Freddie Fox: Is he, isn’t he, or is it just an actor playing gay?

Freddie Fox is the latest actor to hint that he – possibly – has gay leanings, but is this harmless fun?

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The Independent Culture

Playing disabled – which sounds arrestingly offensive – has long been noted as a swift route to Oscar glory.

But now there is a new toy for actors: not just playing gay (Brokeback Mountain is 10 years old) but flirting with homosexuality off-camera. It is a new flow chart of orchestrated ambiguity, social-media wildfire, ratings and fame. Virtual, viral gayness.

This week, Freddie Fox, who flickers, resplendent, as the sexually omnivorous lust beacon in Channel 4’s new gay drama Cucumber, gave an interview straight from the Hedge Your Bets textbook.

“I wouldn’t wish to go, ‘I am this or I am that,’ because at some time in my life, yes I’ve had girlfriends, but I might fall in love with a man,” he said. “The majority of my life to date has been as a straight man. But who knows what will happen next?”

I know what will happen. His publicist knows what will happen. And his interviewer knows what will happen. The newspaper writes a separate news story with the headline: “Freddie Fox suggests he is bisexual as he says he could ‘fall in love with a man’.” The internet nearly breaks. Channel 4 does a jig of ratings joy. And Fox’s stock shoots up.

For a certain kind of heterosexual thespian, any letter from the LGBT abbreviation is a Venetian mask to slip on. They know a masquerade ball will ensue – a merry dance of rumours and frisson between actor, press and public.

This helps to ensure that all demographics think they could have a chance with the actor, and niftily avoids questions about whether heterosexuals should so often be the ones to nab gay roles, in an industry where traffic less often flows the other way.

To play gay, nowadays, is a canny career move for a young British actor. Charlie Hunnam, who brought the fresh-faced Nathan to life in Queer as Folk, went on to star in Sons of Anarchy, the biggest ratings hit on the US channel FX.

The tactic works not because it is deemed difficult – cavorting on screen with other men is not exactly a stretch for your average luvvie – but because it is considered dangerous and brave, like a beautiful starlet playing ugly. Which, in a flash, reveals precisely the backdrop of lingering homophobia in film and television.

Benedict Cumberbatch even goes as far as to suggest that his iconic, assumed-to-be-heterosexual characters might be gay. When discussing Sherlock Holmes and comparing Holmes with  Doctor Who, he said: “They’ve got different dress senses,  different tastes in the sex of their partner…”

So it is tempting to view all such boundary smudging as either harmless fun or as genuinely progressive: labels, who needs ’em, eh? Except that to pan out from this is to behold a more troubling picture.

Despite starring in a sex-splattered show, Fox's words covered only love (PA)

Britons from acting dynasties, such as Fox, can afford to invite speculation in our more tolerant land. But Hollywood continues to exert extraordinary pressure on actors to remain so long in the closet that they reek of mothballs. (And self-hatred, obviously.)

Shall we remind ourselves about the case of Luke Evans? He is the Welsh actor of leading-man good looks who, in 2002 when appearing in West End musicals, came out, but whose publicists, as he ascended to US action roles, told interviewers not to ask about his sexuality.

Hollywood’s toxic attitudes resurfaced this week in the body of Billy Crystal, so embraced by Tinseltown that he has hosted the Oscars nine times. Crystal spoke of gay television characters “pushing it a little too far”, and of their sex scenes: “I hope people don’t abuse it and shove it in our faces.”

Which leads us back to Freddie Fox. Despite starring in such a sex-splattered show, his blind-to-gender words covered only love. He would have invited much less cynicism about his motivation if he had said: “Yes, I fantasise sexually about men.” Or if he had actually owned the label bisexual. That he didn’t leaves three possibilities: he is merely playing another part, that of a keep-’em-guessing heart-throb; he is a coward; or he does not understand that until bigotry ends, using terms such as gay and bisexual to come out, to stake our identity, to become a visible social force, is the single most potent weapon we have. And one significantly tougher, braver and in-your-face than a blasted cucumber.