Sean Penn said ‘timid’ policies now block straight actors from gay roles – the internet responded

sean penn

Sean Penn has weighed in on the debate around straight actors playing gay characters, describing directors preferring gay characters for gay roles as a “timid and artless policy”.

In an interview with The New York Times, Penn – who won his second best-actor Oscar for playing openly gay politician Harvey Milk in the 2008 biopic Milk – said repeating such a role “could not happen in a time like this”, adding: “It’s a time of tremendous overreach, a timid and artless policy toward the human imagination.”

Film fans were quick to share their thoughts on social media about what Taps and Mystic River star Penn said, with many pointing out that in the past year alone a number of straight actors had appeared in gay roles.

Sean Penn played gay activist Harvey Milk in 2008 (Universal Pictures)

“Nicholas Galitzine, Paul Mescal, Ethan Hawke, Josh O’Connor and Sterling K Brown are all straight men who played gay characters in the past year. What in the actual hell is he talking about?” one X/Twitter user asked.

“Barry Keoghan didn’t twirl around naked with his shillelagh out in Saltburn for you to make this statement,” a second wrote, noting the famous scene from the hit 2023 film where straight actor Barry Keoghan, who plays a gay character, dances in the nude to “Murder On The Dancefloor”.

And a third, possible with their tongue firmly in their cheek, remarked: “Unfortunately, people have let gay liberation and inclusion politics get in the way of what Harvey Milk’s legacy was really about: Sean Penn being great.”

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A fourth brought out a classic Simpsons meme to express their feelings.

The gay casting debate has been rumbling on for a number of years, with stars such as Ripley‘s Andrew Scott, Rebel Wilson and A Very English Scandal‘s Ben Whishaw, as well as Doctor Who supremo Russell T Davies, all voicing their opinions.

Speaking to PinkNews in 2021, Davies said he believed “casting gay as gay now is the right thing to do” because “gay is not a performance”.

The creator of It’s A Sin added: “If you’re casting someone, you want an actor who can portray falling in love or being duplicitous or being evil or being a drug runner or being a saint… that’s what they’re there to portray. They’re not there to act gay.

Last year, he spoke out again, saying he felt the need to keep advocating for the casting of LGBTQ+ actors because “no one else” was.

“The reason why I come out with such a strong unilateral statement is simply to shift the argument. There are 57 dramas out there being cast today without me in that room. So, one voice just tilts the argument [and] allows more people to be say: ‘Shall we cast gay here?’”

But Pitch Perfect star Rebel Wilson disagrees. It’s “total nonsense [that] only straight actors can play straight roles, and gay actors can play gay roles”, she said.

“You should be able to play any role that you want. But in comedy your job is to always flirt with that line of what’s acceptable. Sometimes you do step over it but, at the end of the day, you are trying to entertain people.

“If people are always being safe and protective, you’re not going to get good comedy.”

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