As we tear down old barriers, don’t put up new ones
In response to It’s a Sin creator, Russell T. Davies, Nick Powell considers the necessity of casting authenticity
It is a debate that has increasingly become prevalent in our society and the world of cinema and television: Should straight people be allowed to portray gay characters, or is this depriving gay actors of opportunities they should be given, and viewers of an authenticity that makes for better viewing?
For Russell T. Davies, the writer and executive producer of the highly praised It’s a Sin, it is very important. The man behind the groundbreaking Queer as Folk and Doctor Who’s hugely successful revival recently commented in an interview with the Radio Times that he cast actors “to act as a lover, or an enemy, or someone on drugs or a criminal or a saint…they are not there to ‘act gay’ because ‘acting gay’ is a bunch of codes for a performance. It’s about authenticity, the taste of 2020.”
The Welshman went on to argue that “you wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t black someone up. Authenticity is leading us to joyous places.”
What’s behind Davies’ thinking, is that having moved past the point where being gay should be the primary aspect of a gay character’s personality, which has been the norm since homosexuals were first portrayed in television and film (albeit to an ever decreasing degree), we should not see it as something to be acted, rather something that should be automatic for the actor to understand themselves. In doing this, the actor can expand the role of the gay character into whatever they will do or be in the show.
the damage of that difference is fading with each passing generation, but it will always be there
To a degree, this makes a lot of sense. Without wanting to preach in any way, being gay is incredibly difficult to understand from the perspective of a straight person. There are things that I have been through, felt and experienced that I wouldn’t have otherwise had I been straight, and such experiences I have often only ever heard happen to other LGBT+ people.
There is no question that we have different lives. Whilst being attracted to the same sex should have no difference in law, being gay will always be different to being straight. From being criminals before 1967, to being ostracised over the AIDS crisis 20 years later – the subject of It’s a Sin – to being inaccurately and stereotypically portrayed in the media through my early childhood and being used as a secondary school insult in the years and months recent to my coming out and beyond; the damage of that difference is fading with each passing generation, but it will always be there.
This is the simple explanation for why gay pride is so highly valued in the community, it’s like a burst of relief for many after so much pent-up pain, and why proponents and advocates of “straight pride” – which I was myself before discovering my truth – are so desperately lacking in understanding or sensitivity.
Even when you, then your friends, then your family, finally come to terms with the reality of what your life will be, there are always barriers to get past in terms of personal acceptance and self-esteem, and working out your place in the world. It was this which Davies captured wonderfully in his 2015 series Cucumber, an arguably overly lascivious show but one that, despite having a lead character (Henry) being in his mid-40s, he so clearly related to me with many of the challenges that I have faced, and many gay people have.
It is that piece of his own work however, that forms the basis of my disagreement with Davies. Whilst Vincent Franklin, who portrays the central character in Cucumber, has never explicitly confirmed he is straight, this was strongly implied in an interview where he remarked: “It’s irrelevant. Henry is gay. I played a Tory party spin doctor for five years and nobody said to me, are you really a Tory? But as soon as you play a gay character, people want to know if you’re really gay. It’s all just acting.”
In justifying why a straight actor could play a gay character, he pointed out in an interview for The Guardian at the time: “What I do is pretending to be other people. They’re never me. I am 46, I have been in love, I have been unhappy, I have worried about the future, and all of these things that Henry’s doing.”
Though this might seem to underplay the lived experience I have referred to throughout this article, Franklin’s remarkably accurate performance and ability to portray it, and the mind-set of some modern gay men’s struggle for their homosexual self-actualisation, was so perfectly executed it did, for me, render the question of the actor’s own sexuality irrelevant.
Whatever Franklin did to learn how to portray the character so congenially, he did it well, and the character of Henry went far beyond being simply gay. His portrayal of the character had so much more to his personality than “a bunch of codes for a performance,” the aforementioned fear Davies has when straight actors portray gay people.
In the meantime, it is worth mentioning that It’s a Sin is truly outstanding. It is, in my opinion, Davies’ finest piece of work (a return to form after the muddled Years and Years) and perhaps his crowning achievement. Indeed the all-gay cast were perfect to portray such a dark hour in their history, and it could strongly be argued that they connected with their characters more powerfully as a result of their common sexuality.
By putting up such barriers as Davies proposes, we simply replace the previous ones that society has put up against us
However, this does not need to set a precedent or be a general rule. Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth have every right to portray a gay couple – also in tragic circumstances – in the upcoming film Supernova. Previously overly-flamboyant portrayals of gay men pales in comparison to the decades of mockery and subjugation associated with wearing blackface, and Davies was somewhat insensitive to make such a comparison.
It is vital that any straight actor who embarks on playing the role of a gay character understands as best they can what it is like to be gay. Though even I have found it hard to fully express what that is here, it is possible to understand, and not so difficult that a straight actor cannot expand their gay character’s personality beyond sexuality. Furthermore I would hope any self-respecting actor would not take a role they feel they could not adequately appreciate the experience of.
Indeed many aspiring actors are gay, and not only should they not be deprived of the opportunity to play straight characters – who make up the vast majority of roles – but it should also follow that straight actors, having learned their trade alongside gay people, would be able to understand gay life, at least to some degree.
Looking forward, as gay relationships continue becoming progressively more normal, we should be working to break divides in lived experience, allowing actors to portray characters of any sexuality without having to adopt any related ‘mindset’.
By putting up such barriers as Davies proposes, we simply replace the previous ones that society has put up against us. Whilst many of us carry the pride of being different – something some are scared to let go of – the more we normalise homosexual relationships, the easier it will be for the next generation of gay people, and the less pain they will have for it.
It’s a Sin continues at 9pm on Friday on Channel 4, with all episodes already available on All 4.