Andrew Garfield is currently starring in the National Theatre’s acclaimed revival of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic about homosexuality and the AIDS crisis. The eight-hour, two-part show is an exhausting, unforgettable experience that has—through its many revivals and adaptations over the past quarter-century—become an unparalleled and essential cultural artifact of an entire generation of gay Americans.
And how did Garfield prepare for the role of Prior Walter, a New Yorker battling AIDS in 1985? He watched RuPaul’s Drag Race.
During a recent panel discussion reported by The Gay Times, Garfield revealed the show “helped him find his character.” He continued:
“[I watched] every single series of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I mean every series. My only time off during rehearsals – every Sunday I would have eight friends over and we would just watch Ru. This is my life outside of this play.”
What’s frustrating about this revelation—whether or not it was actually the only research he did for the role—is that it is yet another instance of straight people loudly embracing the most pleasant, easily digestible aspects of queerness, while ignoring the struggles that go hand in hand with them. RuPaul’s Drag Race is gay culture at its most optimistic and effervescent—a buoyant, gleeful celebration of queerness starring people who are fiercely dedicated to living honestly and openly despite anyone’s objections. That the show exists at all is sometimes hard to believe. That it’s been on for nine seasons feels like a miracle.
I understand why Garfield—or any straight person for that matter—would love watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s a well-produced reality competition show with great music, iconic fashion, infinite shade, and some of television’s most memorable personalities. But to say it’s all you need to watch to prepare for a role as a gay man is like saying the only thing I’d need to watch to prepare for a role as a woman is Legally Blonde. Is it a delightful and crowd-pleasing celebration of a woman who fights against the patriarchy in very entertaining, often low-stakes ways? Sure! Is it a nuanced portrait of the female experience and a comprehensive history of women’s rights? Not exactly. The exquisite joys of Drag Race are built on generations of hatred, violence, and racism. And while I don’t expect Garfield, a straight man, to ever fully understand that, I expect his Drag Race viewings to be supplemented by, oh, And the Band Played On, a book about the Stonewall riots, or any chronicle of gay history that doesn’t just leave him smiling.
But I don’t know why I’d expect that sort of approach from the kind of person who would also say this:
“As far as I know, I am not a gay man. Maybe I’ll have an awakening later in my life, which I’m sure will be wonderful and I’ll get to explore that part of the garden, but right now I’m secluded to my area, which is wonderful as well. I adore it, but a big concern was what right do I have to play this wonderful gay role?”
And later, this:
“I am a gay man right now just without the physical act – that’s all.”
Let’s begin with “as far as I know.” Andrew? Buddy? The thing about sexuality is that you’re the only one who can make that call. So if you’re not a gay man “as far as you know,” then you’re not a gay man—I don’t care how much Drag Race you’ve watched with your pals. Sorry to disappoint you.
And as for that strange and uncomfortably childish depiction of sexuality as some prison-like series of gardens separated by mysterious forcefields, all I can say is that I hope you do everyone else a favor and remain inside whichever one you’re chilling in now. Because I guarantee the last thing the people in those other areas want is to be interrupted by a dazed and bewildered Andrew Garfield, wandering from garden to garden like he’s in the middle of a fascinating anthropological experiment.