ammonite, which is streaming now, was released in 2020 alongside other, notable queer- and trans-centred films, many produced by large studios or featuring Hollywood stars: The Boys in the Band, The Prom, Happiest Season, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Funny Boy. These features will be joined in the next year or two by a biopic of lesbian mountaineer Silvia Vasquez-Lavado produced by and starring Selena Gomez; Supernova, starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as a gay couple grappling with aging and illness; the teenage drag musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie; and an in-the-works project about the life of Andy Warhol starring Jared Leto. 

 

While collectively these movies are only a small swell in a enormous sea of cis, straight cinema, their numbers reflect an increasing interest in and market for LGBTQ2S+ stories. But in almost all these cases, many of the queer roles are played by non-queer actors—The Boys in the Band is the only one to have an entirely openly-gay cast playing all the gay roles. And the emergence of these films in the midst of broader conversations about representation have once again raised an enduring question: Who should be cast in gay roles? Is it right for a straight actor to play queer? And who should tell and how should they tell queer stories? 


In many ways, the question of whether straight actors can play queer roles is a slipperier one than related concerns about Hollywood’s racist practice of whitewashing characters of colour, or the problematic casting of non-trans people in trans roles. In the two latter cases, the sidelining of people of colour and trans people and their stories, as well as the loss of opportunities for actors from those communities, is more readily demonstrable and apparent. 

In the excellent 2020 documentary Disclosure about trans representation in Hollywood, trans actress Jen Richards says that even when a cis male actor like The Danish Girl’s Eddie Redmayne gives a strong performance of a trans woman, it is still a performance of transness and of femininity rather than an embodiment of a full human being for whom transness is only one aspect of who they are. Richards also draws a direct line between cis men playing trans women and violence against trans women. 

“In my mind, part of the reason that men end up killing trans women out of fear that other men will think that they are gay for having been with trans women is that their friends, the men whose judgment they fear, only know trans women from media and the people who are playing trans women are the men that they know,” Richards says. “This doesn’t happen when a trans woman plays a trans woman… When you see these women off-screen still as women, it completely deflates the idea that they are somehow men in disguise.” In other words, the casting of non-trans actors in trans roles (no matter how conscientious and sensitive the portrayal) can serve to bolster the false and dangerous belief that transness is a put-on. 

When it comes to straight performers playing gay characters, these distinctions and understandings of identity (as well as the life-and-death stakes) are not as clear. In a phone interview in November, Ammonite’s director Francis Lee, who is openly gay, says the considerations that go into casting queer roles are complex. “It’s such a difficult area as a director, because, you know, what I want to do for an actor when they come to meet me is make them feel as comfortable as possible,” he says. “When they come to meet me for a role or an audition or a meeting, I would never presume or ask them about their sexuality.” 

And Lee says that, as someone who grew up gay and working-class in rural Northern England who wasn’t able to make his first film until he was 47, he recognizes the barriers that exist for outsiders in the film industry. Being out might not feel like an option. “Some people just aren’t open or feel comfortable talking about their sexuality. So I never try.” The director adds that, unless an actor brings up the subject themselves, he doesn’t often know what their sexuality really is. “I know how we see their sexuality identified publicly. But I couldn’t tell you if they identify in any other way.” 

It’s true, as Lee points out, that not all “straight” actors are actually straight: They might be bisexual or gay but closeted for privacy or for the sake of future opportunities. While there are an increasing number of out, successful and working LGBTQ2S+ actors like Kate McKinnon, Laverne Cox, Neal Patrick Harris, Samira Wiley, Sarah Paulson, Billy Porter, Lena Waithe and Bowen Yang, a rainbow stained-glass ceiling remains firmly in place. There are no openly gay actors among Hollywood’s highest paid performers. Even younger artists like Elliot Page and Kristen Stewart, who’ve both appeared in blockbuster franchises, have spoken of their hesitation to come out because of the cost it might have on their careers. 

Other actors, like Porter, have pointed out how hard it is to be cast when you are openly queer. Speaking about the challenges he faced as a feminine, Black gay man trying to get cast in particular roles, Porter has said, “If ‘flamboyant’ wasn’t in the description of the character, no one would see me ever, for anything. Which wouldn’t be so enraging if it went in the other direction, but it doesn’t. Because straight men playing gay, everybody wants to give them an award.” (He’s not wrong: Here’s a long, long list of cis, straight people who’ve won awards for playing LGBTQ2S+ characters.

That double standard is central to the problem: It’s often easier for queer films to get financing and distribution deals when they have a straight actor in a leading role. Meanwhile, playing gay is catnip to certain straight actors—even those who acknowledge that it doesn’t feel entirely right for them to do so. In a 2019 interview, Richard E. Grant, who is straight and was nominated for an Oscar for his excellent performance as a gay, HIV-positive man in 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, said that it was hard to justify straight actors playing gay roles and expressed discomfort over his own past queer roles. And yet, that discomfort didn’t stop him from signing on to play a drag queen in the upcoming Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.   

Even some openly gay actors, however, have expressed misgivings about only casting queer actors in queer roles—because that restriction might ultimately do more to limit them. When asked about the issue in a recent interview with Variety, Kristen Stewart acknowledged her own privilege within the industry. “Being somebody who has had so much access to work, I’ve just lived with such a creative abundance. You know, a young white girl who was straight and only really was gay later and is, like, skinny—do you know what I’m saying?” She went on to add, “I would never want to tell a story that really should be told by somebody who’s lived that experience. Having said that, it’s a slippery slope conversation because that means I could never play another straight character if I’m going to hold everyone to the letter of this particular law. I think it’s such a gray area.”

Sexuality, of course, is itself a gray area and many people aren’t readibly placed into neat categories of straight, bisexual and gay throughout their life—or throughout history, for that matter. So much so that determining who is “gay enough” to play a certain role can seem reductive. The stunning, simmering 2019 feature Portrait of a Lady on Fire, for instance, certainly feels in every way like a lesbian film (and its director and one of its leads are queer). And yet the story is set in late 18th-century France—a time when homosexuality wasn’t even fathomed of as an identity, especially for women. By necessity, telling any kind of queer story set before the 20th century involves recognizing a spectrum of same-sex experiences and desires that were largely obscured, vilified or erased and might not easily map onto our current understanding of sexual identity.  

“Determining who is ‘gay enough’ to play a certain role can seem reductive.”

In the case of Ammonite, Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison were friends in real life, but Lee chose to explore the possibility that their relationship was also romantic in order to tell a better story and to reclaim queer history. “The society in which Mary lived which was deeply patriarchal and where men had overlooked her, reappropriated her work for themselves,” he says. “I couldn’t give her a relationship with a man because it felt like the man would then own her. And I wanted her to feel equal. So to me, it felt like a natural progression to give her a relationship with a woman.” Lee adds that there is no evidence that Mary and Charlotte were lovers—but nor is there evidence that they weren’t. “What I find fascinating about how history is told is that unless there is absolute proof that a person belonged to the LGBTQ community, [historians] presume heterosexuality. They never think, well, maybe that figure was bisexual, maybe they were gay. You know, hetrosexuality is just presumed.”

Given all these complexities, perhaps setting hard-fast rules isn’t the best way of framing the issue. In an 2019 essay in GQ, journalist Chris Mandle argues that “a yes-or-no question will never get to the root of how an actor can successfully engage with queer themes. So why don’t we start asking how, instead? How can a straight actor successfully play a queer part?” He then cites Lee’s earlier film, God’s Own Country, as an example of straight actors effectively playing gay roles, suggesting that the identity of the person playing a queer role might not matter as much as the identity of a film’s writer, director and production team. “The actors identify as straight, but the director’s own sexuality and life experience feed into every second of the film,” Mandle writes. 

And it’s true: The non-gay leads in God’s Own Country, Josh O’Connor and Alec Secăreanu, are completely convincing as two gay men navigating their volatile attraction. Likewise, there are plenty of other examples of actors who don’t identify as queer but who have brought nuance, complexity and a sense of authenticity to iconic queer roles in film—and, more frequently, on television, where there are a greater number of LGBTQ2S+ roles. 

Take Jennifer Beals’ long-running portrayal of Bette Porter in The L Word and The L Word: Generation Q, one of the most beloved onscreen lesbian characters of all time. Beals taps into the tension between Bette’s brilliant, confident, type-A ambition and the vulnerability exposed by her hot-mess personal life to make Bette feel fully realized. Similarly, Michael K. Williams’ deeply charismatic, code-abiding gay gangster Omar Little was the beating heart of the TV series The Wire. Williams has spoken about how his own sensitivity and gentleness as a child led him to be taunted as a “faggot,” and that understanding of otherness seemed to have informed his empathetic portrayal. And there are many, many more standouts, like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall in Brokeback Mountain and Cate Blanchett in Carol. 

But—but—for every one of those standouts, consider the even greater number of cringe-inducing duds. Up until very recently, LGBTQ2S+ representation in Hollywood—in the rare case there even was representation—was tragic at best and villainous at worst. Since the 1990s, Hollywood has tiptoed slowly beyond the tropes of noble victim (Tom Hanks in Philadelphia), sassy sidekick (Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding) and fey queen (Robin Williams in The Birdcage) but really only just. In more recent years, we’ve still had to make do with Rami Malek’s criminally dull Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody; James Cordon’s composite of swishy affectations in The Prom (the type of stock gay role the late writer David Rakoff dubbed “Fudgie McPacker”); Rachel Weisz’s agonizingly awkward sex scene with Rachel McAdams in Disobediance; and the creepy, bullying male gaze that reduced Blue is the Warmest Color to cheesy softcore porn. 

Part of the problem is that many queer films still aren’t made with a predominently queer audience in mind. Instead of speaking to us, queer stories are often used for the projections of straight people who want feel-good coming out narratives or a vicarious and voyeuristic thrill or a cautionary tale about How Hard It Is To Be Gay. These sorts of one-dimensional stories and one-note characters don’t lend themselves to great portrayals, no matter how well intentioned the actor. 

Even worse is when the straight actors who play these roles are defensive or dismissive, like Weisz who clumsily likened playing a lesbian to playing an alcoholic. Or when the portrayal, especially of queer women, feels more queerbait than queer. One of great thrills, after all, of consuming culture is the fantasy—that you could be the action hero or the romantic lead or the person being swept off their feet. When iconic queer roles are largely played by non-queer people a little of that thrill is lost. And, yes, sure, queer folks lusting after unattainable straight people is common enought to have become cliché—but that doesn’t mean unrequited interest comes without a cost. 

Writing in Xtra about the related phenomenon of queerbaiting, Stéphanie Verge outlined the perils of straight-identifying people who toy with playing gay. “This relentless tease reinforces the notion that queer desire can never be fulfilled or fulfilling, and that it doesn’t deserve to be,” she wrote. “Queer people and their needs aren’t deemed valid or valuable.” A similar dynamic is at work in the relative lack of queer people in iconic queer roles; it signifies that in some way we don’t quite matter enough to be the conduits of our own stories. 

And don’t we, queer audiences, deserve better? 

Perhaps, to pick up on Mandle’s argument, another way to frame the question is this: Not who gets to play gay, but rather what is the obligation to queer people and communities when queer stories are told? 

And one answer—not the only answer, but an important one—lies in acknowledging that while it’s perfectly fine for straight people to play gay roles and for straight directors to make gay films, there is something genuinely special that occurs when gay actors play gay roles. 

The remake of The Boys in the Band—a 50-year-old play and film that has been embraced, then loathed, then embraced again for its funny, candid and often dark view of gay male life and self-loathing in the 1960s—was made especially poignant in its revival by its all-gay cast. The film’s failings are compensated for by its moving context: Men who can finally be open about who they are calling back in time to a previous generation of men who couldn’t. 

Lena Waithe’s Thanksgiving episode of the TV series Master of None elevates the traditional coming out narrative because it is her own story being told, full of perfect, specific details and written and performed by her. Kristen Stewart’s hurt at being pushed back into the closet by her girlfriend in Happiest Season felt all the more painful with the understanding of Stewart’s own long coming out journey. 

And while I’m not stupid enough to argue with Cate Blanchett’s legions of lesbian and bisexual fans, for me the real gay goosebumps moments of Carol were delivered by Sarah Paulson as Carol’s best friend and ex (naturally). Her sassy reading of the line, “I got my eye on this redhead who owns a steakhouse outside of Paramus. I’m talking serious Rita Hayworth redhead,” felt like a cocky wink to her own queer fans. 

These portrayals feel richer and carry weight because they are at once a reflection and a bond. To paraphrase Jen Richards: In the hands of queer actors, they are no longer a performance of queerness, they are simply performances. Of us, by us. 

In the end, it’s not that I want fewer straight actors like Winslet, Ronan or Blanchett playing queer roles—Ammonite is empathetic and lovely, and Carol is queer canon. But rather I want to see more opportunities for out actors like Waithe, Stewart and Paulson to be the queer lead; to have more queer roles overall and a greater share of queer actors playing them, fearlessly. And if I’m being completely honest, I’d love to be that redhead in Paramus.

Rachel Giese is a deputy national editor at The Globe and Mail and the former director of editorial at Xtra. She lives in Toronto and is an English speaker.

Read More About:
TV & Film, Identity, Culture, Power, Feature, Opinion

Keep Reading

Miranda July on midlife crises, open marriages and the erotic potential of tampons

Her latest novel, “All Fours,” unpacks the transformative, sometimes painful process of rediscovering oneself in middle age
Theo Germaine and Aden Hakimi are lit in purple; they are both shown from the chest up, shirtless. Germaine touches Hakimi's chest while the pair face each other. Hakimi is balding and has a short beard; Germaine has short brown hair.

Actor Theo Germaine wants more messy trans representation

Recent projects “Spark” and “Desire Lines” showcase Germaine's talents on a new level

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 9’ Episode 2 recap: We’re on each other’s team

As the competition moulds into place, the queens are playing doubles
A collage of AI generated gay male couples. The men are muscular and all look similar. There are four pairs.

Who does queer AI ‘art’ actually represent?

ANALYSIS: Accounts dedicated to queer AI art have popped off, but is there hope for anything beyond “boyfriend twins”?