Behind the Scenes of Hollywood's 'Gay-For-Pay' Pipeline

by Naveen Kumar

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday May 2, 2021
Originally published on April 22, 2021

(l to r) Viola Davis, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (David Lee/Netflix); James Corden, "The Prom" (Netflix); Andra Day, "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" (Takashi Seida/Hulu); Stanley Tucci, "Supernova" (Bleecker Street via AP).
(l to r) Viola Davis, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (David Lee/Netflix); James Corden, "The Prom" (Netflix); Andra Day, "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" (Takashi Seida/Hulu); Stanley Tucci, "Supernova" (Bleecker Street via AP).   

Kate Winslet, decrying "discrimination and homophobia" in Hollywood, recently claimed that she knows "at least four actors" hiding their sexuality to protect their careers.

The Oscar winner, who is straight, herself appeared as a lesbian character in last year's "Ammonite," a move she considered an "opportunity to bring an LGBTQ story into living rooms."

There is no simple way to measure progress within LGBTQ representation in Hollywood. Any assessment of what's happening on screen and behind the scenes is subject to ever-evolving social demands.

On the one hand, recent output tells an encouraging story. More LGBTQ characters populate film and television than ever before.

There will always be a need to push for more expansive and inclusive representation, and we're still seeing significant shortfalls, especially when it comes to trans and gender-diverse characters.

Still, an internet connection and a streamer password or two all but guarantees access to a rapidly growing library of queer stories.

As the number of LGBTQ roles continued to swell, the question of who plays them has inspired increasingly contentious debate. The fact that anyone's arguing over who gets to play LGBTQ characters is some measure of progress; there would be no debate at all if the roles didn't exist in the first place.

As gains continue to be made toward greater and more truthful visibility, calls for progress are rightfully pushing forward to the next frontier — full participation for LGBTQ artists in sharing their own stories.

The social mandate that queer actors ought to play queer characters is relatively new, and even now tends to be somewhat selectively applied to portrayals that raise critical objections.

Take the resounding backlash that greeted James Corden's performance in "The Prom," Ryan Murphy's starry Netflix adaptation of the Broadway musical. When the movie came out last December, critics called Corden's performance ""gross and offensive," "appalling," and "the worst gay face in a long, long time."

However, context and execution remain paramount when it comes to critical assessments of "gay for pay" performances. A mostly muted response greeted Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth, who star as a devoted gay couple in the sensitive indie drama "Supernova," released a month later.

The proliferation of queer characters has outpaced Hollywood's pipeline of openly LGBTQ actors with significant audience draw to play them.

As new content streams have exploded the menu offerings, blurring the line between movies and television, Hollywood business models are subject to ever-shifting financial and creative demands. A film development process still largely reliant on bankable stars to draw financing and box office means the only way a movie like "Supernova" gets made is with celebrities who are both recognizable and suitable for the roles — and, in this case, happen to be straight.

At streaming services such as Netflix, where creative freedom is king for star show runners like Murphy, budget and casting dynamics may have entirely different considerations from one project to the next.

To see more queer roles played by queer actors will require a greater supply of out talent. Matching an actor to a character based on sexuality or gender identity isn't as easy as it sounds; it's illegal to ask talent how they identify to determine employment, so they really do have to be out.

Those tides are shifting. More actors, from Justice Smith to Elliot Paige, are coming out earlier in their careers and making names for themselves in roles both queer and straight. Though, there are still only a handful of openly queer actors with sufficient star power to draw financing for a project, and only so many roles for Kristen Stewart or Jim Parsons.

The underlying need is for Hollywood to become a more welcoming creative and professional environment for LGBTQ artists. Existing bias and discrimination patterns fueled by artistic and financial demands have driven the industry's interests for decades. Understanding their origins and interplay is essential to forging a path forward.

Straight Actors Have Long Been Essential to the Visibility of Queer Stories

When "Brokeback Mountain" hit theaters in 2005, the enormity of its impact was partly due to the identity of its marquee stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, straight actors in the prime of their heartthrob fame. Their celebrity made the movie a cultural event.

The film was heralded as a breakthrough for representing gay characters in a tender, nuanced way and for proving a gay drama could draw both popular and critical acclaim. In his book "Out at the Movies," Steven Paul Davies notes that in response to the film's success, "film financiers will continue to back scripts that don't simply rely on gay stereotypes... and that will certainly be progress."

The number of studio films featuring queer characters has grown steadily over the past decade, from 14% in 2012, when GLAAD first began its Studio Responsibility Index, to nearly 20% in 2019. On television, largely due to the rise of streaming services, inclusion has sky-rocketed exponentially. The number of queer characters among series regulars on streaming shows has more than doubled in the past five years; on cable, they've multiplied six-fold in the past 10.

Star casting has long been integral to achieving milestones for queer visibility, particularly on the big screen. Tom Hanks' Oscar-winning performance in "Philadelphia" drew national attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis to a degree never before seen in mainstream media before its 1993 release, when more than 100,000 people had already died from the disease. More everyday portrayals, from Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as married moms in "The Kids Are Alright" to Melissa McCarthy as reclusive author Lee Israel in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," have contributed to a media landscape that increasingly acknowledges queer people as an integral, regular part of the broader culture.

Without the bold-faced names of straight stars, it's tough to say whether those movies would have been made at all.

In the case of "Milk," the 2008 Harvey Milk biopic for which Sean Penn won an Oscar in the title role, "there was absolutely no way we could have made that movie without a movie star," producer Dan Jinks tells EDGE. "It was very important to us that we cast a lot of gay people in the movie — and we did," Jinks recalls. "But we had several heterosexual actors in gay parts, both because they were really good and because they had enough star power to get the financing for the film." Jinks, who is currently developing the queer YA novel "Camp" into a feature for HBO Max, considers that a straight actor playing a gay icon like Milk might face greater scrutiny in 2021. "My fear is that if I were trying to make the movie "Milk" right now, I couldn't because there's not a gay star who's right for the role," Jinks says. "Sometimes it's really more important the story be told when you're looking at the larger cause."

Who Gets the Part Is Both a Financial and Creative Decision

Films are complex financial and creative equations. Queer stories often aren't the stuff of comic book franchises or hugely popular existing properties, so they are more often financed on the backs of talent. Like any typical investment, the more promise of success involved in a potential film, the more attractive it is to financiers and studios. The bet would be, not only would an acclaimed director like Todd Haynes or a star like Cate Blanchett make a high-quality movie like "Carol," based on a pedigreed novel by Patricia Highsmith, but that the reputations of all three artists would draw audiences to see it, too.

Successes can then lead to trusted formulas, resulting in a slew of films with familiar ingredients. For example, on the heels of "Carol," and more recently "The Favourite," period dramas about forbidden love between cis, high-femme white women have flooded the landscape to diminishing yields (a pattern parodied in a recent SNL sketch). Awards season hopefuls that fizzled in recent months include "Ammonite" (with Winslet and Saoirse Ronan) and "The World to Come" (with Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby). Star power may have helped the movies off the ground, but taking flight is no guarantee.

It may sound obvious to say that from a casting perspective, the question has always been who's the best performer for the part. "An actor's emotional depth and true ability to be that much better than everybody else is why we go see movies," says casting director Alexa Fogel, whose recent work includes "The Prom" and "Pose."

"I think what's often left out of these conversations is, who's the person who'll bring that sort of magic in a bottle?" she says. "The marriage of an actor and a character is sometimes something that's unknowable."

That said, consciousness behind the scenes around an actor's identity when casting particular parts has grown significantly in recent years. Jinks says it's not uncommon for a gay story to have a gay writer, director, and producer; "I believe all of those people will always want to cast gay people in those roles," he says. "And if they don't, there's usually some big reason why," he notes, including the overriding need to cast a recognizable star, of which there are only so many who are openly gay or suitable for any given role.

"The tone of the piece, the characters, what the source material is, all of those factors play into conversations" about casting, Fogel says. "What seems appropriate to me isn't a set of base rules; it's more instinctual." If a character's sexual orientation is pivotal to the story, "that has more weight," she says, or if the plot and setting explicitly evoke social justice for queer people. That may be one reason why "Supernova" raised few eyebrows: the characters' sexuality feels entirely incidental to the story.

That wasn't quite the case with Corden's character in "The Prom," a flamboyant Broadway actor who, in a subplot explicitly written for the movie, struggles with his parents' rejection of his sexuality. While it was important to the creative team that the young female leads be played by queer actors (Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose both identify as queer), several considerations played into Corden's casting.

"He was the first person I thought of, and Ryan had already thought of him," Fogel says. In looking for an actor who could "skirt a line between comedy and sadness, and sing and dance," Corden was their first choice, and his sexuality wasn't a sticking point.

Regardless of critical reception, the stakes for Corden's performance as queer representation — of a cis white man in a broad comedy like "The Prom" — are far different in scale than for a series like "Pose," populated by trans characters of color. "Gender identity is entirely different," Fogel says. There is an overwhelming sense taking root in Hollywood that trans artists should be telling trans stories.

When It Comes to Trans Stories, the Case for Participation Is Clear

Emmett Preciado
Emmett Preciado  (Source: Transgender Talent)

The argument for pushing past visibility to demand full participation is clearest in the case of trans artists, who've been historically most marginalized and mischaracterized on screen and off. Movies like "Boys Don't Cry" (1999) and "Transamerica" (2005) were watershed moments for trans visibility, earning Oscar attention for cis stars Hilary Swank and Felicity Huffman.

Last year's Netflix documentary "Disclosure," about Hollywood's history of trans representation, points to the profound impact such portrayals had not only on viewers who'd never encountered trans people before but for young trans people who saw some reflection of their experience for the first time. Trans characters on TV and film, for better and worse, were often the only touchstones even trans people had into gender-diverse experience.

But in the decade since Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing a trans
woman in "Dallas Buyers Club," cultural conversation around trans identity has grown in both urgency and sophistication. As anti-trans legislation continues to multiply across the U.S., and the crisis of violence against trans women of color has gained wider attention, stakes are recognizably higher for how trans stories are told in popular media because they shape how the broader culture sees trans people.

Outcry against cis actors playing trans roles has lately been swift and fervent. Scarlett Johansson and Halle Berry have both recently dropped out of projects in which they were to play trans characters following public backlash. (In Berry's case, watching "Disclosure" helped change her mind.) Consensus has grown among creatives and consumers alike that trans identity is a profound lived experience best portrayed on screen by actors who identify as trans.

The economics of television, and the sprawling canvas of cable and streaming services, more readily foster investment in developing talent. TV roles far outnumber those in film, and landing a series allows actors to grow into their performances over time and potentially build star power, as Parsons and many others, from Neil Patrick Harris to Laverne Cox, have done. When "Pose" made history with the most trans actors cast as series regulars, all of them were almost entirely unknown.

"Ryan made sure that I had time to do what I needed to do," Fogel says of Murphy and the initial casting process for "Pose," "which was to really understand the ball scene, to find my own ambassadors into that world, and then to audition a lot of people without a lot of experience, which takes much more time and a certain kind of care."

Steady inroads have also been made on network TV, toward sensitive portrayals of trans experience embodied by trans performers, on series like ABC's "The Fosters" and recently "The Good Doctor," the latter making significant headway with an episode that featured trans actor Emmett Preciado as a trans man giving birth.

The effort toward cultivating and casting trans actors combines elements of restorative justice with creative authenticity. But not every character or story inspires a similar commitment to aligning a performer's own life with the material. There are legal limitations to what an actor can be asked as well as persistent barriers that keep actors from coming out. Addressing changes to the system means looking at Hollywood as more than the sum of its cultural output, as a workplace where employees deserve to be treated with respect.

Demand for Openly LGBTQ Actors Is Growing — Supply Is Still Catching Up

The entertainment industry is a business like any other, and its inclusion and treatment of LGBTQ workers can also be considered through the lens of workplace fairness. Contracts between the unions for on-camera actors and Hollywood employers "prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression," as do federal and state law when applicable, according to Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief operating officer and general counsel for SAG-AFTRA.

Actors are free to volunteer information about their sexual orientation or gender identity to potential employers. Still, Crabtree-Ireland notes that in many jurisdictions, "asking questions about personal characteristics such as these are presumptively illegal since they likely have no legitimate purpose other than to facilitate illegal discrimination."

In other words, producers and casting directors can't ask actors how they identify to discover whether their sexuality or gender identity matches the character they're auditioning for. There are other ways to find out, like searching social media or talking to actors' representatives. In the interest in efficiency, agents often welcome open conversations about what creatives are looking for with a particular part. The fashion industry may be one step ahead, with agencies like Transgender Talent and Slay Model Management courting openly queer clients.

"They're glad to have straightforward information that you're looking for," Fogel says of actors' representatives. But the same legal principles apply for conversations with agents and managers; with an actor's consent, they can volunteer information about their clients' gender or sexuality, but asking reps directly could potentially lead to illegal discrimination.

For more actors to feel comfortable volunteering that information by coming out, their work environment would have to prove more welcoming. But some actors say discrimination and harassment of LGBTQ people behind the scenes remain an alarming and persistent problem.

In addition to whether an actor's sexuality or gender identity might count against them in the casting process, potential for on-set mistreatment or worse is also a serious consideration.

More than half of lesbian, gay, and bisexual performers "believed that directors and producers are biased against LGBT performers," according to a 2014 survey of SAG-AFTRA members conducted by UCLA's Williams Institute, a leading research center for LGBTQ law and public policy. More than half of LGBTQ respondents also said they had directly overheard "directors and producers make anti-gay comments about actors."

Disincentives to coming out must be addressed from the perspective of equal opportunity, as in any other business. But unlike other industries, Hollywood employers may be pointing to the values and tastes of their consumers as a business rationale for their own discrimination. Studio executives may assume, for example, that mainstream audiences wouldn't come to see a big-budget gay rom-com or superhero movie. But assumptions like these may very well prove outdated.

"Change has been so rapid for the acceptance of LGBTQ people in the U.S.," says M.V. Lee Badgett, distinguished scholar at the Williams Institute and lead author of the SAG-AFTRA study. "If [producers are] using what customers think to justify their own biases, then they are very likely to be operating on a big lag."

The growing amount of LGBTQ content available to stream demonstrates there's no shortage of consumer demand. Especially if major streamers are putting up money for original series, like Netflix's "Sex Education" or Peacock's forthcoming "Queer as Folk" reboot.

"They're only doing that because they feel it's good for their business model and that they'll get appropriate viewership," Jinks says. Despite whatever individual biases may remain in executive suites, the algorithms that increasingly drive Hollywood don't lie.

But there are still consequences to actors' viability for certain roles once they come out, especially in film.

"If they are hoping to play a Marvel superhero or romantic leads in love stories, then I think it certainly could hurt with some studios or networks," Jinks says. "But that's a very small group of actors that are that kind of leading man or woman." Even then, there's progress on the horizon. Tessa Thompson, who is openly bisexual, has confirmed that her MCU character Valkyrie will likewise be openly queer in the upcoming installment of "Thor," due out next year.

"It's very easy to scream and shout about one particular role in a movie that was cast with a straight star," Jinks says. "But if you look at the big landscape," including series like "Pose" and HBO's "Genera+ion," and even recent Hulu and Hallmark holiday movies that have been cast with openly gay actors, emphasis on queer performers telling queer stories is growing, Jinks says. "I believe, for the most part, people are doing the right thing."

"When people live and work or go to school in places that are inclusive of them as LGBTQ people, they're likely to do a better job at everything they do," Badgett says, "especially in an industry where being as creative as you can be depends on not having to be self-conscious."

Making Hollywood more hospitable to LGBTQ people won't just make for a more equitable workplace, but better art, too.

Naveen Kumar is a culture writer and editor whose recent work appears on, The Daily Beast, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times.