Ian McKellen defends straight actors playing gay roles at “Bent” anniversary screening

Ian McKellen, coming out to father, actor
Ian McKellen Photo: Shutterstock

Out actor Ian McKellen seemingly dismissed criticism that straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles earlier this week. During a Q&A after a special 25th-anniversary screening of the 1997 queer Holocaust drama Bent held by the British Film Institute, the 83-year-old star praised Clive Owen’s performance as Max, a gay prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.

“Nothing wrong with that performance,” McKellen, who was joined onstage by the film’s director Sean Mathias and playwright Martin Sherman, told the audience. “For those of you who think only gay people should be allowed to play gay parts.”

McKellen, who appeared in a supporting role in the film, originated the role of Max in the 1979 production of Sherman’s play on London’s West End.

It’s unclear what prompted the actor’s comments, but he was clearly referring to the growing opinion that more LGBTQ roles should be played by actual LGBTQ actors. Following high-profile casting controversies in recent years involving cisgender actors taking on trans roles in films and TV shows, it has become widely accepted that transgender actors should be cast as transgender characters. Many feel that should extend to all LGBTQ roles as well.

A common argument for LGBTQ actors playing LGBTQ characters has to do with the lived experience they bring to the roles. “Sometimes I feel like, oh, this is supposed to be our story, and it’s not,” out actor Jacqueline Toboni told Refinery 29 in August. “It’s getting lost in translation.”

But authenticity isn’t the only issue at play. The debate is, of course, complicated, and involves issues of representation both onscreen and behind the scenes, as well as career opportunities for out performers, who have been and continue to be marginalized in the entertainment industry, albeit to a lesser degree in recent years.

As NBC News has noted, there isn’t reliable data on the number of LGBTQ actors cast in LGBTQ roles in films and on TV. But anyone with a passing knowledge of movies can see that LGBTQ characters in high-profile, Oscar-bait films—from Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain to Rocket Man and Ammonite and the upcoming Whale—are disproportionately played by actors who identify as straight. McKellen himself is the only out actor ever to have been nominated for an Oscar for playing a gay role.

With fewer LGBTQ roles to go around, as GLAAD’s annual Studio Responsibility Index and Where We Are on TV reports consistently indicate, and out actors reporting that they have a harder time landing non-queer roles, the disparity is clear.

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