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Scott D. Pierce: Is it brave for Matt Damon to play gay?

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Courtesy photo Michael Douglas and Matt Damon star in HBO's "Behind the Candelabra."

By Scott D. Pierce

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published May 22 2013 04:36PM
Updated Dec 7, 2013 11:32PM

HBO’s "Behind the Candelabra" tells the tale of Liberace and his much-younger boyfriend, Scott Thorson. And, like Liberace, it’s over the top.

It’s not just flamboyant, it’s flamboyantly gay.

The actors who play Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Thorson (Matt Damon) are not gay. They’re actors playing gay.

Which Douglas believes required a certain amount of courage.

"I just want to commend Matt," he said, "because I don’t think I would have had the courage at that point in my career to take this on."

Really? Does it still require courage for a straight actor to play a gay character?

Maybe that was true in 1987, when 68-year-old Douglas was 42 — the age Damon is now. But in 2013?

Not really. At least not among actors who aren’t pushing 70.

"I don’t know any actors who say that," said Andrew Rannels, a gay actor who played a gay character in "The New Normal" and straight characters in everything from the Broadway production of "The Book of Mormon" to "Girls" on HBO. "I feel like that’s something that’s often put on actors."

Sometimes by other actors.

Douglas was insinuating that (a) audiences aren’t smart enough to realize that actors are not the characters they play; and (b) if actors are perceived to be gay or — gasp! — actually are gay, it will hurt their careers.

Quick! Somebody tell Neil Patrick Harris!

That’s a bit too glib, to be honest. Even in 2013, there’s enough homophobia around to justify why some gay actors try to keep their private lives private.

But it’s difficult to believe Damon is in a position where he had to summon up courage to play gay.

Jayson Blair, a straight actor who played a straight character on "The New Normal" and the school bully who turned out to be gay on MTV’s "The Hard Times of RJ Berger," didn’t hesitate when asked if it’s brave to play gay.

"Not at all," he said. "So many people have. It’s ridiculous."

He said he was "surprised" when he learned his "Hard Times" character, Max Owens, was gay. And even more surprised when that fact was revealed when Max was seen making out with another guy in the locker-room shower.

"But if you look at the history of actors that have played gay, so many extremely talented actors have done it and they are the most respected actors today," Blair said.

"If the part is good, the part is good," Rannels said. "I think that’s what actors want to do."

"Andrew, you were very brave to play a Mormon," said Ali Adler, the producer of "New Normal."

"Thank you," Rannels said. "My point exactly."

Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at spierce@sltrib.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.

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