Photo: NPR

Why LGBT Actors Should Play LGBT Roles

Harriet Watts urges Hollywood to make a change.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending Drag Walk: the best night out in St Andrews, in my opinion. It was a reminder of just how much queer culture and talent this small town has to offer. For me, it was also reminiscent of how far queer arts and culture have come over the past year. Not only have we been blessed with a RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, but also with films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and hidden gems like Booksmart. However, last week’s Oscars Ceremony demonstrates that the film industry still has a long way to go regarding LGBT+ representation and the inclusion of queer actors. It is 2020, yet no openly gay man has ever won the Best Actor Oscar, nor has a trans actor ever been nominated for an Academy Award. Subsequently, a debate has sparked as to whether a performer’s sexual or gender orientation should limit the characters they play, and whether straight actors should accept queer roles.

Photo: Unsplash

Since 2000, more than 25 actors have been Oscar nominated for playing LGBT+ roles, none of whom are openly queer. This may be in part because LGBT+ actors simply don’t get the same opportunities as straight actors. They are overlooked for queer roles but are, at the same time, deemed unsuitable for straight ones. A recent study has shown that more than half of lesbian and gay actors believed that producers and studio executives considered them less marketable. In this way, Hollywood has tended to create movies and profit from the experience of the marginalised, without giving them any input in the process.  Nothing highlights this inconsistency more than the lack of trans actors in Hollywood. On the surface, trans representation is thriving, with actors like Trace Lysette, Laverne Cox and Elliot Fletcher taking the limelight. However, the film industry frustratingly almost always casts cis actors in leading trans roles. Some infamous examples include Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent (2014), Jared Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013) and recently Scarlett Johansson in Rub and Tug, a film which never came to fruition because of such controversial casting decisions.    

Photo: NPR

Many believe that straight/cisgender actors should be able to portray gay/trans characters without controversy.  The general line of defence is that ‘acting is acting’. Rachel Weisz, a straight actress who played two different queer characters last year alone (in Disobedience and The Favourite), has defended her right to play lesbian characters onscreen. She sees her task as “not to tell the story I’ve lived”. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett who played the titular character in Carol, insisted she would “fight to the death for the right to suspend disbelief and play roles beyond (her) experience”. That being said, being queer isn’t an experience that can easily be portrayed; it’s an essential component of a person’s identity. Actors in the LGBT+ community have the right to tell their own stories and express these identities. More importantly, what both actresses seem to miss is that when straight actors take LGBT+ roles, they take opportunities from LGBT+ actors. American LGBT+ people still face considerable struggles when it comes to employment, be that in acting or otherwise; in 28 states, sexuality can still be used as a basis for redundancy. There are many gay and trans actors in Hollywood who are waiting to take on roles, queer or otherwise. Hollywood must seek to cast a proportionate amount of queer and trans actors, particularly in LGBT+ films.

Photo: Unsplash

It shouldn’t just be a case of enforced inclusion, however. Filmmakers should recognise the value that LGBT+ actors can add.  Diversity helps encourage creativity and adaptability- it’s a fact. The effect of a lack of queer inclusivity is all too visible in Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013). Despite being incredibly successful, its release was shrouded in controversy; the two female leads (Seydoux and Exarchopoulos) complained that the director pushed them too hard, particularly during their sex scenes. Watching the film, the lack of LGBT+ presence both on and off-screen is painfully obvious. I can only imagine how much it could have benefitted from more queer involvement in the production.  Similar problems can arise when cis actors are cast in trans roles. Casting like this is often justified on the grounds that big-name cis actors help promote the films, which helps spread trans narratives to a wider audience.  This is pointless if it delivers the wrong message.  Watching The Danish Girl (2015), I found it hard to break with the associations I already had with Eddie Redmayne.  Subsequently, the film portrayed trans-ness as something to be ‘performed’ instead of lived. I had a similar experience watching Netflix’ Girl (2018), which stars cisgender actor Victor Polster. It appears the film inadvertently reduced trans identity to the narrative of physical change. Needless to say, LGBT+ inclusion is essential, particularly in queer films.

So, this leaves open the controversial question at hand- should the film industry go out of its way to cast specifically LGBT+ actors in queer roles? In my opinion, it should. Actors in the LGBT+ community have the right to tell their own stories.  Besides, in order to get queer stories right, they can’t just be told by straight people.

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