Dan Byrd: A for Pay
After a memorable guest arc as Sylar’s young apprentice on Heroes, Dan Byrd showed off his superpowers of droll sarcasm as Travis Cobb, the mama’s boy to Courteney Cox’s hot mama in Cougar Town, which is now in its second season on ABC. Byrd also scored the key role of Brandon, a bullied gay high school student, in the hit teen comedy Easy A. In this modern revamp of The Scarlet Letter, out December 21 on DVD, Brandon begs his friend Olive — Golden Globe nominee Emma Stone — to feign that she had sex with him, news that will end the antigay abuse. As easygoing as expected, the 25-year-old straight actor speaks to The Advocate about Easy A’s “it gets better” message and the promise of gay Cougar townsfolk.
The Advocate: Brandon in Easy A is the first gay character you’ve played. Did you or your representatives have any hesitations about your taking a gay role at this point in your career?
Dan Byrd: I definitely didn’t have any hesitations about it, and I don’t think anybody else voiced any concern either. I’m at the point in my career where I have to take the opportunities that are given to me, and this seemed like a great opportunity. It wasn’t a big part, but it was a pivotal one with good scenes that seemed like a lot of fun. There wasn’t really a question.
Do you feel like actors of your generation don’t worry about getting typecast as gay characters or being falsely perceived as gay in real life?
Yeah, I like to think that those walls are eroded at this point. Personally, it’s not something I consider much at all. But if were to get offered another similar part now, I might think twice about it — not because of it being gay, but because I wouldn’t want to play the same kind of part I just played. I know there’s totally a double standard there, though, because it’s much easier in Hollywood for straight guys to play gay guys than it is for gay guys to play straight guys. It’s not fair, but we’re making progress.
In most teen movies, gay characters are often just sassy sidekicks who bear the brunt of offensive gay jokes. Were you careful to play Brandon respectfully?
Yeah, everybody was on the same page about that. During the audition process, my interpretation was never stereotypically over-the-top. My inclination has always been to try to be as honest and as truthful as possible, and then the comedy should come out of that. Honestly, I think that’s why I got the job: They wanted to take a more subtle approach to the character.
But all of Brandon’s peers seem to know that he’s gay — even Olive’s mom picks up on it immediately — so it would’ve been disingenuous to play him as totally butch. When figuring out how flamboyant or animated to make the character, what conversations did you have with the director, Will Gluck, and the screenwriter, Bert V. Royal? Bert is gay, so I’m guessing he had some insight.
Bert wasn’t on set while we were filming, unfortunately, but I got to talk to him a little bit beforehand. I also talked to Will about it, and it seemed like the style of movie they were trying to make was much more along the lines of an honest John Hughes film, as opposed to some over-the-top teen comedy. So you’re right, Brandon couldn’t be completely butched out, but at the same time, we didn’t want to throw his being gay in people’s faces.
Did any gay friends inspire your performance?
I didn’t really draw on one specific person, but I definitely drew on observations and experiences that I had growing up. The only parts I’ve ever gotten are the ones where I can just look at the sides and know how to do it without thinking too much, and this was one of those things where I just knew how to play it. We’ve all been in compromising situations at one point or another, so I felt like I had a pretty solid platform to work from.
Yet as a working child actor, you didn’t have the typical high school experience.
This is true. Even though I was acting before then, I went to a normal school through ninth grade, and 10th grade is when I started homeschooling. Until I turned 18, 19, and moved out to L.A. officially, I was still hanging out with my group of friends back home in Georgia, so I sort of got the idea of high school dynamics and politics.
Could you relate to the bullying that Brandon endured?
Well, I’m from Marietta, a relatively small community about 20 minutes outside of Atlanta. I wouldn’t say that people were closed-minded, because there was a lot of diversity and I surrounded myself with people who were pretty open, but the fact that I was an actor set me apart from everyone else. Some people didn’t know how to react to me acting, which sort of alienated me in a weird way, and I didn’t quite know how to react to them acting weird. But I got off really easy considering what some kids are forced to go through all the time.
Around the same time Easy A came out in theaters, Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign launched in response to the rash of gay suicides. When you were filming the movie, did you have any idea how relevant it would be?
Not at all. I don’t want to say we got lucky, because it’s obviously a terrible thing that never should’ve happened. But it’s cool that the movie came out when gay bullying was suddenly in the news again, because now maybe kids can look at this movie as something that illustrates something similar to what they’re going through. The movie’s got a happy ending, and so do lives when people stick with them and get through all the bad stuff.
Have you gotten any feedback from gay teens about your performance?
I don’t really have much of a venue to get feedback, because I’m not on the Twitter. I get feedback from friends and other people in my life, but I don’t really get a great idea of how audiences are responding to what I do. So no, I haven’t directly heard from the gay audience, but what I’ve heard from outside sources has been positive.
When Olive pretends to sleep with Brandon, it sort of sends the message that teens should hide the fact that they’re gay until after they graduate high school. That seems rather bleak, so I appreciated the film’s last-minute twist.
Yeah, I agree that the message there could get a little twisted, but given how they wrap it up at the end, hopefully it shows that Brandon gets his happy ending on his terms, which is pretty cool.
I also figured that Brandon would stay neutered like most supporting gay characters in movies, but — spoiler alert! — his happy ending actually involves running away from home with “some big hulking black guy.”
[Laughs] Yeah. That was actually the first scene that I shot in the movie, so it was a nice little welcome to Easy A.
Did the actor who played him put you at ease?
No, not at all. [Laughs] If anything, hopefully I put him at ease, because he was super nervous.
You also play the title role in the indie comedy Norman, which is currently playing the film festival circuit.
Yeah, it’s about this kid who perpetuates this whole lie that he’s got cancer, when in actuality it’s his father who’s dying of cancer. Norman’s best friend in the movie, James, happens to be gay, but it’s not really a big part of the story line. He does try to get Norman to join the drama club.
I love spending time with the tight-knit group of characters of Cougar Town, but how hard would it be for a gay person to break into that posse?
It’s got to be coming. I’m hoping they’re just saving that up for a character who’s going to stick around for a while and be an honorary member of the cul-de-sac group like Tom, who’s popping up more and more often. We need some more color, and a gay character would be a good way to get it. I obviously have no say as far as where the show’s going creatively, but I have to believe that we’ll meet a strong, funny gay character soon. Oh, here’s a little scoop: This hasn’t been introduced yet, but — I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this.
Oh, please. Your show needs all the viewers it can get.
OK, you’re right. Well, the word on the street is that Kevin, Travis’s roommate at college, has two dads that will be introduced at some point. We’ve actually talked about it for a couple of different episodes, but it never made it in. So I don’t know how or when they’re going to do it, but that’s something to look forward to.
In an early episode of season 1, Travis pretends to come out of the closet to Grayson, his neighbor, just to screw with the guy’s head. For a minute I thought Travis might really be gay, but he seems to genuinely like the ladies.
Yeah, that’s the situation. But to be honest, when I was first reading that script, I didn’t know where they were going with that either. If they ever decide to make Travis gay, that would be fine too.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but some shirtless screen shots of you from Cougar Town have been posted on a number of gay blogs — particularly ones of you standing beside a shirtless Nick Zano. How do you feel about that attention?
It’s an honor and a privilege, but I think the gay blogs can do better. It’s a sad commentary on where the gay blogs are right now if I’m a part of them. The only reason they probably kept me in the picture is to make Nick Zano look even better. You get to see how hot Nick Zano really is when you put him next to me.