'You're Assuming that I'm Completely Straight': Viggo Mortensen Joins Debate Over Straight Actors Playing Gay Roles

Wednesday December 2, 2020

When straight actors take on gay roles is once thought of as displaying an actor's range, and often leads to Oscar nominations — if not wins. Look at Tom Hanks, Matthew McConaughey, Christopher Plummer and Rami Malek (all but Plummer played gay men who died from AIDS — an Oscar-bait meme). Today it is more a question of authenticity. Should a straight actor be playing a gay role? And when does that become "gay face," as in the case of the blistering criticism James Corden is receiving for his role in Netflix's upcoming "The Prom?"

Viggo Mortensen, the Oscar-nominated A-lister, is the latest facing criticism for taking on a gay role in the upcoming film "Falling," which he also directed. In it, he plays a middle-aged, partnered gay male who invites his conservative father to live with them after showing signs of dementia.

"Due to his 11-year relationship with Spanish actress Ariadna Gil, Viggo — who makes his directorial debut with the film — has received criticism for playing an LGBTQ+ character," writes Gay Times.

In an interview with the London Times (which sits behind a firewall), Mortensen is blunt in dismissing such criticism. While he says the debate over straight actors playing gay roles is "healthy," he "didn't think it was a problem" during the casting process.

"People then ask me, 'Well what about Terry Chen, who plays my husband in the film, is he a homosexual?' And the answer is I don't know," he explained to the Irish Times.

"I would never have the temerity to ask someone if they were. And how do you know what my life is? You're assuming that I'm completely straight."

Viggo went on to say: "Maybe I am, maybe I'm not. And it's frankly none of your business. I want my movie to work, and I want the character of John to be effective."

Mortensen's responses rekindle the debate, which has no doubt stymied casting directors over the past few years after Scarlett Johansson said she made a mistake when she was cast to play transgender man Dante "Tex" Gill (born Jean Gill) in the film "Rub and Tuck." At first, Johansson defended taking the role: "Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman's reps for comment." (Three actors who received critical acclaim for playing trans characters).

But she had a turn-of-heart after examining the situation more thoroughly, telling Vanity Fair in November 2019: "In hindsight, I mishandled that situation. I was not sensitive, my initial reaction to it. I wasn't totally aware of how the trans community felt about those three actors playing—and how they felt in general about cis actors playing—transgender people. I wasn't aware of that conversation—I was uneducated. So I learned a lot through that process. I misjudged that... It was a hard time. It was like a whirlwind. I felt terrible about it. To feel like you're kind of tone-deaf to something is not a good feeling."

Others agreed with Johannson. Darren Criss, who won an Emmy (amongst other awards for his chilling portrayal of Andrew Cunanan in "American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace," said he won't play queer characters in the future. Criss' break-out role was as a gay student on "Glee," and he later played trans icon Hedwig on Broadway in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

"There are certain [queer] roles that I'll see that are just wonderful," he said in a 2018 interview on Bustle. "But I want to make sure I won't be another straight boy taking a gay man's role."

But Cate Blanchett, who received an Oscar nom for her titular role in Todd Haynes' lesbian drama "Carol," disagreed with Criss, telling the Hollywood Reporter that she sees herself quite capable of playing gay roles without having a gay experience.

"And I will fight to the death for the right to suspend disbelief and play roles beyond my experience, she told THR.

"Part of being an actor to me, it's an anthropological exercise. So you get to examine a time frame, a set of experiences, an historical event that you didn't know anything about," said Blanchett. "But also I'm about to play a character whose political persuasions are entirely different to my own, but part of the pleasure is trying to work out what makes her tick."