Benedict Cumberbatch discusses the ‘straight actors playing gay characters’ issue

78th Venice Film Festival

Spoilers for The Power of the Dog.

Benedict Cumberbatch is doing the full promotional tour for The Power of the Dog, which is Jane Campion’s big return to directing. Benedict plays a cruel cowboy who terrorizes his sister-in-law (played by Kirsten Dunst) and her son (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee). When I wrote about the trailer, I looked up some spoilers about the plot, just to understand what the film is actually about. It’s weird to talk about “spoilers” with regards to a book which was originally published in 1967, but I’m sure some people will want the warning. In any case, here it is: Benedict’s cruel rancher is a repressed gay man and something happens between him and Smit-McPhee’s character. So, as Benedict promoted the film in Telluride, he addressed the fact that he’s playing another gay character, and whether straight actors should continue to do that.

“I feel very sensitive about representation, diversity, and inclusion,” Benedict Cumberbatch said. “One of the appeals of the job was the idea that in this world, with this specific character, there was a lot that was private, hidden from view.” While the specifics of Phil’s sexual identity are shrouded in ambiguity, Cumberbatch played a gay character in 2014 as the troubled mathematician Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game.” In the wake of that experience, he knows the score when it comes to the discourse surrounding which actors play certain roles.

“It wasn’t done without thought,” he said. “I also feel slightly like, is this a thing where our dance card has to be public? Do we have to explain all our private moments in our sexual history? I don’t think so.” He added that he trusted his veteran director, who wanted him for the part. “Jane chose us as actors to play those roles,” he said. “That’s her question to answer.”

“You go with your taste,” he said. “You go with what you think will be a challenge. And your taste is about what you want to see.”

Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee developed their chemistry over the course of a two-week boot camp Campion arranged, during which time she included some exercises that required them to stay in character. “Of course we chatted with each other, but there was also some little secret sauce in there somewhere, the stuff you leave to the moment,” Cumberbatch said. “I think when it’s non-verbal and intensely subtextual, when there are so many planes of intention and thoughts going on, you obviously want to take the audience in. You want them to believe what they’re seeing, but you also want to leave something to discover.”

[From Yahoo]

I think the whole “straight actors playing gay characters” is a slippery argument and obviously, the lines keep changing, as they should. We have different cultural standards and we should continue to highlight how difficult it is for out-gay actors to get work consistently. For every Neil Patrick Harris and Matt Bomer, there are hundreds of out gay actors who won’t even be considered for supporting roles in film and television. As a Cumberbitch, I think casting Benedict as a “closeted gay man” in a historical time period ends up working though. And I also think Benedict is right with this: “I also feel slightly like, is this a thing where our dance card has to be public? Do we have to explain all our private moments in our sexual history? I don’t think so.” He’s indicated in the past that he experimented when he was younger and it’s not like he should be expected to detail every time he kissed a guy to somehow prove that he’s capable of playing a fictional gay man.

Benedict Cumberbatch attends the red carpet of the movie 'The Power of the Dog' during the 78th Venice International Film Festival

Photos courtesy of Avalon Red.

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62 Responses to “Benedict Cumberbatch discusses the ‘straight actors playing gay characters’ issue”

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  1. milliemollie says:

    Straight actors play gay characters to win an Oscar or at least get nominated for one. They don’t want to lose that chance for their “brave” performance. That’s all.

  2. Fanciful says:

    Also gay actors play straight actors playing gay characters to meet societal norms and box office which is really sad and offensive. Not of the actor but the requirement.

  3. Detnow359 says:

    And just as Julianne Margulies commented how do you know how someone identifies or what their experiences are? If someone were outted, or felt forced to be outted, in their association with a role, people would be up in arms.

    • Anony83 says:

      The idea that you would have to be publicly out to play a gay character is just as problematic to me. “Coming out” in that sense is STILL a personal choice in this day and age.

      Queer stories should be told and actors should not have to come out to help tell them, but they do have to take the responsibility of telling a story that may not be entirely their’s seriously.

      I think there are major differences between being queer and, for example, Black or even autistic. And I say this as a bisexual woman who didn’t “come out” until her 30s.

      • ElleV says:

        I think the big difference is that sexual identity is and can be private and fluid and self-defined, unlike race, which is a social construct imposed by oppressors to discriminate between people, or disability, which is also kind of a social construct created by society’s failure to value and accommodate differences (I’m neurodivergent but I doubt I’d be considered disabled if I didn’t live in a technocratic, capitalist hustle culture).

        I’m all for saying “let’s hire more out LGBT actors for *all roles*, and let’s make LGBT roles more interesting and varied and nuanced.” But I am NOT about policing if an actor is “gay enough” like some people are doing in the comments, or demanding that people share their sexual receipts. That’s gross.

      • ElleV says:

        PS not sure how/whether all this applies to trans folk, who I think *should* be strongly preferred for trans roles but I haven’t thought through why that is. and still don’t like the idea of (especially cis straight) people policing if a person is queer enough or trans enough.

      • Otaku fairy says:


      • Anony83 says:

        @ellvie – when I tweeted about this I added a follow-up tweet that just said “THIS DOESN’T APPLY TO TRANS ROLES” because I do think there are some critical differences. But I certainly also wouldn’t want actors to be expected to establish “how” trans they are to play those roles either (and that used to happen WAy more).

  4. Denise says:

    He’s married to a woman and has a child. In the eyes of mainstream society he’s “straight”. The fact that he experimented un the past doesn’t help the LGBT representation in movies.

    However in this case, I don’t think him turning down the role would help. The Director obviously wanted him. The public scrutiny about representation on tv and film should be directed to movie creators rather than to actors

    • Evening Star says:

      So by that logic a bisexual man, a group which gets even less representation than gay men, married with children to a woman couldn’t play this part either?

      • Hikaru says:

        This. And pretty much all of the celebrity bisexual women are in straight marriages/relationships too, so no to them playing a bisexual character either? This rule would make it pretty hard for any bi people to have any representation at all.

      • Grant says:

        A person who is openly bisexual is apples and oranges. Benedict identifies as a straight man and whatever “liaisons” he may have had in the past he has kept purposefully vague. So he’s doing nothing for any kind of LGBT representation, gay or bisexual.

    • detritus says:

      That’s bi erasure…

      • bluhare says:

        Hi Detritus!! Nice to see you!

        Personally, I think a person’s orientation shouldn’t matter in the roles they play. Gay closeted men have been playing straight men since forever. Plus if someone does not want their identification known, they shouldn’t have to out themselves just to play a role.

    • Penguin says:

      Ugh there are so many things wrong with this comment. Bisexuality and pansexuality do exist you know.

    • Anony83 says:

      I’m bisexual married to a man.

      I’m still part of the queer community. Try again.

    • ElleV says:

      yuck. people aren’t any less queer just because they don’t “appear” queer to you. representation is a noble goal, but what’s the point if you’re just going to use that as a tool to dismiss people who don’t perform or explain their sexuality to your satisfaction?

    • House of No says:

      I love the bisexual erasure. I’m bi married to a straight man.

      Thanks, nimrod!

  5. Ana Maria says:

    I miss the ÇumberÇurls…

  6. Monica says:

    If there were equality of opportunity between straight and LGBT actors, this wouldn’t be an issue. Until then, however…

  7. Erica says:

    Lesbian here who came out when I was ready. I always ask how in the hell can they only hire gay actors/actresses for parts unless they ask? And what if the person isn’t comfortable coming out yet? Or is only out to a select few people? I don’t need a gay person to play a gay character to enjoy a movie. I don’t get bent out of shape if a gay person plays a straight person in a movie either. It’s acting. It’s different if we are discussing race but I think the gay thing-I don’t know that I like the idea of having to ask everyone their preferences before hiring them.

    • Lightpurple says:

      It’s also illegal in quite a few places to ask.

      • Erica says:

        Exactly! Me and my wife have always said this-how are they even able to find out who is gay or straight because more than likely they aren’t even allowed to ask.

    • Hikaru says:

      And just think of all the out actors who said they used playing a queer character as a way to test the waters before they were ready to live that life irl too. All of them would risk forced outing due to questioning and would probably stay away from those roles just to stay safe.

    • sally says:

      Bisexual woman here, who came out very early and has had advantages and disadvantages because of that, and I’m 100% with you. I don’t care about the sexuality of the actor, if it’s good it’s good, if not it’s not. It shouldn’t matter.
      Andrew Scott and Ben Whishaw have spoken about this recently too and they also think it shouldn’t matter. Whishaw played the lead in a Jane Campion movie btw, the very straight and very tragic John Keats in Bright Star. And Scott broke the internet as a straight priest two years ago, only to get stupid questions about how hard it was to play in love with a woman in pretty much every interview.
      That’s the problem here, the media, the fact that there’s still such a big circus made out of a gay actor playing someone straight or a straight actor playing someone gay, and the award campaigns knowing how to use that, when it always only is ACTING. One of the straight actors who truly got it was Robin Williams imho, in Birdcage. He didn’t “act gay” he acted “in love with Nathan Lane’s character” and that’s what it all should be!

    • ElleV says:

      honestly, this whole debate seems like it comes from so-called allies who mean well but maybe aren’t thinking through the ramifications

      • Otaku fairy says:

        Some of it is that, and then other times it just comes down to faves and respectability. Which is messed up, because sexual orientation should not be treated like a clique.

  8. Cee says:

    We should be asking why gay actors and actresses can’t play heterosexual characters if acting is, in fact, playing someone you’re not? Unless producers actually cast serial killers every time a movie has one in it.

    I don’t care about your sexual preferences and gender choice, I care about someone having the talent to portray a character/person with enough realism.

    • Lyds says:

      This. I think studios casting openly LGBTQ actors to portray straight people should be the bigger fight as that would open up more roles for them and make them highly employable. Acting is acting. That being said, this repressed rancher role (as well as the Brokeback Mountain roles, CMBYN and countless others) could easily have gone to a talented queer actor who likely would’ve done an equally great job.

      Also agree with Kaiser that depicting sexual preference is a much more slippery slope than say, casting someone based on race, because the former can be hidden or fluid, whereas the latter is often fixed. And with race, you can completely change the role to eliminate that aspect whereas the queerness in the character is often part of the story. There are many sub-arguments when it comes to inclusivity and they all deserve to have separate discussions instead of being lumped together or generalized (as in “straight actors shouldn’t portray gay characters”)*.

      *Just clarifying that no one has done this in this discussion thread, but lest there be a tendency to lump BC with someone like ScarJo, who deserves all the flack and criticism.

      • Jennifer says:

        I can think of a fair chunk of actors we all assumed were hetero until they started seeing someone of their same gender. Sexuality is fluid/can change/what have you, and just because you think so-and-so is straight now doesn’t mean they will always be that way. So really, you never know.

        Also, as someone who acts (come to think of it, most of my love interests have been of my same gender even if they were playing men), eh, playing attracted to someone is about the same behavior I’d do with a guy as with a girl. Doesn’t seem different to me.

        I don’t think we can limit people to only playing their (out) sexuality, as that’s not as fixed a thing as some other demographics.

        I am reminded of the whole “James Corden playing gay in The Prom” thing, but really, isn’t that one because James Corden kinda sucks?

  9. Mary Mae says:

    So what is actually more important? That we know how every actor specifically identifies with their orientation to ensure that diversity or that these stories get told and then actually seen?

    I’m also sure if we knew BC’s specific experiences and identity, some people would still fight to gatekeep his performance further on why he still wouldn’t work for a role they haven’t seen because he doesn’t have enough cred and he’s probably lying about it for an award season.

    He is there to do the work and his name is specifically being used to get more eyeballs on that work due to the nature of the work. Which can be difficult for any filmmaker to get their work seen, especially if it’s not a formulaic 20 film superhero operatic. I love me some Marvel, but this is not an auto watch for many.

    If NPH was playing this role, would we be talking about it at all? Probably not. Which is why they went with BC. It’s a smart marketing move which is paying for itself with the attention it brings to the movie.

    And considering I had no idea on the context of BCs character before reading this article, and I could be wrong, it sounds more the driving motivation for this character is he is the embodiment of toxic masculinity and the fallout from that is one of the driving factors for what takes place in this story.

  10. Lisa says:

    I may be alone here, but I think best actor for the part should play the part. There have been some pretty phenomenal movies with actors who were not straight playing straight characters and we’d never have known they were gay had they not come out (sometimes years later). Also the inverse has proved true (straight playing gay character). I think it comes down to the material and the actor’s representation.

    • Andreea says:

      The issue with this approach is that many times gay characters aren’t even considered for parts, so even if theirs would have been the most amazing performance ever the world will never know it.

      That’s how/why the whole thing started: giving gay actors/actresses a chance (obviously I am referring to the ones already out, the ones in the closet won’t be discriminated against as they’ll be seen as part of the crowd). I am of course not saying that all the gay roles should go to out gay actors, I am just saying that this is a conversation worth having (as the article is saying, “For every Neil Patrick Harris and Matt Bomer, there are hundreds of out gay actors who won’t even be considered for supporting roles in film and television.”, a statement I fully agree with. How will you ever know who’s capable of the best performance, when some of the people willing to do it aren’t even considered?)

      • Ashley says:

        Andreea, another thing to consider (I’m industry) is that there are many, many, many more gay and bisexual actors in Hollywood than anyone knows about.

        BC is right about the dance card. For every Harris and Bomer there are 100 non-out actors, including the biggest stars. Hwood is still very much a closed closet.

      • RoyalBlue says:

        just google ‘gay actors who play straight characters’ and you would be surprised. historically there have been many gay men playing straight men… hello Rock Hudson…. there is no reason it can’t go both ways.

  11. Mina says:

    It is called acting for a reason. Seems like pretty soon studios won’t even be making movies only documentaries. At what point do we say enough is enough.

  12. Leslie says:

    I don’t know if it’s different in Hollywood, but legally an employer cannot ask an employee about their sexuality and hire or not hire based on that.

    I think if we went to hiring only LGBT+ actors for LGBT+ characters we could potentially end up outing actors. Or even less of those characters would be included because actors don’t want to be outed yet.

    Additionally, then there’s a question of should LGBT+ actors play straight characters? If we’re hiring based on sexual orientation. And that’s stupid. Actors act. They play characters that aren’t themselves. It’s okay.

    I think we should be lessening the stigma around LGBT+ actors in general, characters in general, not limiting which actors can play which characters.

  13. Angh says:

    Ugh it’s this debate again. This is a non issue for me as a gay man as I think that the best actor should get the job. Obviously it would be great if everyone gets an equal opportunity but at the same time it’s hypocritical to say that you’d rather watch this talented unknown out gay actor in a graphic gay love scenes rather than the hottest straight A list hunk who may or may not have gay experience. I’m not generalizing obviously but I don’t think I’m in the minority here given that literally millions of p0rn are all about str8 for pay.

    • Andreea says:

      But the hottest straight A list hunk has been an unknown too at some point, how would he have gotten to where he is if no one had given him a chance just because he’s an unknown? For all we know the talented unknown gay actor could be the next big thing, and won’t be able to reach his potential because people won’t give him a chance to.

      While I know that the way the world works is that the big names are being cast more often, because they bring the big audiences and the big money, I don’t necessarily see it as something worth defending, quite the opposite.

      • ElleV says:

        it’s illegal to ask people’s sexual orientation in job interviews in lots of places for *very good reasons* and I think it’s more important to create more LGBT roles and actively employ LGBT actors and creators in *all* roles, regardless of sexual or gender identity, than it is to make people out themselves for a job

    • sally says:

      Right?! Like, I wish we’d get more diverse stories for lesbians and bisexual women too and have more different body types represented in media with LGBT+ content, of course, yes, blah blah blah. But on the other hand, I wanna live vicariously through every actress who gets to snog Rachel Weisz too, don’t care about their sexuality, just let me watch this!

  14. Julia K says:

    Please read the excellent post of BadDee 11/17 re why gay people stay in the closet. Money, etc. The post about B Cooper I think.

  15. Annabel says:

    I’m bi. That’s way less relevant to my life than the fact that I grew up poor, but we don’t have conversations about whether actors from middle- or upper-class backgrounds should be “allowed” to play characters from working class backgrounds. With all of these “should straight actors get to play gay characters?” stories, I just feel like, look, they’re acting. I think it’s super weird to insist that actors have the same lived experiences as the characters they’re playing.

  16. smee says:

    Do gay actors only want to portray gay characters? Seems very limiting.

  17. Christine says:

    It feels weird to gatekeep these roles, because it then forces people to be open about their sexuality and experiences which, quite frankly, is nobody’s business unless they want to make it public. You’re potentially forcing an actor to come out to defend their casting, or not giving a gay actor the opportunity to get the role because they’re not willing to come out.

  18. Katherine Hughes says:

    As a gay woman, I would hate to have to only play gay woman. I would like flexibility to play a character with any sexuality. So, I don’t mind straight actors playing gay characters. Why put people in boxes?

  19. Gubbinal says:

    You need a good actor. A good actor can play just about anything and will decline the role if he/she/they don’t feel they can deliver a great performance. I think that women have played Hamlet and King Lear successfully and their gender becomes insignificant when you deliver greatness.

  20. Theothermia says:

    So glad we have all these breeders (straight people) weighing in on this on twitter 🙄

  21. Annetommy says:

    Why should anyone have to declare their sexuality in order to get a role? Should this apply to teens in a coming of age gay story? ‘Hello, before we ask you to do the read through, can you tell us whether you like girls or boys or both or neither or something else’?’ They shouldn’t. Gay actors have played straight for decades and many were huge heterosexual heartthrobs: back in the day, Rock Hudson and TV’s Dr Kildare, Richard Chamberlain for example. Should they have only played gay characters? This is a minefield and I think actors should act. Their sexuality shouldn’t impact on their roles.

  22. Magick Wanda says:

    As a gay, I will say this is a slippery slope. While in theory it sounds supportive to say only gays should play gays, would that apply both ways? Should then only straight actors play straight parts? There are a lot more straight parts than gay parts. I’m not sure this is a door we should walk through. Out gay actors have enough difficulty finding jobs at times, I’m not sure we want to ask actors to lay out their sexual resume. I just want to see a good actor in a good role.

  23. Veronica S. says:

    Obviously, I don’t speak for all lgbt+ people, but in all honesty…I don’t care. I don’t care if straight people play non-straight characters, provided the portrayal is okay. The rep is better to me in the writing room than in casting. I don’t need a defense of it.

    Frankly, I think it’s dangerous territory to suggest an actor must out themselves to do so. It’s not like skin color where it’s really obvious most of the time unless the person is very flamboyant or obvious in persona. It requires somebody to reveal something personal about themselves that’s frankly private information and, in some cases, may be damaging to do so.

  24. Scout says:

    I think people are mostly hired based on their bankability. Who will get the project financed? Because it’s all about the money.

  25. Kkat says:

    My gay son and I were talking about Cumberbatch the other day, he can’t stand him because Cumberbatch is a homophobe and transphobe