Sean Harris Oliver on Playing Gay (For Pay)
The truth is, a human being is a human being. Does being in love, or having your heart broken feel differently if it’s between members of the same-sex? No, of course not. Your job as the actor is to portray a real person: a fully rounded human being. A person’s sexual orientation is just one little piece of what makes that character unique… However, there are a few things to keep in mind if you are a heterosexual playing a homosexual character for the first time.
Playing a gay character is the same as playing a straight character. Simple, right? Just approach the process the same as you would when you’re playing any other role.
“Whoa! Wait, Sean Harris Oliver, if it’s that simple, then why am I reading this article?” You ask.
Okay. Maybe there is more to it than just that. But, the truth is, a human being is a human being. Does being in love, or having your heart broken feel differently if it’s between members of the same-sex? No, of course not. Your job as the actor is to portray a real person: a fully rounded human being. A person’s sexual orientation is just one little piece of what makes that character unique.
However, there are a few things to keep in mind if you are a heterosexual playing a homosexual character for the first time.
Some straight actors will play their ‘idea’ of a gay person. It is usually a caricature they’ve constructed according to some fucking mish-mash of stereotypes they’ve been fed by pop culture.
Like the gay flight attendant. We’ve all seen this one in some crappy movie or TV show, with a lispy takeoff speech or a bitchy approach to customer service. The gay flight attendant (the gay waiter, the gay hairdresser, the gay anything for that matter) is a stereotype. Please don’t play a stereotype. It’s fake, and its bullshit. Your job is to love your character, not to turn him or her into a joke.
I’m not saying that there aren’t those kinds of gay people in the real world. I’m saying playing a caricature of the gay flight attendant is a fake, offensive cop-out. Your job as the actor is to create a multi-dimensional person with real needs, goals and desires. Be a real person, not a stereotype.
“How do I do this?” The devil, as they say, is in the details.
As part of your research you must go to the gay bar. Yes, you read correctly. You are going to put on your dancing pants and you’re going to a gay club. Bring a friend, and go have fun. It doesn’t really matter whether or not your character would go to the gay bar. You the actor should go and do some people watching. Actors observe in order to understand, and the gay bar is a great place to people watch and party at the same time.
I was in a gay club and some guy walked by and grabbed my ass really hard. I turned to my date and said, “Wow, some guys are really aggressive! Is this what women have to put up with?” I had never even considered what it was like to be hit on by another man. And yeah, some dudes can be pretty handsy, which is a lesson I learned at the gay bar! If this happens, take it as a compliment, take a breath and have a drink. Your ass will recover.
My point is: one fun night at the gay bar will give you lots of new information (and inspiration). Also, it should increase your comfort level regarding physical contact with members of the same sex. And being comfortable on stage is really important.
You are an actor. Your character is not an actor. Your character is a lawyer, a cop, a kindergarten teacher, a kindergarten cop, a gay male twink kindergarten cop, etc. In order to convincingly play a character you should know all about him, including knowing things and jargon that are a part of his world.
Is your character a Twink? A Bear? An Otter? A Cub? A Daddie? A Top? A Bottom? Do you know what a Lucky Pierre is? One time, I was working on a play and a designer mentioned ‘Prince Albert’. I innocently asked, “Who is Prince Albert?” The room erupted in laughter. Imagine my surprise when I found out who (and what) he was.
Here’s a link to a fun site I found full of useful gay slang: http://thoughtcatalog.com/nico-lang/2013/09/51-gay-slang-phrases-youve-never-heard-before/ Urban Dictionary can be a great place to do research as well.
If you haven’t done it before, yes, kissing a member of the same sex can feel a little . . . strange. I never knew a man’s face felt so scratchy!
So what do you do…? Only choose roles where you don’t have to kiss? Ha! No, that’s boring and safe. The answer is – kiss early and often.
Integrate it into rehearsal as early as possible. Think of it as blocking (which it is). If its stage kissing there’s no reason to use tongue, so be respectful of your scene partner (the same as you would in a hetero role). If it’s film (which sometimes requires kissing a la francais), speak with your director and get a clear understanding of what s/he wants. Don’t free style.
Do not avoid intimacy. No excuses friends. “I’m sick.” Get un-sick. “My breath is stinky” Chew some gum. “His beard is scratchy” Your character LIKES scratchy beards, bitch! I’m telling you to kiss as often as you can so that by the time you get to opening night you’ll feel totally comfortable with it – whiskers and all.
“How comfortable is my character with their sexuality?” This a great question for the straight actor to ask him or herself about any character, but it is especially relevant when playing a queer role. It is my belief that the answer to that question will often place the character into one of three groups.
Consider how your character’s answer to ‘the big question’ influences his or her mental mindset, physical habits, dress, hygiene, vocal patterns, etc., you name it.
Below are a couple examples of each type of character drawn from contemporary films. Understand that by no means do all characters behave like the people that I’ve listed. These are simply good reference points. Besides, the films are excellent, so they’re worth watching even if you don’t wind up using them for research.
Out and Proud: ex. “Michael Alig” in Party Monster (2003), played by Macaulay Culkin. Michael is a ‘club kid’ in New York’s vibrant party scene.
The character is confident in his sexuality. He displays a low degree of inhibition. Does the character seek out attention on purpose? How does he achieve this? Does the character want other people to look at and notice him? If so, why?
Out . . . but not to everyone: ex. “Selby” in Monster (2003), played by Christina Ricci. In this film Selby lives at home with her religious family. Selby visits gay bars, but attempts to conceal her sexuality from her parents.
How does the character attire herself in order to mask her sexuality? How does the character behave in situations when she is comfortable versus when she’s not comfortable? How does the character behave towards people to whom she is open to versus people who she is closeted to?
In the Closet: ex. Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), played by Matt Damon. A young man becomes obsessed with his playboy best friend. The character conceals his sexuality from others around him, and possibly from himself.
How aware is the character of his sexuality? How does it affect the character’s psychology and physicality while bearing the burden of this secret? What will the character do to protect his secret? In what situations will the character possibly reveal this information?
We all know what it is to love someone, right? (I hope so, or you might be in the wrong profession.)
Playing a queer character is one of the greatest gifts a straight actor can receive. This is your chance to experience a love you you’ve never had before, to experience the challenges that gay people face in society, and ultimately, to explore a beautiful part of humanity. And after all, isn’t that why we are actors?