In The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the new Robert Carlock/Tina Fey series Netflix released last Friday, aspiring actor Titus (Tituss Burgess) is bummed to discover that a role he covets at the theme restaurant where he works—Professor Dracula’s Spooky Laboratory and Bar & Grill—has gone to someone else. He asks his boss why Rick, a co-worker, got the part and is told, “Dr. Van Peebles has to play as straight.” But when Titus realizes that Rick is also gay, he’s confused: How did he manage to fool the casting director? Rick tells him that he, too, used to be “typecast as the funny gay guy who works at the police station or the sassy best friend who makes up words” until he trained with the mysterious M Le Loup, whose business card declares him to be a “Straight Coach.”
Le Loup’s later attempts at butching up Titus are goofy and absurdist—like so much else in this charming show—but there’s a serious point behind the joke: Several actors who are openly gay or who have been cast in multiple gay or bisexual roles told me it can limit career options.
Peter Paige, the openly gay actor who played Emmett Honeycutt on Showtime’s Queer as Folk, said that in his experience, many casting directors won’t even consider out actors for parts that aren’t specifically written as gay: “We don’t get to read for DAs and doctors. They say, ‘Oh, we’re not going gay with this.’ And I just think, ‘Really? The world isn’t full of random gay people that you run into once in a while? It’s only hairstylists and shoe salesmen?’ ”
Guillermo Diaz, who plays Huck on ABC’s Scandal, has “always been honest about being gay,” and although he’s never had any issues with casting directors, he told me that former managers and agents advised him to limit the number of gay roles he took. After filming Stonewall and Just One Time, both gay-themed films, he got a part in 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader, only to have his manager pull him from the role. “I always found it interesting that my management had a problem with me playing all these gay roles, but they never had a problem with me killing people on screen,” he said. “I did a ton of movies where I was a thug, murdering people with machine guns. They never had an issue with that, but one gay role and then another one, and they were like, ‘Oh, wait, you’ve got to stop, there’s something wrong with this.’ ”
Attitudes do seem to be changing for younger actors. Jussie Smollett, who plays the newly out Lyon scion Jamal on Fox’s Empire and in 2012 did a gay role in the Patrik-Ian Polk movie The Skinny, has heard all the stories about getting typecast, but he told me, “I really don’t care about that.” He plays a race-car driver in an upcoming film. “If a different movie came along, and I was asked to play a race-car driver, I wouldn’t go, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to be typecast.’ ” Similarly, openly gay Robin Lord Taylor, who plays Oswald Cobblepot on Fox’s Gotham, says he doesn’t worry about casting directors stereotyping him: “I feel like the landscape has totally changed. Regardless of sexual preference, it’s more that as a character actor, the less I reveal about myself, the better. My favorite actors are the ones I know least about.”
Thomas Dekker, who, at 27, is currently playing a flamboyant and tough gay criminal on Fox’s Backstrom and was gay reality pioneer Lance Loud on the 2011 HBO movie Cinema Verite and a bisexual college student in Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, has never been advised to steer clear of queer parts. Dekker’s sideline as a musician and his punk sensibility has been more of an issue in casting: “I have been told, ‘Maybe don’t get another tattoo. Maybe don’t do another B-movie slasher film because you think it’s fun,’ ” he told me at January’s Television Critics Association gathering, where I conducted these interviews.
So perhaps the tide is turning—and not just because of straight coaches like M Le Loup. Peter Paige, who in addition to being an actor is also a co-creator and executive producer of ABC Family’s The Fosters, is now on the other side of casting decisions. “We had one actor who came in to read for a role, and it was very clear he’s gay,” Paige recalled when I spoke to him in 2014. “He came across fairly effeminate, but then he started reading, and we went, ‘You know, he’s really interesting, and I think he’s actually the best actor for this job.’” Paige paused. “That’s a consideration I don’t think I always get.”