Gus Kenworthy moves from the slopes to the small screen this fall as one of the stars of “American Horror Story: 1984,” playing Chet Clancy, the hunky, fitness-obsessed love interest of Emma Roberts’ Brooke Thompson.
The Olympic freeskier has tried his hand at acting before, having appeared in an episode of ABC’s “The Real O’Neals” and in a memorable cameo of “Sharknado 5: Global Warming.” His “AHS” role, however, has already drawn a fair share of scrutiny, with some taking aim at his thespian skills even before they’ve seen a single episode.
In an ESPN essay, Kenworthy addresses his critics, particularly those who have questioned whether he can convincingly play a straight character.
“When Ryan [Murphy] announced he’d hired me to play Emma’s boyfriend, he and I both received a lot of negative comments online,” wrote Kenworthy, who came out as gay in a 2015 ESPN interview. “Some people wanted to know how I was cast as a straight man or if I could play straight. Is that even a question? I spent the first 23 years of my life playing a straight man.”
“Every gay man has the experience at some point in his life of pretending to be someone he’s not,” he continued. “I knew as a teenager that I was gay, yet I was still sleeping with girls, pretending to be straight, playing this persona I thought I needed to be for my sport. The stakes were so high. I remember going to crazy lengths to make people believe I was someone I was not. That’s acting.”
In recent years, audiences have begun pushing back against actors who are not part of the LGBTQ community playing queer characters on screen. Last year, Scarlett Johansson dropped out of the upcoming film “Rub and Tug,” about a transgender massage parlor owner, after her casting was widely criticized.
After winning an Emmy for playing gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” Darren Criss vowed to no longer play queer characters in an effort to make space for LGBTQ actors in the industry.
On the flip side, Kenworthy said he believes “it’s much more OK for a gay man to play a straight role than vice versa.”
“Most shows are about straight people and straight lives and straight dynamics, and if there is a gay character on the show, it’s usually a sidekick,” he wrote. “Allowing a gay person to play that character does a lot in terms of visibility and breaking down perceptions and stereotypes. ... There aren’t many openly gay actors getting cast in straight parts. But that is changing, and I am lucky to have the opportunity to be part of that change.”
Like many Murphy-produced shows, “American Horror Story” has boasted a queer-inclusive cast across all nine of its seasons. In addition to Kenworthy, “1984” stars Angelica Ross, who is transgender.