I have only the utmost respect for Russell T Davies. At the start of the year, his AIDS drama It's A Sin had such a profound impact on me that I didn't stop crying for a week. The powerful miniseries was brilliantly executed across the board, from the script to the direction and, of course, the on-screen talent led by four openly gay young actors. Davies took a strong stance on his casting choices in an interview with Radio Times, revealing he had made a conscious effort to cast gay actors in gay roles and arguing that assigning such characters to heterosexual performers sacrifices any "authenticity". My admiration for his work notwithstanding, I have to say that I disagree.
Of course, this is a nuanced matter that should be approached on a case-by-case basis. There have been countless instances in the past where a heterosexual actor has been hired to portray an LGBTQ+ character and has done so by falling back on stereotypical caricatures. James Corden recently fell foul of this with his widely criticised performance in The Prom, and I currently await Jack Whitehall's "openly gay" character in Jungle Cruise with an acute sense of dread. But the implication in Davies comments, which seem to suggest that every performance by a straight actor in a gay role is invalid, simply isn't true – and the evidence is plain to see.
In Pride Month, coming-of-age comedy drama Love, Victor returns to Disney Plus for its second season and it's a true delight to have the show back. After the first batch of episodes saw the title character fighting to suppress his sexuality – going so far as to attempt a relationship with a female classmate that inevitably ended in tears – the second instalment sees a more open and confident Victor Salazar as he navigates life with his first boyfriend. It's a heartwarming story that doesn't sugarcoat the difficult reality of coming out, but maintains a hopeful and optimistic tone that never fails to put a smile on my face.
The entire cast of up and comers is full of endearing performances, with Michael Cimino (Annabelle Comes Home) and George Sear (Alex Rider) leading the pack as fledgling couple Victor and Benji. In real-life, both men identify as straight and are quite aware that their casting in these high-profile roles is a point of contention among some in the community. As a result, they've taken the gig seriously, consulting with LGBTQ+ people in their own lives and endeavouring to be strong allies in the ongoing fight against discrimination. The end result is a grounded and sensitive portrayal of a gay love story, offering positive and relatable representation to many people across the world – some of whom need it quite desperately.
Astoundingly, Cimino has received death threats for being a straight actor in an LGBTQ+ show, but these are drastically outweighed by the heartfelt messages of gratitude from people who see themselves in his performance and Victor's story. Indeed, there is no "one size fits all" approach to representation so it's disheartening to see some people attempt to tear down a show like Love, Victor based on casting alone, particularly when the performances are compelling, respectful and mean so much to fans.
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This situation is no fluke, either. Earlier this year, I stumbled upon the short-lived comedy drama United States of Tara on Amazon Prime Video, taking a punt on it based on nothing more than lockdown-induced boredom and an appreciation for Toni Collette. The series quickly became an obsessive binge-watch for me, following artist Tara Gregson (Collette) as she attempts to maintain an ordinary family life while coping with dissociative identity disorder. Although the main story was undeniably gripping, I found myself more invested in the continuing subplot around Tara's teenage son, Marshall (Keir Gilchrist).
He's a nerdy, sarcastic high schooler whose homosexuality is one small aspect of him, but not the focus. In short, I looked at him and vividly saw myself at that age, with so much of the character's dialogue and story directly applicable to my own experience. Of course, partial credit should go to head writer Diablo Cody (Juno) for creating the character, but a crucial component of his success is Gilchrist's performance across a rollercoaster three-season story arc – which ultimately moved me to tears in the final episode. That the actor himself identifies as straight doesn't change the fact that he was perfectly cast in the role (I only wish I discovered the show sooner – I strongly believe it would have helped me in my teenage years).
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In collaboration with a writer or filmmaker who truly understands the LGBTQ+ community, there's nothing to prevent a straight actor from giving a moving performance in a gay role. We need only look towards the big screen for numerous other examples, from Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight to Taron Egerton in Rocketman. These demonstrate that a given role should always go to the best person for the part, regardless of sexual preference. In some cases, that will be a member of the LGBTQ+ community, while in others a heterosexual person could prove to be a better fit – but audiences and casting directors would benefit from keeping an open mind.
A different concern is that this approach to casting could lead to fewer roles for LGBTQ+ actors, but that argument assumes the majority want to be pigeonholed into only playing characters from the community. I don't believe this is the case, but I do acknowledge that the reluctance of some directors to cast gay actors in straight roles might be causing this misconception. With notable exceptions like Russell Tovey and Matt Bomer, there is a lingering stigma that has prevented many gay actors from finding success as heterosexual characters – suffice to say, it needs to be stamped out. But the correct course of action is not vilifying or "cancelling" heterosexual talent who accept gay roles, under the condition they are genuine LGBTQ+ allies and are dedicated to putting in the work.
The gay characters featured in both Love, Victor and United States of Tara have given me a lot of joy and comfort over the past six months, and it upsets me to think how they could be unrecognisable in a world where casting is confined to a more restrictive lens. After all, a well-trained actor will have experience playing a wide range of people, making it almost disrespectful to the craft to say that portraying a queer person is beyond their comprehension – despite all existing evidence to the contrary.
Love, Victor season 2 is streaming from Friday 18th June on Disney Plus. To watch, sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year.