NEWSWEEK's Gay Story: The Debate Continues

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Dustin Lance Black won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for 'Milk.' Matt Sayles / AP

At NEWSWEEK, we’re used to reporting the news, not being news. But in the last few days, our story “Straight Jacket” has become something of a sensation, and not, for the most part, in the good sense. The piece examined the difficulty gay actors can have in being cast as straight romantic characters. We’d hoped to stir discussion of why there are still so few openly gay performers in Hollywood, but that message was overwhelmed by readers who thought we were being hurtful and small-minded in our assessment. When a story is so widely misinterpreted, it’s obvious we failed at making our point. So in an effort to clear some smoke away from this fire, we spoke to Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning and openly gay screenwriter of Milk, and Jarrett Barrios, the president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), to get their assessment of the larger issues surrounding sexuality in Hollywood. Excerpts:

Marc Peyser, NEWSWEEK Culture Editor: Obviously the piece that we’re all hearing about has touched quite a nerve out in the larger world. My hope is more to sort of move beyond that, and talk about what life is really like in Hollywood for gay people. —actors, obviously, but also screenwriters, if you will, and directors. It’s my sense that one of the reasons people are upset about the piece is that—there’s lot of reasons—but one is that we assert that gay people don’t get to do the same kinds of things that straight people do. And I think that that’s an unpleasant thing to be confronted with. Do you have a sense, Lance, that that’s true? Do you think being gay in Hollywood puts no limits on you?

Dustin Lance Black: Just stepping back a second, that wasn’t really what I got from the article. I wish that’s what the article was about. To me, the article seemed to be attacking gay and lesbian people’s ability to—talent to—take on heterosexual roles.

Jarrett Barrios: On a larger level, the veracity—the believability—of a gay character, or the lack of believability, which kind of builds this wall of impossibility for gay actors, lesbian actors, to be successful in their craft.

Peyser: Certainly in regards to the two actors who are talked about most in the piece, I think that yes, he was asserting that those people, for him as an audience member, he [was] not able to believe them as straight characters. But I think that that’s built on this larger idea that the reason we can’t see past an actor’s sexuality is because it’s so rarely out there, so to speak. So few actors come out, and the ones that tend to come out probably have less to lose. The ones that have multi-multi-million dollar careers don’t come out of the closet, and therefore it’s still a novelty and an aberration in some people’s minds. So it’s hard to look past that.

Barrios: With all respect, that might have been what he [Setoodeh] implied, but that’s not what he said. He said, for example, that Sean Hayes wasn’t believable. How could somebody who was “queeny” in Will & Grace be believable in Promises, Promises? As if to say that because in one role he was effeminate, he was no longer a candidate for a non-effeminate role later in his career? That may be what’s going on in his [Setoodeh’s] head, but it’s certainly not what the public thinks.

Black: I’ll take it a step further, too— this idea of femininity and sexuality, which I think we also have to confront. I’m from the Mormon church—I’m not active anymore—but [in that church] heterosexual men are encouraged to be not stereotypically masculine. So a lot of Mormon people are often called very, very feminine, and people mistake them as gay. So it also felt like a lot of issues... I’m just saying, I don’t know this writer, but it felt like this writer had a lot of issues with femininity and heterosexuality, and the connections between masculinity, femininity and sexuality. It started getting blurred to me. The heterosexual people in America don’t seem to be having that problems with these performances, or seeing that, but this writer did. And to me it felt like it became more about this writer’s issues with sexuality and masculinity than it did the success of these performances.

Barrios: What’s so odd about this, Marc, to me, is that what he was saying was oddly out of step with what we’re all seeing in Hollywood, which is a real spread of the number of gay men and lesbians who are actually playing straight people successfully on television and in movies, and on Broadway, of course. You’ve got Neil Patrick Harris. You’ve got—as recently as the last two months—the young man Jonathan [Groff] who’s playing the love interest in Glee. You’ve now got Cheyenne Jackson playing Danny on 30 Rock, in a relationship with Tina Fey, and these are all—the trend seems to be going in exactly the other direction from what this writer has asserted. From the perspective of GLAAD, we want to see a world where there’s full equality for all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. And to think that a child might conclude that they can’t be out? When all around them there are gay people coming out and being successful? It’s not tenable. It’s not believable, what the author is saying. And it’s also harmful. Because if they were to believe it, it could really affect the expectations of children and all of us who want to live in a world where we’re fully equal.

Peyser: But Lance, you work in Hollywood. Do you think than everybody who is gay is out? Are we going to see that all of the gay actors and actresses and, beyond that, people behind the scenes as well, are out? Is that what Jarrett is implying, that in fact we’re very close to?

Black: I feel like this is a separate issue. So I’m happy to move on to talk about it—actually really happy to, I think it’s a really interesting subject. But I want to make sure that you’re getting what Jarrett’s saying and what I’m saying about this article. Because this article said something really different than what the real challenge is, which is making Hollywood a comfortable place for gay and lesbian people to come out and be able to play heterosexual roles. Which, let’s be honest: there are a lot more straight roles than gay roles out there. So I think that’s our end goal, is to finally have those moments where we have openly gay and lesbian actors—and stars—playing straight roles. I think it’s already starting to happen, and I disagree with your writer in that I think that some of them are very believable, and very compelling. It only takes looking to Milk to know. In Milk we completely flipped the issue: we had openly gay people playing the straight people and the homophobes, and straight people playing the gay people.

Peyser: It’s very nice to say that we would like there to be a world where gay people can feel comfortable enough to be who they are in whatever it is they do, and be accepted for that. My question is, is that anywhere close to true in Hollywood? You mentioned some smaller roles in some smaller things—Cheyenne Jackson, etc. But we’re not talking about leading men in big budget movies that are in fact the role models for so much of what goes on in Hollywood.

Black: Well, listen, first off, I would say that Neil Patrick Harris is starting to break that barrier down in a big way. He’s paying a heterosexual role on a big, successful television show. That said, I do understand that we need more than just [Neil] Patrick Harris and it would be great to have that moment when you have a big A-list celebrity—a big star—who can greenlight a picture by adding his name to it, who is openly gay or lesbian. That is the moment we all want, that we’re all looking forward to, and I do believe it will happen. I’ll tell you what I see as some of the challenges. My perspective is that Hollywood directors and producers are very open to casting and working with openly gay and lesbian actors. Very open to it. I know that we intentionally sought them out when making Milk. I know that we’ve sought them out when working on other projects. The problem we’re finding is that the filter in Hollywood feels like it’s with the agents and managers. And namely with the ones who bring in new talent and start to foster new talent. And I think what they do is they feel like they’re taking a bigger risk with someone who’s out of the closet.

Peyser: What do you mean by risk?

Black: Well because they worry that their client will be outed and that will somehow hurt their career. They worry that articles like the one in Newsweek will say a gay person can’t play a straight role and people will believe it.

Peyser: But you’re talking about a closeted gay person. An out gay person wouldn’t have to deal with that.

Barrios: But we’re talking about believability in the casting.

Black: No, no, no, I’m talking about—I think agents and managers are definitely where I’m finding [resistance]. Some, not all. But this is where I’m finding the resistance towards closeted or openly gay actors.

Peyser: I’m trying to understand what you mean by “risk,” I totally understand what you mean by the risk of a closeted actor, but if an actor is openly gay, then there’s no risk there. And if the sense is that an openly gay actor should be, can be and is taking seriously in a straight role, what’s the risk?

Black: Well how are they going to get those straight roles? You first have to have a manager and agent getting you into the audition.

Peyser: Do you guys think that if a Brad Pitt or a George Clooney came out at the top of their career that everything would change by and large and people would stop being so nervous about it? Do you think Brad Pitt would continue to get the types of roles that he gets if he was gay?

Black: It sounds like you’re asking if it’s possible for an openly gay person to ever become an A-list…

Peyser: No, I’m actually asking the reverse. I’m asking if an A-list person, who’s already at the top of the Hollywood heap, comes out, would he be able to stay at the top of the heap if he were known to be gay?

Black: I honestly think they can. Right now, in this atmosphere, it’s something that would be difficult. And it is a challenge. When Jackie Robinson decided he was going to be the guy to step up and take on the challenge of being the first black player in the major leagues…there are many who could have done it before him. Was that easy? Of course not, that was a huge challenge. He had to suffer through the boos from the audience, he had to suffer through that and still perform well. And that’s what this actor will have to do. This actor will have to suffer through articles like this in NEWSWEEK, these sorts of things being said that are negative. But I think in the end, what they’ll be doing is paving this road towards equality in Hollywood, where yes straight people can play gay roles and gay people can play straight roles. It will be work but I think it’s important that someone do it so in ten years it’s a given.

Peyser: Do you think it’ll happen within the next ten years?

Barrios: We can’t predict when it will happen but our job is to create an environment in which it can possibly happen. And that’s why the platform that NEWSWEEK gives us to talk to you about this is important as well as all the conversations that are following from this article. What needs to happen is what happened with daytime television when Ellen DeGeneres came out and when Rosie O’Donnell came out. There’s a game-changing effect that signals to everybody else that it’s okay to be gay. Your career isn’t over, and a leading male celebrity can have that impact. But we’re already having that impact with a lot of the other celebrities who are making progress. We see an increasing number of openly gay and lesbian characters on scripted television and in the movies. We see better roles for those characters. We see those characters being nominated for awards, for Emmys, for Tonys, for Oscars. And that’s because, not just because they’re good actors, but because the mood is changing, the world is changing so that it’s becoming more acceptable.

Black: But I do think that gay and lesbian issues are hot in the news because this has clearly become the civil rights fight of this generation. So when you have the internet generation, they don’t just see this as former generations saw gay and lesbian issues, which was as something that could be potentially hurtful to a potential candidate or actor. I think they see this very topical to what their purpose is in society for their generation, which is full equality for LGBT people. I do believe it’s what this internet generation is interested in right now.

Peyser: Lance, you’re not an actor, so your concerns are different, but I assume you’ve been out for most if not all of your career in Hollywood. Have you found your opportunities limited because of your openness about your sexuality?

Black: No, not at all. Not in the least. Hollywood has progressed to the point where if you want to be a writer, a producer, a director, an agent, any of the business side of filming. Really, the last hurdle is for actors in the film business. For any of the other jobs, it’s just as difficult or easy as for anyone else.

Peyser: Directors are obviously the most powerful people in the creative community, and certainly producers from the money side. Why is that actors have become the last barrier?

Black: It’s about the perception. As writers in television, because in television the writers do the casting, and as directors in feature films, because there they do the casting, we have to depend on our casting directors to help us with casting. They go right to the managers and agents. We asked for an open casting call. We said, please go find us openly gay people to be in Milk. It was very difficult--a, to get the managers and agents to provide us with that, and b, to get them to admit that they even had clients that were openly gay. That was couple of years ago, and things have already started changing drastically since then. It’s much easier now to find openly gay actors, and I think it’s getting easier because people look to the examples of these people like Neil Patrick Harris.

Peyser: Do you think Neil Patrick Harris would’ve gotten the roles he has if he was out when he started How I Met Your Mother?

Black: I don’t know, that’s speculation.

Barrios: Neil Patrick Harris was asked as an openly gay man to host the Emmy’—recognition that [he is a] successful actor.

Peyser: Oh, absolutely. That’s the whole idea. Once you see people can do these things, they’re accepted. The question is, would they even have gotten in the door if they had been openly gay when they started down this road? Would Neil have been hired in the first place for a CBS sitcom as a straight Lothario, if you will?

Black: I would say yes, as a director and writer in television.

Barrios: It seems the point you’re trying to get at is where are we in Hollywood? And the glass is both half empty and half full. We’ve made extraordinary progress. You can look at Hollywood today and say, gosh, look at how many openly gay actors are out there in scripted television. But you could also say, look how far we have to go. Both of those arguments are correct. We’ve made tremendous progress. We still don’t have our gay George Clooney, but one day we will. But you know what? We’re a lot closer to that gay George Clooney today than we were five years ago, and certainly than we were ten years ago. That’s the reality of being gay in Hollywood.

Black: I’d agree with that.

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