It's been 20 years since the dawn of “New Queer Cinema,” where out and proud filmmakers like Tom Kalin, Todd Haynes, and Gregg Araki made bold, daring gay films like “Swoon,” “Poison,” and “The Living End,” respectively. The parts were juicy — and not always politically correct.
Consider Craig Chester’s Nathan Leopold Jr., and Daniel Schlachet as Richard Loeb, the child-murderers in “Swoon,” or Craig Gilmore as Jon and Mike Dytri as Luke, two HIV-positive killers on the loose in “The Living End.” These parts were far removed from the limp-wristed and lisping, sassy gay roles of Hollywood. And like the out filmmakers, several of the actors involved were openly gay themselves.
In a recent phone interview, Chester said that he never considered staying in the career closet. When he made “Swoon,” he was 24 and very involved in AIDS activism — as was director Kalin and out producer Christine Vachon.
“My being openly gay and choosing to be out was completely a byproduct of the times I was in,” he said. “It did not occur to me to not be out. Back then, no one would play these roles. There was a stigma attached to it. That’s why I had a career.”
He acknowledged that playing gay is now a good career move “if you want an Oscar.”
Twenty years ago, gay filmmakers were ahead of the curve. But now, it seems, the entertainment industry is behind the times. New Queer Cinema made its mark, but, more than ever, the emphasis is on box-office draw rather than an actor’s body of work. For out actors to be successful in Hollywood, they have to conform to a saleable image. They must “sell the fantasy” — one in which straight men want to be him and women want to sleep with him. (Gay men, it would seem, have to want to both be him and sleep with him.)
David Moretti is a part of a new breed of talented and handsome gay actors who wanted to be out from the get-go. So far, Moretti’s visibility has mostly been on a couple of series that ran on the here! TV channel. He had a supporting role on “Dante’s Cove” before taking a lead in “The Lair,” in which he played a gay journalist investigating vampires running a sex den. The shows had small audiences, but they helped the actor develop a core of loyal followers.
In a phone interview, Moretti said having a queer fan base might help him open the door to realizing his dream of getting roles — gay or straight — on network TV. He acknowledged, however, that as an out actor trying to make it in the mainstream, “It will take me more work and patience to make it than if my credits were ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘90210.’”
Moretti, who has appeared in indie films in addition to his TV roles, is optimistic. He cited a few potential series opportunities in the works, but is also realistic.
“Just because I’ve been in a few series and done some indie films, it’s not carte blanche that I will make it,” he said. “You have to constantly sharpen your tools and hone your craft.”
He indicated that the key to his success lies not in answering the question, “Can I act?,” but in proving he is financially attractive to producers, that he can draw audiences and garner box office receipts.
Some actors have been able to come out and work steadily. Neil Patrick Harris has achieved tremendous acclaim playing an oversexed womanizer in “Harold & Kumar” films and on TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” — and his cachet in the industry has earned him emcee gigs on the Tony Awards two years running.
Harris is not a rare exception. Openly gay actor Dan Butler played a similar straight horndog character on TV’s “Frasier,” which also co-starred out actor David Hyde Pierce. Butler has continued to work in supporting roles in sitcoms. (Note to Hollywood: He deserves his own show.)
Zachary Quinto played queer on VH1’s “So NoTORIous,” but received most of his media attention for his roles on TV’s “Heroes” and as “Spock” in the “Star Trek” 2009 reboot. He also achieved success in the leading role of the Oscar-nominated “Margin Call,” a drama set during the 2008 financial crisis that he also produced prior to coming out publically last year in advance of its release.
Quinto’s role in “Margin Call” followed him through a bone-crushing 24 hours in the office where his sexuality had no time to come up, which may be why his performance didn’t generate media scrutiny about his personal life. Out actor Sean Hayes, famous for playing the flamboyant Jack on TV’s “Will & Grace,” was attacked in an infamous 2010 Newsweek article that questioned his credibility in playing a straight romantic lead in Broadway in “Promises, Promises.” The Newsweek critic, Ramin Setoodeh, was himself gay.
Last month, Jim Parsons, now appearing on the boards in “Harvey,” came out publically. His deft comic timing may be the key to his performances — especially on the hit TV series “The Big Bang Theory” — but on his show, his character’s sexuality is unknown.
The sexuality of a character and a performer’s orientation should not, of course, have to be the same. It is called acting, after all.
Perhaps it’s a canny career move that after coming out publically earlier this year, Matt Bomer is following up the success of his USA network TV show “White Collar” with a role as a sexy male stripper in the highly anticipated “Magic Mike” opening later this month.
Straight men are not likely going to be the audience for “Magic Mike,” but heterosexual guys are certainly the target audience for action-packed movies like “Immortals,” which came out in theaters last fall. One of the film’s stars, Luke Evans, who played Zeus, came out years ago in print. But numerous online accounts talk about him being “pushed back into the closet” as buzz built around his Hollywood career.
Are gay actors really that threatening to audiences? Perhaps no one really cares who an actor loves as long as they make money at the box office. It really could be that simple an explanation. Success in Hollywood is usually defined as playing action heroes or romantic leads in mainstream Hollywood films and TV. Actors often feel forced to remain closeted to have careers that provide them with the opportunity to make those kinds of films.
Closeted actors can’t discuss why they won’t come out with the media. In fact, at least one out gay actor approached for this article, who is co-starring in an upcoming queer indie film, was advised not to talk to the gay press because he has played mostly heterosexual roles in films and TV. A story featuring him in a gay publication could negatively impact his career, he said he was told.
The decision for an actor to come out in Hollywood has long been seen as risky; over and over, it’s been dubbed “career suicide.” Agents and managers recommend against it because it limits roles and box office appeal.
“I had 20 agents tell me not to come out at the start of my career,” Moretti said, noting the irony that many casting directors and agents in the industry are gay themselves.
“That’s an old school way of thinking,” he said, adding optimistically, “That mentality will die out eventually. It’s great that Matt Bomer came out and is not facing career suicide. The industry’s metaphorical closet door gets pushed slightly more open. If we get everyone who is [closeted] to do it at the same time on the same day, that would really slam the sucker open. But that won’t happen.”
Out gay actor Darryl Stephens, in a recent phone interview, said, “Making the announcement in public shifts how you are listed — as an openly gay actor.”
Stephens came out in 2007 during the second and final season as the title character in Logo’s hit show “Noah’s Arc,” which spawned a follow-up film, “Jumping the Broom.” Stephens — who was the object of his roommate X’s (Derek Magyar) hidden affection in the fabulous 2006 film “Boy Culture” and played Angel, a “Ty-Booty” instructor who was one of two tops who initiated anal-sex virgin Andy (Michael Carbonaro) in a threesome scene in “Another Gay Movie” — acknowledged he hadn’t played many straight parts, so his announcement should not have surprised audiences.
Being out “probably changes how I am perceived in the industry,” Stephens said. “But it helps the public recognize that a number of us are gay and not just playing gay characters.”
While he has had a few straight roles in his career, Stephens emphasized that being out gave him freedom as an actor.
“Being true to yourself certainly helps you express yourself honestly,” he said. “Coming out officially was an extension of what I was already doing with the roles I was taking, and by reaching out to people from an honest place — who could see and respond to the characters I play, like Noah — I didn’t have to edit my responses about talking about sexuality.”
Moretti concurred with that perspective.
“I want to be able to answer ‘Who are you dating?’ on the red carpet without the horse and pony charade the closet cases have to do,” he said. “I didn’t want to be living a lie in my social life to maintain a fake public identity, so to speak. You have to take charge of your own career and have a strong sense of identity. You have to know who you are and just do it.”
Insecurity about his identity sabotaged Adrian Armas and his career plans. A professional dancer, he had no concerns about being open until he started branching out into commercials and TV, doing “Undressed” for MTV.
“When that started, the fear started,” Armas recalled in a Skype session. “I had fear put into me by agents and other dancers and actors who said dancers are swishy and feminine. And that started some self-hatred, and I started hating everybody else. It was a horrible time. There was no hope — I wanted to be famous as an actor, but personally, I was miserable. I always felt [being closeted] kept me from being successful. Because if I were successful, they would find out I was gay. I look back, and it’s sad. I was on a certain track — if I kept on that track, I could have done more mainstream projects, movies.”
His voice stopped, as the thought hung there.
Armas’ candor is tinged with regret about what could have been. Seeing his promise as an actor makes his regrets doubly poignant. As a dancer and actor, he displayed talent to burn, stealing his scenes in the gay indie “Showboy.” But instead of working as an actor, he went on to play supporting roles as dancers in big-budget films including “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “13 Going on 30,” and “Starsky & Hutch.”
It was only after an injury ended his dancing career that Armas sought the acting work he craved. He turned in a very accomplished performance in 2010 as one half of a gay couple struggling with issues of fidelity in Casper Andreas’ independent queer film “Violet Tendencies.”
While Armas hopes more roles will come, he acknowledged that competition with bigger name stars gets tougher and tougher all the time.
“Indie films — and even gay indie films, which should be a smaller pond — are getting A-list people,” he said.
Armas has since chosen to slow down his pursuit of a Hollywood career. This does not mean he is not interested in acting. Quite the opposite, he declared.
“I don’t care anymore about being famous or what people think,” he said. “I find I’m having more success in all areas of my life being out. I don’t worry about what people are thinking. Can I play a straight part? Now it seems ridiculous to me.”
For all the worry about whether a gay man can play straight or a straight man can play gay, a deeper issue may be less about sexuality and more about stereotypes of masculinity and sexual expression.
Moretti said he has been deemed “too masculine” for some gay roles he auditioned for, stating, “Not everyone has to be Jack from ‘Will & Grace.’” The irony, he found, is that he some folks in the industry “don’t believe me when I say I’m gay.”
Jonah Blechman’s experience provides a contrast to Moretti’s. Blechman found his niche playing sensitive, emphatic types, starting with his indelible 1993 film debut as Leonardo DiCaprio’s gay best friend in “This Boy’s Life.”
He wasn’t out when he appeared in that film, and said of the character he played, “I wasn’t even looking at him as gay. He was effeminate, which is something I could play.”
The actor was surprised by audience response to “This Boy’s Life.”
“When I had conversations about representing this effeminate kid, people reached out and thanked me for playing a gay character,” he said. “Then I could acknowledge it. I came out after that film.”
Blechman recalled that agents and others have consistently been very nervous about him playing more queer characters. His agent tried to dissuade him from meeting Francis Ford Coppola about playing Allen Ginsberg/ Carlo Marx character in the new film version of “On the Road,” a role Tom Sturridge has taken on.
“They were clearly influenced and opinionated about what I should not do,” Blechman said bluntly.
At one point in the ‘90s, the actor left his agents and started questioning his career. He shied away from playing gay characters and turned down obvious queer roles in films like “Johns” (1996) about male prostitutes for fear of being typecast. His career stalled in part because of his fears.
It was doing “Hedwig” on stage in San Francisco for six months in 2003 that “revived” him as an actor,” Blechman said.
“It was the gay ‘Hamlet,’” he recalled enthusiastically. “Comedy, drama, and music.”
The experience proved to him there was gay work and there were good gay roles, and this led to his comedic turns in Todd Stephens’ “Another Gay Movie” and “Another Gay Sequel,” which Blechman also produced. As the über-queeny Nico, he endeared himself to audiences.
Making the jump into that role, however, was not without its anxieties.
“‘Another Gay Movie’ bothered me because I had such opinions about it,” Blechman said candidly. “When I could see that I could extend and stretch into the ultimate flamboyance and power, it was hard for me to initially connect into that. But it was a total freedom. It also grounded me. I was more comfortable with my masculinity and able to bump out my femininity.”
Proving that success is measured by personal achievement and not necessarily box office receipts or reviews, Blechman is now acting in, writing, and producing projects that play on queer archetypes and his strength as a character actor. Later this year, he will be seen in “For Spacious Sky,” a short film that will be used by the Obama re-election campaign. And Blechman is writing and producing a film called “Ballroom,” described as a commercial comedy about dancing. Plans for this film, set in the “Dancing with the Stars” world, call for shooting later this year or in early 2013.
Many gay actors say that labors of love are the most viable ways to create their own career opportunities and to keep working.
In 2005, Chester wrote, directed, and starred in the romantic comedy “Adam & Steve.” He recalled he was inspired to make the film after traveling to gay festivals where male couples in the audience would ask him, “When would we make a movie about us?”
“So, I just made it myself,” he explained. “I spent a decade playing characters with a razor blade poised on my wrist, and I’m actually a funny guy. I wanted to write about getting a boyfriend and all the shit that comes with that.”
Moretti also wants to actively shape his future. He said he finds creative fulfillment working within the gay community. He just co-produced the forthcoming “Scrooge and Marley,” a queer reworking of “A Christmas Carol.”
And Stephens, too, is stepping into more writing and producing roles for that same reason. He recently co-wrote, with Logan Alexander, a short film called "Something Like a Butterfly," about a mixed-race teenage lesbian with issues at home. This fall, he will be the executive producer and star of “DTLA,” an independent series he co-wrote several episodes for with Larry Kennar. Stephens also has two new features in the works — a comedy about four high school football players going to their 20-year reunion and another about a gay man finally having to grow up at 40.
Despite career struggles and drawbacks, there are opportunities for tenacious gay actors to empower themselves and become successful. Twenty years after New Queer Cinema, the film industry has its good share of artists hoping to usher in an age of “ReNewed Queer Cinema.”