Acting Straight

MAX DURSTON looks at Ramin Setoodeh’s criticism of gay actors in straight roles.

celebrities gay actors homophobia Musical newsweek ramin setoodeh sean hayes will and grace

Can gay actors play straight characters convincingly?

Not according to Newsweek correspondent Ramin Setoodeh, whose article ‘Straight Jacket’ has drawn accusations of homophobia for its controversial content. Setoodeh asserts that once an actor comes out of the closet we are unable to accept him or her as a credible heterosexual, giving Sean Hayes’ performance in the recent Broadway revival of the musical ‘Promises, Promises’ as proof of his point. 

Hayes is better known as the effeminate Jack in the popular sitcom ‘Will and Grace’, which, for Setoodeh at least, means that his portrayal of the lovesick straight man Chuck in ‘Promises, Promises’ is a pill too hard to swallow. He insists that because the members of the audience are aware of the actor’s sexual orientation, it is impossible for them to be convinced by his professions of heterosexual love on stage.

Hayes’ co-star Kristen Chenoweth has said that the article is 'horrendously homophobic', a sentiment echoed by the man behind hit television series ‘Glee’, Ryan Murphy, for whom the article is even more surprising because Ramin Setoodeh is himself an openly gay man. ‘Glee’ was not fortunate enough to escape Setoodeh’s sharp tongue either: new addition to the cast, Jonathan Groff was also cited as being unbelievable in a straight role. 

But it is here that Setoodeh’s hypocritical argument begins to unravel. He compliments Groff’s role in the musical ‘Spring Awakening’, where he played a heterosexual teen discovering his sexuality, calling him a 'heartthrob.' So Groff, an openly gay actor, has pulled off a successful straight performance before? And there’s more. Neil Patrick Harris and Portia de Rossi, both successful and happy homosexuals, have given performances pleasing to Mr Setoodeh on television; although he insists that the characters they have portrayed are unrealistic 'caricatures', which is why they get away with it. 

However, the same could be argued of straight actors who play over the top gay men; in a more subtle, nuanced performance, their heterosexuality will overshadow the role. But this is not the case for Setoodeh, who seems perfectly happy to take Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger on face value as confused cowboys. So why do these rainbow-tinted spectacles only work one way?

Even in our forward-thinking modern society, homosexuality still carries a stigma. An audience’s reception of a performance is coloured by their perception of the performer: Tom Cruise is taken less seriously as an actor because of his commitment to Scientology, for example. Whilst neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality have any bearing on an actor’s performance, the latter does, unfortunately, percolate in the mind of the audience member, be he or she straight or gay. People are so caught up on the sexuality of public figures, that when it is revealed, they are unable to forget it. 

But the best actors are those who we can forget about; it is the characters that they become who stick in our minds. As an audience, it is our job to suspend our disbelief and let ourselves become absorbed in the world that the actor creates for us. I was shocked, as I’m sure many of you were, to find out that Johnny Depp was not in fact a real-life pirate, but this did not detract from my enjoyment of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films. If we are able to take the leap of faith to accept Depp as a swashbuckling buccaneer, why can we not take the baby-steps to see Hayes as a straight man?

Setoodeh concludes his article by asking whether we would still accept an actor 'of the stature of George Clooney' as a heterosexual leading man if he were to come out of the closet. Perhaps this would prove that gay people can in fact play straight roles convincingly, if, after years of doing so as an ostensibly straight man, Clooney were to announce that a little gold statuette was not the only Oscar he was longing for. Setoodeh and anyone else who couldn’t overlook orientation would be forced to admit that they were fooled by someone who was only playing it straight.