Legendary gay thespian Derek Jacobi weighs in on straight actors playing queer roles

Derek Jacobi

Acclaimed actor Sir Derek Jacobi has weighed in on the long-simmering debate over whether straight, cis actors should play LGBT+ people in film and television.

The legendary gay thespian, 82, is best known for his classical roles as well as for playing the Duke of Windsor in The Crown, the archbishop of Canterbury in The King’s Speech and The Master in Doctor Who.

More recently he was namechecked in Russell T Davies’ show-stopping AIDS drama It’s a Sin, a series in which his husband Richard had a minor role.

“Ian McKellen called me up and said, ‘I don’t know which is more prestigious, to be in something or namechecked in something,'” he told the Independent.

At the time Davies was facing heavy criticism for insisting on “authentic” casting of queer characters, saying: “You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t Black someone up. Authenticity is leading us to joyous places.”

Jacobi, however, did not agree that LGBT+ roles should be restricted to LGBT+ actors. “Absolutely not,” he said simply. “I don’t think you have to be gay to be gay.”

It’s a position he shares with many other long-established stars, including Stanley Tucci, a straight actor who’s played gay roles in Supernova and The Devil Wears Prada.

“For so many years, gay men and women have had to hide their homosexuality in showbusiness to get the roles they wanted – that’s the problem here,” Tucci said in an interview with Attitude. “Anybody should be able to play any role that they want to play – that’s the whole point of acting.”

Unfortunately, the question of whether straight actors should play gay characters is likely to continue while access to film roles remains unequal across the board.

A 2020 GLAAD report found that although representation of white gay men is constantly improving in major studio films, representation of other queer people is dismal, and trans and non-binary characters were found to be non-existent in major studio releases from 2019.

When those few roles are given to straight actors rather than LGBT+ ones, it throws up an additional barrier to queer people being able to tell their own stories on the big screen.

Derek Jacobi remained tight-lipped on the matter, saying he prefers to stay out of controversial issues.

“[At awards ceremonies] they always want you to say something political or original. I prefer to keep my mouth shut,” he said. “I’ve seen the terrible things it does to those who open their mouths too wide.

“I’ve never been a political animal. Most actors are. I’ve never marched for anything.”