It’s a tale as old as time: A major Hollywood production sets out to tell an LGBTQ story, but then casts a famous — and famously straight — actor in the pivotal role who promptly goes on to receive acclaim and awards attention. That’s been the standard operating procedure as far back as one of the industry’s earliest attempts to tell gay stories onscreen: William Friedkin’s 1970 film version of The Boys in the Band. Adapted from Matt Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 Off-Broadway play, the movie unfolds over one long night in a New York City apartment where nine friends have congregated for a birthday celebration. While Friedkin cast a number of gay actors in the movie — several of whom later died of AIDS in the 1980s — other key roles were played by straight performers, a trend that would continue in such subsequent films as An Early Frost, Boys Don’t Cry, Dallas Buyers Club, The Kids Are All Right and Brokeback Mountain.
Flash-forward five decades later, and the new film version of The Boys in the Band that’s premiering on Netflix on Sept. 30 features an ensemble that consists exclusively of nine openly gay actors, including Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Matt Bomer. All of the performers are reprising their respective roles from the 2018 Tony-winning Broadway production, directed by Joe Mantello, who is also behind the camera here. That choice of casting was always central to his decision to bring the play back to the stage and the screen, and the actors recognized the significance of making both Broadway and Netflix history.
“Being part of a cast where everyone was openly gay was unheard of and, certainly for me, unprecedented,” Bomer tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It was something that was largely unspoken during the rehearsal process, but it was a communal understanding not only of the importance of the piece, but of rolling up our sleeves and doing the work to tell this story. When we took each other’s hands and bowed every night at the end of the show, it meant something.” (Watch over video interview with the cast above.)
Now that history has been made, of course, the next question is whether it will repeat itself or if Hollywood will revert to the default practice of continuing to cast straight actors as LGBTQ characters. Already, there are signs that things may be changing: Scarlett Johansson, for example, stepped away from a film where she would have played a transgender character following online protests. And former Glee star, Darren Criss, has vowed that he’ll no longer play gay characters going forward, explaining: “I won’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role.” Quinto, for one, sees a lot of promise in the changing face of representation in Hollywood. “I think we’re certainly living in a time where representation is incredibly important in telling stories, and authentic representation is more important than ever,” he notes. “So my hope is we’re moving more in that direction.”
At the same time, Quinto doesn’t believe that straight actors need to recuse themselves from playing gay characters, especially if that means that openly gay actors like himself are similarly blocked from portraying straight characters. “For me, if a straight person wants to a play a role, that’s great,” says Quinto, who played Spock in all three of the most recent Star Trek movies, and enjoyed a memorable onscreen romance with Zoe Saldana’s Uhura. “Let’s just open the door the other way as well.” And speaking of Star Trek, the actor praises the recent news that Season 3 of the CBS All Access series, Star Trek: Discovery will introduce the franchise’s first transgender and nonbinary characters. “Star Trek has always been a franchise that’s represented how diversity, if embraced and celebrated. brings us together. Gene Roddenberry was a visionary in that regard.”
If a straight person wants to a play a role, that’s great. Let's just open the door the other way as well. Zachary Quinto
Quinto’s point about the need to create shared opportunities for both gay and straight actors was echoed across the board by the rest of The Boys in the Band cast. “I don’t think we should subscribe to a world in which straight folks come into the queer world and get Oscars, and we can’t even get the opportunity to get into the room to audition for said role,” said Robin de Jesús, who received a Tony nomination for his performance onstage. “But also, I want to be able to play straight roles — I want to have that opportunity as well. We need to have more of our own people represent our own people before we can fully have that fluidity, but the goal always is fluidity.”
Like Quinto, Parsons and Bomer have also played straight characters, most memorably on the TV shows The Big Bang Theory and White Collar, respectively. “I would like to continue to play gay and straight roles,” Bomer says. “I think everyone should get to play all the roles, but it’s about making sure people have the opportunity to get in the room and then let the best actor win for the part.” For his part, Parsons frames the topic in superheroic terms: “The point here is that a gay person should be up for the role of Superman without having to make him gay or even to care about it. People will still come and see that if he, or she, is the right person for the role.” (Interestingly, Bomer has revealed in the past that he came very close to playing the Man of Steel in a J.J. Abrams-penned movie that was never made.)
The point here is that a gay person should be up for the role of Superman without having to make him gay or even to care about it. Jim Parsons
Mantello agrees with his cast, although he admits to being tired of hearing “a straight actor being commended for their bravery in taking on a gay role.” That’s certainly what happened in the case of Jared Leto, whose career was revitalized after his Oscar-winning turn as an HIV-positive trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club. Asked whether he would think twice about accepting a role in a similar movie where a straight actor plays an LGBTQ character, Brian Hutchison praises the film and its star. “I thought he did an amazing job. I don’t think if you’re gay you should only play gay characters, and I don’t think if you’re straight, it means you’ve got to play straight characters. I think things will change when it’s not as big a deal to be gay. I want to see more characters where being gay is not the struggle. Things will change when there are more stories where there are gay characters and it’s not even mentioned — it’s just who they are.”
Noting that Dallas Buyers Club already seems like “a product of a different time,” Charlie Carver adds that there’s no small amount of value that comes with an actor like Leto playing a gay man. “It does so much to combat homophobia, too, to have recognizable straight actors take on these roles,” he notes. “I do think best efforts should be made especially in the instance of stories about sexuality or sexual identity to have actors of those same identities tell these stories. But I don’t think there needs to be orthodoxy about these things. As long as the casting and the overall process is equal, it’s about the story — it’s about creating and endearing people to what has historically been a very marginalized community and telling a story that might otherwise never have been told.”
The Boys in the Band premieres Wednesday, Sept. 30 on Netflix.
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