When The Advocate last spoke to him for a September 2002 cover story, Randy Harrison had only finished his second of five seasons as gay teen Justin Taylor in Showtime’s groundbreaking drama Queer as Folk but was already planning an exit strategy. “I sort have this image of myself sort of disappearing for a while and reemerging five to 10 years down the road again,” said Harrison, who was at 24 the youngest out actor on television. It’s been more than four years since the controversial series ended, but the stage vet, who made his Broadway debut as Boq in Wicked, has remained very visible in the theater world. Now 32, Harrison is currently creating a portrait of polarizing pop artist-filmmaker Andy Warhol in the Mark Brokaw-helmed world premiere of POP!, a Factory-set musical by Maggie-Kate Coleman and Anna K. Jacobs, which runs through December 19 at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn. We made the most of 15 more minutes with Harrison, who continues to elevate his “post-gay” position on fame, activism, and sexuality to an art form.
Advocate.com: How familiar were you with Warhol and the Factory before you started working on POP! at Yale Rep?
Randy Harrison: More than most. Near the end of college I was really into the Velvet Underground, which sort of brought me to Warhol. This was back when Kim’s video store was still open in the East Village, so I rented a lot of Warhol’s movies from there, like Lonesome Cowboys. I’m fascinated with him. I admire the fact that he just turned out art and created such challenging work, specifically his movies. I also think he’s funny as hell.
Did you study archival footage and old Warhol interviews to prepare for the role?
I did a bit of that, but I ended up having to drop a lot of it to tell the story. A perfect Warhol imitation doesn’t work for creating a convincing musical theater character. A lot of his real mannerisms weren’t useful, and you can’t really project his real voice and keep sounding like Warhol. He spoke in a monotone with almost no inflection and little enunciation in a flat Midwestern accent, which is completely untheatrical. I have to break into song as Warhol and have it be believable.
But since Warhol was an actual living person, do you feel a responsibility to represent him accurately?
Fortunately, this show is such a different context to put Warhol in, so I don’t necessarily feel the same obligation I would if I were doing Warhol in a film. Mine is a very fictionalized Warhol.
POP! doesn’t directly explore Warhol’s sexuality, but many critics over the years have examined the ways his homosexuality shaped his aesthetic and also posed an obstacle for him to overcome in his career. Some of his contemporaries were angered or intimidated by the frankness of his sexuality in his work, but he refused to butch it up for anyone. Do you relate to that aspect of Warhol’s character?
Oh, absolutely. There’s this fascinating book called Pop Out, which is like a queer studies examination of Warhol’s life and career. It’s interesting that Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg were also gay but acted butch, so they wanted nothing to do with Warhol. To me, the most amazing thing about Warhol was that he intentionally played up the “swish” aspect — “swish” being the word that he used — in popism. I have a lot of admiration for that.
When The Advocate interviewed you in 2002, you said that you were scared you might be “perceived as a poster boy for something” because you “never really had any goals of activism.” Considering how much the marriage equality debate has heated up since then, have you found yourself becoming more political?
I always have been political, but I’m political personally and not as a celebrity. I’ll go march in Washington with my friends, but I’m not going to go as Randy Harrison the spokesperson because I’m not comfortable playing that role. But I’m active like any human being should be.
You also told The Advocate, “Besides the fact that I sleep with men, I have very little sense of being part of the community of homosexual people, for whatever reason. I have a group of six friends, two of whom are gay.” Now that you’re in your 30s, do you feel more connected with the gay community? Or, at the very least, have you made more gay friends?
[Laughs] I don’t have any more gay friends! Maybe I feel slightly more connected, but not really. I don’t feel hugely different about it. I’m still not engaged with gay nightlife, but I am a gay person who wants equal rights, so I’m engaged with that. All my friends, straight or gay, are engaged with that.