BY Michael Rowe
January 23 2001 1:00 AM ET
“What helped me recover,” says Cowen, describing the aftermath of the casting experience that clearly devastated him both as a filmmaker and as a gay man, “was that Gale was brave enough to take the part. It was the same way with Aidan Quinn [who was one of the few actors willing to consider An Early Frost, in which he starred as a gay man with AIDS]. You need the one actor who is not afraid and who is very politically committed to what he’s doing. In a way, that was the emotional salvation.” Harold, it seems, has always been asking questions. He was raised in the Atlanta suburbs by an engineer father and a mother who sold real estate. His parents were devout Pentecostals, and his childhood was a classic Southern mélange of church, school, and sports. “There were so many little things about my childhood that were Southern,” he says, “and so many that were suburban American. There was a dairy farm behind my house at one point.” Harold manifested an early affinity for soccer, which he calls “a beautiful game.” As he moved toward adolescence, however, he began to be concerned about the culture that went along with the game. “I burned out very rapidly on what you refer to as ‘jocks,’” he says. “I couldn’t really handle that state of mind. I don’t know what it’s like to be a girl in team sports, but definitely for a guy in the States, there are so many flag-waving impulses forced upon you. Excellence in sports is a good way to keep you moving in the direction of allegiance to your school and your country.” Although he didn’t have the terminology at the time, young Gale observed the homophobia woven into the fabric of his suburban world, both on the playing fields of Southwest DeKalb High School and in his parents’ church. He is careful not to dwell on the subject of religion out of respect for his mother, who is still Pentecostal. (His father left the church several years ago). “I started to lose all interest [in religion] at around 15, around the time I got my driver’s license,” Harold remembers. “I knew it was bullshit, you know? The choir director was gay. The assistant choir director was gay. Most of the men in the choir were gay. It was obvious. And these were people I talked to and grew up knowing. These were my friends, and my parents’ friends, and members of the church. And they’re up there singing and clapping their hands, then they sit down and some ogre walks up and starts saying something that is basically potentially fatal under the right circumstances. And we know how fast those circumstances can shift and become dangerous. “I think [today] it’s probably gotten easier and easier for people to deal with,” he muses, “but it’s still a monumental achievement for some people to say, ‘You’re gay, can we talk?’ They’re so scared, because they don’t know what it means about them, about God. I would not want to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, even now.” Likewise on the playing field, where Harold was once forbidden to play soccer because his hair was too long. The explanation was that it made him look unmasculine. Furthermore, “because he took my side, our goalkeeper wasn’t allowed to play either.” Harold sighs. “When you’re a kid you instinctively know when someone’s blowing smoke up your ass. You react to it, or you don’t.” Atlanta, even then, was a culturally mixed city. The best record stores were in gay neighborhoods, and Harold and his close friends would often find themselves rifling through the stacks. “You look up and realize, Oh, this is the deal,” he shrugs, recalling his nascent awareness of a larger gay presence. Closer to home he had friends he says he knew were gay. But it wasn’t discussed. “Say I’m 15 years old,” he suggests, remembering. “And I know you’re gay. And you know I know. We never actually talk about it because you never bring it up, and I don’t feel like invading whatever that might be. We’re not going to feel compelled to go there. I never had one of those moments when someone came out to me as a confidant,” he says. “The acknowledgment was already strong enough. It wasn’t like they needed me to tell them that I knew.” After high school, Harold won a soccer scholarship to American University, but he dropped out after a year and moved to San Francisco, studying fine arts at the San Francisco Art Institute. He supported himself with a series of low-paying jobs tailor-made for a young man searching. “I was waiting tables, taking out the trash, painting houses. A bunch of menial shit,” he says cheerfully. As time passed, though, he got restless: “I wasn’t looking [for a direction], and life had started getting beyond the point of enjoyment, you know?” When a friend asked him to appear in a movie (which, in the end, was never made), Harold’s interest was piqued. With the dot-coms booming, San Francisco was becoming too pricey. When the building where he lived was sold and turned into a parking garage, Harold took it as an omen. “I knew at some point I was going to have to do something,” Harold says. He left for Los Angeles in 1997. “I’d met an acting teacher there I was intrigued by, and I took a weeklong workshop,” he recalls. The craft of acting struck Harold in a way that two-dimensional media didn’t. Waiting tables to support himself, he studied, he says, “to the exclusion of everything else, for a solid year and a half.” A manager who’d seen him in a play signed him. For a year, Harold made the actor’s boot camp round of auditions. Nothing clicked. At one point he asked his manager to stop sending him out for television work, sure that there was nothing for him in that medium. Then, of course, came Brian. By the time we head over to the QAF production office to continue our conversation, Harold is ready to talk about his controversial on-screen character. “There was an attraction,” he concedes, when asked if the chance to play a sexual hunter-gatherer like Brian Kinney—as far from the “gay upstairs neighbor” as possible—appealed to him. “Another attraction was that it was an interesting story. It wasn’t West Hollywood, 90210, which I would never have been called in for. I’m not that ‘type.’”
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