It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s… Hollywood’s LGBT Superhero Surge

TheWrap has candid conversations with TV’s power foursome Wentworth Miller, John Barrowman, Andy Mientus, Sean Maher and prominent Hollywood stars about the industry’s new era of casting equality

Warner Bros. made a big splash by casting queer actor Ezra Miller to star as The Flash in its upcoming big-budget franchise, but the TV industry was already on the fast track with casting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender actors as comic book heroes and villains.

“I’d like to believe the industry is more LGBT-friendly,” openly gay actor Wentworth Miller, who stars as villain Captain Cold on CW’s “The Flash, told TheWrap, “I see LGBT characters on TV and I can think of actors who are out and paying the rent. Again, mostly on TV. Most out actors I can name are either exclusively or primarily associated with television. I don’t know why that is, why I can’t think of more out movie actors. It feels like change might be coming more slowly on the feature side.”

The CW actor may have a point when comparing the progress in casting LGBT actors on TV versus film if one looks at the hard numbers, but the good news is that in addition to Ezra Miller’s groundbreaking casting by WB, rival studio Fox had already been casting LGBT actors in its lucrative “X-Men” tentpoles. Among the franchise’s group are lesbian Ellen Page (Kitty Pryde), gay Sir Ian McKellen (Magneto) and bisexual Anna Paquin (Rogue).

But the envelope has arguably been pushed further and faster on television. In recent seasons, The CW cast an increasing amount of openly LGBT actors on its DC Comics-based shows “Arrow” and “The Flash.” The shows’ co-executive producer Greg Berlanti, who’s also openly gay, was singled out by Out Magazine earlier this month for its annual Out 100 List.

“I think in television in particular, I’ve been able to have gay characters in most, if not all, of what I’ve done,” the producer said. “I had to threaten to quit to get a gay kiss on ‘Dawson’s Creek.’”

GLAAD’s director of entertainment media Matt Kane attempted to explain the Hollywood rising tide of diverse casting, crediting both the target audience of youth-skewing network and the nature of comic books in general.

“For a lot of people under 30, its a total non-issue. They don’t care what the sexual orientation of the performer is when playing a role,” he told TheWrap.

“We’re seeing a greater emphasis on diversity from [major comic publishers],” he continued. “I know Marvel has more female-led titles than they had before, not to mention quite a few LGBT characters.”

The Paley Center for Media held its annual Los Angeles benefit gala on Wednesday night, which celebrated the critical role television has played in the issue of LGBT equality over many decades. From “Modern Family’s” Eric Stonestreet to “Under the Dome’s” executive producer Neal Baer, the entertainment industry’s biggest advocates had a diverse array of thoughts about the surge of out actors stepping into superhero roles.

15 Hollywood Stars Weigh in the Industry’s LGBT Superhero Casting:

“I think it’s wonderful,” ABC’s “Scandal” star Portia de Rossi told TheWrap Wednesday at Paley’s Gala. “It is another example of how far the LGBT community has come, and how it really ceases to matter about an actor’s sexuality. I think we’re there now. I think we’ve been inching for awhile, but now I think we’re there.”

Katie Stevens, star of MTV’s “Fakin It,” shared an interesting theory with TheWrap about why LGBT actors might be drawn to those roles: “We even see the movies where the kid who is being bullied is drawing pictures of superheroes. It is a way of kind of getting out of your reality.”

TheWrap spoke with three gay actors and one bisexual actor who portray villains on The CW’s two popular superhero shows: Wentworth Miller (Captain Cold, “The Flash”), John Barrowman ( Malcom Merlyn, “Arrow”), Sean Maher (Shrapnel, “Arrow”) and Andy Mientus (The Pied Piper, “The Flash” – who’s the only gay villain of the four)

Read their revealing and personal views on the sudden surge of LGBT actors being cast in superhero roles:

Andy Mientus
Andy Mientus/Getty Images

TheWrap: Why do comic book adaptations lead to more diverse casting opportunities?
Wentworth Miller: If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say the ‘outsider stigmatized/punished for being different learns to embrace being different and finds empowerment’ theme, which seems to fuel so many comic book arcs, has helped lay the foundation for comic book readers to be more open to – and even celebrating of – diversity.

Andy Mientus: It makes sense a comic book fan base would be more open minded because a lot of these guys are different than the norm, too. I’m a huge video game nerd, so I feel like I can safely say what it feels like to be nerdy and to not be the cool kid and to seek community. Maybe, that’s where it comes from.

John Barrowman: When we read comic books, we see people who are flawed and when we were younger people told us we were flawed, so we connected to those things… Those of us who love comics — whether we’re straight, gay, lesbian, transgender or whatever — those of us involved in it, we don’t judge.

Sean Maher: I read this fascinating article about how comic cons show the positive psychological benefits of being able to go to an environment where you can step out of your shyness and step into a costume. That community is incredibly diverse and accepting and anything goes there. It’s free of judgment it makes sense that the comic book world would accept Ezra, or Wentworth, or myself as a superhero.

TheWrap: So, all four of you play villains on the CW. What’s up with that?

Mientus: That’s just what they’re casting right now. I auditioned for the Barry Allen role and that went well, which means they were open to seeing an out actor for The Flash. But once [Grant Gustin] was cast, there were only villains left. They are what changes every week.

I don’t know if there’s any conspiracy. It’s fun – it’s cool to see out actors being bad-asses. I did a scene the other day where I stood on a car blew up another car. I couldn’t believe it was real… It’s awesome.

John Barrowman 'Arrow' still
John Barrowman/”Arrow” on The CW

TheWrap: Has being open about your sexuality negatively affected your career?
Barrowman: Absolutely never. If it ever has been an issue, I haven’t known about it when I walked out of the room. And if it is an issue for them — I’ll be blunt here — that’s their fucking problem, not mine.

We’re actors. We’re pretending to be other people. So, why should what you do in your real life affect who you portray on television? If the people making the programs think viewers can’t separate reality from fiction, that’s worrying.

Maher: That’s a question I keep asking myself. When I came out, I was shooting ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ playing this very hetero villain who has a sex scene with a woman. But with people like [‘Much Ado’ director] Joss Whedon and [“Arrow” executive producer] Andrew Kreisberg, I don’t think it fazes them. You take a risk and you know some doors are going to shut, but are those the doors you want to walk through? I don’t know if Michael Bay will ever be knocking down my door, but I was OK with that.

Miller: It’s hard to say. I haven’t noticed a significant change in the kinds of parts I’m offered. Then again, I’m not in the room when my name comes up in casting discussions. So I don’t know what people in the industry are saying or thinking about me now. And I don’t spend much time worrying about it.

In my heart, I believe I’ll play the parts I’m meant to play and tell the stories I’m meant to tell. It’s like when my mom used to write ‘Wentworth’ in my t-shirts when [going] off to summer camp. If it’s got my name on it, it’s mine. If it doesn’t, it’s not mine.

First Look at Wentworth Miller on 'The Flash'
Wentworth Miller/”The Flash” on The CW

Mientus: All of the characters I played on TV so far have been gay, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t worry about being pigeonholed because I am who I am and I’m still at the point in my career where I’m happy to be cast. I’m not super established yet, so if that’s how people are getting to know me that’s fine. They can see me do the other thing later on.

But, I wouldn’t say I’ve actively experienced discrimination. I’ve never got feedback that’s like, ‘Oh, were not giving him this because he’s engaged to a boy.’ But, I’ve only played gay people on screen.

TheWrap: Has a producer or show runner ever asked you to downplay or flat-out hide your sexuality?
Barrowman: There was one other situation. I was working for a very big producer – I won’t share his name – I was taken into their office and they said, ‘You know, we don’t want you to talk about your personal life and your partner.’ I sat and listened to them make all of their arguments, say all of their stuff.

Then, I went back to my partner Scott [Gill] and said, ‘They want me to live a lie. What should I do?’

He said, ‘What do you want to do?’

I said, ‘I can’t go through my life lying to people.’

I was in the closet somewhat when I was younger and it was a nightmare. I didn’t want to do it anymore just to earn money. So, this was the point where I had to make a decision which would be life changing for me and hopefully life changing for others.

So, I told the producer, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’ And, consequently, I was written out of the series. But I made the decision and, to be honest with you, it was a hell of a lot easier to just be myself and to move forward.

TheWrap: Millions of viewers watch your shows. Do you ever think about the fact you may be a role model for LGBT viewers?
Mientus: I don’t feel comfortable being an advocate for anything, because I’m bound to say something horrible. And when an advocate says something like that, it’s so much worse than when an actor says it (laughs). So, I’m uncomfortable being a role model, but I am glad I’ve been able to be myself. I’m glad I’m coming up in this business in a time where people are paying less and less attention to what you do in your personal life and just sort of look at how you take on a character.

Miller: Obviously, my hope is that someone or several someones respond positively to my presence onscreen. LGBT or not. That said, when I show up on set I’m not thinking about being a symbol or pushing an agenda. I’m there to work and help color in a corner of the DC universe.

Barrowman: I used to say when I was younger — this is when I was more afraid — I used to say I was not one of those political people. But, I then realize as you grow older and into a more prominent position that you just have to be. I know what I’ve been put on this planet for, it’s to entertain people but also to be the voice for people who don’t have one.

Seam Maher on Arrow
Sean Maher/”Arrow” on The CW

TheWrap: Should we be celebrating this perceived progress for LGBT actors or can true acceptance and equality only be achieved when it’s no longer an issue?
Barrowman: There’s part of me that says, for christ’s sake it’s 2014, why are still talking about it? And there’s part of me that says, it’s 2014 and we’re moving in a good direction. When I go talk to schools and I see a young man of 16 years old walking in with his boyfriend hand-in-hand, that just thrills me to bits and makes me go funny inside because I’ve been part of helping that happen.

Mientus: Right now, it’s important because it’s still not a 100 percent mainstream-accepted thing. So, I feel really proud to take on this role. I’m a villain and I’m powerful and I think it would be really cool if there’s some queer kid sitting at home watching me blow up cars and shit, while knowing that I am who I am in my personal life and that the character is out and happy.

You know, I think it might change a lot of minds and be a really positive thing. It’s still an important thing to pay attention to right now, but hopefully someday it’ll all be a moot point and [being gay] will be no different than being left or right handed.

But right now it is important to talk about and I’m glad I could be a part of that.

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