Should straight actors stay clear of LGBTQIA+ roles?

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Photo credit: Hanna Budzko - Getty Images
Photo credit: Hanna Budzko - Getty Images

Another week, another James Cordon drama. This time, the actor and comedian was the subject of a petition gaining over 90,000 signatures (at the time of writing) which seeks to “Keep James Corden out of Wicked the movie [sic]” after news broke that Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo had been cast in the upcoming Broadway adaptation. Is Cordon even up for this role? Honestly, who even knows, but he does seem to pop up whenever the words "musical" and "theatre" are uttered. Whether or not he's actually being considered for the Wicked film, you’re probably wondering what this seemingly harmless man has done to inspire the ire of so many people on the internet, right? Let’s fill you in.

Firstly, Cordon has already appeared in some disappointing musical adaptations: Amazon’s Cinderella (where he was accused of making “a #Girlboss fairytale only a voracious capitalist could love”) and the much maligned Cats movie, which reportedly lost $100 million at the box office. But perhaps the most damning moment of his career so far can be traced back to Cordon’s appearance in Prom: the Netflix musical from American Horror Story producer Ryan Murphy. When the film dropped on the streaming service last year, the straight comedian’s portrayal of a gay Broadway actor was accused of relying on “gross and offensive” stereotypes – and since then, dragging Cordon for sport and actively trying to sabotage his career seems to have been considered fair game.

IMO, there’s rarely a justification for the kind of social media hounding which Cordon has received in the year since (remember when we are all promising to #BeKind?) but his fall further from grace does prompt an important question: is it ever okay for cisgender, heterosexual people to play members of the queer community on screen?

Before we get to answering that question, here’s some context: Olivia Colman, Sean Penn, Hilary Swank, Jared Leto, Nicole Kidman and Rami Malek, none of whom have publicly owned an LGBTQIA+ identity, have all won Oscars for playing members of the community. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if queer actors and their cis-het counterparts enjoyed the same opportunities in the entertainment industry. As a stark contrast, no trans person has even been nominated in an acting category at the Academy Awards besides Elliott Page and the number of gay or lesbian actors who have been out at the time of winning in the Best Actor or Actress category currently stands at zero.

Hollywood seems slow to celebrate queer actors, an imbalance which seems to benefit, however indirectly, their straight, cisgender counterparts. Is it time to call time on this trend? Where once queer audiences were grateful to straight and cisgender actors who were “taking a risk” to play LGBTQIA+ roles, with the stigma potentially harming their career prospects, it now seems like they can use these roles to snag their first Oscar then walk away unscathed. We’re not saying it’s not important that these stories continue to get made (and, let’s be real, there’s a real hunger for this kind of representation among audiences) but is it time that the community itself undertakes the storytelling?

Beyond the Cordon drama, queer audiences are already calling out for this to happen - and some actors are listening. In 2018, Scarlett Johanssen (eventually) withdrew from a project where she was cast as trans man Dante Tex Gill. In the same year, Darren Criss announced that he would no longer play queer roles with the rationale that he was blocking those opportunities being given to LGBTQIA+ actors.

Ultimately, what Criss explained in his statement seems to be the crux of the matter: casting agents would rather place bankable straight and cis actors in LGBTQIA+ projects than give that same chance to the queer actors who might not be called in for more “mainstream” roles. It’s as if execs are content with an LGBTQIA+ storyline without a queer actor behind it who might make the role their own: providing the nuances that would catapult the character beyond the confines of the cis-het understanding and into the realms of lived experience.

But we also need to consider the flipside. In an increasingly fluid world who are we to put hard and fast rules down about how people identify and the roles they should be able to play? Moreover, when we acknowledge that queer actors aren’t given the same opportunities as straight and cis ones, we should also be able to understand that not all actors feel like they can be open about their identities. Need we remember that it was only in 2019 when Bella Thorne explained that speaking out about her sexuality lost her roles?

Until we live in a truly equal world, we can’t assume that all people who are LGBTQIA+, even those in Hollywood, are out – and equally nobody should be forced to disclose their identity just to play a part. To push the needle forward we should be celebrating and uplifting queer casting that feels particularly authentic, not tearing down celebrities on the internet. After all, aren’t we al just looking to build a more accepting world, both on- and off-screen?

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