Can you be gay and happy in Hollywood?
There was a time, now long lost in a mist of theatrical dry ice, when audiences had a taste for ham. They liked their acting big, artificial, transporting – theatrical, if you will. A leading actor might play Hamlet on Monday, Caliban on Wednesday and Lear on Friday, and he would achieve his transformations with greasepaint, false noses and an elastic array of voices and walks. If you were an actor-manager like Henry Irving you would seize the best part and attack it with gusto, and deliver a full-blooded, barnstorming performance.
A century or so on, there is really no place for that sort of thing. The arrival of cinema and the more sophisticated, subtle playwriting of the twentieth century combined to narrow the scope of our drama and bring about an appetite for a more naturalistic style of acting. These days we look to our actors for truth. We like our phrases broken and halting, our gestures restrained and our dialogue overlapping to the point of incomprehensibility.
And this appetite for candour extends to the real lives of actors. We want to know what goes on back stage – where they live, how they live, and, most importantly, with whom. A leading actor’s job description seems to require total disclosure.
Of course, things have been like this since the golden days of Valentino and Louise Brooks. It picked up pace when the first paparazzi chased Burton and Taylor through Rome in the 60s, and now we have arrived at the point where most tabloids and celebrity magazines feel at liberty to invent wild, contradictory fantasies about Jennifer Aniston on a daily basis.
We are used to celebrities being fodder for gossip columns. We want our stars to live more interesting lives than ours – more torrid, more dramatic; and ideally they should be as close to their on-screen personae as possible – the strong, silent type, the ditzy-unlucky-in-love-girl-next-door – but things becomes more complicated when this attitude starts to infect the casting process.
If you want someone to play a smouldering sex symbol, it seems that they must smoulder in real life too. Witness Bret Easton Ellis’s remarks when it was suggested that gay actor Matt Bomer should play the lead role in Fifty Shades of Grey. He claimed it ‘demands a man who is genuinely into women’.
There are holes in this argument for all to see, but basically Ellis’s point can be countered by the fact that what actors are doing in films is acting. Jamie Dornan may well be heterosexual, but that doesn’t mean he’s really attracted to Dakota Johnson, and since it is not a porn film, the actors won’t really be having sex. So it doesn’t matter if Dornan fancies Johnson or not, or she him, as they will be pretending that they do. All actors do – all the time – is pretend. They pretend to be sad when they are happy, to be English when they are American, they even pretend to be apes when they are humans. This is their job. And usually, audiences are happy to accept this. We suspend our disbelief because we are following the story.
But the gay/straight conundrum won’t seem to shift. Producers and casting directors still seem unwilling to cast gay actors in straight leading (i.e. romantic) roles. This has had drastic consequences for gay actors for decades. When Hollywood, television – even the apparently liberal world of the theatre – run scared of casting openly gay actors in those roles, even if the actor fits the part perfectly, the consequence has been that many of those actors choose to conceal their sexuality so they can continue to work. This point was raised by Benedict Cumberbatch in a recent interview with OUT magazine:
“I think if you’re going to sell yourself as a leading man in Hollywood,” he says, “to say ‘I’m gay,’ sadly, is still a huge obstacle. We all know actors who are [gay] who don’t want to talk about it or bring it up, or who deny it. I don’t really know what they do to deal with it.”
And this is my biggest concern – just how do they deal with it?
I struggled for a long time with whether to come out or not, and it wasn’t until drama school that I felt ready to be honest about it. But once I did, I felt much bolder in my acting, as well as in the rest of my life. Of course an audience need never know the details of our off-stage lives – and frankly they are usually less interesting than those we play out on stage or screen. But I think we need to have access to our real selves in order to empathise with a character: if a script asks an actor to play a love scene, most of us will draw on our own experiences to help us. Perhaps we might substitute a real lover from our own life for the other actor in the scene, and summon up the feeling of being in love. But how much harder must it be to show those feelings if we have always kept our sexuality in check, and never really expressed our true selves?
If acting is about telling the truth of human existence, then it must benefit your acting to be truthful to yourself – and conversely, surely your acting must suffer if you are living a lie.
So why stay in the closet? Who makes that decision? I think we tend to imagine a Svengali-like agent or manager telling his client to hide the truth for the sake of his career – to attend the premiere with a girl on his arm or dodge the relationship question in interviews, and clearly some pressure must be exerted from on high, at producer-level at least. Witness the complicated case of Luke Evans, who was very open about being gay a decade ago as a stage actor in London, then became much more cagey once his Hollywood profile was rising and he had publicists steering his interviews. Happily, he now seems willing to discuss it again, as in this recent interview.
Evans is a member of a small but significant group, including Ezra Miller and Neil Patrick Harris, who are openly gay but are still being cast in straight leading roles, and which is hopefully a sign of a more positive attitude in the future. But they are still very much a courageous minority. As Bret Easton Ellis said: ‘Hollywood is the most homophobic place in the entire world.’
But what if it comes from the actor him/herself? Inevitably all this homophobia must be internalised at some level.
Ultimately there is a choice to be made, between leading a successful career, and living a happy, open life. Which is more important? I can remember the fear of my sexuality being found out, of giving myself away. But that was 20-something years ago. I can’t imagine still carrying those fears with me now, and certainly not in the job I love.