9 Tips for Straight Actresses Who Want to Play Gay

In a 2013 University of California Los Angeles survey of members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, 33% of actresses surveyed had played a lesbian or bisexual role. Although the number of lesbian roles on TV and in movies remained static between 2014 and 2015, nevertheless based on this study it is reasonable to say that approximately a third of actresses are likely to “play gay” sometime in their career.

Actresses approach preparing for a lesbian role differently: some reach out to gay friends, for example, while others conduct online research. Without judging any approach as better or worse than the others, the following suggestions are things that an actress unfamiliar with the LGBT community might find helpful in preparing for the role. 

Chloë Sevigny in “If These Walls Could Talk 2”if-these-walls

Not all lesbian movies are created equal, so don’t waste time watching bad ones as research.

Lesbian-centric films run the gamut from exquisite, exceptionally produced classics to shoestring indies, in genres spanning romantic comedies, historical dramas, and the occasional sci-fi or horror film. But honestly, at least a third of lesbian movies are just plain awful, so don’t assume the first thing that pops into your Netflix queue will be representative of lesbian film.

If you’re going to watch a “lesbian movie” to see how other actresses have played gay, try Kyss Mig, which is a Swedish movie with understated and honest performances. Or the Southern classic Fried Green Tomatoes (yes, it is a lesbian movie, I promise. Idgie and Ruth are explicitly lovers in the book). Both movies were written by lesbians and the straight actresses nail their roles. 

Ditto TV characters.

In 2015, there were 35 bisexual and lesbian female characters in primetime programming on broadcast networks, 63 in primetime programming on cable, and 30 on streaming content providers, meaning there are many potential performances across all genres to consider in your research. Although most TV characters are pretty well done, try Officer Nicole Haught of Wynonna Earp. What makes her stand out? Honesty, vulnerability, and mastery of the next point.

Play a gay woman just like a heterosexual woman…but with better eye contact.

No, really. In a 2002 study, researchers found that lesbians relied more heavily on eye contact for identifying other lesbians than they do clothing style and fit, jewelry, facial expressions, posture, body type, walk or gait, and types of gestures. 

Think about that for a minute: It’s easier to identify a lesbian from how she looks at you than from her plaid shirt, cargo pants, and masculine yet comfortable shoes. In a separate 2004 ethnography study, a researcher found that lesbians used a “direct stare”—prolonged eye contact “maintained for a period of time that is considered longer than what would be customary in a social context”—to indicate and gauge interest.

What this means is that when playing a lesbian character, you don’t have to put on a “manly” swagger or adopt other stereotypically male affectations. Just hold eye contact longer than you would normally (it will feel like an awkwardly long amount of time). Remembering to hold long gazes is a subtle touch that will add authenticity to the character without needing lines. At the end of the day, what differentiates lesbian characters from straight characters is not how they act, but how they interact with other female characters.       

Learn the “tropes” that Hollywood has traditionally used for lesbian and bi characters.

This will help you mostly in interviews and if you have any input in storyline. If you can articulate what the “Bury Your Gays” trope is, for example, and why gay women are sharpening their pitchforks and lighting torches about it in 2016, then you’ll be much better positioned to answer questions you might be asked about it. (For the record, it’s a tendency among shows to kill off their LGBT characters at a disproportionately high rate compared to straight characters.)

Although not all tropes are negative, the lesbian community is becoming increasingly frustrated by the recurrence of some of the more psychologically damaging tropes, and for the next few years, any show considering killing a lesbian or bi character is likely to face backlash for it. Familiarity with these tropes will also win you major points with the lesbian, bi, and queer community as being a socially responsible, sensitive actress.      

Woo your lesbian audience through interviews and social media.

Gone are the walls that used to separate stars and their fans. Now you have to go out there and interact with fans. If your character has a love interest, you have to be the biggest champion of the pairing both on set and online in order to take a pairing from good to great among your fans.

The more you believe in the “one true pair” aspect of the love story (almost all female viewers, regardless of sexual orientation, want a timeless, compelling love story that promises deep emotional attachment and happily ever after), the more it will translate to the screen and the more a lesbian/gay fanbase will develop. Lindsey Shaw, who played Paige McCullers on Pretty Little Liars, is a fantastic example of an actress dedicating herself to the pairing and engaging with her fans on Twitter and in other places to maintain support for the pairing. The more fan support a pairing receives, the more screentime the actresses are likely to get, so it’s a win for everyone.     

Push back if your character isn’t receiving the same amount of physical intimacy as straight characters.

Hollywood has historically denied same-sex female pairings equal treatment and screen time when it comes to physical intimacy. Lesbian relationships are often given a “slow burn” storyline, which means that by the end of the show, a lesbian character might have gotten a few kisses and a muffled, artsy sex scene while her straight counterparts have slept through half the cast of characters in a variety of semi-explicit scenes. Although this trend is slowly starting to shift, push for equality in the depiction of gay and straight kissing or sex scenes. Your lesbian fans will thank you.

Natasha Lyonne

Be aware that you could be typecast…but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Many actresses considering an LGBT-oriented role fear being typecast in the future. As a previous AfterEllen article argued, there are many, many factors that go into the long-term effects of playing gay, and it is most likely not going to have a negative impact, but it could lead to you being cast in more gay roles (Julianne Moore has played gay five times, Natasha Lyonne four, for example).

Although the word “typecast” has negative connotations, consider that: 1) Moore has very successfully juggled straight roles with gay roles and it hasn’t hurt her. She’s even been nominated for an Oscar (The Hours, Best Actress in a Supporting Role) and a Golden Globe (The Kids are All Right, Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical) for playing gay in between nominations for straight roles. 2) Better to be offered gay roles than no roles at all. 3) LGBT fans are some of the most loyal fans you could have. They will support you, embrace you, and root for you even years after you’ve moved on from a queer role.      

As a final suggestion, and obviously not a slightly unbiased one:

Poke around websites like AfterEllen.

We’ve got interviews with most American actresses who’ve played gay on TV (and some foreigners), as well as with directors and writers who have written lesbian roles. It’s a one-stop shop to find out what the lesbian and bisexual community finds important, what we’re drawn to or reject, and how other actresses have handled their roles. We hope you will do some research before you take the role, and we hope you’ll come talk to us once you have!