Actor Sexuality – A career impediment?

This week: Picking at Entertainment’s Gay Scab

Homosexuals can be the biggest homophobes in our industry.

Several weeks ago I received a disturbing note from a reader:

“I’ve heard that sexuality can keep you from getting represented and/or cast. One of the friends I was talking [to] told me he was going for theatrical representation and the lady didn’t want to rep him because she heard he was gay. So, his team had to cast doubts on what she heard and she ended up taking him. He has a boyfriend, but now he is staying out of the gay scene and trying to put out the “sex symbol-type image” for the females.

This wears me out.”

It wears you out? As an openly gay man I can’t believe that a community in which we work and share our lives — which is supposedly progressive on issues such as sexuality — can still behave like the near adolescent mind-set on Fox News. But we’re enablers. And by “we” I include the entire entertainment industry from actor to producer and every job in-between. We’re fine with sexuality assignment within our ranks but often try to mask or discourage on-screen and stage talent from openly having an offstage life so as to appease an insecure segment of society that hastily bangs the Bible to bash the GLBT community. Because we all know that seeing a known homosexual is a threat to continuing the populace; an asinine thought process of course. But people who follow that line of thinking conveniently overlook that in their daily lives; they meet homosexuals everywhere they go. They’re just not aware of the pink in the air. It’s not like we glow with a lavender or green aura (although I’d prefer navy blue myself).

So to placate this segment of small mindedness we ourselves have that same brain shrinkage when we toil at our labors in entertainment. God forbid little Jimmy or Jane see a man or woman happily confess their love for someone of the same gender. (Oh horror. Catastrophe appalling. Call Sarah Palin’s witch doctor!)

But we do, many of us, hide what is native to us and transform instinctive yearnings into a learned shame. Too many in our populace have been taught to hate and fear that which is different. And sometimes if that difference is within ourselves then we self-deprecate which then gets transferred into our lives and work.

Long ago I worked for a casting director who was (and remains) a big ‘ole… oh hell let me unfortunately give voice to stereo-type; ‘Nelly-girl’. As he would often make comments about his desire for me (sexual harassment, holding on line one) he would in the same breath deny consideration of a gay actor for a role citing that the actor was “too much of a big fag.” Even though the actor could play ‘straight’. (And just what the hell is the breakdown for ‘straight’? ‘Likes country music, sports bars and Kevin Spacey?’ – And yes, there is a contradiction in that description. [cough]).

Another casting director in that office – now operating his own casting agency – would rebuff hiring gay actors for straight roles despite when after meeting Harry Hamlin he rushed to Mr. Hamlin’s canvass director chair, picked it up, inhaled deeply and announced to the rest of us with vigor that he loved the smell he sniffed. Uhm, hello pig this is the monkey’s ass. You’re pink.

It’s not so much that there is a self loathing alone that prevents gay casting directors, directors, writers, producers or our heterosexual counterparts from hiring gay actors for straight roles; it’s audience reaction. If the audience knows an actor to be gay and the actor is portraying a heterosexual more often than not a portion of the audience can not disconnect that the actor is playing a role and not the actor’s real life sexuality. Those viewers believe that to play straight one must be straight. But then comes a hypocrisy with those same audience members who view a known straight actor playing a gay role; they can accept that. Why? Because in the back of their mind they know that when the actor goes home he’s not facing another man on his back who has his legs up to heaven. (Although for me, when Keanu Reeves played the ambiguous gay drifter in My Private Idaho I was praying that his off-screen heterosexuality was just myth.)

As an audience member I find myself sometimes shamefully falling into this heterosexual mind trap of “I can’t believe he’s not buttah”. Since Neil Patrick Harris came out (bravo Mr. Harris!) my head does tilt to one side when I see teases on CBS — for How I Met Your Mother — with him making straight overtures. When I viewed Anne Heche on HBO’s Hung I just kept thinking, What the hell is up with that girl? Was Ellen DeGeneres a phase or is James Tupper partner-du jour? What business is it of mine? None. Where do these thoughts originate? Societal instruction. Once again we’re back to the learned behavior of fearing what is different. (And by-the-by… for a number of us in the GLBT community heterosexuals are different. The street of what’s ‘normal’ and what is ‘not’ can be traversed in both directions.)

The industry can — at times — be very back-room-whispering quiet about its gay membership (which is very large). When writing ACTING: Make It Your Business one of The Group of Eight I interviewed began talking about what he/she termed as ‘The Gay Mafia’. A creative-coterie behind the scenes he/she believed to be comprised of influential same gender-groping-groupies (producers, directors, casting directors, agents, et. al.) that control many aspects of the industry. The conversation was very insightful, controversial and one good for debate. But the person I was interviewing asked that none of it be attributed to him/her. So in the end I had to cover up by cutting out several pages of contentious material.

Another section of the letter from the reader which prompted this mussing also represents this hush-hush mentality within our ranks:

“I’m not the ‘out type of guy’, but I do go to the bars and clubs on the weekends. I also have a few friends up-and-coming who were told recently to stop going to the bars and clubs and stop having pictures taken with other men… in that way. These guys are in their mid-20s. Hell, I’m 37 now and I know there are pics out there with ex’s and others so me trying to “change” how I am seems a little late unless I try to play that I am bi-sexual (even though I haven’t been with a female since high school).

I don’t like to advertise and don’t want folks to know my business, but I’ve heard that sexuality can keep you from getting represented and/or cast.”

I hadn’t an instant reply. But then I thought, as long as members of the GLBT community hide behind masks of heterosexuality, others who fear us will continue to think our born sexual identity to be something strange, different or an immoral choice. And that pronoun ‘us’ bothers me. We are of the same species but segmented. How much of that do we bring upon ourselves?

So, to the reader who came to me for an answer; I have none. The answer you’re seeking has to come from you. Are you going to allow others to marginalize your existence and keep you from being who you are? Will you let others change your behavior which does no harm and is part of your genetic make-up? Is not who you are more important than your choice of a career?

I give you and everyone else reading a question in return. When was the last time you ever heard of a 100% heterosexual having to come out of the closet announcing (not defending) they were straight? Or hide their assigned attraction of the opposite gender?

Oh the double standards of life than we sometimes kneel to.

My Best,

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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit


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