While casting for The Real O’Neals, producer Todd Holland felt it was important that the role of Kenny — a gay teen whose coming-out rocks a conservative Catholic family — go to a gay actor.
"As a gay man, this is a landmark role on network television. It should not be played by a straight man pretending to be gay,” Holland told the Associated Press prior to the show’s premiere.
Holland’s statement is significant, because it shows there is value in having LGBT people, not just characters, on TV. The act of casting in and of itself broadcasts a message of acceptance.
However, Holland ran into a problem. A producer or a casting director cannot ask an actor about their sexual orientation or gender identity — nor can they seek them out exclusively on breakdowns, which are listings that describe roles and their requirements for actors. Paradoxically, doing so is forbidden by laws meant to protect LGBT actors — as well as straight ones — from employment discrimination.
Ultimately, the ABC show did find a gay actor for the part: Noah Galvin. In casting, Holland had a “sense” that Galvin was gay. He also overheard the young man speaking about coming out to his parents.
They were lucky to have found him. Since the show’s inception, The Real O’Neals, which is loosely based on the life of gay activist Dan Savage, has become a lightning rod for conservative criticism for its gay and religious storylines. Recently renewed for a second season, it survived boycotts from One Million Moms and petitions for advertisers to pull funding. In the center of this storm, there is an actor who can speak with experience about the struggles faced by gay people today.
"It was important to me that they have someone who is gay and is out and is willing to be a spokesman for it," Galvin said upon his casting.
The Real O’Neals benefits from having Galvin as an actor and spokesman. Society does as well. LGBT media organizations like GLAAD exist because having an out person on network television can move the needle for equality. Moreover, there is a growing demand for authentic depictions of all historically underrepresented groups in media.
So why is casting LGBT actors for LGBT roles so difficult?
As Holland discovered in his quest to find Galvin, LGBT people face a number of disadvantages in the entertainment industry. Many actors are closeted, as they fear being out will work more against them than for them in the casting process. This is due to a perception that the industry is biased.
A 2013 survey conducted by the Williams Institute and SAG-AFTRA, an influential union of performers that negotiates contracts with studios, found that 31 percent of respondents believe that casting directors are biased against LGBT performers. In addition, 37 percent believe that producers and directors are biased.
In a recent interview discussing the various reasons actors remain closeted, actor Joel Michaely, of But I'm a Cheerleader fame, confirmed that he routinely observes gay roles being given to straight actors, even when the majority of actors who audition are gay. He compared the practice to blackface.
“All these amazing gay actors out there are not having the same opportunties that heterosexual actors have,” said Michaely. “That is not fair. That is not inclusive. That’s mocking our people. It’s an affront. And I’m over it.”
Fortunately, SAG-AFTRA's report found that conditions are improving for LGBT actors. However, it listed other factors that might contribute to the disconnect between LGBT actors and roles. For example, these performers are less likely to have agents than their straight peers. Many also choose not to pursue LGBT roles, due to the concern that such a move would limit further career opportunities.
The fear of pushing actors out of the closet is also working against them in a monetary sense. SAG-AFRTA offers financial rewards to low-budget films in its Diversity-in-Casting Incentive. In this agreement, films with a budget of under $2 million can increase their budget by up to 50 percent if women, actors who are age 60 or older, performers with disabilities, and actors of color receive a certain percentage of speaking roles and working days.
Adam Moore, SAG-AFRTA's national director of equal employment opportunity and diversity, said the organization considered offering these benefits for hiring LGBT performers as well. However, it was ultimately a road they did not want to take, as the act might “insist that people somehow come out."
“We’re advocating for a space where we don’t need these incentives in the first place,” said Moore, pointing to a number of SAG-AFTRA's initiatives, like the aforementioned report, which help moved the needle for LGBT actors. He also recommended that performers, if they are considering coming out, reach out to the organization’s LGBT committee as a resource.
As for casting, it’s a delicate dance, as The Real O'Neals demonstrated. But it's not an impossible one to navigate. Moore encouraged producers to seek out diversity in its actors, but to be careful not to break the law in doing so.
“[Creatives] find themselves in that position of not just trying to tell a good story, and do it in a way that they think is truthful to themselves or the community they’re talking about. They also now are employers that have to abide by state and federal law,” he said.
“The last thing [anyone] wants to do is get it wrong when you’re trying to do something that’s actually moving in the right direction,” Moore added.
To avoid trouble, it is essential to be familiar with the law throughout casting. In writing breakdowns, for example, wording is key.
“There’s nothing to keep you from saying: ‘We’re actively seeking out gay men to apply for this job. We’re actively seeking transgender women.’ … You just simply can’t make it a condition of employment,” Moore said.
Respect for an actor’s identity in these breakdowns is also a must. Terms like “transgendered” or “transsexual,” which appeared in a recent breakdown for a network television show forwarded to The Advocate, are considered problematic for LGBT people and may discourage them from auditioning. Producers and casting directors can reference resources like GLAAD for acceptable terms.
Moreover, there is nothing to prevent actors from disclosing their identities, be it sexual orientation, ethnicity, or otherwise, if they feel comfortable revealing this background as an asset that would lend authenticity to the part. However, Moore stressed that one's identity is not a limiting factor in the parts one can play.
“As much as we encourage and want to educate folks on how to best be inclusive of diverse stories and have that level of authenticity … 99 percent of the time, when it’s about playing a role, it’s not what you are, it’s about what you can play," he concluded.
Of course, this rule rarely holds for roles that are tied to race or ethnicity. Zoe Saldana, an actress of color, incited a firestorm of controversy for portraying Nina Simone. She was accused of blackface, as she had to darken her skin to more closely resemble the singer-songwriter and activist.
In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, a campaign that called attention to the absence of nominated actors of color at the Academy Awards, actress Rooney Mara expressed regret for portraying a Native American role, Tiger-Lily, in Pan. Many accused her of taking a part from a minority actress. Notably, she received no pushback for her Oscar-nominated lesbian role in Carol. (As The Advocate previously reported, out of the dozens of Academy Award-nominated LGBT parts, only one gay role has been portrayed by an out actor, that being Ian McKellen.)
In addition, the rule of "it’s not what you are, it’s about what you can play" is only a necessity when what you are is not being represented on-screen. Why not just create more inclusive scripts with LGBT characters? Others in addition to The Real O'Neals have done so, while also casting LGBT actors in these roles.
For example, MTV’s recently canceled show Faking It faced a similar hurdle to the one encountered by Holland, when it sought to cast a transgender actor in the role of a transgender student in the name of LGBT representation. Observing “a lack of trans actors and actresses in Hollywood,” showrunner Carter Covington took matters into his own hands. He launched a casting call in 2015 through traditional and social media. The show eventually hired trans actor Elliot Fletcher, who was referred to the part by his agent. Previously, Fletcher had advised the show on trans storylines through GLAAD.
At a recent MTV press event, Covington discussed the "interesting conundrum" of the legal difficulties involved with casting LGBT actors, considering their marginalized history.
“I’m a big believer that trans actors need the opportunity to tell their own stories, if at all possible," he said. "We just had to be careful about the wording as we were putting it out, and we had to make sure that everyone knew that that was our goal, but it wasn’t a mandate. We also had to do some casting sessions for nontrans actors for the part just to show that we were making a broad effort."
"But I made it very clear that my hope and my goal was to find a trans actor for the role," he concluded, "because I think they bring an authenticity that’s really important and essential for the part.”