Out of the Closet and Onto the Screen

By Erin Lewis

The Hollywood closet, although far from open, is slowly coming ajar. There are many homosexual actors, screenwriters, producers,
and directors working on screens big and small who say they feel a certain angst about coming out. Some actors still fear the stigma attached to being gay in an industry fueled by leading men.

But in Hollywood North, the past decade has given way to the liberalization of programming, and what was once considered risqué is now veering towards the mainstream. Welcome to the world where gay is the new straight and queer is queen. With innovative shows like Queer as Folk and the L Word, to more mainstream sitcoms such as Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the last two decades have brought about programming that underscored candid sexuality.

“Twenty years ago, nobody wanted to admit that they were gay in this industry,” says Toronto-based talent agent Lisa Burke. “I’d be in a casting session and a guy would come in for the role of a husband and father and it just wouldn’t play well at all. I’d have to tell the agent, ‘This guy’s a great actor, however, he is not believable as a father and as a dad. He’s a little too feminine.’”


Burke says things have changed drastically. She now asks her clients directly how they want to be marketed – gay or straight? Whether it’s a clever business tactic or simply a practical means to employment, she says her clients think the notion of being who you are – as is – is refreshing. She claims her clients are more successful in landing sought after roles because they are being sent to the right
auditions for attainable characters.

“Now they don’t audition as often because the roles aren’t there, but when they do audition, they’re for really good, meaty roles that they can work with. It’s a much easier transformation for them to get into character,” Burke says.

One of the gay clients on her roster is Michael Chalut, co-star of Wedding SOS on the Slice Network and co-star of Kim’s Rude Awakenings. After struggling to find work and battling for straight characters under several agents, Chalut caught his first break after becoming Burke’s client.z

“For nine years, I was trying to play a role that I wasn’t,” he says. “I was not a straight character and I was always, always going out for the young dad or any straight role.” Chalut says that he was simply not believable as the football player or the typical jock, and failed to land any roles in that uber-masculine realm. “It took a lot for me to go ‘alright, this isn’t working, I am not a straight actor. I’m not,’” recalls Chalut. “It was a choice of becoming who I was, and to actually be the person who I am, to move forward into my career. And it was a sacrifice to me because you don’t want to be labeled.”

Burke urged Chalut to play to his strengths and embrace his sexuality.

“Unfortunately, from my point of view, I was a stronger gay character and I just had to accept that within myself and say ‘do I want the world to see me as this gay person?’ because being gay is looked down upon. It is still shunned upon. It’s not the norm.”

And that worries Jesse Weafer. A dancer by trade and evolving into an actor and singer, the 22-yearold from Toronto is just breaking out. He recently finished a run in the Toronto musical production We Will Rock You and has relocated to Las Vegas to star in an upcoming production. Weafer says being gay has not hindered him from getting the roles he wants. He has been in movies such as The Music Man, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, and most recently, Hairspray. But honing his skills and sharpening his artistic talent still comes before his coming out.

By now he seems to have warmed up to the conversation he knows is about to happen. He opens up with a kindhearted disclaimer: “I want to be judged on my character, my career, my talent,” says the young star. “I’d rather let other people deal with it. I’m not going to say that I’m never going to come out as a gay actor. . .not to the public.”

When discussing his recent coming out, he uneasily shifts in his chair. His large latte has become the focus for his eyes, but his voice is unwavering. He seems to fear the label with which he may be branded should he start being marketed as a gay actor. But for Weafer, his resume speaks for itself, and his sexuality, as he admits, is such a small part of who he is.

“It wouldn’t hurt my theatre career. I find with theatre it’s more exposed rather than TV and film. From doing the Hairspray movie, it’s introduced me to a different level,” Weafer says. “I’ve got so much exposure from that movie that I don’t think I’d be ready to come out and say that just at the beginning part of my film career because I don’t want to be stereotyped. I want to be recognized for my talent.”

Acting abilities and stigma-debunking aside, the optimism of the past decade may be attributed to the forces of generational change, says Burke. Gay characters are being written – and written well – for independent and mainstream programming and this is helping to change the face of television. Now you see gay, straight and ethnic characters in mainstream repertoire, bringing diversity, and so-called risqué
programming, to the masses. “Finally, Canada is getting into that type of production where Europe has been doing it for years,” says Burke. “It’s opening up a whole new area of production within the industry. And it has a huge following.”

Chalut remains optimistic, believing that gay programming and gay characters are heading in a positive direction.

“In my role as a lifestyle expert, it’s okay to be gay. I’m not over-zealous and I’m not super-faggy. I’m hopefully bringing gay into a norm,” he says. He confesses that coming out in the industry is a work in progress and that overcoming perceptions long held by the average viewer may take time. “Unfortunately, the gay stereotypes are really negative and they are not what all gay people are about. Gay is in vogue and it’s not who you are. It’s a part of you, but that’s not all you are. You’re not just gay. You can help to motivate people and you can help
lead and you can be appreciating to others and it’s not about being a fag,” he says.

Perhaps this is the reason why Weafer is reluctant to come out completely, even though he says it’s expected. “Coming out is a very big thing and it can either hurt your career or not. It really depends on your circumstances and who you know and who you are surrounded by,” he says. “Fully coming out in full and being comfortable with being a gay actor is not where I’m at right now. So I don’t know when that’s going to happen, or if that’s going to happen.”

In the meantime he say, “I think now I’ve found my niche and it is just being who I am and representing the gay community in the straight world.”

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