Rebounding from a shaky first season and a transitional second, the CW’s 90210 is currently riding a creative high, thanks in no small part to Trevor Donovan. As high school jock Teddy Montgomery, he looks every inch the campus hunk. But as was first teased by producers this summer and as viewers have learned in recent weeks, Teddy also has a secret. He’s gay — and extremely closeted. In October 4’s episode Teddy’s internalized homophobia came flooding to the surface when, feeling threatened by former one-night stand turned classmate Ian (Kyle Riabko), he calls him a “faggot” and, later, assaults him.
It’s a plot line Donovan says he’s extremely proud of and, given the headlines in recent weeks about teens killing themselves after being bullied and harassed with antigay comments, a story he thinks is essential to tell. The actor talked to The Advocate about why he was hesitant to tell Teddy’s story, why he is looking forward playing the more intimate scenes, and what it’s like to play a high schooler when you’re in your 30s.
The Advocate: When news first broke that one of the characters on 90210 would be coming out, producers teased that you were one of three guys it could be. Did you know at that point it was Teddy?
Trevor Donovan: [Laughs] I knew.
So you just had to keep your mouth shut?
Yeah. We really wanted to keep it on the down low. But, as you know, it leaked out pretty quick.
Did you think it would leak out as quickly as it did, or did you think you’d have to keep it a secret all summer?
To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure. I was pretty shocked it got out as soon as it did.
What was your initial reaction? Did you have any sense Teddy might be gay, or was it completely out of left field for you?
It was completely out of left field. I definitely had my reservations and my concerns in the beginning. I didn’t want it to be just an in-your-face, gratuitous ratings booster. I didn’t want to be a part of something like that. Talking to the executive producer, we were on the exact same page. We really wanted to tell the internal struggle, the coming-out story. That’s really important. How he deals with it internally and how his peers, his friends, family, how they also respond to it. Once we talked about how it was going to be written, I was very excited about it. Not only for me as an actor, but to shed some light on how difficult it can be. It’s been so good, and I’m so impressed with the writing staff and production. Everything has gone in the right direction.
I saw your “It Gets Better” video. and obviously this story is happening at a very timely moment. Were you shocked to learn of all the teen suicides happening in schools, or was this an issue you were pretty aware of?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t think this is necessarily a new issue. For whatever reason, it’s coming to the forefront of the media. Partially having to do with Dan Savage launching the “It Gets Better” campaign, it’s bringing more attention to it. It’s such a tragic, tragic thing. The fact that my story line is coinciding so accurately, I think it’s just an opportunity to really help these kids and hopefully, potentially, save people’s lives.
I know the story line is fairly new, but I can imagine you’ve already started receiving letters from gay teens and young adults. Have any letters really stuck out for you?
There have been so many. I do a lot of Twitter and Facebook, so some of the messages, though short ... many have brought me to tears. Everything from “Oh. my God, I’m going through the same thing. I really think this could help me” to “My brother or my friend committed suicide years ago, and I think it’s such a great thing you’re doing.” I’m getting goose bumps right now just talking about it. It’s incredible, and it’s that much more reason to really commit to this and do the story line justice and outside of that, with these PSA’s, really be a voice and help young people.
Without giving too much away, I want to talk story line a bit. Teddy is obviously deeply closeted and has a great fear of coming out. Do you have much of a sense of his backstory — why he’s so afraid to admit he’s gay? Are we going to see any of that?
Yes. You’re going to see a lot more, and you’re also going to learn a bit more of his past. It’s interesting. He comes from this sporting school on the East Coast, and all you know are a couple little things that he’s said. You start to learn more about his history. I think growing up with a movie star father and his father being such a playboy, I think he felt like he had something to live up to. That has a lot to do with his struggle, let alone coming out and dealing with his peers and family members once he comes out.
Last week’s episode grabbed a lot of attention ... your character is obviously feeling threatened by Ian (Kyle Riabko) and shut him down with an antigay slur. When you saw that word in the script, did you have any hesitation in playing it?
I had to think about it a lot. And I actually discussed it with the writers as well. Initially, in the table read, I didn’t say it. It’s a hard word to say. I thought, Does it really have to be that word, does it really have to be that malicious? And I think it does. It shows how much in denial he is and how confused he is. And I’ll tell you ... in the rehearsals, I never said it out loud. I waited until we were filming to let it rip. No one else heard it. I didn’t hear it come out of my own mouth. When it did, it was ... it literally shocked everyone. It was a very realistic reaction.
Is this a story line we can expect to see play out over the course of the season?
I think so. I only know what’s happening up to episode 10, but I see this story line going for the whole season. There are a lot of issues and a lot of things for Teddy to touch on before he comes to accept himself and is fully out. So it’s going to be a realistic, timely arc.
Before this story line, would you say that gay rights and gay issues were on your radar?
definitely. I grew up in a very small town where I was not exposed to
gay people. I’ve been in L.A. now for 11 years. In all of my acting
classes, in my life — it’s become an issue I’m very well aware of. I
have a lot of friends who have gone through the same sort of thing that
Teddy’s going through, so it’s definitely an issue that I’ve been aware
of for quite a while.
Ideally, where would you like to see this story line go?
The story line itself? Just as this “It Gets Better” project is trying to show, as difficult as it is to go through the self-realization and coming out, once you do, your life is going to be so much better. You’re going to be so much happier if you’re true to yourself, and you’re going to make other people happy. It’s just so important to not deny who you are. The “It Gets Better” project hopefully makes it better for those kids to live.
Obviously, relationships and sex are a big part of 90210. When the story line goes there with Teddy, is that something you’re ready for?
Heck, yeah. I’m an actor, this is what I do. I’m telling a story, and it wouldn’t be realistic if we didn’t go there. I have no problem with that at all.
You do read — not so much anymore, but you still see it — about actors who
say they aren’t comfortable playing gay. Was there any of that
hesitation with you — fear of how this might affect your career — or was
it all story line– related?
It was just about how it would be
presented. I didn’t want it to be a gratuitous moment. Watch these two
guys kiss on TV. Oh, shocking ... it’ll get ratings. I didn’t want to be a
part of that. I wanted it to be something that had substance and layers.
This story has never been told this way, and especially now, it’s so
important for it to be told realistically and heartfelt. I’m really
honored to be a part of it.
Now, on a less serious note. I’ve been doing some research. You’re a bit older than most of your cast mates.
[Laughs] I am a little bit older. Yeah. Yeah. And I have a birthday on Monday.
You are 32.
I’m turning 32, yes.
So you are playing a high school student. Was it tough getting back into that skin?
just a big kid as it is. Sometimes it is a little odd. But they really
did write my character in a more mature light. Growing up the way he
did, around adults all the time, it allows me to play a little older, a
little bit more mature, which is good.