What’s It Like for a Straight Actor to Play a Gay Scene?

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Aug. 14 2014 12:10 PM

What’s It Like for a Straight Actor to Play a Gay Scene?

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Manny Montana as Johnny Tuturro in Graceland.

Photo by Jeff Daly/USA Network

Graceland, the USA Network procedural, is all about deception. In the show, six undercover agents from a Scrabble tile mixture of law enforcement organizations—the FBI, DEA, and ICE at last count—live together in a swank Southern California beach house. In the course of their complicated interagency operations, the agents lie to their targets, their bosses, and each other.

One of the many plot threads being teased out in the second season is FBI agent Johnny Tuturro’s infiltration of the Solano cartel. The Solanos are connected to several of the investigations being run out of the Real World: Undercover house—from drugs to human-trafficking to poorly maintained cross-border buses. Earlier this season, Johnny had a showdown with Carlito Solano (Erik Valdez), the cartel boss’ son, which climaxed with Carlito kissing Johnny. In last night’s episode, this connection—and Johnny’s relationship with Carlito’s sister Lucia, which Carlito isn’t yet aware of—allowed him to get face time with Señor Solano Sr.

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There’s a touch of irritating coyness about the sexual tension between Carlito and Johnny; if I were Carlito, and one kiss and a bit of neck-sniffing was the sum total of the physical contact I’d had with a guy, I might start to suspect that he didn’t quite mean it when he said he was into me. But on the whole, Graceland has done a fine job of reflecting the double standard of expectations for female and male agents. When the idea of taking advantage of Carlito’s interest in Johnny was first raised, a female DEA agent pointed out that the women of the house leverage affection and sexual attraction “all the time.” Nevertheless, the guys still treated Johnny’s flirtation with Carlito as something extraordinary.

When I asked actor Manny Montana, who plays Johnny, about the scenes with Carlito, he said the experience was “the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life.” Why? “I'm first generation in the country—my family's Mexican. There's still a taboo,” he said. “When the idea was brought up to me, I was, like, yeah, that's a great story line, let's do it. and then the week the episode was filmed, I got really scared. I called my acting teacher, my mom, my dad.” What did they say? “They were like, ‘Do you like the story? Yes. Do you like the actors? Yes. Do you like the show? Yes. Then do it. There should be no question about it.’ "

Still, Montana admitted that he was nervous before filming Carlito and Johnny’s tense scene—though his anxiety disappeared once they got going. “It's like kissing any other actor. When there's no emotion behind it, it's no big deal.” Well, there is one difference: “Erik has a beard. He has stubble. My first thought afterward was, ‘How the hell do women deal with that?’ ”

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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