Nathan Lane Says Straight Actors Should Be Able To Play Gay Roles

Nathan Lane

As gay actors and actresses, as well as gay roles, are becoming more prominent some productions are coming under fire for casting straight men and women to play gay. Will & Grace was once the target of such ire for casting straight actor Eric McCormick as the titular gay man, and The Normal Heart caught some flak for straight actor Mark Ruffalo playing a gay role. Award-winning actor Nathan Lane disagrees with such rigid ruling. Speaking at Live from the Lincoln Center panel on Tuesday, he said:

That way only madness lies[…]I think who's right for the part and most talented [should be hired].

There is wisdom to that. Should actors only stick with roles that align with their orientation we never would have had the wonder that is Eric Stonestreet as Cam Tucker.


  1. richard says

    I’ve never understood this debate. The profession is performance. ACTING. Fakery. Facade. Storytelling. The sexuality of the actor is utterly irrelevant.

  2. MaryM says

    In an ideal world the best actor should be hired. But seeing as actors are actively discouraged from coming out by their agents, then it’s only fair that whenever possible gay role should go to gay actors.

  3. will says

    Please. Let the writers and directors figure out & cast the best actor for their particular production without all this backseat driving from the ducks and geese at Towleroad!

  4. Pitt90 says

    Well, I’m glad to see he agrees. I’m a theater professor, and back when I was pounding pavement as an actor, I almost always got cast as the straight character, even in gay plays! I did “Breaking the Code” and most of the male characters were gay, and I got cast as the straight MI5 agent that destroyed Alan Turning’s career!. I wouldn’t have acted much if I’d have only been able to play gay characters. 😉

  5. ben~andy says

    I’m sorry, MaryM, but we LIVE in the ideal world. The “best” actor is already cast. This is the actor that the creative people think “fits the part”, is available, for the money they can pay, is willing to play the part. For instance, we all pretty much suspect that Travolta is at least bi and Cruise is gay, but they ain’t likely to accept a part that opens the closet door too widely.

    So, you’d rather we only get the out actors playing gay roles? And I guess that limits the opportunities going the other way too? No Eric Stonestreet as Cam, no NPH as Barney, no homo-erotic roles for Hugh Jackman or Ben Affleck, no zany androgenous roles for Ralph Fienne [a revelation as M. Gustav in The Grand Budapest Hotel] or Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper. I’m sure there are women’s examples, not my forte.

    As a gay man who acts, I’ll audition for any ROLE I thought I could play WELL, gay, straight, middlesex, non-sexual. I’m a tea totaler but can act drunk and don’t do drugs but find it easy to play stoned. I’ve observed others in those conditions, as I’ve observed straight people all my life and gay people from college on. Producers NOT giving me a role because I was “too gay” could either be a creative choice or a homophobic bias or a little bit of both.

    Leslie Jordan tells that when he was asked to do a recruiting commercial for the US Navy, that he kept trying to “butch it up” when what they really wanted was for him to “fey it up”. They HAD cast the actor they wanted.

    The next step on that mad road Nathan talks about is to only listen to music by gay performers [and who knew Peter Hollens was straight!], only look at paintings by gay artists, only eat food produced by gay farmers, bakers, chefs & fast food outlets [perish the thought, a gay fast food restaurant is just a completely WRONG idea]. Sorry, that’s a ghetto I want to live in. But I hope you enjoy it.

  6. Richard says

    Of course anyone should be allowed to play anything, but, first, several so-called straight actors aren’t really. Second, a gay actor has a level of understanding about a gay character’s life few straight actors could attain through research. Third, straight actors tend to add annoying campy flourishes to gay portrayals to indicate “gayness.” Fourth, talent trumps some of the above.

  7. crispy says

    This is and has always been a silly, insipid argument from the time David Ehrenstein complained about all 4 leads in Brokeback being straight to those complaining today about The Normal Heart or even True Blood.

    For the record, Tom Cruise is not actually a fighter pilot. Anthony Perkins is not actually a murderer. And Russell Crowe is not actually a gladiator.

    It’s acting.

  8. says

    alas, it’s the wrong question. it’s not about whether or not a straight person “should be able” to play gay roles, it’s about whether or not openly-gay actors are ever going to be able to considered viable casting options. and that’ll take time. there’s a glass ceiling for women of a certain age, for people of colour, and for LGBT people. straight white men can play whatever they want, as the roles are written for them, even when the roles are gay.
    within each subgroup of “not a straight white man” actors there are the few handfuls who get considered for roles. in time, hopefully, there will be room for more than just a handful.

  9. Seanumich says

    @ Richard,

    You said, “a gay actor has a level of understanding about a gay character’s life few straight actors could attain through research”

    I guess Law and Order SVU shoudl only hire convicted rapists and murders to TRULY understand the mindset of those characters. Maybe next we will start banishing Americans for playing roles that are Britishor vice versa.
    Whoopi Goldberg has said in her career that if she waited for roles that called for middle aged black woman with dreads she wouldn’t be in any films. She would audition and try for ANY role available.

  10. john says

    Watching Mark Ruffalo in the Normal Heart, I was amazed by how convincing he was. I don’t think a gay actor could have done it as well or any better.

  11. Derrick from Philly says

    It’s a difficult question for me. I’d like to see LGBT folks play LGBT characters. But I want LGBT folks to play heteros also.

    This discussion reminds me of when I saw Jeffrey Wright in “Angels In America” (the TV version). You couldn’t convince me that Jeffrey Wright wasn’t Gay. He must’ve observed and studied Black Gay men for a year before doing that part.

    Some actors (Gay or Straight) are just damned good at acting.

  12. pablo says

    Obviously straights should be able to play gay, but the the issue is that there isn’t enough representation of gays in media as it is. So that’s why people get upset. Gays really aren’t getting the big roles (proportional to population) as straights are, so when they don’t even get the roles that they could most likely channel and empathize with, there must be something going on under the surface — and that’s that there is still a stigma. Gay stories are fine, but a gay actor? Yikes.

  13. says

    There is much wisdom in the comments of Little Kiwi and Richard. I will add that if an actor known to be Straight plays a Gay role and turns it into a stereotypical mess with no nuance at all, we the Gay public have the right to rip him a new assh*le! And too, a Gay actor who does the same thing shouldn’t be above criticism.

  14. Sean says

    @ Richard. You’re right it’s a ridiculous manufactured issue. I want to direct the actor who can and will do the part. I do not care in the least who he loves. If it’s a gay role and the straight guy brings it, he’s in and vice versa.

  15. JJ says

    What @LITTLE KIWI said. The issue isn’t straight actors getting cast in gay roles. It’s Hollywood systematically excluding openly gay actors from any role that has a romantic or sexual dimension. Gay roles are reserved for confirmed straight actors to prove their credentials: what serious actors they are and how impressively they can transform. Casting a straight actor in a dramatic gay role is an opportunity for an Oscar, and the valuable publicity that comes with it. Not so when casting a gay actor in the same role. There’s nothing special about an actor playing himself. Tropic Thunder—where Robert Downey Jr. plays a white actor cast as a black man—satires this brilliantly.

    On the other hand, straight roles are reserved for straight actors, because, we’re told, audiences won’t believe and desire an openly gay actor in a straight role. And a gay actor playing straight isn’t impressive. It’s boring. Almost everyone and every role is straight. Straight is ordinary.

  16. MATTROCKS says

    “Trolls always think they’re right…..” says one of the biggest trolls on this board. Constant b*tching and complaining from that one.

  17. Daniel says

    I think the argument was more valid back in the day when it was pretty much impossible for out gay actors to be cast in any role at all. This kind of thinking has changed to a large extent.

    I agree with Nathan Lane, though I do have to say that when a gay actor plays a gay role it is nice not to have them hear about how bravenotgaygrossedout they are.

  18. Gregory in Seattle says

    Following this, there is no reason why white actors cannot be hired to play black or Asian roles, correct? Just slap on some make-up, have them act… it’s all good. Right?

  19. Just_a_guy says

    Doesn’t it seem probable that straight actors playing gay overdo it with the femininity out of ignorance and assumptions? The percent of overly effeminate gay male characters—compared to in my experience a much smaller percent of gay men in real life–seems to support this suggestion.

    Idk, maybe that’s what these straight men feel they need to bring to a gay character for their own messed up personal reasons? But if so, isn’t that the wrong reason for such straight men to take/get the part?!

  20. Just_a_guy says

    Another challenge with straight men playing gay:

    -the most well-known gay characters are played effeminate because that’s the stereotype and maybe that’s what helped push them out of the closet. I’m fine with that. And I’m not here to judge effeminacy. The fact that some gay men are (sexily) effeminate is not the problem.

    The problem is that more masculine gay men are too often erased from visibility by mainstream/popular culture–never mind that such men are more common in my experience that more highly effeminate ones. I posit that straight men playing effeminate gays exascerbates the invisibility of more masculine gay men in popular culture.

    Yes, lil K, now give your lecture that it’s all the fault of masculine gay men who don’t come out enough or far enough. Except that doesn’t solve anything to give that lecture (again), Lil k. Why shouldn’t we fight on multiple fronts to raise our visibility as the men we really just ARE?! And as part of that, why NOT scoff at some straight actors DEFAULT feminization of gay male characters they play.

    As significantly, I have trouble buying that straight actors dully simply playing their own “masc” fits the bill either. No, I want representations that actually grasp with reality and the challenges gay men have to fight against and deal with internally too…

  21. MATTROCKS says

    Oh, really JUST A GUY? You don’t think we know it is you RICK? There may be multiple voices in your head talking, doesn’t mean you have to bring voice to them under different screen names here. Seek help dude!

  22. Just_a_guy says

    Lol, Mattrocks. Dude, u obvi don’t follow my comments. I’m so not Rick. I think Rick is nutso. I almost always disagree with Rick. And I only occasionally sympathize with him. Moreover, this is no such occasion.

  23. says

    Stuffed Animal and I do *not* share the same view, actually.

    Not when nuance comes into play.

    Gays never get to play The Great Gay Roles – and we’re never considered for most straight ones. Not because “we can’t pass”, per se, but because “public knowledge of gay” trumps all – as in, people say things like “well, i can still tell that he’s gay!” – which really just means “my idea of him overrides the character” – similar, really, to the slump(s) of Travolta and Cruise – people see the Crazy, not the actor.

    Actors like Pacino and Nicholson get to keep their idiosyncrasies – their specific ISMS – in nearly all the roles they play. And it’s accepted. An openly gay actor has all of his/her “isms” criticized and judged more highly.

    nuance – i like when gays play, and give life and worth, to characters that this site’s trolls would dismiss as “Stereotypical.” I was a teen when Will & Grace was on – Sean Hayes’ JACK? He inspired me. I didn’t see a “negative stereotype” – I, as a teenager, saw what i wanted to be one day: a gay man who lived out loud, and didn’t care what others thought.

    The trickle-down effects of “straight playing non-stereotypical gay” is the legion of sad and clueless homos who think that “they’re more like that character played by the straight guy” – and they’re always wrong. you know the types. the guys with the flat-footed yet hip-rolling gait of a closet queen who mistakenly believes that everyone thinks he’s straight. Mhmmm.

    i quit a short film i was cast in years ago; gay themed. the directors point? to make a film that shows “the type of gay men that never get shown in movies” – and to cast that “Type” he cast two straight men, and instructed them to “not do anything that would be seen as gay”>

    yeah. i quit on the first day of rehearsal. because representation doesn’t mean delusion, folks.

    There’s a glass ceiling for gay actors. The same reason there’s a glass ceiling that only allows for around 2-3 black female actors to “shine” in lead roles in any given time.

    openly gay actors are almost always disregarded – not due to ability, but perception about how they’ll be received being openly gay in the role. so, while “may the best actor get the role” is a nice thing to say – there’s something sad about when Those Great Gay Roles come along, and once again family is disregarded in order to snag a Straight Name – and i say this with much gratitude and appreciation for a number of straight actors who have given truly nuanced, beautiful portrayals of gay characters in cinema.

    what needs to happen is for, truly, simply more gay roles to be written. even in throwaways. characters are never written as “straight”, but they’re assumed to be. you get a breakdown for an audition and it’ll say “gay man”. it will never say “straight” next to all the other characters. ever. EVER. it’s just assumed.

    that’s what needs to change.

  24. says

    btw, :”Just a guy” – feel free to do what I do – show yourself. Why? Simple: i call your bluff. you’re not masculine. you’re just an insecure wimp. the only thing stopping guys like you from being visible is your own cowardice and your refusal to get over your Daddy Issues.

  25. says

    fun fact for people as stupid as “just a guy”

    do a list, of all the gay characters you can think of that are “effeminate” and “masculine”

    what are you going to see? your statement that the majority are “effeminate” is false. they’re not. many are, actually, straightwashed, neutered and desexualized. most are “blandly non-effeminate, for straight consumption”

    truly. try it out. make your list, betch. it’s not that “most characters are effeminate” – it’s that you’re still too busy listening to your shi**y family, who denigrated such types.

  26. Just_a_guy says

    @Lil k:
    I’ll agree with you on THIS much:
    “what needs to happen is for, truly, simply more gay roles to be written.”

    Moreover, it’s a bit of a shame that talents like Tennessee Williams, for example, wasted their talent on all straight relationships, not really diving into our real lives at all.

    Also, Kiwi: yawn. You don’t know me. You misrepresent what I say. You clearly don’t GET it. Instead I somehow must be attacking you.

    Moreover, it’s ironic how you criticize directors and others for unfairly hyper analyzing openly gay men’s EVERY mannerism to code it as “that’s gay, that’s effeminate.”

    It’s ironic, Lil K, because you are doing the exact same thing.

    Lil K, you’ve been loud and proud forever. I get it and am even full-on jeouous. Things were never so easy for me that way. And yet you still feel the need to mince in and control the show.

    Alright then. Suit yourself.

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