There has been much talk about who should play queer and trans roles over the past few years. As representation onscreen has gradually increased, the biggest roles have gone to cisgender heterosexual actors. This year we’ve seen films like Ammonite, Monsoon, and Uncle Frank following that trajectory. For trans roles, as actress Jen Richards contends on Netflix’s insightful documentary Disclosure — which delves into trans representation on screen, — this can be linked to the sometimes-fatal violence the trans community faces.
“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,” the Out100 honoree explains. “This doesn’t happen when a trans woman plays a trans woman; Laverne Cox is just as beautiful and glamorous off-screen as she is onscreen.”
“When you see these women off-screen still as women, it completely deflates the idea that they are somehow men in disguise,” she continues. The point is inarguably the most salient of the film.
When it comes to queerness, the conversation is not the same. While this isn’t a conversation about the fatal violence that comes as a result of transphobia, it is generally a conversation about authenticity as well as opportunity. Richards spoke to the first point in Disclosure as well in regards to trans roles, wherein cisgender actors end up having to perform the “transness” of their roles as opposed to portraying fully realized characters. James Corden has been lambasted by critics for his performance of queerness in Netflix’s upcoming The Prom film in this way. But as Mackenzie Davis, an actor not known to be queer who recently starred in Happiest Season as a queer lead, explains in a recent Interview magazine feature, it’s also about jobs.
“The reason behind this push, I think, is not that everybody should be playing their own identity, but that people who have that identity have not had other opportunities in Hollywood,” she explained in the story which was an interview with Charlize Theron. “So please just allow the space for them to exist in this world, because trans people aren’t getting cast as the straight, romantic lead in a movie. Give them the space to occupy a corner of the industry that straight people, cis people, don’t need to venture into.” She only moved forward in her role for Happiest Season after deferring to the judgment of costar Kristen Stewart and director Clea DuVall, both of whom are queer.
Theron, who has often played queer roles, didn’t necessarily agree.
“You’re right, there’s such a lack of opportunities given that at least let them have ownership in that space,” she said. “But I find that that’s almost insulting. I feel like a good actor is a good actor, and I can’t wait for us to look at nonbinary queer actors in the same way that we do hetero-cis actors.” Davis’s response boiled the idea down to a succinct point.
“I think that’s the goal, but out gay actors only recently are allowed to be romantic leads in movies, even though they have a husband at home,” she explained. “That’s something that’s happened in the last six years. It feels so recent. I think we’re going through this across so many parts of our society; we have to go through a really uncomfortable transition phase where we overemphasize something in order to normalize it. And then, at a certain point, we no longer need to overemphasize it. And the first step is, like, ‘I’m not going to colonize your space.’ That’s fine. There are plenty of roles for a cis white woman in the industry.”
And her points are valid. Earlier this year, Billy Eichner spoke out on the issue.
“I’ve always been fascinated in Hollywood with the limited options presented to actors, who present themselves as something other than masculine,” he told Deadline. At the time he was discussing his upcoming role of Paul Lynde in Man in the Box. “We might applaud them, and we might say, oh, they’re so funny, you know, but they have tended, in the past, not to be allowed to have the types of dynamic, chameleon-like careers that straight actors, who get the same level of admiration, the same level of respect, the same number of laughs, have been able to get.” According to Eichner, after we applaud gay actors for coming out we thank them, put them on magazines, and then they are taken off of casting lists. He also pointed to the fact that gay actors are rarely, if ever, cast to play gay icons onscreen. And while in an ideal world, gay actors and straight actors are equally considered for all roles, that’s not the reality that he has seen on the inside.
“I’m doing this rom com, about a gay male couple that I wrote and I’m starring in for Universal, that Judd Apatow is producing,” he explained. Eichner cowrote the project with Nick Stoller but also functions as an executive producer. “I was privy to casting discussions, and I would see when the casting lists were circulating, about which actors to call in for which role. There were so many straight actors on every list to play gay characters. And then, at the beginning before I raised my voice, for the straight characters in the movie, there were never gay actors on the lists for those roles. I saw it with my own eyes. It’s not a two-way street.”
It’s a complex and nuanced question, one that people truly come down on different sides of. Earlier this year we asked Daniel Levy, cocreator and writer of the acclaimed series Schitt’s Creek for his thoughts. At the time he was starring in Coastal Elites and his character was a gay actor discussing many of these issues with his therapist. But Levy also wrote ans was involved with the casting of Noah Reid, the straight actor who played Levy’s love interest (and eventual husband) on Schitt’s.
“I think it’s a very personal and a very complex conversation,” he told Out. “In the case of Schitt’s Creek, Noah was playing a character who was not aware of his sexuality. It was a conversation that I had because Patrick started out as a character that we didn’t know who he was — he didn’t know who he was. We saw a lot of people for that role and [Noah] came in and there was something about what he brought to the table that I felt would tell the story as best as I possibly wanted it to be told.”
“I also knew that I was there to authenticate the experience and ground that experience and it was a choice that I made as a gay person for the story,” he continued. “I think it is completely dependent on the situation. Obviously I think that opportunities need to be given to the people who they are written for — I think that’s why we’ve gotten into this situation in the first place — but it’s complicated.”
That said, this holiday season has largely cast LGBTQ+ actors in LGBTQ+ roles. Opposite Davis in Happiest Season is Kristin Stewart, while Dan Levy, Aubrey Plaza and Victor Garber, also make appearances. Lifetime’s The Christmas Setup stars real-life husbands Blake Lee and Ben Lewis. Jonathan Bennett appears in Hallmark’s The Christmas House opposite Brad Harder and Paramount’s Dashing in December has Peter Porte opposite Pablo Di Pace. Many of these projects also have queer writers and/or directors.