There was once a serious stigma about playing a gay person in Hollywood. As bad as it sounds, even in the 1990s the idea of playing gay could kill your career. There was still a rough aura about it, too many believing that playing gay meant folks thought you were gay in real life and many avoided it. Today, that’s changed, as many actors can be judged on just the role and not real life. It helps that often playing gay can be seen as “Oscar bait” for some actors and has even paid off with award wins.
There can be some rough bits here and there given how an actor plays the role. For example, Eric Stonestreet has won rave reviews for playing the role of Mitchell on Modern Family, but many cite the role as rather campy and over the top. Likewise for Robin Williams in The Birdcage; the role a bit too much.
But often, the best performances are actors who make these roles totally believable. You may not even think about the character being gay, which is often the point. Several roles involve just making gay people like anyone else, wanting to live their own lives without judgment. From movies to TV, straight actors are now playing homosexuals and making them relatable for audiences to enjoy. Again, some are able to play it much better than others to the point of vanishing into the role and not making the naughtiness too overt. Here are 15 cases of straight actors who have played gay characters to perfection to help erase this stigma for modern times.
15 Eric McCormack: Will & Grace
Eric McCormack had been bouncing around TV for a while in a variety of shows, including the Lonesome Dove series and Ally McBeal. He had some handsome looks so was usually the lady-killer type (literally, in a few crime shows) and it was easy to see him get women swooning. In 1998, he joined the cast of Will & Grace in the title role of Will with Debra Messing as Grace. The story is now famous: two long-time best friends who are really perfect for each other except Will is gay. McCormack just did amazing in the role, making Will relatable, with none of the classic stereotyping so it was believable that folks thought him straight at first. In many ways, the show helped bring gay culture to the middle-class American viewer; Will a great guy who just happened to be gay. McCormack won an Emmy for the role as it was a huge hit.
McCormack moved onto various roles as he also handled his marriage to Janet Leigh Holden that’s lasted 20 years. In 2016, he reunited with the rest of the W&G cast for an election video. The reaction was so huge that NBC revived the show and it’s a ratings smash all over again. So it’s come full circle for McCormack playing a character who helped shift the perception of homosexuals on TV in the ‘90s.
14 Julianne Moore: The Hours, Chloe, and The Kids Are All Right
With her fiery red hair and intensity, Julianne Moore has carved out an amazing career, with an Oscar and numerous roles that have made her among Hollywood’s biggest stars. Several times she has managed to play the role of a gay woman and each time wonderfully convincing. In The Hours, an ensemble drama, Moore is a 1950s housewife clearly feeling for a neighbor. While she elects to stay with her husband, it’s obvious she had more in mind. In Chloe, Moore is convinced her husband (Liam Neeson) is cheating on her so hires an escort (Amanda Seyfried) to seduce him. But soon, Moore realizes she wants Seyfried more, leading to some very steamy scenes in bed together.
Then in The Kids Are All Right, Moore is one half of a lesbian couple with Annette Bening. When the biological father of one of their kids comes by, Moore is soon seduced into an affair but insists she’s still gay as she tries to get back with Bening. In each role, Moore showcased a lovely spirit, making each part real and fully-formed and among the best parts of her long career.
13 Sarah Shahi: The L Word and Person of Interest
Several actresses on Showtime’s groundbreaking lesbian-themed drama can be cited for playing gay well. But Sarah Shahi stood out nicely. As DJ Carmen, she popped in the second season of the show, an outspoken gal with a nice style, down to Earth but with a wicked humor and very spicy in the sack. She sold a relationship well with Jenny, but later moved into a longer relationship with bed-hopping Shane, the two getting along well. Shahi could showcase sexy bits, but also strength, like coming out to her family and being shunned for it and leaning on Shane for support. They were to be married, but Shane realized she would just end up cheating on Carmen and left her at the altar, Shahi leaving the series afterward.
Shahi would get more fame as tough operative Shaw on the CBS show Person of Interest. There was always a crackling chemistry with nutso hacker Root (Amy Acker), the two bantering a lot. When Shaw had to sacrifice herself (due to Shahi’s sudden pregnancy), they shared a kiss and later a very hot love scene. Shaw made no big deal of her sexuality, still a bad-ass, and Shahi was an expert in making each role very believable for fans to enjoy.
12 Michael Douglas: Behind the Candelabra
A big-laugh line from the first Austin Powers movie is when Austin is reflecting on all the history he missed and notes, “Liberace was gay? Who saw that coming?” The pianist was known for his fantastically flamboyant manner and, at one point in the 1960s, was the biggest entertainment star alive. Looking back, it’s obvious that he was gay, but that sort of thing wasn’t discussed and he was actually promoted as a ladies’ man to try and sell him to female fans. It took until after his death in 1987 for his homosexuality to be confirmed. The HBO movie Behind the Candelabra had Michael Douglas in the role of Liberace with Matt Damon as his lover.
Douglas looks the part with the wild hair and outrageous outfits, but showcases how Liberace can’t be as totally honest with his sexuality as he’d like. His sexuality is treated as an open secret in Hollywood, everyone knowing but not talking about it. Damon matches him as his lover, with an ugly breakup causing a massive media row that ruined Liberace’s image. But Douglas is great playing the part as a real man, not a caricature to show how this icon of his time fought a secret battle for his real life.
11 Jessica Capshaw: Grey’s Anatomy
For some time, Grey’s Anatomy had been unfolding the plot of Callie (Sara Ramirez) finding out that she was bisexual and with a woman. That relationship ended just as Jessica Capshaw was cast as Arizona Robbins, a pediatric surgeon, on the show. She was only supposed to be on for a few episodes, but from day one, the chemistry between Capshaw and Ramirez was undeniable. So Arizona was kept on as the duo were soon in a relationship and eventually married. While Callie wrestled with her sexuality, Arizona was comfortable with it and Capshaw sold her nice pride and fun in the role with a great humor. They had major ups and downs, with Arizona losing a leg in a plane crash and cheating on Callie. They split but remained on good terms before Ramirez left the series. Currently, Capshaw continues to delight as Arizona, including a current romp with the hot sister of a fellow doctor. Married since 2004 with four kids, Capshaw has turned this minor character into a TV lesbian icon to be enjoyed by all.
10 Sean Penn: Milk
It’s true that over the years, Sean Penn has gotten a very bad reputation. From his ego to clashing with reporters to reports of being difficult on set, the man has a poor aura of being hard to work with. But when he is on, he can be one of the most electric and amazing actors alive. Penn proved that in this 2008 drama, Milk, where he took on the role of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to a government position in San Francisco. Penn throws himself into the role, making himself sound like the real Milk and doing a great job with how the man wasn’t hiding who he was (a major move in the 1970s).
More than once, Milk is told he has to “tone it down” if he wants to make it, but refuses to. Although ironically the local gay community feels he’s “straightening up” too much for their liking. Milk just wants to be himself and serve his community, but he is judged on his sexuality a lot and Penn shows the pride and strength that drove him on. His story ended tragically as he, along with the mayor of the city, were shot and killed by a troubled co-worker in City Hall. Penn won an Oscar for the role and showed that, prickly reputation aside, he is an actor believable in any part.
9 Charlize Theron: Monster
Charlize Theron had always been known as a very hot and sexy woman. She showed that in a bevy of roles, many with her stripping down a lot. Thus, while she had talent, most still dismissed her as just getting jobs more for her looks. Which was why critics and audiences were utterly stunned when Theron turned in what Roger Ebert hailed as “one of the greatest performances in movie history.” As real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Theron is buried in a makeup job that makes her almost unrecognizable. She shows the pain of this prostitute, who claims she’s not gay but soon falling for a lady she meets in a bar (Christina Ricci). But after suffering abuse from her “clients”, Aileen is on a murder spree that makes her infamous. Despite that, you feel for her, the obvious love for Ricci, the one thing that grounds her and makes her almost relatable. Theron won just about every Best Actress award there was for the part, including an Oscar, and while it’s hard to cheer this woman on, her struggles were totally believable.
8 Greg Kinnear: As Good As It Gets
Before 1997, Greg Kinnear was best known as the first host of Talk Soup, E’s hysterical look at the nutty world of daytime TV. He had a few movie roles, usually as the supportive boyfriend type and doing well. In As Good As It Gets, Kinnear impressed by showing an amazing talent in his role as gay artist Simon Bishop. A model ends up attacking him, giving him a brutal beat down and he finds himself unable to get back to his artwork afterward. He soon finds an odd bond with bigoted neighbor Melvin and struggling waitress Carol (Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, who both won Oscars for the film) as they go on a unique road trip together. Kinnear plays the role low-key with bits such as his emotional tale of how he was kicked out by his parents after coming out and coping with his injuries. It’s a subtle but moving performance that pulls you in nicely. Married since 1999 to British glamour model Helen Labdon, Kinnear had his finest movie moment in this film, making Simon a bright spot of the dramedy.
7 Emma Stone: Battle of the Sexes
Billie Jean King blazed a lot of trails for female tennis players with her amazing play and demanding equal pay for women. While married, the truth was that King was gay, something she knew she had to keep quiet to help her career out. This movie focuses on the famous battle between King (played by Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) on TV that was seen as a victory for women’s rights. But behind the scenes, King was wrestling with the pressure and finding herself in love with her hairdresser (Andrea Risborough) which she has to hide from the fame around her. Stone won the best review of her career for the role as King, as she battles the sexism of Riggs and also handling the times not allowing her to be herself. The marriage is just for show; she’s far better with Risborough yet can’t be herself. The real battle is the one King has in private, which Stone ably shows off and proves herself a rising star who can ace this part.
6 Heath Ledger: Brokeback Mountain
It’s sad to look back at the career of Heath Ledger. All it does is to remind you of the stunning career he could have had if he hadn’t died far too young of a drug overdose. Known for vanishing into parts, Ledger’s best role may well be in this 2005 acclaimed Ang Lee drama, Brokeback Mountain. The story is by now famous; Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are ranchers working together. What is just one night of passion expands to a decade's long affair they have to keep quiet. Each has a female love (Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, respectively) but they just can’t quit each other. Yet they know they can’t be open given the times. Ledger is amazing in the part, clearly heartbroken when Gyllenhaal wants to devote himself to a girlfriend, and when his wife discovers the truth of his life and the heartbreaking conclusion. Ledger didn’t win the Oscar for this but most hold it as his finest role and another tragic sign of what kind of career could have been.
5 Tom Hanks: Philadelphia
Back in 1993, this was major news. Philadelphia was the first major studio motion picture to so directly tackle both homosexuality and the AIDS crisis. Tom Hanks was still known for comedic stuff, a good guy but not considered a serious actor. He ended that mentality majorly with his turn in this film. He plays a gay lawyer who contracts AIDS. He’s soon fired, supposedly for bungling a case but he immediately believes it was because of both his sexuality and his condition. So he hires a fellow lawyer (Denzel Washington) to sue his firm for wrongful termination. Hanks pulls in the storyline, coming out to his family, handling his boyfriend (a young Antonio Banderas), and selling the effects of the disease wasting him down. He knows his time is ending but is determined to make a stand for his pride. It’s no wonder Hanks won an Oscar for the role and helped shift Hollywood to accept that audiences would respond to gay-themed films, as Hanks made the role stand out.
4 Colin Firth: A Single Man
From the moment he took an impromptu bath in the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice, Colin Firth was an instant heartthrob. He kept that up as a romantic lead in hits like Bridget Jones’ Diary, Love Actually, Mamma Mia, and more. However, in 2009, Firth began his transition to a serious actor with this acclaimed drama. He played an English professor in 1962 who’s dealing with the death of a longtime friend. As flashbacks go on, it turns out the two had been in a relationship for 16 years but kept it quiet due to the times. Firth wowed critics by showing so much with very little, his eyes speaking volumes of the pain he goes through, not just by Jim’s death but also having to hide his true self all these years. It weighs on him as he contemplates suicide and clearly trying his best to handle a hard future that feels so empty. Firth carries it all quite well, to the bittersweet ending, to make you feel for a man forced to live in the closet. It proved he could be a fantastic actor, paving the way for his Oscar-winning career and how this heartthrob could also break your heart easily.
3 Cate Blanchett: Carol
In her career, Cate Blanchett is a master of sinking into roles. From Queen Elizabeth to Bob Dylan, she has amassed two Oscars and slews of other awards for her amazing work. So it should be no surprise how great she can be at playing a woman wrestling with her sexuality. In Carol, Blanchett is a housewife in the 1950s, a time when homosexuality was definitely still in the closet. She meets a store clerk, played by Rooney Mara, and the two find an instant connection. They click more and more, each unsure of this but continuing their relationship, and Blanchett speaks volumes without saying a word. The chemistry between her and Mara is crackling as they work together and the love scene between them was moving without being exploitive. Blanchett handles the character shown losing her family and yet happy being herself in the end. It’s one of her best performances, once more vanishing into a part. She did an astounding job showing how a woman can find her true self at any age.
2 Adam Pally: Happy Endings
Maximum Herbert “Max” Blum may be the least-gay looking homosexual man in television history. Unkempt, uncultured, lazy, living in a dump, adoring junk food, it’s easy for viewers not to grasp he’s gay until he starts talking about seeing a guy. One friend openly describes him as “a straight dude who likes dudes”. ABC’s sitcom was short-lived but much loved for its whacky manner, offbeat humor, and fun cast. Adam Pally was among the best as Max, often coming up with some nutty schemes and enjoying needling his friends. He was hysterical with the rest of the show, Max was more into brief hook-ups and seemingly terrified of a long-term commitment. Pally was great in the role, going out of his way to sell how Max knew he was hardly the cliché gay guy but still comfortable with it. At least with his friends, as he had to come out to his parents who naturally took a bit to accept it. But Pally made the role a great romp to add to the fun of a show which was one of the best comedies on TV.
1 Christopher Plummer: Beginners
“You’re only two years older than me, darling, where have you been all my life?” So began Christopher Plummer’s long overdue Oscar acceptance speech for this acclaimed drama. It’s astounding it took until 82 for Plummer to get an Oscar nod considering his amazingly long career packed with acclaimed roles. But it was no wonder given how great his turn in Beginners was. He played a widower who rocked his son (Ewan McGregor) by revealing he had been gay for years and he and his wife just put on a show for their kid. Now, he is living the life of an openly gay man. Plummer is wonderful showing this character finally being able to be honest with his sexuality, going to clubs, decorating, and dating a much younger man. He makes no apologies for his actions despite his son’s shock at all this, making it clear he’s happier than he’s ever been and Plummer’s joy in the role is infectious. It’s no wonder he finally claimed the Oscar as the veteran actor (married since 1970) shows how a “late bloomer” in homosexuality can be young at heart.