There’s never been a better time to be gay in Hollywood. “Moonlight” won Best Picture the same year Kristen Stewart told millions of people on “Saturday Night Live” that she’s “like, so gay dude.” Now in its 10th season, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” boasts two Emmy nominations and ever-increasing ratings. The “Roseanne” reboot has a gender-nonconforming child, and “Love, Simon,” the first major studio film about a gay teenager, is playing in 2,402 theaters nationwide. It seems everywhere you look, progress is slowly doing its thing.
So why are so many actors still in the closet?
This week delivered a stark reminder of the real state of affairs, when James Ivory gave a no-holds-barred interview in The Guardian lamenting the lack of full-frontal male nudity in “Call Me By Your Name,” the gay awards film of last year, which earned the Hollywood legend his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The same story also noted how Ivory kept his 44-year romantic relationship with producing partner Ismail Merchant a secret — albeit an open one.
Surely such secrecy is a thing of the past, right? In a post-Call Me By Your Name” world (which is also a post-“Carol” and post-“Moonlight” world), why would anyone feel pressure to hide their sexuality in order to get work in Hollywood?
“A lot of people advise you not to do it. They tell you flat out — ‘Don’t do it,’” said “Westworld” actress Evan Rachel Wood, who came out publicly as bisexual in 2011. “They don’t want you to be less desirable to men. Because that sells tickets and that helps your career.”
“Star Trek” actor John Cho is straight, but played Billy Eichner’s boyfriend in “Difficult People,” as well as the latest iteration of Sulu in “Star Trek,” who is revealed as gay in the third installment. In an interview, Cho told IndieWire that he knows of one actor who “is not particularly in the closet, if you get my drift,” but is not out in the press. “I think he doesn’t want to … talk about that for 80 percent of each interview,” said Cho. “It’s natural, the attention, but I think this person would rather talk about the film. And heterosexual actors are afforded a much greater degree of privacy.”
A top-level talent manager who spoke on condition of anonymity put it in blunter terms. “It’s all about perception. They want to believe that the lead guy is fucking the lead woman,” he said. “If a studio is backing a film with a ton of money … they want everyone who is buying tickets to believe that that’s in fact the case. Sadly, if we know that in real life the lead guy is screwing around with another guy, the fear is that it may hurt ticket sales.”
The same logic does not apply to straight actors, like “Call Me by Your Name” stars Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet, for whom playing gay (albeit in a prestigious film) actually bolstered their careers. Loose-lipped though he was, Ivory did not elaborate on the reason “Call Me by Your Name” skimped on the skimpiness, other than to call “bullshit” on the assertion by director Luca Guadagnino that it was a “conscious aesthetic decision.”
But plenty of actors cut to the chase. “You see a lot of heterosexual actors playing queer characters on screen, but you don’t see that many queer actors playing straight people on screen,” said Lola Kirke, whose new movie, “Gemini,” has both explicit queer themes and nuanced undertones. The contemporary noir casts Kirke as an unwitting Philip Marlowe on the run after the death of her employer and friend, a prominent actress played by Zoë Kravitz, who must hide her sexuality from the paparazzi.
Kirke’s star has been steadily on the rise since she starred opposite Greta Gerwig in 2015’s “Mistress America,” but even she acknowledges that actors have very little power. “I am still lucky to get a job. It’s not entirely easy,” Kirke said. “So I think that’s why people might obscure certain parts of who they are, because it’s a privilege to be able to be recognized for what you do. Even if what you do is within a system that is extremely messed up, it can be tricky to be navigate if you overthrow the system or participate in it.”
Others try to rationalize that process. “As a producer, as someone who’s creating a role for TV, they’re going to want to have their lead actor, or actress believably play the role,” said the talent manager, who is openly gay. “Personally, I don’t blame them for that.”
With “Westworld” gearing up as HBO’s new “Game of Thrones,” Wood has weathered potential career hits, though she has had more prominent relationships with men than with women. “Nothing happened that people told me was going to happen,” she said.
There is a recent plethora of buzzy young actresses proudly stating their queerness, whether it be with much fanfare (Ellen Page’s HRC speech), or a slow trickle of glaring hints leading up to a giant middle finger to the president on “Saturday Night Live” (Stewart). Sasha Lane, Kate McKinnon, and Samira Wiley are just a few whose queerness has not hindered, and quite possibly has helped, their careers.
“I think it pertains mainly to young male, romantic leads,” said the manager. “Those are the roles that are written. That’s what’s out there. If the public is not going to buy you in those roles, if producers are not going to choose you in those roles, if you’re not being bought in those roles, what’s out there? That’s one of the hurdles that hasn’t been addressed yet.”
In that case, the solution may be to write fewer heterosexual romances altogether — which might not be a bad thing for actresses, straight or gay, as Hollywood attempts to reckon with its history of sexualizing women. It might lead to better movies, too.
The problem lies more heavily with young men; there are plenty of out gay character actors and comedians. Zachary Quinto, Alan Cumming, and Neil Patrick Harris have made no secret of being gay, but they either waited until later in life to come out, or did not reach the height of their fame until later in life.
“It hasn’t hurt some older character actors. You have actors for whom it’s like an open secret that they’re gay, but it hasn’t hurt their careers,” the manager said. “If you’re not established in the industry, which tends to be most young people, you [want to] make sure you’re not pigeonholed into certain roles, and into certain stereotypes. As you get older, as you get more established … roles open up. There are more parts [than just] the young hunk who’s the male romantic lead.”
Greg Berlanti, who directed “Love, Simon” and is pretty much single-handedly responsible for the proliferation of gay supporting characters on television, has been around long enough to be more optimistic. “When I would cast people in gay roles, there were so many conversations about it 10, 15 years ago. You’d have to talk to their agent, and you’d have to talk to them … There was a feeling that it would label an actor,” he said. “Those are not the kinds of conversations people are having now.”
Wood, who is as outspoken in real life as renegade “Westworld” cyborg Dolores, regrets nothing about coming out: “You might be leaving one community behind,” she said, “but you’re getting embraced by another.”