At a recent audition I attended for a production of “Guys and Dolls,” the choreographer, who is gay and married, gave the male dancers a piece of advice: “Men, this play is called ‘Guys and Dolls.’ That means I need to cast GUYS . . . and DOLLS. Get it?”
We got it. If we wanted the role, we could not dance effeminately. From what I could gather, not one gay man present was offended. (And there are usually a lot of gay men present at music theater auditions.)
A few weeks later, after a separate audition, I got an e-mail from a director I’d previously worked with informing me that, while I was “adorable,” I wasn’t being offered a contract for the male ensemble, which, he told me, needed to be peopled with “tough, physically menacing types.” I shouldn’t take it personally, though, he said, because, after all, “there’s nothing you can do about type.”
I bring up these examples of gay men advising gay performers to be mindful of their gay behavior because, to me, it’s a good point of entry into the latest Matt Damon controversy. After speaking about the gay rumors he and Ben Affleck once faced, Damon said he thought “it must be really hard for actors to be out publicly.” He continued: “I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period. And sexuality is a huge part of that.”
In other words, Damon was articulating one of the most important rules an actor can follow is: Know your type. That is, be realistically aware of how you come across — both on and off stage — to people who are making decisions about your career. As Damon put it, “Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.”
Critics pounced. “Shut up, Matt Damon,” wrote Kevin Fallon in The Daily Beast, who interpreted Damon as warning that “gay actors should stay in the closet.” Fallon argued the “‘can gay actors play straight?’ debate is a demonic conversation . . . and will only be exorcised when the act of being openly gay is normalized.”
Fallon couldn’t be more wrong. The question of whether or not a gay actor can play straight will only be exorcised when casting directors stop caring about type.
Which is not going to happen.
Anyone who has ever been in an audition room knows this. But that’s the problem — the furor over Damon’s comments are coming from people who, as far as I can tell, have never set foot in an audition room, or even considered what the casting process might actually entail. And that, just maybe, casting directors, for better or worse, will have to consider whether the men auditioning in front of them can believably play the role the script calls for.
To be sure, casting industries, both for stage and screen, could stand some reformation: Men and women alike are held to impossible aesthetic standards, actors with certain conservatories on their resumes often get preferential treatment, and we all know many casts continue to be perplexingly too white.
It’s also true that typing based on perceived sexuality could use some reforming. The director of “Guys and Dolls” wasn’t hurting the cause of LGBT equality by clarifying that he wanted his male dancers to behave like 1920s gangsters. But in the interests of diversity, he might have reconsidered his assumption that all men from that era were butch. Were there really no effeminate gangsters? Even the ones that did ballet while they were shooting craps?
But typing isn’t something Damon has brought into the industry, and it’s not something he can change. Nor should he be scolded when he brings up the unique challenges the industry presents actors with, and his own story of how he’s responded to them.
On some level, Damon’s comments should be read as advice for aspiring actors from one of the industry’s most polished stars. “Stay mysterious,” he cautions, and keep casting directors guessing about as much as possible.
This strategy has helped Russel Tovey’s career, another actor piled on by Internet outrage after offering his own nuanced views on the intersection of sexuality and casting. Reflecting on his training, the gay actor explained how his father didn’t let him attend his first choice school because “he thought I’d become some tap-dancing freak without qualifications.” But Tovey thinks his father’s decision was ultimately good for his career. “I feel like I could have been really effeminate, if I hadn’t gone to the school I went to . . . it’s probably given me the unique quality that people think I have.”
The unique quality he’s talking about is his type, which affords him a versatility some of his peers lack, which is why he can go from HBO’s “Looking” to BBC’s “Banished.” The journalist interviewing him calls that a “rare pigeonhole-resistance” — one that Tovey believes is owed to not being overly effeminate.
Like Damon’s comments, Tovey’s came from a broader discussion of issues related to how actors are perceived by industry insiders. And like Damon, Tovey instantly found himself on the receiving end of charges of homophobia and bigotry.
The most frustrating thing about both of these instances is that Damon and Tovey, both of whom have played gay characters, are truly friends to LGBT causes. But, as is often the practice of the Outrage Industrial Complex, a handful of self-appointed Internet Gatekeepers decided to take a few words, strip them of their contexts, and blast them throughout social media in the hope of — what? — getting people to hate them? To mock them with hashtags? To boycott them? The ultimate goal of these kinds of pile-ons is never clear.
Leftist reactionaries need to do a better job of remembering that the first rule of interpreting a soundbite is to situate it within the greater legacy of the person who uttered it.
This was Ellen Degeneres’ strategy when, one day after Damon’s profile was published, she welcomed him onto her show. After allowing him the opportunity to clarify the intentions behind his comments, she reminded her guest and her audience of the simple power of giving someone the benefit of the doubt.
“I know you,” she said, “and you’re not that [homophobic] guy.”
Brandon Ambrosino is a writer and professional dancer.