Benedict Cumberbatch defends playing gay character in new queer western

Benedict Cumberbatch on the red carpet

Benedict Cumberbatch has asked whether straight actors must “explain all their private moments” to play queer roles.

The Doctor Strange star plays a queer rancher, Phil Burbank, in the Netflix film The Power of the Dog, with Kodi Smit-McPhee playing his love interest, Peter.

At the Telluride Film Festival Saturday (4 September), Cumberbatch told IndieWire that the decision for him to play the role “wasn’t done without thought”.

“I feel very sensitive about representation, diversity and inclusion,” he said.

“One of the appeals of the job was the idea that in this world, with this specific character, there was a lot that was private, hidden from view.

“It wasn’t done without thought. I also feel slightly like, is this a thing where our dance card has to be public?

“Do we have to explain all our private moments in our sexual history? I don’t think so.”

The Power of the Dog Writer-director Jane Campion, he added, “chose us as actors to play those roles. That’s her question to answer”.

Smit-McPhee, meanwhile, said: “There’s a lot in Peter that I relate to”.

“Sure, I’m a straight man, but I’m extremely in touch with my feminine side,” he added of the flamboyant role.

Kodi Smit-McPhee attends the premiere of 20th Century Fox’s Dark Phoenix. Rich Fury/Getty Images)

“I was raised by my mother and my sister. Of course, my dad has a huge masculine influence on my life, but he could never really take me away from the feminine side that I just intrinsically have in myself.

“It was just a matter of bringing it out […] and letting it be in the world. It was a really experimental but beautiful thing to do.”

Should straight actors play gay roles?

Debates over straight, cis actors playing LGBT+ roles have long rumbled in Hollywood, reaching a flashpoint earlier this year when British screenwriter Russell T Davies said he deliberately cast gay actors to play gay characters in It’s a Sin.

Davies said at the time that his casting brought more “authenticity” to the production. Many of the actors agreed, adding that the majority LGBT+ cast allowed them all to “shine brighter“.

Nathanial Curtis, who played Ash Mukherjee in the hit Channel 4 series, said straight actors should only play gay characters if they’re willing to do it “with respect“.

Love, Victor‘s Michael Cimono agreed. Straight actors should be able to play LGBT+ characters, he told PinkNews, as long as they do so “honestly” and not just for a “cash grab”.

Actor Jim Parsons waded into the simmering debate in January, reflecting on his role in The Boys in the Band, which featured an all-queer cast, by urging casting directors to, at the very least, keep queer actors in mind for queer roles.

“I think the fight, as it were, is not about having only gay people play the gay parts but to ensure that all parts are open to all actors,” he told the Los Angeles Times newspaper.