In Left-Leaning Business, Conservative Actors Feel Marginalized

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Dale Morris wants to fight back. A 60-year-old West Coast actor and playwright, Morris has, for much of his career, kept quiet about his political views. Morris is a Republican, and he has at times gone to such great lengths to hide that fact that he even pretended to be a Democrat when he ran a theater company. He had little doubt that if his politics got out, the liberal theatergoing public would stop coming. As an actor, Morris can't say with certainty whether he has lost acting gigs because of his views, but he strongly suspects if he and an equally qualified but liberal Equity actor were up for the same role, the other actor would book it.

"It's hard for me to express myself on this subject without getting angry," asserted Morris. "I'm not very conservative, but I am a Republican. To assume that a Republican is conservative is some form of bigotry in itself. I'm not a tea partier, a Rush Limbaugh fan, and I don't have a Nazi flag in my back yard. Do you know how many times I've heard that phrase from well-known people in San Diego? 'Yeah, he's a Republican and I'm sure there's a Nazi flag in his back yard.' In dressing rooms we dare not argue with the liberal cast members because everybody is talking about the Republican Nazis, and that's how we'll be branded if we do. I want to fight back—or argue back—but do I want to get branded as a troublemaker? Yeah, that's a great way to get cast."

There are well-known conservative actors—including Gary Sinise, Tom Selleck, Patricia Heaton, James Woods, Robert Davi, James Belushi, Dennis Miller, and Sylvester Stallone—but according to Morris, their numbers are far fewer than those in the left-wing camp and, more important, they simply don't have the clout. "If you think even for one instance Stallone can get the same press as Clooney, you're nuts," he said. "Clooney is a media darling. If he says something he's taken seriously. If Stallone says something, it's 'Look what the asshole said.' "

Not a Monolith

What especially disturbs Morris is amalgam thinking, coupled with a double standard among industry insiders. Democrats can be liberal, moderate, or centrist, whereas a Republican is by definition in sync with "the rich, greedy bastards out there with whom I have no connection."

Conservatism and Republicanism encompass a range of views. Morris, for example, is against capital punishment, supports a woman's right to choose, and is pro–gay marriage. "But I am Republican in my basic beliefs," he said. "I believe people should help themselves, neighborhoods should help each other, and government should stay out of our lives as much as possible."

Kimberly Hilton, a singer in Charlotte, N.C., defined herself as a conservative, not a Republican. "I believe in Reaganomics and don't think global warming is real. It's Al Gore making a buck," she said. Though she is flexible on abortion and gay marriage, she does not support President Barack Obama's health care program or the demands of large public unions. "SAG and Equity are pro-union, pro-union, pro-union," she said. "Unions have their place. But Wisconsin unions are public-sector. And some liberal actors don't seem to make that distinction."

Actor Renee Carlson, a self-described "conservative with a small 'c,' " talked about receiving emails from the Screen Actors Guild and "left-leaning organizations in the entertainment business telling me how to vote. Nobody tells me who to vote for. I vote for more than just who is good for my career. I vote for what's best for my entire family, and family trumps career and is only second to God in my home." Carlson noted she believes in legal abortion, yet is ambivalent on the subject of gay marriage. Part of her conservatism stems from having a husband who is a disabled vet. She noted how fashionable it is today among liberals—including entertainment folk—to support the troops, without endorsing their military missions.

Denise Villarreal said her Roman Catholicism dictates much of what she believes. According to the actor, abortion unfairly penalizes a baby for the parents' indiscretion—she makes no exception for cases of rape or incest—and there are alternatives to abortion that are not promoted at many family planning clinics.

On gay marriage: "Government has no business saying it's going to issue or not issue marriage licenses. As far as government is concerned, marriage is a business transaction. It's the uniting of two financial entities, and that's not connected to religion. And since marriage is inherently a religious institution, it should be taken away from government altogether. For those who are not religious, they can have a merger and if you want a ceremony you can do it in Unitarian Church or whatever you want." She'd also like to see government out of health care, arguing it does it badly and far too expensively.

New York City actor Michael Aquilino believes in a woman's right to choose and has no problem with gay marriage. Still, he voted for George W. Bush, is opposed to Obama's health care program—Aquilino thinks there's a "fine line between that and communism"—and does not favor affirmative action programs. He said Obama never would have been nominated had he not been black.

Tell If Asked...Maybe

Aquilino insisted he has many African-American actor friends who accept him fully and know he is not a racist. Still, he feels looked down upon by many colleagues. He recalled performing in Bertolt Brecht's play "The Private Life of the Master Race" during Bush's second term. "To stir things up a bit, the director asked who had voted for President Bush and I was one of three people who raised their hand, which of course was received with moans and groans from the rest of the cast. But when it came down to it, most of the people in that cast who I challenged for a debate were timid and tiptoed around me. What I learned from is that I should stick to my convictions and stay true to myself no matter what."

Most of the actors said they do not talk about politics with their actor cronies unless asked—and even then respond circumspectly. They've mastered the art of remaining silent and blank-faced when political topics surface. It's a matter of self-protection, especially for the actor who is not yet established, they assert. Villarreal said that on occasion she will "admit my opposition with a chaser of 'This probably isn't the best forum for that discussion,' or I experiment with creative ways to change the topic. I get extensive practice utilizing these maneuvers at my mundane job as an accountant for an environmental firm. In both arenas, I am frustrated that people can't discuss politics without getting personal, which leaves me to be silent or evasive on my opinions to protect whatever future I might have in this industry."

Interestingly, neither Villarreal nor others interviewed are willing to deny their politics on their Facebook pages, maintaining it's a private domain and should have no bearing on their careers, though they've found it may. Hilton said casting directors have told her they check out actors' Facebook pages. Still, she's not sure whether she has lost any gigs as a result. Colleagues are another story.

"I became a Facebook friend with an actress I had worked with," she recalled. "I had never brought up my politics with her, but on my Facebook page I did not hide them. After the 2010 election I noticed we weren't friends anymore, and then I saw on a mutual friend's page her comment that some of her friends are 'Republicans.' I felt that was directed at me." Hilton concurred it might be sensible for her not to post her political views on Facebook, but she refuses to censor herself on her own page, pointing out, "I don't go to an audition wearing a big red elephant sweater. But my Facebook page is personal."

A refrain among the actors interviewed is that contrary to the image of liberals as being broad-minded and tolerant, they are quite the opposite. They said conservative actors are far more open to those who have views different from their own. They can "agree to disagree" and still be friends, and if the chasm is too great for friendship, they can at least be courteous to someone on the other side of the aisle. But the same courtesy is not afforded them.

Perhaps Hilton summed up their collective experiences best when she said, "You are just looked at differently. You get the raised eyebrows: 'You mean you didn't vote for Obama?' or 'Oh, she's a Republican; she's an idiot.' Being a conservative in this industry is equal to being a leper to some people."