Screen Actors Guild Members, GLAAD Convene to Discuss Casting Bias Facing LGBT Actors

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Screen Actors Guild Members, GLAAD Convene to Discuss Casting Bias Facing LGBT Actors

Los Angeles - Casting bias facing SAG members who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) was the central topic of a spirited panel discussion co-sponsored by the SAG National LGBT Actors Committee and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) on October 7, 2009. Held in October to commemorate National Coming Out Day, this is the third SAG event of its kind to explore the unique challenges and opportunities of LGBT actors

It was standing room only in the James Cagney Board Room at SAG national headquarters for "Out in Hollywood III: The Rise of the LGBT Actor" where members of SAG and representatives of the networks heard from a panel of actors, casting directors and producer-directors who are all openly LGBT.

While a recent GLAAD study shows that there are more LGBT characters on primetime than ever, actor Jonathan Slavin, who plays a straight character on ABC's Better Off Ted, acknowledged that he would like to see LGBT actors cast to play those parts. On one hand, he said, "we don't care who plays it as long as it's there, but I personally think it's important for gay people to play gay characters."

Casting out actors to play LGBT roles, however, remains a complex formula, further complicated by box office economics and the lack of any out leading actors. Oscar-winning producer Dan Jinks cast straight actor Sean Penn in the title role of Milk. "We knew that the only way we were going to get the movie financed was to have a major star," he said. "What was really important to us was that we had many other openly gay actors in the movie."

Cold Case casting director Dan Shaner says the closet remains part of the equation; when he was casting a gay film, he said, "It was difficult. We found gay people weren't as open to playing gay roles as we thought they would be."

And, of course, out actors would like to be considered for non-LGBT roles as well. "I would like to be considered for straight roles," said Bryan Batt, who plays a closeted gay man on AMC's Mad Men. "I don't wake up in the morning and say to the mirror, 'Hello, gay actor.' I don't define myself as a gay actor. I'm an actor and I'm gay." Batt adds that being out and visible may be a disadvantage at times. "If there's too much knowledge it does prejudice the casting process."

Which is what openly transgender actress Candis Cayne is facing. When asked about what kind of auditions she has gone out for since her high-profile role as the transgender mistress on ABC's Dirty Sexy Money she replied frankly, "Barely, if any. When I'm called in, I'm considered too pretty or too real to play transgender. I would just like to play a real woman but I don't get called in for those roles."

Michelle Paradise created and starred in the gay-themed Exes and Ohs for the Logo network, but doesn't believe her visibility has risen to the level where it's affected casting decisions as she has had a successful commercial career. "I don't have the profile that some of these other actors do," she said. "When you're not known as well there are a lot more opportunities. At a certain level it doesn't matter if you're out if you're not a known commodity."

Casting director Tammara Billik says she is working to remove casting bias. "One of the things I've taken on as a casting director is to cast blindly when the role is not so defined and to bring in people who may challenge a producer's expectations," said Billik who has cast Ellen and Samantha Who. "Our job is to open the eyes of producers to other opportunities." She referenced a role of a secretary that was written as female but she brought in an out male actor who landed the part.

Being out and true to yourself or staying closeted because you believe it will help your career continues to be an issue in the entertainment industry. "As an actor, you're a creative person and you have to be open about who you are," says Billik, while Emmy-winning producer-director Paris Barclay does acknowledge why an actor may chose to stay in the closet: "I say to you, if you've weighed your career priorities and it's important to you to be quiet about your sexuality then I understand that."

"I remember being a kid in a tiny town in Pennsylvania and it would have made a huge difference for me to have been able to turn on the TV and see someone gay," said Slavin. "There are gay kids in Missoula who want to kill themselves. I want to be of service and be able to help those kids."

"I was actually born in Missoula and if you can touch those people that's what's important," added Jesse Tyler Ferguson who currently plays a gay father on ABC's Modern Family.

Actor Jason Stuart, chair of SAG's National LGBT Actors Committee said he's seen a lot of change during his decade in the business. "Ten years ago, I couldn't get a job," he said. "I was doing stand-up and I got a job maybe once a year. Now, I work a lot. History has shown us that prejudice does not win out. Things have changed and we have to acknowledge that and also look forward instead of looking back all the time. In another 10 years, there's gonna be a romantic [leading] guy out. It's gonna happen."

During the Q&A, an actor acknowledged and thanked Wilson Cruz for his coming out as a young actor on My So-Called Life, paving the way for so many other performers to be out. The audience gave Cruz a standing ovation. A visibly touched Cruz reinforced the coming out theme by paraphrasing activist Harvey Milk: "Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying silently in our closets...We are coming out. We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions...so I'm going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out."

The "Out in Hollywood" audience was welcomed by SAG Secretary-Treasurer Amy Aquino, SAG Interim National Executive Director David White, actor Jason Stuart, chair of the National LGBT Actors Committee, as well as GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios.

Panelists included out industry members actors Bryan Batt (Mad Men), Candis Cayne (Dirty Sexy Money), Wilson Cruz (He's Just Not That Into You, My So-Called Life), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family), Michelle Paradise (Exes and Ohs), Jonathan Slavin (Better Off Ted); Emmy-winning producer-director Paris Barclay (In Treatment, Cold Case, NYPD Blue), Oscar-winning produer Dan Jinks (Milk, American Beauty, Pushing Daisies); and casting directors Tammara Billik (Samantha Who) and Dan Shaner (Cold Case). The discussion was moderated by Doria Biddle, co-host of The Frank DeCaro Show on Sirius/XM Radio.