Is it more comfortable for gay actors to play straight characters or for heterosexual actors to play gay roles? As an actor myself, this question crossed my mind. I took training in acting techniques at the Ottawa Theatre School, in workshops with professional theatre companies and with an acting coach. I appeared in many amateur stage productions over the years. The three actors in the photographs above are known for playing gay and heterosexual characters in British television series. Russell Tovey, the man seen embracing the woman, is famous for playing heterosexual characters in Being Human and Him & Her. He is gay. James Sutton, the young man wearing the green and a cream striped pullover, and Guy Burnet, seated next to him, became widely known for their portrayal as gay characters in a relationship in the British soap opera Hollyoaks. Both of these men are heterosexual. Having seen their respective performances, I am duly impressed. They are fine actors. They were able to successfully inhabit their characters, gay and heterosexual, giving a believable portrayal; still, I wonder, is it easier for a gay actor to play straight or for a straight actor to play gay?
In my own experience in the theatre, I am most often cast in straight roles. However, in one production, a play called Strange Gods by Bob Knuckle, an exciting array of characters, including two priests: one being gay, the other not and homophobic. I was cast in the role of a homophobic priest. The actor cast in the part of the gay priest was heterosexual. The director rather enjoyed this as the audience had no idea the actor playing the homophobe is gay. The playwright was in attendance for one of the performances and said this in an email he sent following the performance: “I think you played the part of Father Henshaw quite effectively. You mastered the script and did a nice job portraying him. Somehow, in an eerie way, you actually reminded me of the real him. Thank you for doing such a nice job.” That I can play a homophobic priest on stage effectively attests to the quality of instruction in acting technique I received over the years and my ability to inhabit the character.
How is it I inhabit the character of a homophobic heterosexual so effectively? Well, as a gay man, I experience life in a society dominated by heterosexuals. Growing up, I saw much prejudice against gay people and consequently learned how to make myself inconspicuous. When you are gay, you can very quickly be an invisible minority. People around you generally assume you are heterosexual, and unless you come out to them, they have no reason to believe otherwise. As a result, you learn to take in stride the petty anti-gay comments, jibes and the crude bigotry–very often inadvertently–that comes your way. I remember being at a party many years ago with my boyfriend (this was long before I met Mika), hosted by a friend I have known since middle school. As it happened, I had just enrolled in library school, and by coincidence, a woman at the party merrily related to the guests the story of a man she knew of who was in library school, laughingly observing he would be “another fag librarian.” My boyfriend and I took the remark in stride while our poor host blanched. On another occasion, while I was online at an internet cafe, I overheard one among a group of teenaged boys who were playing a computer game taunt another in the group likening him to a “dick-blowing faggot.” That is not to say I think all heterosexual people behave this way. Still, I find heterosexuals, by and large, do not fully appreciate this kind of experience is typical for gay people.
While my sexual preference is for men, I have formed intimate friendships with heterosexual women over the years. From what I have observed, it is much easier for a gay man to have such a relationship with a woman than for heterosexual men to form such a connection between themselves. A gay actor who experiences such friendship with women can draw on this experience when given the task of inhabiting the character of boyfriend, husband, lover, and playing love scenes with an actress. In the friendship between heterosexual men, it is far less likely the heterosexual actor seeking to inhabit the character of a gay man has experienced the degree of intimacy in his friendships with men than that you can find in the friendship between gay men and heterosexual women. That adds to the challenge facing a heterosexual actor when seeking to inhabit the character of a gay man in an intimate relationship with a man and his ability to play love scenes with another actor effectively. Yet, in the last analysis, how well an actor performs, whether gay or straight, hinges on his acting technique mastery and ability to inhabit the character he is playing entirely. Having conceded this point, however, I still think a gay actor playing a straight character has a slight advantage over the straight actor playing a gay role for the reasons given in this post.
Posted by Geoffrey