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5 essential tips for straight actors playing gay characters

Bill Hader

The Intenet is abuzz about Bill Hader’s recent performance in The Skeleton Twins. What can other actors learn from him?

Bill Hader is good at being gay.

Or at least, he’s good at playing gay, as far as straight actors go. While making the rounds to promote his well-received turn in the new movie, The Skeleton Twins, Hader has repeatedly been asked not only about his performance as Milo, a gay man whose failed acting career prompts a suicide attempt, but also about comparisons between Milo and Stefon, the flamboyant travel “expert” he made virally popular on Saturday Night Live. And justifiably so, these comparisons have surprised him.

Jason Lamphier described the unlikeliness of drawing such parallels for Out magazine. Lamphier wrote, “There’s hardly a trace of Hader’s fidgety, cartoonish Stefon in Milo. In many of the film’s scenes, the actor sits with his shoulders slumped, his heavy-lidded eyes glazed with defeat. His humor is rarely goofy, but rather bone-dry and caustic (Milo’s suicide note: ‘To whom it may concern: See ya later’).”

However, what’s really interesting in Hader’s case is not simply that he’s pulled off two different portraits of gay men, but how well he’s pulled them off, and how little either character’s sexuality ultimately has to do with who they are. He’s received praise for showing off his dramatic chops as Milo, but that praise hasn’t stemmed from the fact that he’s a straight man playing a gay character. It’s stemmed from the fact that he’s a good actor playing an interesting person.

And even his performance as Stefon, culturally specific as it is, has less to do with Stefon being gay than it has to do with Stefon being nuts, as Hader reiterated on Late Night with Seth Meyers this week. It’s like he told Michael Musto, also of Out Magazine, “We kept saying, ‘The joke isn’t that he’s gay, the joke is that he’s bad at his job.’ I find it funny when someone is being patient with an insane person.” This is why Stefon managed to be funny, without reading as inherently offensive (not that SNL can’t be plenty offensive, as Hader himself has apologized for). In his craziness, Stefon was as realized as a sketch character could be, and that’s where the laughs came from. His romance with Meyers was just an added bonus.

We’ve reached an interesting time for LGBT representation in pop culture. As the debate rages on about gayface, and whether it’s okay for straight people to play gay characters at all, there are seemingly more LGBT individuals involved in every aspect of the entertainmet industry. Consider that this year saw the arrival of The Normal Heart, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s seminal play, which starred multiple gay actors (despite featuring Mark Ruffalo as the lead.) That said, when gay actors are still routinely limited by the supposedly liberal bastion that is Hollywood in terms of what roles they are allowed to play, obviously something remains very wrong with the current system.

Oscar darlings like Brokeback Mountain and Milk have proven that straight actors who embrace the gay experience are that much more likely to receive award nominations. But that doesn’t necessarily make for nuanced gay characters. If anything, it just creates awards-bait for straight actors. We’ve come a long way since Denzel Washington supposedly told Will Smith not to kiss a man onscreen (a decision Smith has since said he regrets, following the chastisement of Sir Ian McKellen), but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Using Hader as a sort of template, now is a great time to examine what the essential rules are for straight actors playing gay characters onscreen.

1. Don’t let being gay define the character

After BuzzFeed and CNN put out a listicle last year entitled, “20 great roles: Our favorite straight actors who have played gay characters,” Flavorwire’s Tyler Coates angrily declared that this kind of content was “indicative of not just the mindset that straight actors who play gay characters should be heralded for their bravery, but also of the poor and limited cinematic depictions of the gay experience.”

We’ll get to the idea that playing gay is “brave” later, but for now, let’s concentrate on his comment about “limited cinematic depictions.” It’s true, too many movies support the idea that if you’re gay, your gayness is what solely defines you. And too many paint being gay as one thing, or, even worse, they paint it as the worst thing, that is, the single worst thing that any person can experience.

While no one is denying that being gay can be hard, there’s obviously a lot more to it than that. Hader actually said as much to the Wall Street Journal. He mentioned, “One of the things I liked about the script was that being gay wasn’t his problem.”

In other cases, gay characters are defined only through stereotypes. Last year, assistant editor J. Bryan Lowder at Slate quipped that, “Gay representations on mainstream screens are still so limited, mainly a series of variations on ‘the nance‘ (which, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy), the (often AIDS) tragedy case, or the ‘post-gay’ type who is boringly histrionic in his own ‘I’m conflicted about gay culture’ way.”

But the gay community is too big and too varied for any one type to define its entirety. That’s why, as Hader has found with The Skeleton Twins, straight actors shouldn’t worry about doing justice to some kind of larger movement. They should worry about doing justice to the specific character they are playing, because showing that there are many different types of gay individuals out there does more for LGBT rights than any sweeping generalizations ever will.

2. Don’t try to represent the whole gay community.

Just as there’s no one trait that defines every gay man, there’s no one character who can define the whole gay community. The “nance,” the “tragedy case,” and the “post-gay type,” as defined by Lowder, are all merely symptoms of a discernable person. But an actual personality, none of them make.

Talking about Milo and Stefon to Musto, Hader said, “The only thing those two guys have in common is they’re gay.” And indeed, that might very well be the only two things any number of gay characters have in common. Would anybody compare Cam from Modern Family to Omar from The Wire? This is an outgrowth of the more important truth that no two gay men are alike in real life either.

To wit, there is no intrinsically perfect gay character, created in a lab by scientists and tested for optimum performance, who can sum up what it is to be gay for everyone. Sexuality is a fragmented thing from person to person, and who a person is beyond their sexuality is even more fragmented than that.

3. Be respectful.

It seems like a no-brainer, yet straight actors consistently miss the boat on this one. For instance, Michael Douglas was criticized on the awards circuit last year, while being rewarded for his much-acclaimed performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, after using phrases like “mincing” and “two-hander” in acceptance speeches.

It’s not likely that Douglas thought these words would be perceived as offensive. In his mind, they were harmless jokes. And that’s part of the problem. Despite having enough respect for LGBT people to deliver a committed performance as a gay icon, Douglas didn’t make the connection that respect and tribute aren’t enough. There also has to be a sense of self-awareness. Worse than that, there’s the possibility that he felt like playing a gay character gave him some kind of special privilege to say whatever he wanted.

A great performance is fine, but it doesn’t exempt a straight actor from showing some basic courtesy. Because there isn’t any performance, especially from a straight person, that can completely sum up what it is to be gay. No one is that good of an actor. And part of being not only a talented performer, but a decent human being, is realizing that.

4. But don’t act like you’re saving the world.

As Coates stated above, over time, playing gay has often been seen as “brave,” as if to inhabit the headspace of someone whose sexuality was different from yours, even for a moment, was risky business.

This tends to foster an attitude in some actors, which suggests they are doing tantamount to humanitarian work by engaging with the LGBT community. A great example of this is James Franco, whose professional (and sometimes personal) life often comes off as a straight man’s attempt to make himself a martyr for the gay cause, so much so that he’s been accused of queerbaiting based on his career choices.

Last year, Franco told The Daily Beast, “It’s not like it’s my mission to tell the stories of as many gay men as possible, although in some cases, I think it is the point.”

Wait, what?

He clarifies, “In Milk, the point is to show one of the great fighters for equal rights for the gay community, so I was happy to do that. With characters like Allen Ginsberg [in Howl], my love for him started with his work when I was a teenager. So his sexuality is secondary to me… But I feel like because I’ve done more gay characters, gay scenes, or gay projects than most straight actors, people see it as some sort of mission.”

Excellent, Franco isn’t on some sort of mission then. So why does it feel like he is?

The reason is because Franco appears to believe his investment in the gay community is important, that his decision to play gay roles is about something bigger than acting. “I guess you could say that I am appropriating parts of queer culture,” he said in another interview, “but I feel like one of my roles as an artist is to ask questions and to help create fissures in accepted, normalized ways of thinking. And not in all cases, but in a lot of the cases you mentioned, the sexuality of the characters helps me to do that.”

Thanks, dude, the gays totally needed you to create all those fissures for them.

The fundamental issue here is that this attitude eclipses the real problems gay men and women have to deal with throughout history. It’s natural to shed a tear or two when watching something like Tom Hanks’ Oscar speech for Philadelphia. But if Tom Hanks is the first thing that pops into your head when you think of the AIDS crisis, then you’ve missed the boat entirely.

5. Above all else, just do your damn job.

Isn’t this the most important duty for any creative person?

Discussing her Oscar-nominated role in 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, Annette Bening said that, “It’s really a very simple story—family, teenage kids. The moms have been together their whole lives, one of them has an affair, and they stay together in the end. The details are very specific to our time and these two women. But it’s just a story. It’s not even about being gay. That’s just incidental.”

Given the plot of The Kids Are All RIght, “incidental” is not exactly the most accurate description, but Bening’s point is solid. Stories have power, but at the end of the day, The Kids Are All Right is just a story. And Bening’s job in that story was to tap into what made her character unique. But that would be her job on any movie. That her character in The Kids Are All Right is a lesbian was one element of her job, but it wasn’t the only element.

Craig Johnson, the openly gay director of The Skeleton Twins, said to The Advocate, “My favorite queer films had less to do with the fact that they were about a queer character but more that they were great films that integrated queer characters into a compelling story.” What this means is that the primary responsibility of anyone involved with any film, gay or straight, is to tell the story the best they can. Worrying about making an impact has to be secondary, because no matter how lofty your ideas are, if the story sucks, no one will care.

This was how Hader found his character, too. In an interview with Pride Source, he talked about making conscious decisions as a straight man playing a gay character: “I didn’t think about it that way, to be completely honest. You just kind of do it and you find a part of you that’s this Venn diagram, where you overlay with the character.”

This is the most important lesson for all actors to learn, no matter who they are or who they’re playing. If you can’t find some common ground with a character, you might as well just give up now, because finding common ground is your job. And after all, if you’re not able to buy yourself as the character you’re playing, how will anybody else?

Everyone on this planet is a singular creation, from the LGBT community and beyond. But we also have enough in common that we should be able to wrestle up some human decency when it comes to interacting with one another. A great performance is about making a connection, as making connections is what helps us survive on a daily basis. So ideally, making a connection isn’t too much to ask of the average straight actor, or of the average human being.

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.