Are Straight Actors “Award Bait” When Playing Gay?

Wilson Cruz as Dr. Hugh Culber of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. / Image via Michael Gibson & CBS Interactive.

Wilson Cruz has some thoughts about straight actors playing LGBTQ roles and then getting awards for doing it. In fact, he has a term for that far-too-often circumstance, “award bait.”

The actor recently spoke to New Jersey’s LGBTQ publication Out In Jersey about his new documentary Visible and his career in entertainment. During that discussion, the relationship of sexual orientation and acting came into play. On that subject, Cruz initially shared that he’s ok with the idea of a straight actor playing a queer role. Though, he also shared concern with the idea that a straight actor in a queer role is somehow more award-worthy than their LGBTQ peers.

“I think what an LGBTQ actor brings to an LGBTQ role is different; there’s just something innate and lived-in that comes across, but that’s not to say that a straight actor cannot give a powerful performance,” he confessed.

Cruz then added, “What is worrisome to me is when a production will hire a straight actor to play that role because of some notion that because they’re a straight actor that it’s that much more difficult to take on this role. So it’s awards bait.”

“These are our lives,” he explained further. “These are experiences for a lot of people. And if you’re a straight actor playing these roles, I think it’s important that you acknowledge and understand that.”

Wilson Cruz and Anthony Rapp as “Dr. Hugh Culber and Chief Engineer Paul Stamets in “Star Trek: Discovery.” / Image via CBS Television Distribution.

Cruz is known for playing the LGBTQ doctor Dr. Hugh Culber on Star Trek: Discovery, drag queen Angel in the Broadway tour production of Rent, and Junito on Noah’s Arc. On top of that, he is an openly gay man of Afro-Puerto Rican ancestry. Cruz gives back to the gay community by working as an advocate for gay youth and especially gay youth of color. He has volunteered his time as a host for the Youth Zone, an online community at Gay.com for LGBT youth, joined the board of directors of GLAAD in 1997, and joined the staff of GLAAD in 2012 as a National Spokesperson and Strategic Giving Officer.

All of that effort around the LGBTQ community was fostered by Cruze’s own rough beginnings. According to a 2012 article by Oasis Magazine, Cruz came out to a few close friends when he was 16. He then came out to close relatives at 17 and later came out publicly while studying theatre and English at California State University at San Bernadino. He then told his parents after being cast in a gay role for the television show “My So-Called Life.” While his mother took it well enough, his father wasn’t so kind.

“He and I got into a bit of an argument on Christmas Eve,” Cruz said. “He asked, I told, and he threw me out. I really didn’t have a money, or a place to live,” he says. “I only had my car. So, that’s where I lived.”

Wilson Cruz as Enrique “Rickie” Vasquez in “My So-Called Life.” / Image via Disney-ABC Domestic Television

Eventually, Cruz had to relive that moment by acting it out as his tv role Rickie. On that experience, Cruz said it “was the most difficult thing I ever had to do in my life, because I still hadn’t dealt with issues with my father. Even though my parents and I had talked about it, I — on a personal level — hadn’t dealt with the emotions involved.

“So, replaying all that, I was allowed to get over it and go on. At the same time, it was a way of me to say to gay teens, look there’s someone out here that understands you and wants you to live,” he said. “To me, it was way a way of spreading some hope. That way Rickie wasn’t so depressing.”

With that in mind, his more recent words on the “innate and lived-in” feel of LGBTQ actors in LGBTQ roles rings true. But will Hollywood take head of these words? Most likely not. Instead, we’ll more likely see another straight actor be awarded for playing queer. But perhaps time will prove us wrong.

Sources: Out In Jersey, Oasis Magazine

What do you think?