Should straight actors play gay roles? A star TV writer says no

  • >>Charles Kaiser, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-02-25 14:35:57 BdST

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Russell T Davies in Swansea, Wales, Jan 28, 2021. Davies, whose latest hit series is “It’s a Sin” on HBO Max, made waves in England by saying only gay performers should play gay characters. “I’m going to war,” he said. Francesca Jones/The New York Times

“It’s a Sin,” about 20-somethings confronting the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, broke new ground for its creator, Russell T Davies, because he had never written about the epidemic before.

But there was something else that made this HBO Max series different from the other gay-themed programmes Davies had written, from the original “Queer as Folk” to “A Very English Scandal”: “It’s a Sin” is the first show he has made in which nearly all the gay parts are played by gay actors.

Now the ever-eager pugilist is stirring controversy by arguing in interviews that, from now on, only gay actors should be allowed in gay roles.

“Oh yes!” he told me this week. “I’m going to war. I want the likes of Colin Firth to be ashamed of their actions.”

Firth and Stanley Tucci play a gay couple in the new movie “Supernova,” and Firth snagged his first Academy Award nomination in 2009 for playing a gay character in “A Single Man.” (Asked for a response from Firth, his publicist pointed to the actor’s remarks in the British magazine Attitude, which read in part: “I don’t have a final position on this. I think the question is still alive. It’s something I take really seriously, and I gave it a lot of thought before doing this.”)

The question of which actors should be allowed to play which roles has become increasingly contentious, especially in regard to portrayals of historically marginalised groups. Hollywood productions have often cast white actors in roles and stories that were originally nonwhite — a phenomenon commonly called “whitewashing” — but public pressure in recent years has pushed many white performers to decline such roles. Animated characters of colour have often been voiced by white actors, but that practice, too, is being abandoned. There is also growing consensus that transgender roles should be played only by transgender actors.

But before the mixed gay-straight casting of “The Inheritance,” an AIDS drama that premiered in London in 2018 and moved to Broadway the following year, there hadn’t been very much public debate about the suitability of straight actors in gay roles.

Davies laid out his new position in a barrage of interviews before the January debut of “It’s a Sin” on Britain’s Channel 4, provoking attacks from the likes of Piers Morgan — “Equality means equality, or it doesn’t,” he said on “Good Morning Britain” — and Peter Ash, a straight actor who plays a gay role on “Coronation Street,” the world’s longest running soap opera. (Ash simply tweeted the definition of acting: “the art or occupation of performing fictional roles in plays, films or television.”)

Davies’ stance runs counter to a long-standing principle of the movement for LGBTQ equality: No one should ever experience discrimination on the basis of the sex of the person they’re sleeping with. Davies is now advocating discrimination against heterosexual actors who want to audition for gay roles.

In fact, the laws of Britain and the United States make Davies vulnerable to legal challenges if a straight person can prove that he wasn’t considered for a part because he isn’t gay.

“It’s illegal under the Supreme Court’s new interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” said Matt Coles, the former director of the ACLU’s Center for Equality. The act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and in a surprise decision from the conservative court last year, six justices decided that the law covered discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status.

In Britain, this kind of discrimination is also probably illegal under the Equality Act of 2010, although the law has limited exceptions for occupational requirements for “a particular protected characteristic,” wrote Richard Kenyon, a partner in the London-headquartered firm Fieldfisher, in an email.

“That would not justify a blanket policy but might be used in an argument for a particular play or film where authenticity is particularly important — and where the orientation of the relevant actors is public knowledge,” Kenyon continued.

Davies’ position is fraught and somewhat puzzling for reasons that have less to do with fairness than with his own past work: He has previously used straight actors very successfully in many gay roles. “Queer as Folk,” his first big hit, starred Aidan Gillen, Craig Kelly and Charlie Hunnam. More recently, Hugh Grant gave the performance of a lifetime in “A Very English Scandal” as Jeremy Thorpe, the closeted (and married) leader of the Liberal Party who was accused and acquitted of plotting the death of one of his ex-boyfriends.

“I’ve employed plenty of straight people in straight parts, and their success has paved the way for me to be here now,” Davies conceded.

Does he actually believe there is a gay actor who could have given a more convincing performance than Grant did?

“No,” Davies said. “I’ve had this argument 57 times over the last week, and 57 people have raised Hugh Grant!”

For Davies, the issue is less about authenticity than about equity for gay actors, who he says have been systematically excluded from straight roles. And since there are so many more straight roles than gay ones, he thinks it isn’t right to make gay actors compete against their straight counterparts to play gay characters.

“It is not a fair playing field,” Davies said. “The equality notion is based on 50% this way, 50% that way. But 90% of actors are straight and 10% of parts are gay.”

But for a differing opinion, Davies need look no further than his own cast in “It’s A Sin.” Actors like Neil Patrick Harris, who plays a gay tailor in the new show, are wary of Davies’ new position.

“As an actor, I’ve gotten to play all kinds of sexualities,” Harris said in a telephone interview last month. “I lived almost a decade playing a womanising straight person on ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ and I enjoyed myself immensely. As a director, I hope to be able to hire purely on the basis of talent.”

Tucci agrees with Davies that gay actors should be given more opportunities to play all kinds of roles, he told CBS in a recent interview. But he doesn’t think he should be banned from playing gay characters. “I think that acting is all about not being yourself,” he said. “If we were to use that as a template, then we would only ever play ourselves.”

Davies is asking people like Tucci and Firth to reject gay roles in the future, though he said he would be willing to make an exception if a marquee name were the only way he could get a production financed.

“Of course, I’d compromise if it’s the only way to get a show made,” he said. “I have no authority; these aren’t rules. But if I can provoke better thinking, I will.”

I suggested to Davies that many 20-somethings, who are describing themselves in growing numbers as sexually fluid, would be baffled by his insistence that gay roles must be played by actors in a category that some young people no longer even recognise.

“That will be the future,” he said. “They will replace me, but they’re not making the programmes yet. What I am doing will lead towards them having power.”

“That’s when I’ll look out of date,” he added. “But we’re not there yet.”

© 2021 New York Times News Service