Is it a sin to play gay when you’re straight?

James Dreyfus doesn't think sexuality should define an actor and the characters they portray

There was an interesting, yet unresolved, debate recently, concerning casting gay actors in gay roles…

A few weeks back, after reading remarks about gay roles being reserved for gay actors, made by Russell T. Davies, the brilliant writer and creator of the new record-breaking AIDS drama, It’s A Sin, I tweeted that I disagreed with that position on the grounds that I believe that one’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with the ability to convince and amaze. 

It was picked up by The Times, and duly reported, (which was startling to me, as I had assumed only my followers and trolls read my irrelevant drivel). Anyway, as you might imagine, the effect was like hurling a rock at a hornet’s nest, and many took issue and, indeed, umbrage, as is usually the case with Twitter. 

I admit, upon re-reading my tweet it could be seen as a tad snide towards Mr Davies; something I truly did not intend. I simply tweeted what was on my mind; sometimes, an enormous error, particularly on social media. It turns out that Russell T. Davies was referring to how HE prefers to cast his dramas, personally, and that is entirely HIS choice and HIS prerogative. I was NOT ‘attacking’ Mr Davies, in any way and I apologise to him, sincerely, if it came across as such. (Sorry, Russell!) From what I hear (can’t quite face revisiting the trauma of those years just yet), It’s A Sin is a masterpiece, so please don’t misconstrue this article as a veiled critique of his decision. Onwards.

No, I wanted to talk about what “acting gay” is supposed to actually mean. If one thinks about it, it is perhaps a stunningly meaningless phrase. What is “acting gay”? A swishy walk, a limp wrist, a cutting wisecrack every two minutes..? I think what people really mean is “acting CAMP” and, believe me, the two are actually completely different entities.

When we think about gay characters we’ve seen, say on television for example, the extremely funny and talented John Inman, from Are You Being Served? (from an era long, long ago, kids), whose main characteristic was being camp, i.e. lots of sexual innuendo, a mincing, quickstep gait, and plenty of eye rolling, springs immediately to mind. And yes, of course, he was meant to be a flamboyant gay man. Mr. Inman, incidentally, incurred the wrath of many gay men whose objection was that it was an outrageous stereotype. Which it was. But to me, that seems to miss the point somewhat. 

Firstly, at that time, there were relatively few (if any) “out” actors, let alone gay representation on screen. The visible characters came in the form of Dick Emery’s hilarious Honky Tonk, Kenny Everett’s outrageous drag alter ego Cupid Stunt, Frankie Howerd’s wide eyed, knowing “ooh Mrs!”, straight into the camera lens, Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Williams (being the most notorious of all, nostrils flaring, mouth agape, nasal intonations and THAT voice!) It’s simply where we were, in terms of an acceptable face of homosexuality on screen. 

Change doesn’t happen overnight. It evolves, whether we like it or not. And many objected to these overt portrayals, and thus, the wheels of change began to turn. Slowly, but surely, other, more realistic character studies emerged. A good example of this is Michael Caine’s game-changing (at the time) portrayal as the bisexual husband of Maggie Smith in California Suite. The difference being, he didn’t camp it up. He played it like Michael Caine. Very straight acting. The only clues being in what he SAID, not in the way he ACTED. There are many other examples, of course. Peter Finch in Sunday, Bloody Sunday, Brad Davis (himself bisexual), as the macho sailor in Querelle. I could go on, but you get the picture.

This brings me to my main point. Many, many moons ago, I played a rather innocent, naive policeman (Kevin Goody) in Ben Elton’s The Thin Blue Line, alongside one of my comedy heroes, Rowan Atkinson. The character was madly in love with a policewoman, Habib (played by Mina Anwar). Now, I can only react to a character in an instinctive way. That is to say, I read a part, and if I understand the character, my brain and my body tends to take care of the details. So in the ensuing auditions, I played Goody exactly as you saw him on screen. As the comedy was heightened (i.e. not naturalistic), Goody was an extremely excitable and physical character, not unlike Michael Crawford’s genius creation, Frank Spencer, from Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em. Frank Spencer was an innocent; a good, decent man, effeminate, unlucky, physically expressive and hopelessly in love with his wife, Betty (Michelle Dotrice). In his black beret and his brown raincoat, along with his well known catchphrase “Ooh Betty!”, this actor enthralled me as a child. The excitement of sitting in front of the TV, listening to the piped opening theme music was the highlight of my week. So when I came to play Goody, Frank Spencer immediately came to my mind and, I admit, much of my performance was based on him.

I was, therefore, gobsmacked (perhaps naively), when the programme was eventually screened to hear reviewers and many people refer to Goody as “the gay one”! WHAT?? I couldn’t understand it. Just because he was camp did NOT equate to him being gay! Quite clearly, throughout the entire two series, he was desperately trying to woo Habib! Always unsuccessfully, but he bloody well persisted, much to her irritation.

I remember sitting down one evening, rather depressed, thinking that I’d got it all wrong. That my characterisation was way off the mark. ‘Nobody thought Frank Spencer was gay! He was just CAMP…!’ And that’s when reality hit. “Gay” and “camp” are still so entwined together in people’s minds, that, OF COURSE, they assumed him to be gay. And thus, to this day, I still hear people refer to him as “the gay policeman”.

So, what is my ultimate point, I hear you ask? Well, I suppose all I can glean from this experience, is that there is no such thing as “acting gay”. It’s meaningless. Therefore, to cast gay actors in gay roles is meaningless also. Actors act. They embody, they inhabit, they commit. Straight actors can do camp as well as the next man. Gay actors can be as butch as the next man, also. And if they are good, damn good, you shouldn’t notice. It’s a bit like CGI. The only good CGI is the CGI you DON’T notice.

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James Dreyfus

James Dreyfus is an English actor who is best known for playing Constable Kevin Goody on The Thin Blue Line, Tom Farrell in Gimme Gimme Gimme and Reverend Roger in Mount Pleasant. He played bookshop assistant Martin in Notting Hill and starred alongside Bette Midler in the US sitcom Bette. James also stars in the 2020 film Supernova alongside Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, due for release in the UK in March 2021.

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One Comment

  1. James, you played the role great, you are such a sensitive actor to watch.
    ‘Straight actors can do camp as well as the next man … Gay actors can be as butch as the next man also’ … of course they can. Men & women both are made up of many parts!
    Like your writing voice, honest and real.

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