speech therapy

Gay-Sounding Actors Are Taught to Speak ‘Straight.’ Is That So Bad?

Are gay actors too gay to play straight? Of course not, stupid Newsweek. A guy who sticks it in other dudes has nothing to do with his acting ability (as our overlord explained on CBC’s radio show Q on Monday). An actor’s job is to transform convincingly into a character and leave behind any real-life traits an audience might bring into the act, whether it’s because a tabloid magazine says Jennifer Aniston is a bitter spinster, whether Meryl Streep is too dowdy to play a sexual character, or Aaron Paul is too handsome to play a drug addict on Breaking Bad (an actual problem creator Vince Gilligan says he dealt with in casting Paul in the part). Getting a role has plenty to do with luck and connections, but it also means eschewing your natural mannerisms: out with your hand gestures and vocal affects, and in with the character’s. Which sometimes means actors who speak in a sterotypically “gay” way need a vocal coach to make ’em straight. That’s not homophobic or problematic; it’s art. Right?

Bob Corff is, says Details magazine, “arguably Southern California’s most sought-after voice coach.” His job is to make Irish actors “speak American”; southern American actors find their inner Brit; and yes, “gay-sounding” actors to speak straight.

Actors are “often they are sent by a manager or a teacher—it’s so interesting, because I can tell what it is,” he says. “Sometimes they come in and it takes them a lesson or two before they finally admit why they’re here. Which I knew the first second that they talked. But sometimes they’ll just come right in and say, ‘Somebody said I sound gay.’ And sometimes they are married and straight but they sound gay, and that’s not gonna work for being a leading man in Hollywood at this time.”

So what is it that Corff hears that makes someone sound gay?

There’s many levels of this. With some people there’s just this little thing that’s happening, and it’s not much, but it’s just this little tiny melody and inflection that tells you maybe there’s something there. And then there’s some people who are just [Slips into Charles Nelson Reilly mode] com-PLEEEET-ly doing THIIIIS, and you go, “Well, clearly, they’re not even attempting to . . . ” And listen, I make no judgment. I mean, I’ve been in show business—I did the leads in three Broadway musicals, so I’ve been around this all my life, and it makes no difference to me. And I don’t think it should to anybody, because it’s none of our business what you do in the bedroom.

[…] Well, a lot of times—not always—but a lot of times there is a sibilant s. I work on that with people, too. You can be a girl, you can be a guy, you can be straight or gay—what it is is that your tongue is too close to the back of your top teeth, so the air has no place to get dispersed. It just bounces into your teeth. [Lisps slightly] Can you hear it on the phone?

And, if the end goal is getting someone to sound straight, what’s that like?

Straight actually turns out to be the perfect word to describe what straight guys do. It’s very straight—it has no curlicues, it has no frills or any kind of melodic turns. So they say, “Hi. How are you?” It’s simple, and the lines are very straight, instead of “Hi, how are yOOuu?” You know, women are much more melodic—their voices go up and they go down, and they even move their mouths more. There’s a lot more animation. A straight guy just goes, “Hey—this is as much energy and animation as I’m putting out for this thing.”

So is this really about getting someone to sound less gay, or getting someone to sound more like the character they are supposed to be playing, who might happen to be straight? (Of course, this assumes actors only work with vocal coaches to get a certain part, and not to speak a certain way all the time.)

See, to me, the gay sound is just like an accent. Because if somebody has an accent, there’s nothing wrong with that accent, but if you come from the South or you come from New York, it limits you in the kind of roles you can play, because you can’t play the brother of somebody who doesn’t have that accent. So often I’ll say to people, whether it’s an accent from a different country or an accent from this country or having this “gay” thing, I’ll say, “This is the question for you: Are you an actor, or are you English?” And then they have to answer. If being English is more important to them than being an actor, then they don’t need to do it.

Does speaking straight have a financial motive? As in, getting an actor more parts?

Oh, yeah. Definitely. People get work and they just call me and say, “Thank you, man.” It really has nothing to do with what they do in private, and it shouldn’t. I mean, who cares! What’s important is that you’ve mastered some little thing that gives you a foot up on the competition. I’ve worked with people from one end to the other. I worked with Vanessa Redgrave for a project in which she was a man who had a sex change and became a woman, and we had to lower her voice and get her into the man thing.