Neil Patrick Harris Shares His Thoughts on Straight Actors Playing Gay Characters

Harris, who has played characters both gay and straight, went straight lothario for one of his most famous roles as Barney Stinson on “How I Met Your Mother.”

It’s been a hot-button topic for several years now, and one that doesn’t have a clear or definitive answer. But there are a lot of strong opinions.

Neil Patrick Harris, who is openly gay, spoke to Britain’s The Times, where he reacted to “Queer as Folk” creator Russell T. Davies’ assertion that straight actors shouldn’t be playing gay roles anymore.

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Harris is starring in Davies’ latest project, “It’s a Sin,” a UK mini-series dealing with the AIDS crisis.

“I’m not one to jump onto labeling. As an actor, you certainly hope you can be a visible option for all kinds of different roles,” he said in response.

“I played a character for nine years that was nothing like me,” Harris continued, referencing his controversial “How I Met Your Mother” womanizer role, Barney Stinson.

An incredibly popular character at the time of the series, which ended in 2013, Barney’s lothario ways have certainly not aged well into the 2020s. But there is absolutely no denying that Harris convincingly portrayed every bit of that role to the hilt.

Harris went on to cite straight actors like Charlie Hunnam and Aidan Gillen who played gay men on Davies’ on “Queer.”

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“I think there’s something sexy about casting a straight actor to play a gay role if they’re willing to invest a lot into it,” he said. “There’s a nervousness that comes from the newness of it all. To declare that you’d never do that, you might miss opportunities.”

As for those straight actors on “Queer,” Harris added, “It was one of the real true turning points for me as examples of sexy guys behaving as leads in something of import, not as comic sidekicks.”

In his own career, Harris has no intention of limiting himself to only gay roles, just as he believes straight people shouldn’t be limited. The way he sees it, “I would definitely want to hire the best actor.”

As for Davies, he told the Radio Times on January 11 that his belief that only gay actors should portray gay characters is an extension of the growing movement toward more authenticity in casting.

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“You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair. You wouldn’t Black someone up,” he said. “Authenticity is leading us to joyous places.”

It’s a topic being passionately debated all across entertainment, with Sia recently coming under fire for hiring Maddie Ziegler to portray an autistic person in her directorial debut; a move that drew the ire of the public and several autistic actors.

Harris says that he interprets Davies’ words as being “more about the joyfulness of being able to be authentic.” He also said that this would be a very difficult thing to police if you are expecting each actor to match the orientation and identity of the character they’re playing.

“In our world that we live in you can’t really as a director demand that,” he said. “Who’s to determine how gay someone is?”

As for Davies, he unapologetically has gone the other way in his own casting, selecting gay actors to portray straight characters, saying he’s “trying to avenge hundreds of years of inequality.”

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“I think that’s fine, because, believe you me, from the age of eight we are studying straight people and how to fit in with them,” said Davies as justification for the decision.

Jim Parsons, who is also openly gay and played a famously straight character for years on television, understands the complexity and nuances of the issue, but emphasized to the LA Times the importance of gay characters being “well-rounded and completely human individuals.”

Darren Criss, meanwhile, who is straight and has played multiple gay characters across his career, declared in 2018 that he would no longer take those roles so that gay actors would have perhaps a better opportunity at portraying their authenticity.

Billy Eichner told Out that it’s about opportunity, not necessarily exclusivity, and as long as that’s not happening, there’s a problem. “There were so many straight actors on every list to play gay characters,” he said, but the opposite proved not to be true, per his experience.

“For the straight characters in the movie, there were never gay actors on the lists for those roles. I saw it with my own eyes. It’s not a two-way street.”

This is the “inequality” that Davies says he’s “avenging” with his casting choices. Until such time as there is equal opportunity for and representation of gay and straight actors being considered interchangeably for gay and straight roles, this will remain an issue without an easy resolution.

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