A Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee for playing attorney Bobby Donnell on The Practice, Dylan McDermott won over the grand gay jury for his roles in films like Steel Magnolias, Party Monster, and Home for the Holidays. Now that he’s found another home as the haunted patriarch of American Horror Story, the supernatural FX thriller from Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, McDermott explains why, even at 50, he’s not afraid to show some skin.
The Advocate: Are you aware of your gay following?
Dylan McDermott: Gay or straight, the idea of fans isn’t something I normally think about, because I’m ultimately kind of shy. If I start thinking about who does or doesn’t like me, I just get uncomfortable. But I grew up in New York’s Greenwich Village in the ’70s with my dad, so I was exposed to gay people from a very young age. It was definitely eye-opening for me.
And your stepmom is feminist playwright and performance artist Eve Ensler, a lesbian icon.
Oh, yes, so I was raised with a great deal of tolerance and the idea of equality for all. Eve has a lot of gay friends, and I do too.
Then you must know that Steel Magnolias is a major gay favorite.
No, I had no idea. You have to tell me about it.
Seriously? You haven’t lived until you’ve been to a Steel Magnolias viewing party with a bunch of gay men. I’ve literally seen it played on a loop in gay bars.
That’s hysterical. I swear to God, I did not know this. That was my first really big movie, and I loved making it. I’d just made Hamburger Hill in the Philippines, where there were no trailers, and somebody died while we were making the movie. It was a brutal shoot. All of a sudden I’m on the set of Steel Magnolias, where there’s more pink than I’ve ever seen in my life. I was working with movie stars who each had their own hair and makeup people, we only worked eight hours a day, and everybody was always partying and laughing. It blew my mind.
Quoting dialogue from Steel Magnolias is a national gay pastime. What’s your favorite line?
Well, I’ve maybe seen the movie twice. It’s hard for me to watch my own movies, because I look back and think, Oh, my God, I’m a different person. Watching myself is a little unnerving.
So what was it like to watch yourself in American Horror Story at the big Hollywood premiere?
When my ass was 70 feet up in the air at the Cinerama Dome, I got a little shy, but people seemed to appreciate it afterward.
No kidding. Mere hours after the television premiere, screencaps of your nude scenes were everywhere online.
Oh, no. [Laughs] I knew going into it that there was nudity and that a lot of people would be watching, so I knew I had to be in really good shape. I’m no fool, so I hit the gym and watched what I ate. Actually, when I first got the role, production called me and asked, “Who’s your body double?” I said, “Oh, hell no. It’s going to be all me, baby.”
Some have commented that yours is not the ass of a 50-year-old man.
Well, I was 49 when I did those scenes, so they’re right.
How does the big 5-0 feel?
It’s a bit freaky, I have to say. I don’t know exactly what it all means. I asked my father, who’s close to 70 now, how old he feels, and says that he still feels like he’s 18 years old. Age is a funny thing: You get wiser, your body changes, but I think we all get stuck at an age where we don’t feel much older than we really are. I was talking to Eve about it the other night and she said, “Life begins at 50. You kind of have it figured out by then, because you know there’s so much bullshit in the world and you know not to be so worried about it.” I actually noticed that for myself when I was able to stay away from the reviews for American Horror Story, good and bad. I really like that I’ve arrived at that point in life where I don’t have to be validated. Of course, it’s nice when you’re validated, but if it all turned to shit, I would still be me. So I like the maturity that comes with turning 50, but you’re hit with mortality more than anything else. There’s always the element of, Oh, shit, is time running out?
When it comes to filming nude scenes, some actors modestly rush into their bathrobes and other actors let it all hang out at craft services. Which actor are you?
I’m probably somewhere in the middle. When I’m in the role, in the moment, I’m comfortable. After they yell “cut,” I don’t need to put my balls in someone’s face.
Were you at all intimidated by the show’s overt sexual content?
I’ve never been uncomfortable with sexuality. That goes back to my growing up in New York in the ’70s, which was a very sexual time. I was sort of a club kid, and I’d go to places like the Mudd Club and Max’s Kansas City. Being a part of that whole world, sexuality always seemed very normal to me.
Did men ever hit on you in those clubs?
Oh, yeah. Honestly, I’m cool with everyone, and people pick up on that. I’d say, “I’m not gay, but it’s all good.” It’s kind of like going to Paris when you don’t know the language; some Americans get into trouble over there, but I’m just like, “Sorry, I don’t speak French.”
Ryan Murphy has a reputation of being a very exacting director. What’s he like as a boss on American Horror Story?
I believe that Ryan Murphy is a genius. His instincts remind me of Andy Warhol. I recently went to the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh, and you can see a lot of echoes of Andy in Ryan’s work. Like Andy, Ryan’s finger is so on the pulse of culture that he’s ahead of culture. Their aesthetic and their vision of the world are very similar. Ryan is also so unafraid. Most people in show business are so afraid to fail that they don’t take any risks, but all Ryan does is take risks. He puts himself out there all the time, and it’s his bravery that really separates him from everybody else. When I first heard about American Horror Story, even before I read the script, I was so intrigued by it. I was looking for someone to take me to a different place, and I needed someone like Ryan, someone with a vision who was brave enough to take me there. A lot of times you end up doing something that’s middle of the road, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something controversial, and I certainly got that with Ryan. I was really happy when I got the role.
And you get to work with openly gay actors like Denis O’Hare and Zachary Quinto.
Yeah. Certainly, when I was first coming up in the business, I worked with gay actors who were in the closet and had to remain so, but from the Rock Hudson years to where we are now, it seems like more and more actors are comfortable being out, and that’s great. I think we’ll get to the point eventually where it doesn’t matter at all, but it just needs more time. People’s tolerance is still questionable out there in the world, but I feel like it’s getting better. James Lecesne, who cofounded the Trevor Project, is a friend of mine, and I’m happy to be involved with that wonderful organization.
You and Denis O’Hare in particular have remarkable chemistry.
Oh, I can’t say enough good things about Denis O’Hare. I love the guy. Every time I do a scene with him, I’m completely blown away. I was a fan of his way before we worked together, and working with him has taught me so much. He’s such a huge talent, but he’s also a beautiful person. He’s loving, kind, and generous — the whole package. I hope he gets everything he deserves in life.
You also worked with gay filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato when you played nightclub impresario Peter Gatien in Party Monster.
I love those guys and think they did a great job. I’d seen the chilling documentary on the subject that they did before the movie, and I thought they were terrific directors, so I immediately signed on. I’d gone to the Limelight, and I remember that murder happening and all the drugs like Special K. That whole scene fascinated me, so I really wanted to be a part of that film. I remember there was a mural of Peter Gatien on St. Mark’s Place when I was a kid, and then I ended up playing him with his eye patch and all.
Did you ever hear from Peter about your performance?
Yeah, a couple of friends actually told me that Peter was really happy that I had played him and that he liked my performance.
You played a love interest for Will in a 2003 episode of Will & Grace. What attracted you to the role?
I thought that show was just great, and the whole cast was so amazing. I wanted to do something different and unexpected. When you’re on television for a long time, people only expect you to do one kind of role — “Oh, that’s Bobby Donnell from The Practice.” But my job as an actor is to always switch it up and change people’s minds, and I hope I’ve also done that with American Horror Story. I hope people are seeing another side to me.
Was Will & Grace your only gay character?
I think so. I don’t think I’ve ever been offered another gay role. But I had this idea — I actually brought it up to Ryan Murphy — that I wanted to play Halston. I think that would make a great movie, because his life was so interesting and complex. I was trying to develop that for a while, and Ryan was kind of mulling it over. We’ll see.
You played the friend of Robert Downey Jr.’s gay character in Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays, which also has something of a gay following. Word has it that Robert ad-libbed like a madman on that movie.
Robert did improv a lot, but it really made his character come alive. He’s so enormously talented. God, there were so many great people in that movie — Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft. I wasn’t aware that had any kind of cult following in the gay world, so that’s cool to hear.
Please tell me that we haven’t seen the last of your FunnyOrDie.com character Douché, the skeevy dance instructor with the prominent bulge.
[Laughs] We’re talking about a sequel, but right now he’s living on in history. When that video came out, my poor daughter was like, “Oh, dad, did you really have to do this?”