The cast of Modern Family was recently guests on Inside The Actor’s Studio with James Lipton and if there’s one thing we learned from their time on James’ stage, it’s the phrase “Gay For Pay.” Gay For Pay refers to a straight actor who plays a gay character on film, or “For Pay”. For example, like the entire main cast of To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar, which is surely among the Top 10 Movies With Straight Men Wearing Dresses And Looking Prettier Than Me (I’m looking at you, bittersweet memory of the late Patrick Swayze).
As an actor (pronounced ‘ack-TORE’), it is their job as a professional (as in, they be gettin’ paid LARGE) to play a variety of characters, often very different from themselves in some ways. Sexual orientation included. When it works the best for a straight actor to play a gay character, is when they play it right. When they don’t play the stereotypes and actually behave realistically. Although, sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, but they tried, so we can polite-clap, right?
Let’s take a look at some of the most notable Gays For Pay from movie and television, shall we?
Eric Stonestreet – Modern Family
Eric Stonestreet is a straight man who won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series playing a near-charicature of a gay man. Cam is a proud and unapologetic gay man, but he is also a wonderful father. Cam and Mitchell are already double-dads to an adorable little girl and they may (SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T EMPTIED YOUR PVR YET) adopt a little boy, if the ending of the finale is of any indication. The couple shared a rare same-sex kiss on the show in September of 2010, after an on-line petition called to see some physical affection between the two.
Tom Hanks – Philadelphia
Tom Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer living with AIDS who sues his firm for discrimination. Hanks lost 35 lbs (which, in the Christian Bale era of method acting, is just average as far as EXTREME WEIGHT LOSS goes) and thinned his hair for the role.
Hilary Swank – Boys Don’t Cry
Hilary Swank won the first of her two Academy Awards for her brave role as Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon, a transgendered man who was beaten, raped, and murdered when her true sexuality was discovered by a group of men. Based on a true story, the casting directors initially scouted for a masculine looking lesbian, but Swank won them over.
Eric McCormack – Will & Grace
Eric McCormack won critical and mass praise for his role as Will Truman, a gay man for whom being gay wasn’t all he was. McCormack himself said “sexual orientation aside, Will was so much like me. He’s a great host, he’s relatively funny and he has great friends and he’s a good friend to them … the gay issue just wasn’t really a big thing.” Eric won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 2001.
Charlize Theron – Monster
Charlize Theron won Academy Award for Best Actress, Golden Globe Award for Best Actress and the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress (and 14 other awards) for her portrayal of Aileen Wuornos, a former prostitute who was executed in 2002 for six murders. Theron made you feel for Wuornos, whose lover is played by Christina Ricci, despite being a brutal serial killer, because she made you see how horrific her life must have been to drive her to commit her crimes.
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal – Brokeback Mountain
Brokeback Mountain will forever be known as the brunt and the catalyst of gay jokes and sketch comedy skits because it graphically showed (well, as graphic as an R rating can be) two men, played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, who were living as straight men, in sexual situations. It was one of the first films to be classified as a Romantic Drama to have two males as the leads. The film won many of the major awards.
Sean Penn - Milk
The biographical role of Harvey Milk, gay rights activist and politician who was assassinated for his platforms and political stature, won Sean Penn the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Lead Role, and the movie itself won Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Milk was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2008, as was Penn’s performance, which was both moving and surprising.
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore – The Kids Are All Right
The Kids Are All Right, not to be confused with The Kids Are Alright, is a film about a lesbian couple who each had a child using the same sperm donor. The children learn who their biological father is and the story goes on about the five of them deciding whether or not to include him in their lives. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play Nic and Jules, and both received many nominations for their work, but Bening came away with the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
There are many other actors also worth mentioning – Kevin Kline in In & Out, Robin Williams in The Birdcage, Meryl Streep in The Hours, etc. - who have done their job right, playing a character who is oriented sexually differently, and have been honest in their portrayal of a LGBT role, despite that, perhaps, being outside of their usual comfort zone.
So tell me, who would you add to this list?
Next week, we’ll look at LGBT actors who have played it straight on-screen.