If you might think actor Mark Cirillo looks familiar, there’s a reason. For years, he’s toiled in small parts in sitcoms such as Will & Grace and How I Met Your Mother as well as popular gay-themed films such as Girls Will Be Girls. And he boasts an impressive pedigree — he’s the great-great-great maternal grandson of President Ulysses S. Grant. Now Cirillo gets his most challenging role yet and delivers a finely tuned performance as Ryan, a closeted gay man studying theology in Joshua Lim’s new film, The Seminarian (in select theaters November 25). Here, examining his instincts for complicated characters, he talks openly about baring all for his art and whether certain actors should open the closet door.
The Advocate: You play a closeted theology student caught between an unfinished thesis and unrequited love. What attracted you to the role?
Mark Cirillo: I wanted to play a character that stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from my personality. And I liked that Ryan had to struggle deeply in profound ways to rectify who he is with what he was taught. That resonated with me on so many levels, from the sexual to the religious.
Do you know any gay seminarians?
Actually yes, a few. Aside from the film’s writer and director, Joshua Lim, several gay seminary students assisted in the making of the film. I’m grateful that there was always someone on set to answer my questions about God and sexuality. Luckily, I also had two weeks of intense, daylong crash courses in evangelical Protestant Christianity before we shot even one day of footage. By the end, I could believably say certain lines and really know what I was talking about.
Did you do anything special to prepare for the film's pivotal nude scene?
Three words: Start-scene-diet. Once I booked the role, I spent a considerable amount of time at the gym and even more time controlling what went into my mouth. Let’s face it, film is unforgiving and it will exist for an eternity, hopefully. As an actor, I understand that nudity is a part of life, part of my job, and part of the art of performance. Besides, when I’m on set, it ‘s about practicality: Is it too cold? Is it believable that I walk around with no clothes on?
How have audiences reacted to the film?
More positively, for the most part, than I ever could have imagined. People really seem to get drawn in, no matter if they’re gay, bi or straight. We’ve had the best response from a huge spectrum of people.
But what about certain audiences who believe in a God that looks down, unfavorably, on homosexuality?
In all honesty, I have not been made aware of any negative reactions from religious groups. Gay clergy have been tremendously supportive and have come to every screening. Surprisingly, the most resistance to seeing and supporting the film comes from liberal and gay communities that have negative associations with anything religious, which once upon a time was my reaction.
Over the years, you’ve played gay characters on Will & Grace, Quintuplets, and Cook-Off! But Hollywood is still a tough place for openly gay actors.
It’s really unfair that straight actors can play gay as long as they are adamant about how straight they are in the press. Surprisingly, openly gay actors like Rupert Everett and my friend Craig Chester both recommend staying in the closet until it really does get better. They both have very specific examples of how coming out hurt their careers. According to them, the majority of the homophobia they faced came from the gay community. On the other side of the argument stand Neil Patrick Harris and my friend Chad Allen — both of whom were pushed out of the closet against their will —who say it was the best thing that has ever happened to them. In fact, they’ve never been happier. Granted, at the time, they had hit series where they both played straight.
But things really are getting better. You tweeted that you recently attended your first gay wedding.
Yes, in New York. It was beautiful and emotional in all of the right ways. It was also the first Buddhist wedding I’ve ever attended. I should start a checklist: Buddhist, done. Gay, done. Catholic, done. Jewish, done. I really look forward to being invited to a celebrity Wiccan wedding. That would almost complete the list.
Watch the film's trailer below.