Sean Penn’s rant about “timid & artless” Hollywood shows he just doesn’t get how privileged he is

Sean Penn at Cannes in 2016
Sean Penn at Cannes in 2016 Photo: Shutterstock

Actor Sean Penn doesn’t agree that LGBTQ+ characters should be played by LGBTQ+ actors.

In a recent New York Times profile by Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd, the 63-year-old actor mentioned that filming Milk, out director Gus Van Sant’s 2008 biopic about the life and murder of trailblazing gay politician Harvey Milk, was the last time he “had a good time” on a movie set. Noting that at the time, Penn “got credit” — not to mention his second Oscar — “for being a straight man playing a gay one,” Dowd asked the actor whether he thought he could play Milk today, at a time when “there is sometimes an outcry when straight actors get cast as gay characters.”

“No,” Penn said. “It could not happen in a time like this. It’s a time of tremendous overreach. It’s a timid and artless policy toward the human imagination.”

Neither Penn nor Dowd bothered to interrogate the issue further. But based on both Dowd’s dismissive framing of the question and Penn’s reactionary response, it seems unlikely that any further discussion of the topic by these two would have been particularly enlightening.

Like so many cis, straight performers, Penn seems to view the issue in terms of creative choices. Certainly, there’s an argument to be made that LGBTQ+ actors, by virtue of their lived experience, may be better equipped to fully embody LGBTQ+ characters, resulting in more authentic performances.

But that’s not to say that gifted, talented straight actors can’t convincingly play queer characters. Some certainly can, and they are routinely rewarded for doing so. This year alone, Bradley Cooper, Annette Bening, Sterling K. Brown, and Emma Stone all received Academy Award nominations for playing queer characters, with Stone winning her second for her performance in Poor Things.

And it’s bizarre that Penn seems to think there is a “policy” in Hollywood that prevents straight actors from playing queer roles, considering that Paul Mescal, Margaret Qualley, Pedro Pascal, Ethan Hawke, Anne Hathaway, and Daniel Craig have all played queer characters in films that have been or are expected to be released this year, while White Lotus star Theo James was reportedly being considered to play George Micheal in an upcoming biopic.

Like Scarlett Johansson and so many others before him, Penn only seems concerned with the opportunities he believes he may be denied while ignoring the historic privilege he and all straight performers continue to enjoy when it comes to casting.

To paraphrase a recent Threads post from Toronto-based stylist, designer, and model Josh Pasquale, straight actors just don’t seem to get it. It’s not that LGBTQ+ audiences don’t want to see straight actors in gay roles. The issue is that out performers are rarely afforded the same opportunities as their cis, straight peers. Hollywood producers routinely cast straight actors in high-profile queer roles, which frequently result in awards nominations — Oscars voters love a transformation after all. And as them notes, over the Oscars’ 95-year history, Academy voters have awarded 80 acting nominations to cis, straight performers for LGBTQ+ roles, 15 of whom ultimately won.

And those awards and nominations don’t just lead to greater prestige; they mean greater name recognition, marketability, and earning potential.

Meanwhile, out actors are often relegated to supporting parts or struggle to find work at all.  

Of course, there are exceptions. Say what you will about Ryan Murphy, but the out mega-producer has provided unprecedented opportunities for out actors on his TV and streaming series, while creators like Julio Torres, Billy Eichner, and Joel Kim Booster are beginning to be able to as well. But roles on TV and in scrappy smaller films are not the same as the awards bait that actors like Penn, Cooper, Bening, Cate Blanchette, Brendan Fraser, Hillary Swank, Tom Hanks, Jared Leto, Eddie Redmayne, et al. have been and continue to be fed.

What people like Penn don’t seem to understand is that all this essentially amounts to an employment equity issue that privileges straight (or closeted) performers. It is long past time we started thinking about it as such.

Maybe when we stop saying that a straight performer was “cast” in a gay role when what we mean is they were hired for a job, we can better understand what’s really going on. When a director or producer argues that a straight, cis actor was the “best fit” for a role, it’s our right and responsibility to question how that’s possible and whether they put in the effort to find an out actor who was just as talented.

When people claim that there are no LGBTQ+ stars big enough and bankable enough to carry a blockbuster, awards-bait film, we have to question whether decades of homophobia and transphobia have contributed to a system in which LGBTQ+ performers have not been given the opportunities that would help make those kinds of A-list names.

Because, make no mistake, stars are made. And what’s “timid and artless” is Hollywood’s failure to imagine that LGBTQ+ people can be made into stars.

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