Chris Salvatore Plays Himself: Not Just Gay or Straight

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Chris Salvatore is an openly gay actor, musician and underwear designer. He has appeared in several films, including three in the gay cult favorite Eating Out franchise — All You Can Eat (2009), Drama Camp (2011) and The Open Weekend (2012). His work in Chris Philips’ play Pieces won raves both in Los Angeles and in the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival. But more than just a pretty face, Salvatore is very much an activist: this past spring, he served as Grand Marshal for the New Orleans Pride Parade. His experience in film, on stage and in the community also give him a unique perspective on the issue of “playing it straight,” and we recently talked about it in L.A.

Dillon Slagle: What are your experiences being asked, as an actor or otherwise, to “play it straight”?

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Chris Salvatore: When people say “you need to play more straight,” it’s a very personal thing. I feel like I have been made fun of for being the opposite of straight all my life and that it carries into my career makes me angry. When I hear things like “you could never play straight” or “you are too girly” or the casting director term for it — “you’re too specific” — it hits an insecurity of mine from my childhood and from being bullied. It sucks. In this kind of business, being an actor, they’ll tell you you’re too thin or you’re too heavy, you’re too granola, you’re too pretty, you’re too ugly — they’ll just tell you. I struggle with that. That’s why I started doing activism for younger LGBT kids who are going through the same thing I went through. Some gay actors who are men and who are out are pigeonholed for playing one specific role of a gay man — maybe the hairdresser role or someone who’s very flamboyant. I feel like there’s still a double standard and bias within the entertainment industry where they’re very quick to judge [out] gay actors. I feel they shun actors who are out of the closet and trying to “play straight” for whatever reason. I’ve heard that some movies are geared towards young girls in the teenybopper ages, and if they cast a leading role with a gay male actor they’re afraid it won’t sell as well — that all these young girls will know he’s gay and won’t be able to believe the movie. I mean, I don’t think it’s ever been done before, I don’t think they’ve ever tried it, so to just assume is just a bit medieval. it’s annoying.

Chris Salvatore and Daniel Marks in Pieces. Photo by Rick Simone.
Chris Salvatore and Daniel Marks in Chris Philips’ Pieces. Photo by Rick Simone.

DS: So in terms of actor “playing it straight,” should it be done?

CS: I think it’s something that can be done. To say that it can’t be done would be closed-minded. Acting is portraying real emotion in make-believe circumstances. Whether you’re gay or straight, we all have the same emotions. it’s just about how you portray them. There’s certain actors, like Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep who almost become different people while still bringing a lot of themselves to [a character]: their personal issues, their own personal vulnerabilities, their own tics. If we’re going to sit here and say “gay actors shouldn’t play straight,” you could also sit here and say “Daniel Day-Lewis shouldn’t play every role he’s ever played.” There’s an opportunity for these higher-up executives, maybe casting directors, to eliminate this double standard against gay male actors “playing straight.” It should be done. If straight men can play gay men, then gay men can definitely “play straight.”

DS: What can gay actors do to move this forward?

CS: I have a few actor friends who are gay, and they don’t tell their managers; they don’t post anything [on line] that would be construed as gay. They’re putting their hope in landing a role, their hope of being a famous actor, in front of themselves. If you could see the emails that I get from kids all around the world that say “I listened to your music, I saw your movie and I did not kill myself that night.” How can anyone go back from that? How can anyone sit there and say, “I’m going to pretend to be straight to get further in my career”? That doesn’t sit well with me. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Eventually it’s going to come out and do you want to be someone who stood back and tried to hide, or do you want to be someone in the front, fighting for our rights? Coming out of the closet is advocating change. it’s very frustrating to know so many people who are A-list actors who are gay and don’t come out of the closet because they’re afraid they won’t book their next big movie role. That said, it is not our responsibility to out people. It is their own journey and ultimately they have to do it themselves. I just wish that they would wake up a little bit.

DS: Some actors, especially recently, do manage to maintain their careers while being openly gay. Do you believe gay actors became better at “playing it straight” — or was there a shift in the audience?

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CS: It’s certainly a shift. I don’t know if it’s a shift in the audience believing it or in America being more accepting of gay people across the board. In the last few years we have come a very long way on issues like marriage equality. That, on a smaller scale, is happening within the industry as well. Gay men and gay actors are becoming more prevalent because America is becoming more open to LGBT people. As a reflection of that there are more gay roles, and as a reflection of that, these people who are closed-minded in these high positions of authority are changing their minds a little bit. Just like America is.

DS: Do you feel writers and directors look for a specific set of qualities or affectations when it comes to performing a sexual identity?

CS: Some people do and some people don’t. In my career, some people will take a look at my resume, see three Eating Out movies and toss it in the trash and say, “No, we are embarrassed of that.” A friend of mine who was in the movie with me found out his agent wasn’t sending him out [on auditions] because she was embarrassed by his resume being too “gay.” Her perception of it was: If I send this resume to casting directors that I have a good relationship with, it’s going to ruin that because of the work on the resume. There are casting directors who do that, and obviously agents who do that. It’s certainly changing, but there’s always going to be directors or writers or casting directors who are very specific about what they want.

DS: When you play a gay character, is there a set of qualities or attributes that you portray? Same question for a straight character.

CS: This is a tricky question for me because of my insecurities around growing up and feeling gay shame. When I started acting classes I was so worried that I’d never “play straight.” Some people have mannerisms that the media portrays as “gay.” However, I think that’s a crock of shit. There are very flamboyant straight men in the world and you could say that they’re in the closet or they’re in denial, but I really do believe that being flamboyant isn’t just a gay thing. The way that it’s portrayed in the media and on TV determines that for people, and makes their opinion.

For me, I just try to bring myself and my truth to a character. When I first started acting, I used to lower my pitch for straight roles. But now I feel that those were just my own personal insecurities getting in the way. When I did that, I always felt that my acting was less believable because I was getting in my own way. Instead just being myself and being truthful and bringing Chris to the character, I was putting up some sort of textured glass. I do my best work when I just bring myself. If someone is on the other side of the casting table and doesn’t see that as believable, then there’s a different part for me. I stopped worrying about it. It’s a waste of time to worry about it.

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Dillon Slagle
Dillon Slagle works in New York as a dramaturg and biological anthropologist. His experiences range from dramaturgy for puppet performances exploring the nature and formation of mono-theism with Kevin Augustine, to excavating pre-Greek burial sites in Menorca, Spain. In both anthropology and dramaturgy, Dillon believes in rigorous research, cultural awareness, and creative approaches to the process. Dillon is constantly searching for new, engaging, and relevant work. He is a member of LMDA, Dramaturg for the Carroll Simmons Performance Collective, and the Literary Manager for the Creation & Completion Project. Check out his Web site, Dramaturgy Tea, and find him on Twitter and Facebook.