Since Greek poet Thespis’ first documented performance in 534 BC, actors have been an integral part of the human experience, ceaselessly enthralling us with their ability to take on other personas and reflect the human experience within the relative safety of the stage or screen.
From ancient Greek theater through the Elizabethan era, men played men, and men played women; it was deemed unsightly for women to act until 1660. Flash forward to the 19th century, white actors are appearing in blackface to portray African Americans in cruel buffoonery.
For millennia, the whole gamut of the human experience has been portrayed by a select slice of the human population. And though many of these practices have died out, the question of representation persists today, notably with queer characters.
Most recently, Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film “Call Me By Your Name” enlists two straight actors, Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, to play two queer characters involved in a passionate summer romance. Though the film has drawn critical acclaim — securing best-picture and best-actor nominations — it has also drawn criticism for its casting.
Some argue that queer characters should be played only by openly queer actors; others claim that actors are actors, whose job it is to portray roles they have not necessarily experienced.
I think there’s a middle ground. A definitive casting doctrine would be problematic to the art of acting; however, there needs to be some consideration of, and effort, to use queer actors — which is conspicuously absent in today’s films.
One could argue that the issue calls into question factors other than discrimination. The pool of queer actors is undoubtedly smaller, and therefore fewer casting options exist; while around half the population has consistently identified as female, for example, a 2015 Gallup poll revealed that just 3.8 percent of Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Though this number may be skewed by social stigma, it is nonetheless a significant minority.
Nevertheless, queer actors are not an anomaly. Household names like Sarah Paulson, Neil Patrick Harris, Jodie Foster, Zachary Quinto, Laverne Cox, and Ellen Page are just a fraction of Hollywood’s openly queer celebrities.
Neither are we scarce of queer roles: distinguished films such as “Carol” (2015), “Moonlight” (2015), “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “Milk” (2008), “Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013), “Valentine’s Day” (2010), “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013), and “The Danish Girl” (2015) all center around queer relationships or have prominent queer characters, and yet not one of these characters is portrayed by an openly queer actor.
I’m not arguing for a dogmatic approach to casting that compromises the very trade of acting, which rests on the fundamental portrayal of the fictitious, the unlived. Actors’ sexuality does not trump artistic vision in every instance.
That being said, it should absolutely be a consideration, and some of the movies I’ve listed above should have had queer actors. This is beyond coincidence, beyond population statistics. Though the portrayal of queer characters is laudable, this utter lack of real-life representation in film absolutely erases the significance of these roles.
Interestingly, there is significantly more real-life queer representation in television. Comedy series “Orange is the New Black” features a host of queer characters, three of whom are played by openly lesbian, transgender, and genderfluid actors. The Netflix series “Sense8” has a prominent trans character played by trans actress Jamie Clayton.
However, in film — “Call Me By Your Name” being just one example — straight actors are often lauded for their willingness to portray queer roles. Actress Ellen Page told TIME in a 2015 interview that it is “borderline offensive” to call straight cisgender actors “brave” for playing queer characters.
“I’m never going to be considered brave for playing a straight person, and nor should I be,” Page said.
The tides in film could be shifting, though. Argentinian-born Sebastián Lelio’s new film, “A Fantastic Woman,” revolves around a trans woman played by trans actress Daniela Vega. It has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
“I have two different takes,” Vega told The Guardian last week. “As an actress, I don’t mind if a cisgender actor plays trans. But as a trans woman, I feel that many times we weren’t allowed to show what we can do, and we can do many things.”
Carmin Sherlock SC '21 is an English and foreign languages major from Eugene, Oregon. Last year she was living on a farm in New Zealand shearing sheep.