From Risky to Rewarding: How Playing Gay Has Come a Long Way, Baby.

In a 2012 interview with the UK’s The Telegraph, Rachael Stirling, who played Nan Astley in the BBC’s 2002 adaptation of Tipping the Velvet,  said she found it hard to be taken seriously as an actress after her participation in the “salacious” mini series.

“It was a brilliant project, and I don’t regret it,” Rachael said, “but there wasn’t a lot of aftercare and the long-term effects weren’t considered. Nobody sat down and said that you might find it hard to be taken seriously as an actor afterwards.”

Three years later, she added that after playing Nan, she only had the opportunities to play sexually explicit roles (“I was offered every lesbian under the sun and every opportunity to take my clothes off”), and she should have “known better” than to participate in the version she refers to as “Dip My Velvet.”

Ronan Keating Joins The Cast Of "Once" - Press Night Arrivals Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Stirling’s experience of being typecast for lesbian roles is one reason why many actresses have historically feared taking these roles. On the plus side, Stirling’s experience is dissimilar to the experience of many actresses playing lesbian/bisexual film roles in the rest of the English-speaking world during the same time period. Because many actresses who have “played gay” since the early 2000s have gone on to have highly successful careers, actresses in 2016 considering playing a gay role have a much more balanced sample pool to judge how the role could ultimately affect their careers (or not) than actresses in the ’90s or early 2000s.

tippingIn hindsight, “Tipping the Velvet” is PG-13 rated compared to “Game of Thrones” or “Spartacus”

Although Stirling may have viewed the appearance of a “racy” lesbian mini-series on the BBC in 2002 as novel, across the pond Hollywood was taking a strong interest in bringing queer storylines to the fore. In the first five years of 2000, Hollywood released If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000), Mulholland Drive (2001), The Hours (2002), and Monster (2004). Actresses profited from these critically acclaimed movies: Vanessa Redgrave won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her role in If These Walls Could Talk 2. Both Naomi Watts and Laura Harring won film awards for their performances in Mulholland Drive. Nicole Kidman won an Oscar and Golden Globe for her role in The Hours, while Julianne Moore was nominated for both and Meryl Streep (who first played a lesbian in Woody Allen‘s Manhattan), was nominated for a Golden Globe. Charlize Theron won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Monster. For actresses in the right place at the right time, playing a lesbian or bisexual character could be a low risk, high reward career move.

walls2“If These Walls Could Talk 2:” Lesbians Lesbianing

There’s a problem with viewing these movies and the effect they had on actresses as prototypical of the time, of course. For one thing, in most cases the actresses taking these roles were already A-List, meaning that the risk of losing stature by playing gay was low. For another, movies like The Hours and Monster were known to be Oscar bait, with good scripts, good directors, and good actresses. Finally, to focus on those examples is to ignore good but marginally successful movies like The Truth About Jane (Lifetime TV movie, 2000) and Lost and Delirious (2001), which had a marginal impact upon the careers of the actresses in them.

Luckily, examples of concrete backlash against playing a gay character in approximately that time period are few. In 2007, Laura Dern told Ellen DeGeneres that she had been unable to get an acting job for more than a year after playing Ellen’s love interest on the tv sitcom Ellen in 1997, although she expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be part of the groundbreaking episode.  

If Hollywood’s relationship with queer roles in the early 2000s was at an inflection point, how are things today? To take it a step further, if an up and coming actress considering a gay role in 2016 was concerned the role would have a negative impact on her career, as Dern claimed her role on Ellen did, how would she predict what sort of impact the role could have on her career? Theoretically, it would be possible to create an algorithm that would parse a huge table of inputs such as director prestige, production company, skill/reputation of other actors involved, acting history, etc., to predict the effect.