TV | April 30, 2021 12:02 pm

Ewan McGregor Is Catching Heat for Playing a Gay Character. Should He Be?

McGregor, who is straight, has defended his decision to play a gay fashion designer in "Halston"

Ewan McGregor
Ewan McGregor in "Halston."
Netflix

We’ve finally reached a point where it’s no longer considered acceptable for white actors to play non-white characters or for cis actors to portray trans characters. Yet it remains extremely common for actors who identify as straight to play LGBTQ characters in movies and TV shows. Should gay roles be reserved solely for gay actors? Ewan McGregor addressed the topic in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, defending his decision to play gay designer Halston in an upcoming Netflix series.

McGregor, who is straight, is set to play the ’70s fashion designer in a five-part Netflix series from Ryan Murphy called Halston. In defense of his decision to take the role, he responded to a 2019 comment from Billy Porter suggesting that straight actors should stop playing gay characters.

“If ‘flamboyantly’ wasn’t in the description of the character, no one would see me ever for anything,” Porter said at the time. “Straight men playing gay — everyone wants to give them an award.”

“I hear the discussion and I respect both sides of it, I really do,” McGregor said in response. “I haven’t walked in Billy Porter’s shoes. I don’t know what it’s like to lose out parts when you might feel it’s to do with your sexuality. So I can only respect his point of view.”

Ultimately, he says, he felt comfortable taking the part because Halston’s sexuality isn’t the primary focus of the story. “If it had been a story about Halston’s sexuality more, then maybe it’s right that gay actors should play that role,” he explained. “But in this case — and I don’t want to sound like I’m worming out of this, because it’s something I did think a lot about — I suppose ultimately I felt like it was just one part of who he was.”

It’s a complicated issue. Porter is absolutely correct that there are countless gay actors who get typecast or miss out on roles due to their sexuality, so it doesn’t feel right for a straight actor to waltz in and take one of the few roles that Hollywood actually makes available to openly gay performers. To this day, many LGBTQ actors are hesitant to come out because they’re concerned that doing so will limit the amount of parts available to them. For some reason, casting directors don’t ever seem to be worried about straight actors’ abilities to “pass” as gay, but gay actors auditioning for heterosexual roles constantly face extra scrutiny and prejudice over whether they’ll be “believable” as a straight character.

But to unilaterally declare that no actor should ever play a character whose sexual identity differs from their own feels wrong for that exact reason. It’s a slippery slope; are we then supposed to say that gay actors can only play gay characters? McGregor makes a good point as well: no one should be defined entirely by their sexuality. Unlike race, sexuality is fluid. (Who, for example, should be allowed to play a bi-curious character? What about a character who hesitates to put any kind of label at all on their sexual identity?)

We should stop short of making any sort of hard-and-fast rule, but representation matters, and until there’s more space in Hollywood for openly LGBTQ actors, straight actors should consider the implications of taking the already-limited number of roles that are available to gay performers. Advocacy for across-the-board representation wouldn’t hurt, either. The sooner that Hollywood normalizes gay actors playing straight characters, the sooner this ceases to be a discussion at all.