Over the last couple of days there has been ongoing open discussion on whether or not straight comedian/actor, Jack Whitehall should play the role of a gay man in a forthcoming Disney movie. If you’ve missed the story, Whitehall has been cast in Disney’s new movie, Jungle Cruise where he will be playing a gay character.
Some people are fine with Whitehall’s casting; others are not, leading many to ask the question: Should only gay actors play gay roles?
This is a topic that has come up a number of times recently, regarding casting decisions – and not just relating to gay actors/characters. One case that immediately springs to mind is the casting of Scarlet Johansson in the role of Dante ‘Tex’ Gill for the forthcoming movie, Rub & Tug.
To play Gill, Johansson would be playing a transgender role – something many people felt was incredibly inappropriate. A similar situation happened when Johansson was cast in the film, Ghost in the Shell – a movie that many felt should have had an Asian actress in the lead role.
For the record, Johansson did take the part in Ghost in the Shell, but pulled out of the role in Rub & Tug. Should she have? Well, it depends where you stand on this whole debate and for the record, I’m not entirely sure there’s a right and wrong answer to this.
But back to Jack Whitehall and the situation surrounding his casting in Jungle Cruise. Here’s my take on this story.
The role of an actor, in any film, is to inhabit a character as best as they can. This means, that in some cases actors are cast against type and in other cases the right actor is perfectly cast in the role – regardless of whether they are straight, gay, disabled, too tall, too short, etc.
For example, take Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in the film My Left Foot (1989). Day-Lewis isn’t disabled; Brown was.
Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for that role. Yes, it could be argued that the part could have easily gone to a disabled actor, but that doesn’t mean Day-Lewis wasn’t right for the role.
Let’s switch things now to Nick Robinson and his role as Simon Spier in 2018’s Love, Simon. Robinson is straight; Spier is not.
Robinson was perfect for the role of Simon Spier, providing a relatable performance which demonstrated that not all gay guys are a stereotype. Does this mean the part couldn’t have been played by a gay man? Nope, but once again it doesn’t mean that Robinson wasn’t right for the role.
I understand that gay actors, trans actors, disabled actors and actors of colour are severely under represented in movies – this is something which should be continually addressed. I want to see more representation on the big screen as much as anyone, but that doesn’t mean that every casting decision that doesn’t put a gay actor in a gay role is wrong.
For me, it all comes down to the way the role is written AND the person calling the shots – i.e. the director. If Whitehall is being given a stereotype to play in Jungle Cruise and director, Jaume Collet-Serra doesn’t direct him to be anything other than this stereotype, then this is a bad part regardless of who takes it on.
This should be the issue here. There should be no bad parts, especially for minority characters. This is what needs addressing.
Within the last year we’ve had some great movies that have highlighted the need for representation and all of these have had the right people behind the camera. Wonder Woman was directed by a woman; Get Out and Black Panther were directed by people of colour; Love, Simon was directed by a gay man and all were great movies that understood how to represent their characters.
I believe having the right director is key. The director can help choose the right actors for the role and can ensure that the characters are the portrayed in the best light.
Does this mean that Jungle Cruise has to have a gay director to cast gay roles? Nope – because then that wouldn’t service all of the non-gay actors in the production. It works both ways.
What I’m saying is, the director must ensure he casts correctly. He must ensure this isn’t a stereotype. He must ensure this gay character is not some throw-away role, included simply to tick a representation box. Collet-Serra has a responsibility to make this character work, as does the writer and the studio pumping money into this production.
Do I think that Whitehall’s character in Jungle Cruise will be the greatest example of gay representation the world has ever known? To be honest, no, I don’t.
Personally, I can’t imagine Whitehall playing the part other than as a comedic stereotype. I hope that’s not the case, but then I can’t see why he would be cast if not to play this type of role. I hope I’m wrong. I hope he plays against this type of role and demands better (if that’s what this part is).
I am very much of the opinion that we should all demand better. I’ve said as such in a previous post, but I also think that people should pick their battles and wait to see what transpires with this movie – after all, it’s not even out yet, so who knows what it’s going to be like.
If the role is just a throwaway thing, then it’s a shit role and I wouldn’t want a gay actor playing the part. If it turns out not to be a throwaway thing then hopefully this will lead to bigger and better things for gay characters and representation in the future.
When I argue for better representation I mean I want to see more people like Black Panther‘s Shuri or T’Challa. I want to see more Simon Spiers. I want to see characters better represented across the board – it isn’t just about the actor playing the role.
So long as the part is good and the actor can carry the message, then that is what is important to me. I don’t need Sir Anthony Hopkins to be a serial killer, I just need him to play the best serial killer on the big screen – after all, that’s his job.
Does that mean Scarlet Johansson was cast correctly for Rub & Tug? I don’t know, I’m not the casting director. I’d like to think that various actors were considered for the role and Johansson was deemed the best person for the part. The fact that ultimately she dropped out suggests maybe she felt she wasn’t right for it. Maybe not. Either way, the director has the responsibility here to cast correctly.
As stated above, I don’t think there’s going to be a right and wrong answer to this situation – but that’s OK. There are many viewpoints, with many valid answers.
This isn’t about having an argument, where people are right or wrong, this is about having a discussion to open up viewpoints to help pave a better way forward in the future. All opinions are welcome and maybe this will help when this topic comes up again (as I’m sure it will).
Ultimately, I want Disney to put more gay characters on the big screen, but I don’t need the actors to always be gay. I want good actors, playing good parts which inspire, inform and demonstrate that these roles can and SHOULD exist.