Exclusive Interview: Nora Highland writer-director Ryan Spahn on casting queer actors in queer roles “the majority has to stop benefiting off the minority, in pretty much every area of life”

Based on the play of the same name, Ryan Spahn’s urgent, timely, and thought-provoking film Nora Highland, shot remotely last year, explores the casting process surrounding an iconic and seminal gay character in a new Broadway revival. The film, which had its world premiere at NewFest: New York’s LGBT Film Festival, explores the phenomenon of straight performers being lauded for their work in queer roles. It was selected by actor, writer, comedian, and all-round The Queer Review favourite Drew Droege as his LGBTQ+ highlight of 2020, calling it a “wickedly caustic play and film” which “unravels the conversation of casting openly gay actors on stage and screen. It’s essential viewing about authenticity and the need to tell our stories with out queer people front and center.”

Ryan Spahn. Photo by Benedict Evans.

A graduate of New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, Spahn originally hails from Detroit. As an actor, he’ll next be seen in the upcoming seasons of Modern Love (Amazon) and The Bite (CBS Spectrum Originals). Spahn’s other screenwriting credits include the films Woven, Grantham & Rose, and He’s Way More Famous Than You, featuring Spahn alongside Michael Urie and Halley Feiffer, which premiered at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival. Ryan co-created the digital series What’s Your Emergency, was a producer for Logo’s Cocktails & Classics, and co-created the original pilot When I Was Your Age. Aside from Nora Highland, his work as a playwright includes Inspired By True Events, Conversations the Other Side, Adrienne and The White Bird, and Blessed and Highly Favored.

Ahead of Nora Highland screening as part of April’s 2021 Oxford Virtual Film Festival, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Ryan Spahn about what inspired the work, adapting it for the screen, the process of shooting it during the early months of the pandemic, the trend of the Academy Awards rewarding non-LGBTQ+ actors in LGBTQ+ roles, and how he’d like to see the entertainment industry address the casting issue.

Ryan Spahn. Photo by Benedict Evans.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What initially inspired the play and why was it a subject you wanted to address?

Ryan Spahn: “I am an openly gay actor. I have experienced homophobia in the entertainment industry. Which is just, not great. It needs to stop. People need to be held accountable. We live in a world that prizes straight people over queer people. I wanted to find a way to dramatize this inequity and so I wrote Nora Highland.”

To what extent did you draw on your own personal experience and those of people whom you know in the industry?

“I mean, to its fullest extent! Nora Highland is deeply personal. It’s based on situations that have occurred to either me or my friends. The second scene of the movie was inspired by a conversation someone I knew had in which he was told he wouldn’t be considered for a gay part because he was openly gay. When I heard that, I lost my damn mind! That’s when I started writing.”

Michael Urie and Tessa Thompson who appeared in a Play-PerView online reading of Nora Highland in April 2020.

How did you go about adapting your two-hander stage play for the screen, opening it up to more actors and were you surprised how well it suited the digital medium?

“Oh, yes! In fact, I still can’t believe how well it works. I had no idea if it was going come together or not. I had done this online benefit reading of the play for Play-PerView back in April, starring Tessa Thompson and Michael Urie. After seeing that, I adapted the play into a screenplay. We shot the whole thing on Zoom during early lockdown. It was nuts! None of the actors were in the same place. Some were not even in the same country. Two of the actors did one shot of the movie in a single, super rehearsed, 40-minute, uninterrupted take. That was a thrill, and they killed it!”

Nora Highland. Courtesy of Ryan Spahn.

Give us an insight into your own casting process, particularly casting the LGBTQ+ characters and tell us a bit about who’s in the film.

“Like the movie itself argues, I wanted to make sure that all of the queer characters were played by actors who identified as such, which they were. That was important to me. The film stars Marin Ireland (The Umbrella Academy), Michael Hsu Rosen (Tiny Pretty Things), Mallory Portnoy (The Good Fight), and Carlease Burke (Child’s Play).”

Nora Highland. Courtesy of Ryan Spahn.

Why did you choose the three scenarios we see in the film to explore this issue?

“Hm. Good question. Nora Highland is broken up into three central acts: a casting session, a director meeting, and an LGBTQIA gala. The first two acts examine the power dynamics at play for an openly gay actor. The audition being the most vulnerable, and the meeting being the most powerful. Both unravel in unsettling ways. For the gala section, I wanted to explore how the queer community continues to give our highest honors to our queer allies, not actual queer people. That’s gotta stop. I had recently attended The Paley Center Honors, which was recognizing the history of LGBTQIA characters on TV. The evening’s marquee honor was awarded to Billy Crystal for his work on 1977’s Soap! Okay, cool, that’s great, but Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Matt Bomer, Laverne Cox, Don Lemon, Wilson Cruz, Stephanie Beatriz, Our Lady J, and many others were sitting in the audience. Clapping. Not receiving the marquee honor.”

Nora Highland. Courtesy of Ryan Spahn.

What’s the reaction been to Nora Highland so far and what kind of conversations has it sparked?

“It’s been really good. We premiered at NewFest in New York, which was a dream. It’s playing some upcoming festivals, including the virtual Oxford Film Festival in April. I have had a lot of strangers reach out on social media expressing how grateful they are that I made the movie because it helped them have conversations with people in their lives. That means a lot.”

Ian McKellen who was Oscar-nominated for his role in Gods and Monsters (1998), with co-star Brendan Fraser. Courtesy of Lions Gate Films.

How surprised were you when you were putting that Oscar list together and why did you want to open the film with it?

“That is a shattering statistic. There’s been one openly gay cisgender man nominated for an Oscar for playing a queer character, but there’s been 60+ cisgender straight people nominated for Oscars for playing queer and trans characters. In 2019, seven straight actors were nominated for Oscars for playing queer. Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Rami Malek, and Mahershala Ali. We gotta do better!”

Nora Highland. Courtesy of Ryan Spahn.

When it comes to that list of movies that had Oscar nominations there’s a likelihood that if those big names hadn’t been starring in them they might not have been made at all. Also by casting a big star these LGBTQ+ stories potentially reached a much wider audience, with that star’s fan base going to see it, perhaps helping to change some hearts and minds. What are your thoughts on that?

“It’s complicated. People become movie stars because they land a role that makes them a movie star. Queer actors aren’t given movie star roles. In 2021, to still see films like Supernova getting made with straight actors playing both leads is problematic. And then to also celebrate the performances of straight actors who are benefitting off the trauma of queer stories, as with The Prom, is hurtful. The majority just has to stop benefiting off the minority. In pretty much every area of life.”

Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu in God’s Own Country. Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Do you feel like films which are much loved by LGBTQ+ folks, like Call Me By Your Name, Carol, God’s Own Country, and Brokeback Mountain for instance would all have been improved by casting publicly identifying LGBTQ+ performers?

“I really do. As you know, there is a stereotype that queer people lust after straight people. I think the casting of these films feeds into that stereotype. Josh O’Connor having sex with a man on a mountain gets people aroused because they think, “Maybe one day this straight guy will hook up with me!” It’s fantasy-based casting. When a queer film requires a sexual component, people turn to straight actors for the job. They leave the desexualized parts to us gay folks because we’re considered not as sexy to many.”

Nora Highland. Courtesy of Ryan Spahn.

The number of actors who publicly identify as LGBTQ+ has grown significantly over the last few years so it feels like we’re in a very different place now when it comes to casting options doesn’t it?

“Absolutely, yes, there has been progress for sure, we have come a long way. But, that doesn’t mean we’ve gone as far as we need to go. You don’t really hear straight people getting upset when, on the rare occasion, a queer actor gets to play a straight role, but you do hear the reverse. Until that’s not really a thing anymore, we’re just not where we need to be.”

Do you see theatre as being ahead of film and television when it comes to this casting issue?

“I would say that theatre is the most evolved. I think TV and film need help—badly—and I believe it starts with casting directors. Which is why I begin Nora Highland with that painful audition scene. Casting directors are the gatekeepers of who is and who is not allowed to audition for something. They have a lot of power. They can be the champions of change. There needs to be a recalibration of what’s “normal” across the board.”

Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Just as one example of a straight actor playing a queer character, I loved John Hurt as Quentin Crisp in the Naked Civil Servant. Do you think there can be exceptions to the rule where non-LGBTQ+ actors can be cast to play LGBTQ+ characters? Are there any performances by non-LGBTQ+ actors playing LGBTQ+ characters which you like or admire?

“I want to believe that the best actor for a job gets the job, but the reality is that auditioning is a muscle. And, like any muscle, it needs to be worked out. If you don’t, you grow weak. I loved Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry. Would a trans man have delivered a stronger performance? Probably. Would he have given as good of an audition? Probably not. Why? He doesn’t audition as much as Hilary Swank. I loved Call Me By Your Name. I think Timothée Chalamet was remarkable. Were queer actors considered for the role? Probably not, unless they had been on TV. Timothée was fresh off Homeland. Did he give a good audition? Odds are he did.”

Is there a danger that in calling for LGBTQ+ actors to be cast in LGBTQ+ roles it might result in them not be cast to play straight cis characters?

“No. Straight actors don’t have that problem. They are hired for anything. LGBTQIA actors should be afforded the same opportunities.”

Mema and Papa. Ryan’s grandfather. Courtesy of Ryan Spahn.

Finally, what’s your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

“Oh man! So many things. What comes to mind first is the Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles. I was a company member there in my early twenties and the friends I made—particularly with the then Artistic Director, Michael Matthews—impacted my life in ways I cannot begin to describe. And then also, and probably most profoundly, my grandfather. He was queer. His influence over me as a young gay man was deeply meaningful.”

By James Kleinmann

Ryan Spahn’s Nora Highland is available to stream online as part of the 2021 Oxford Virtual Film Festival from April 1st at 8am EDT. There will also be a livestream Q&A included in the ticket price on Nora Highland and queer representation taking place on April 18th at 12pm EDT, which will then we accessible until May 1st at 12:59 am EDT. For more information or to purchase a ticket head to the festival’s eventlive page.

Watch the trailer here.

Nora Highland Poster.

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