Cheryl Gerber for The New York Times
|Bryan Batt, left, and his partner, Tom Cianfichi
THERE’S a bisexual woman in “Bones” and
a lesbian couple on “The Goode Family.”
“Dirty Sexy Money” features a transsexual and “Brothers & Sisters” a
In “Mad Men,” the Emmy-winning drama set in the early ‘60s,
there’s Salvatore Romano, a self-loathing homosexual who
marries a woman but pines for a male co-worker.
Never before have gay story lines been so prominent. Nor have
there ever been so many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender
characters on television — 83 by a recent count from the
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, not counting reality
shows, daytime dramas or gay-oriented cable networks.
Hollywood, with its depictions of cowboy lovers and lesbian neighbors,
has done much to make gay men and women part of mainstream American
At the same time, gay actors like Neil
Patrick Harris and T.
R. Knight play heterosexual characters on TV and in film,
while couples — Ellen
DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi — are covered by celebrity
magazines as if they were any old romance.
“We’ve gone from the revolution to the evolution,” said
Howard Bragman, a longtime Hollywood publicist who is gay and has
advised actors like Amanda Bearse, of “Married ... With Children” and
Dick Sargent of “Bewitched” on how to handle their
Yet for most gay actors, Hollywood is not a warm and fuzzy episode
of “Will & Grace.” Today, it is certainly more
acceptable to be openly gay. But these actors must still answer
wrenching questions: Just how candid do you want to be? Would you
be happy appearing only in comedies, or being pigeonholed as a
character actor? And what does the line “You’re just
not right for the role” really mean?
Jasika Nicole, 28, an F.B.I. agent
on “Fringe,” a new Fox drama, said that as bigger parts
became available, her manager, John Essay, sat her down and asked
how public she wanted to be about being a lesbian. Some roles could
be lost, he told her, as would some fans.
Mr. Essay, who is gay, said he encouraged openness but warned
clients of the risks.
“If it becomes exaggerated,” he said, “you
just become the gay actress instead of a wonderful actress.”
Perhaps, he suggested, she didn’t want to be too vocal about
Ms. Nicole, who has a girlfriend, said she would just be herself.
She has been open about her sexual orientation since she started
dating women about 3 ½ years ago, while she was filming “Take
the Lead” with Antonio
Banderas in Toronto.
Now, as she becomes better known, “There’s no way
I can keep quiet,” she said. “I want to be clear this
is my partner. I don’t want to make that shameful in any
kind of way.”
But most other actors calibrate just how out they want to be.
Openly gay can still mean they would rather not talk about it.
Most gay actors are mum in public or on the set, even if they don’t
hide their orientation in private, actors and others in the entertainment
industry said. Although most may no longer participate in charades — the “girlfriend” on
the red carpet, for instance — many adopt a don’t ask,
don’t tell policy.
Why? For both men and women, being openly gay, at least for now,
means giving up any hope of superstardom.
“The industry is persuaded that being known as gay will
undermine your credibility both as romantic lead or an action star,” said
Larry Gross, director of the Annenberg School for Communication
at the University
of Southern California and author of a book on media portrayals
of gays and lesbians.
“They don’t test it,” he said. “We’re
waiting for the Jackie
Robinson moment when someone tests that assumption and discovers
it’s not true.”
GAY actors don’t just lose the potential
of becoming the next Brad
Pitt or Reese
Witherspoon, they lose the opportunities for fame that ensure
plum jobs, said Jason Stuart, an actor and comedian who chairs
the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender committee of the Screen
Actors Guild. It is no coincidence, he said, that even the
title role in “Milk,” based on the slain gay hero,
Harvey Milk, went to Sean
Penn, an Oscar-winning actor who is straight.
“There are not enough famous gay actors to play these roles,” he
Dan Jinks, a producer of “Milk,” agreed. The film’s
director, writer and two producers are openly gay and so are a
number of actors who play gay and straight roles, including the
Tony Award-winners Denis O’Hare and Stephen Spinella.
But for the lead, Mr. Jinks said, “Our first concern was
to get the best actor that we could get who was enough of a movie
star to get the movie made.”
“When one is casting a film for a lead role we always have
to ask that awful question: ‘Who puts bodies in seats?’ ” Mr.
Jinks said. “Who has carried movies previously? Sadly, there
don’t seem to be openly gay actors that could carry a movie,
but I think that will change.’ ”
When they don’t land a part, some gay actors say they never
know how much of a factor their homosexuality plays.
“There are definitely people who make the decisions who
don’t care and there are people who do care,” said
Abraham Higginbotham, creator of the Fox sitcom “Do Not Disturb.”
The actor up for the part, he said, “would hear, ‘You’re
not right for the role.’ ”
But some casting directors said it was now much easier to cast
gays. Mary Jo Slater, a film and television casting director, said
barriers were falling because of the success of shows with openly
gay actors in them.
Ms. Slater cast a transgender actress, Candis Cayne, in “Dirty
Sexy Money,” and noted: “She’s, like, a big star
“I look at their ability to perform the part,” she
said. “I don’t really think it matters.”
But what about straight parts? Chad Allen, 34, a child actor on
shows like “St. Elsewhere” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine
Woman,” said steady work dried up in 1996 after a tabloid
ran a photograph showing him kissing another man. The “Dr.
Quinn” cast was supportive and he remained in the family-oriented
show, he said, but after the series ended, “It was tough.”
“I couldn’t get an audition for a pilot after that,” he
But Mr. Allen, who attended college and continued to do some
work in film, found new roles a few years ago, with the advent
of gay-oriented cable networks. In channels like Here! and Viacom’s
Logo, openly gay actors have played lead roles as private detectives,
vampires and superheroes. Mr. Allen stars in a mystery series on
Here!, in a role he describes as “a good detective who happens
to be gay.”
And in a sign of the times, the show gave him opportunities for
gay and heterosexual guest roles in television shows like “C.S.I.:
Miami” and “Cold Case.”
In 2006, Mr. Allen incurred the wrath of some conservative ministers
after he was cast as the lead in “End of the Spear,” produced
by an evangelical film company, about five American missionaries
killed in 1956 by an indigenous tribe in Ecuador.
The church pastors objected to his sexual orientation and his
political advocacy for gay causes, but Mr. Allen said the fear
of casting someone like him is less and less an issue.
“We’ve been witnessing a slow erosion of this fear
as audiences show up,” he said.
One test of how far things have progressed, some industry analysts
said, will be the kind of roles Mr. Harris and Mr. Knight are offered
once they end their current hit shows. Although they are openly
gay, they landed the parts before they came out. And tellingly,
they made statements about their sexuality only after being outed
by bloggers in the case of Mr. Harris, and by a homophobic incident
with a co-star in the case of Mr. Knight. For now, more gay characters
and better scripts are adding up to more fulfilling work. It wasn’t
too long ago that actors like Bryan Batt of “Mad Men” could
find good parts only on the stage. Even in theater, he said, his
agent was once told by a casting director, “I just can’t
see Bryan as a baseball player.”
“I didn’t know what to make of that,” said
Mr. Batt, 45, who came out publicly in the mid-90s when he landed
the part of Darius in “Jeffrey,” the off-Broadway
play about sex and romance in the age of AIDS.
As an actor, Mr. Batt said, he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed
into playing only gay roles, but it’s hard not to feel “proud
and happy” with Salvatore. He begged Matthew
Weiner, the show’s creator, to let the character get
married. “It’s a realm of reality that television had
not really explored,” he said.
The character is addled by the kind of inner conflict — not
able to be himself, forced to act like the sexist guys in the office — that “continues
to happen,” and not just in 1960s period dramas, Mr. Batt
That such a meaty part went to an openly gay actor “speaks
volumes about how far we’ve come,” he said.