Ashley Davies: Casting beyond the stereotype

Russell Tovey pictured in Banished. Picture: BBC

Russell Tovey pictured in Banished. Picture: BBC

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Being gay or straight ought not to prevent any actor playing the role of a romantic lead on stage or screen, writes Ashley Davies

The most realistic and involving depiction of a loving relationship on the big or small screen, in my opinion, is that of Becky and Steve in the BBC3 sitcom Him & Her. Nearly all the action takes place in a messy bedsit inhabited by a working-class couple in their twenties who crave every molecule of each other, make each other laugh, enable each others’ terrible habits and find in each other an affectionate refuge from the monsters and weirdos in their lives. It’s them against the world and it is all completely believable due to the great writing and beautiful performances.

Steve is played by Russell Tovey, who is one of the few openly gay actors I can think of who has played a heterosexual love interest – albeit on a late-night UK television comedy whose audience is more cult than mainstream. He’s back on our screens this evening in Banished, in which he plays one of the first British convicts to be sent to Australia. His character in this is tough and heterosexual.

In performing these two parts Tovey is one of the very few exceptions to prove a crappy, unspoken rule – if everyone knows you’re gay you’re not going to be a plausible romantic lead or “tough guy”.

Before I start ranting about the short-sightedness of producers in this regard I should first acknowledge that it’s entirely possible that not all actors want to play the romantic lead. It’s probably not that much fun. Tom Hanks did it a few times early on in his career, slogging it out with Meg Ryan on the romcom circuit, and then when he became bankable he took on meatier roles. But it does seem that the suits with the cash see it as too risky to invest in movies in which gay men and women are acting (the clue’s in the verb, guys) as people in straight relationships.

There are exceptions to the parts on offer. First, there’s the person in a joke relationship. Exhibit A: Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, played with aplomb by Jim Parsons, who is public about being in a long-term relationship with another man. Sheldon has a girlfriend, Amy, but comedy gold is spun from the fact that they have zero physical contact, much to her frustration.

Second, there’s the alien/freak. Exhibit B: Mr Spock in the recent Star Trek films, played by the strong and handsome Zachary Quinto, who has been out for a few years and is a campaigner for gay rights. In the new films, Spock and Uhura are in love but the audience needn’t get all confused about seeing a gay man kissing a straight woman because – look – he’s only part-human! Doesn’t count!

Third, there’s the victim of tragedy who’s found inner strength. I present Exhibit C: the ridiculously talented Jodie Foster. Ask people in which films her character is in a straight relationship and most people contemplate her massive output and offer: “Er, The Brave One?” Ah yes, the film in which her male partner is brutally murdered at the beginning, leaving her to develop a sort of vigilante lifestyle?

And fourth, there’s comedy. Good old comedy. Exhibit D: Portia de Rossi, who is married to comedian and much-loved television presenter Ellen DeGeneres, plays a hilariously selfish rich woman in the sitcom Arrested Development. In this she’s married to a comical figure who describes himself as a “never nude” – he can’t even taken a shower without keeping on at least a small pair of shorts.

There are notable exceptions. Neil Patrick Harris plays a convincing womaniser in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, and an ex-boyfriend in the Oscar-winning Gone Girl.

You could argue that these fall under the “comedy” and “alien/freak” loopholes respectively, but it shows promise nevertheless. Alan Cumming’s character is allowed romance in The Good Wife, and Cynthia Nixon’s character in Sex in the City is a huge fan of straight sex, but how much high-profile stuff has she done since being so public about being a lesbian?

The gorgeous Ellen Page came out publicly and eloquently a year ago and the kind of roles she is offered over the coming years will be very telling. Again, she might not want to play a romantic lead, but it would be interesting to know if she’s offered anything of this nature.

You might say that none of this really matters. Why should a gay actor even care about being allowed to pretend to be straight? Well, it matters for three reasons.

Firstly, it has taken mainstream film and television a painfully long time to actually depict homosexuality in a way that doesn’t show it as some kind of disability or ridiculous camp clown act. It’s unhealthy for society not to acknowledge that a gay person doesn’t have to act like Mr Humphries on Are You Being Served? or a predatory monster in a women’s prison drama. It’s totally fine if that’s what they want, but young people growing up in predominantly straight communities need to know, even nowadays, that it’s not a big joke to be gay. If that’s how you’re born, that’s how you are.

Secondly, ask yourself who the big name gay actors are in Hollywood. Have they ever confirmed this, or are they subjected to constant ridicule because they appear to be in the closet? Do people make sport of being snarky about them? And why, if indeed they are gay, are they still in the closet? Probably because they are rightly worried that this would prevent them from getting big parts. Back in 2009, Rupert Everett said he would never advise any gay actor to come out if he was trying to develop his career. At the time, some people thought he was being silly but it doesn’t seem as if much has changed since then.

And thirdly, and most importantly, if anyone, actors included, have to pretend they are something they are not in order to continue to do their jobs, they are denying themselves true happiness and love, and nothing is more important than love.

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