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Dustin Lance Black tells agents deliberately closeting actors: ‘Open your eyes’

Dustin Lance Black tells agents deliberately closeting actors: ‘Open your eyes’

Dustin Lance Black on the Forum Stage during the opening day of Web Summit 2017 at Altice Arena in Lisbon.

Dustin Lance Black revealed agents and managers were the most resistant to casting their clients in LGBTI roles.

Surprisingly, it was the gay agents and managers who were the most resistant.

His advice to agents and managers? ‘Open your eyes,’ he said. ‘You don’t have to do that to your talent. It doesn’t take an act of bravery to let your actor be who they are.’

In an exclusive interview with Gay Star News, Dustin Lance Black revealed how far Hollywood’s come but just how far is left to go.

The Milk writer also wants to see an openly LGBTI actor or actress green light a major motion picture of television series ‘based on their name alone.’

Read the full interview:

What motivated you to start talk about agents deliberately closeting actors?

I’ve been working on gay projects since the late 90s. Ones where we had a budget of some sort and we were casting and hiring and it’s changed a great deal in that time. I think when I was casting my early student stuff, if you’re going for anyone who’s LGBTI, the actors basically felt like they had to write-off the rest of their career.

That was a huge concern they had. Or be the ‘gay actor’ and it wasn’t even really discussed, it was just understood. It felt brave and it did feel cool but there was an understanding that there was probably a sacrifice there. Then as I moved into projects at major studios with big budgets in things like Milk, I would say one of the things me and Gus Van Sant, Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks all wanted to do was to cast as many openly – in that show – gay and lesbian and bisexual characters as possible, in that show.

That was the first time I hit a real wall.

The wall was not at the studio level – Focus Features were perfectly happy having gay actors either the gay or straight roles – it didn’t factor as anything to them. It was the managers and agents who when we went to them and said ‘Who do you have who is willing to be in this with this in its subject matter and be open about who they are?’

We didn’t want closeted actors to be in a movie about an openly gay icon and hero. It’s also just often helpful to have people who have experienced what it is to be LGBT playing these roles. It might bring something to it that’s unexpected and might deepen it. They also have to be great actors. So we went to great agents, great managers and asked who they had who’s out and is willing to be openly gay. The conversations seemed absurd, because at the time I knew that they had clients who I knew were gay who I thought were openly gay and it was a flat denial that any of their clients were openly gay. And that’s when I first saw where the wall was.

It didn’t feel like it was at the studio or network level, it certainly wasn’t at the directorial level. It was with the managers and agents.

So you start to ask why. What is that all about?

Dustin Lance Black won for Best Original Screenplay for Milk
Dustin Lance Black won for Best Original Screenplay for Milk

It quickly reveals itself and you just follow the money. These are agents and managers who have probably put years into developing young actors or actresses – time, energy, money – and they just don’t want anything to hurt that actor’s chances or their ability to recoup or make money.

At the time, they thought being gay was a real disadvantage to getting cast, to being seen as marketable and to make money. We got the most resistance from gay agents and managers. There was a reason to this and that was a real internal homophobia there, which I can empathise with. Most of these agents and managers were of a certain generation that had experienced a Hollywood where it really was a detriment to be out or outed and I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.

It’s certainly not the courageous thing to do but they had made a decision to keep their gay clients closeted – acting out of their own fears, their own insecurities and their own pain. We actually found a little more of an open attitude from the straight agents and managers.

What we then discovered beyond that was when we went to the theatre agents, we didn’t get much resistance at all. There, we were able to start finding openly gay actors and actresses who would come and audition. And then we were thankfully able to cast a good many. It just ended up being a rather surprising cast.

Screenwriter and producer Dustin Lance Black

Most of the homophobes and straight people in Milk were played by gay people and most of the gay people were played by straight people, but not all. So that was there it was then [in 2007/8]. Then there’s been a sea change since then and some of that is just again, following the money. Have actors and actresses been able to come out and continue to make money and continue to be profitable? Have they continued to dispel the misconception that being out is going to hurt the bottom line or hurt their chances of a career? And then you just have to look at the careers of people like Matt Bomer and Neil Patrick-Harris and Colton Haynes.

I’ve known Colton [Haynes] for a long time, even when he wasn’t out. And I was very, very proud of him when he did come out. And I know he’s struggled with that decision. But that is the question: It is that heartthrob leading man or woman who can continue not just gay roles, but straight roles that they’re suited for and be out. Have we reached that moment? I think we’re very close if not already there.

What will be, to me, a real achievement is when we have an openly gay actor or actress who based on their name alone gets a major motion picture of television series greenlit. We’re not quite there yet.

Why are agents doing this?

I think it’s all business. I never met an actor or actress who wasn’t out who was enjoying being in the closet. It’s not a happy place. It was not a comfortable place.

I’ve known many, almost all of them have come out now, and it’s soul-crushing. Every day you stay in the closet, every day you have to, if not lie, avoid the question and it’s like a little micro-injury to your soul and we’re talking about how and who you love. Everyday you deny that, you’re crushing yourself.

And by the way, for actors, that part of your soul is critical. That is what people are tuning in to see. They want a window into that soul. So if you’re being told daily to crush it, how well are you going to perform? How good is your performance going to be?

I saw many closeted actors improve once they came out because all of a sudden, they weren’t smashing the thing that was a part of what we liked seeing the most.

In certain roles, we want to experience love through these actor’s abilities to bring these characters to life. And I do think, not always, but often, you can tell there’s a lid on something. It didn’t feel genuine. But then other actors can transcend it and have it be believable but I do think it hurt performance.

I also think there’s a certain self-confidence that comes with being comfortable with who you are and being able to share that publicly in ways you choose that creates charisma.

If you’re having to closet and lie and you’re dealing with shame, well I don’t think that’s going to read very charismatic. That’s a lot to carry.

Did you have that personal fear of coming out publicly?

No, it’s not something I’ve ever experienced as a writer, producer or director. Ever.

And I dealt with it personally as somebody who grew up Southern and Mormon and in the military. I dealt with it in my family – religiously and culturally – but not in Hollywood.

There were so many brave filmmakers who came before me who were really brave and out and had already broken down that barrier so I, in many ways, just benefitted from that.

With the rise of exposure in trans, non-binary and bi+ stories, do you think Hollywood is embracing that more?

No. There’s curiosity. I think probably on the PR side because it’s a story and Hollywood likes a story. It’s an opportunity to show a new light on it. Curiosity – what is that, who is it?

There’s been no resistance, especially as we have more and more names and labels and ways of defining that vast greyscale that is sexuality and gender identity.

We’ll probably be coming up with new terms and new words forever, as we understand more. The only place I’ve ever experienced that push back is with agents and managers. I think if you ask most of the actors who’ve come out now, they’ll give you the same answer.

What role do LGBTI audiences have in embracing LGBTI actors?

First and foremost, LGBTI people have to support LGBTI art. That doesn’t always happen.

Even the films like Brokeback Mountain, I am Michael and King Cobra didn’t make much money. I’m not sure how many people liked them – I didn’t actually see them. But we have to get out there and watch gay cinema and tune into LGBTI films and participate in LGBTI art. I feel that there’s an ebb and flow to that. Certainly around the time that Brokeback Mountain came out and Milk, there was huge interest. And it wasn’t just LGBTI people showing up. It was straight people as well.

And you’ve seen a wave of that in Hollywood with trans stories and characters. I worry right now that we’re in a bit of an ebb in that perhaps it’s a new generation or perhaps folks are exhausted and don’t want anything.

We don’t like having our lives brought before the public for examination. Trump rolling back protections for trans people. Sometimes we just want to turn away and not deal with it.

So I think with the LGBTI community, more than any other minority, visibility is the key to civil rights success.

We’re not always immediately identifiable. Many are – some of my favorite queens are very identifiable, but not everyone is. We have to have visibility – our lives have to have visibility in order for us to continue to make progress. That’s only going to continue to happen if LGBTI people and our allies show up to our art exhibitions, our television shows and our movies and participate in that way.

We don’t have a box office if we don’t have people watching movies. You just have to look at the most extreme example of the AIDS crisis, where invisibility equals death was one of the slogans. We have to keep showing up for our LGBTI shows, movies and art because then there’ll be more roles available for LGBTI people.

Do you feel a personal pressure to create these types of movies?

I made a decision a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be closeted. I’m in an industry that does have a spotlight on it so I made my choice. But it’s not something I think about.

I probably engage in social media and go do public events as much as any straight person in my position. I get a little shy. But I’m not censoring myself. I would never do that.

Thankfully Tom is immune. I don’t think we’re not doing anything that any straight couple wouldn’t be doing given what our careers are. Every now and then you might go to fashion week. Take a break from the drama on the page. Do I feel a responsibility to create content that’s good? Yeah! That’s also just part of my job.

Not everything I do has gay people or gay storylines in it. Those things have been very successful over the past seven years. Before that, I was writing about Mormon stuff and I’m doing that again right now. My responsibility to do LGBTI stories is more about my responsibility as an artist. Which is to try and bring my perspective to the screen as an LGBTI person.

I hope it’s helpful. If it’s any good, it should be helpful.

What about when casting for When We Rise?

I’ve never stopped to see what proportion we ended up with on When We Rise with LGBTI actors. It’s pretty high. Here’s how I do it. I have a conversation with the casting director and say I would like to find as many LGBTI actors and actresses [as] you can. And then audition them.

But I don’t want you to only audition gay people for gay roles. Or only straight people for straight roles. Have at it. It then comes out in the wash. I do want to cast as many LGBTI people as I can in what I do to give them that shot. It’s just a personal preference of mine. But they have to be good. And they have to be the best.

I’m not going to cast someone who’s not as good, just because they’re LGBTI.

One place where it really mattered to me was trans roles in that series. I think it’s because the curtain of misunderstanding and misinformation is going up as we speak on trans people and their lives. Who better to help us understand more than actual trans actors and actresses? You know, I thought that might be a challenge and I discovered it just wasn’t.

We ended up getting so many wonderful auditions that the difficulty became not casting a trans actor or actress but which one. And it became the same sort of heartbreak of having to tell a lot of talented people sorry. It ended up in When We Rise that every single trans character was played by a trans actor or actress, which I thought was not just politically correct, but it helped the show. These actors and actresses taught me things I didn’t know and we brought that to the screen. It brings an authenticity. So that was important to me.

So I’ve said this before but I never want to hear that it’s tough to find a trans actor or actress for a trans role again. That’s bullshit. That’s not true. And if they think it is true, they’re using the wrong casting director. I’ll give them my casting director’s number.

How do films become more diverse?

If you want to talk about diversity in Hollywood, I think then you have to dial it back to a different issue, which is, I think, diversity starts with the script. And the script has to be as authentically diverse as the writer or the writer’s room on the TV show. And so you want to try and make film and television proportionally diverse to how we are in reality.

You should make the writers rooms and the writers in feature films also proportionally diverse to how we are in reality. I think we’re headed in that direction.

Certainly, 50 years ago, it was almost entirely straight, white men and it’s not that anymore. But it’s certainly not proportional. So there’s work to be done in Hollywood to hire writers that aren’t just white, straight men. I think that’s not just being politically correct. If you want to attract more people to see your show, you should start depicting people of diversity more authentically.

There’s been great proof of that – in television certainly – as we get more diverse, you get more viewers. There’s room for more African American leads in television and your show can do very well. But look at who’s writing those shows in those networks.

We write what we know. I’m not faulting straight, white writers. They write some of my favorite things but what they’re going to write most authentically is stuff from their experiences.

We all have to put on different hats as writers, because we’re not just writing for ourselves, but I do think that diversity in the writer’s room will help reflect on screen.

Is there still a stigma on straight actors ‘going gay’?

Not anymore. It’s easier for some communities than others, if I’m being very candid.

I think playing a gay white man as a straight actor – you’re gonna get less blowback from your community. And that signals more work we need to do as a community to dispel some more other myths out there about gay people. That’s just sadly true.

Tom's favorite room in the flat is the kitchen, he says
Tom’s favorite room in the flat is the kitchen, he says

You just have to look to the phenomenon of the ‘down low’ and know that the African-American community at least has more to do when it comes to homophobia. Straight actors who take these gay roles might earn more blowback, than a white straight actor playing a gay role.

There is that. That’s often been the most difficult role to cast. In When We Rise, we had to cast a gay African-American role and it was the last to be filled. The most difficult to be filled.

Eventually, do you believe the issue of closeting actors will resolve itself?

We don’t have a choice. Here’s the real thing. Social media is going to change Hollywood. So social media creates a record. So what used to happen is it’s not like these actors and actresses who were going to become closeted gay stars have been living these lives without relationships. These loveless lives. No, they were going on dates and experimenting and doing all of that sort of stuff. Well, they’re still doing all of that today.

These talented young actors and actresses have Instagram and Facebook and they’re coming out. You can’t put someone back in the closet now. Hollywood used to be able to put someone back in the closet. You have a very talented young actor and you’re going to sign them. You find out that they’re going to gay bars and dated someone of the same gender – you would just closet them and say ‘Prove it.’ There’s no pictures and there’s no record.

But now, there are pictures of everything. There’s a record of everything.

Frankly, this generation is not allowing themselves to not put themselves back in the closet. There’s a strength, a resolve, a lack of shame – mostly because they never knew it. I really admire that in this generation of actors at the moment. I give them props for having that strength to deny their agents and managers.

It’s like when I talk about that older generation of agents and managers and I don’t approve of what they do – I actually feel sorry for them. They come from a generation that was taught daily the shame of who they are. To feel shame. There is that self loathing that goes in there, even people who were able to come out still lived with that.

You have a generation of kids now who from the day they were born, you have Queer As Folk and Will & Grace out on TV. And by the time of their adolescence, they have openly gay stars and they’re not growing up with the same shame. So you try to tell them they can’t be who they are.

They’re going to push back in a way that someone in my generation or earlier doesn’t want to.

What do you think of LGBTI actors like Ian McKellen?

What Ian McKellen did was incredibly brave.

Everything we’re talking about today is thanks to people like him and there are very few like him. He came out when it was still being debated as a crime. I mean, today maybe we can talk about it as a stigma and maybe something that can hurt the bottom line – then, we were talking about a crime and what some people considered a mental illness.

His generation were brave enough to come out and construct a fight when it was still a crime and a mental illness. When you could lose your job and be taken away legally. Boy, those are the real heroes.

You previously said actors need to ‘grow a spine’ and let LGBTI actors come out, do you still think that?

The world has changed. In the 10 years since I’ve been out there in the world casting, a lot of agency managers have retired and new ones have come up.

We’ve had plenty of evidence that openly LGBTI actors and actresses can make a lot of money. And it’s not the problem that they thought it was. I would probably change it from ‘Have a spine’ – I would now say to any agent suppressing gay actors, ‘open your eyes.’

Screenwriter and producer Dustin Lance Black is among those criticizing SB 375 in Georgia
Screenwriter, producer and dad-to-be Dustin Lance Black is among those criticizing SB 375 in Georgia (Photo: @dlanceblack | Instagram)

It’s not 1995 anymore, it’s not 2005 anymore, it’s not even 2015 anymore. Open your eyes, you don’t have to do that to your talent. It doesn’t take an act of bravery to let your actor be who they are.