Gale force

By Michael Rowe

Originally published on Advocate.com January 23 2001 12:00 AM ET

The tall, slender man locking his bicycle outside an unpretentious Toronto restaurant is wearing a fedora tilted down over his eyes in a way that suggests a desire for great distance, as though a veil of inviolability has been drawn about him like an invisible cloak. On someone else, the hat might be a bohemian affectation. For 32-year-old actor Gale Harold, it’s a practical strategy. Anonymity—or inviolability, for that matter—has become a rare commodity in the 13 months since his character, Brian Kinney, the gay white shark of Showtime’s Queer as Folk, seared himself into gay consciousness and pop culture. If Harold could mark off more private territory—for instance, never do another celebrity profile—he would. Questions about what it’s like to be a straight man playing gay or what it feels like to be so handsome exasperate him beyond distraction. He doesn’t like fame or trust its motivation. “I’m grateful for the attention,” he says of his fans’ devotion, “because it validates that I’m doing something.” But even as he says this, Harold points out that it sounds like something hundreds of overexposed celebrities have already said. Ãs he talks, reaching past the conventions of celebrityspeak for something truer, you begin to realize that if you thought this man was just some diva of the month, you could not be more wrong. “Gale has very strong opinions, and he’s very political,” says Queer as Folk executive producer Ron Cowen, with no small measure of pride. “Sometimes I think he’s the smartest person I’ve ever met. I know a lot of smart, well-educated, well-read people. But there’s something about Gale where it takes a leap from education or keen intelligence to some other place. Genius is a cheap word, especially in Hollywood. But he’s really smart.” Inside the restaurant, the waiter has brought him a cup of tea, and we have ordered lunch. “How could I not be ambivalent?” Harold says, talking about his new fame. (He’ll reluctantly, and with some humor, accede to being a “semi–junior league star.”) “If being famous means that you get to work on great projects all the time, with great people, then my idea of fame may include that. But,” he says with distaste, “it doesn’t necessarily include—fame.” Harold acknowledges that television culture creates a spurious intimacy. “There’s a genuine human impulse to want to know more about people you’re interested in, for whatever reason,” he says. “But that impulse has been manipulated as an industry—a bad industry—to sustain itself. It can be tweaked by publicists and studios. It didn’t develop as a benevolent machine to provide more pleasure to people. It developed as a tool to sustain itself.” Nevertheless, the story of Harold’s casting in Queer as Folk has that Hollywood-miracle aura that publicists love. Executive producers Cowen and Daniel Lipman, the Emmy-award winning writers of the groundbreaking AIDS drama An Early Frost and the long-running drama series Sisters, had acquired the American rights to the British drama series Queer as Folk. They had already cast actors Scott Lowell, Peter Paige, Hal Sparks, and Randy Harrison as a group of gay friends whose intertwined lives would form the basis for the American version of the story. The casting had been nightmarish for Lipman and Cowen because agents wouldn’t send their clients in to read for the parts in the show. The part of Brian Kinney was particularly difficult. “Here’s a gay man, very sexual, very masculine, not the kind of gay character people are used to seeing,” says Lipman. “If he were a straight male character fucking every woman in sight, he’d be a hero. So this was not like the other roles, and that was part of the difficulty.” “It was an extremely distressing experience trying to cast Brian, because of what we discovered to be the massive amount of homophobia [in Hollywood],” says Cowen. “We were so shocked and so upset, because we went into this thinking that in the years since An Early Frost things had changed. What we had discovered was that things hadn’t changed one iota.” Late on a Friday afternoon, with an 8:30 a.m. Monday meeting scheduled to introduce their cast to the Showtime executives, Lipman and Cowen still didn’t have their Brian Kinney. “It was a test of faith, and by Friday at 5 p.m. faith was running out,” Lipman says ruefully. At 5:45 p.m., their casting director called. “She said, ‘Come on over right now, he’s here!’” Lipman recalls. “In walks Gale Harold, and we’re looking at him and he’s reading the scene, and Ron and I are looking at each other, and it’s like, Is he fucking fabulous? “He fell out of the sky,” Cowen breathes. “There’s truly no other explanation.” Lipman asked Harold to be at the Showtime offices in Los Angeles at 8 a.m. on Monday. “He lit up a cigarette, and, very Brianesque, he said, ‘I’m with this repertory company, and we have to strike a set on Sunday night, and I don’t think I can make it.’ And we’re thinking, Is he for real? Who says that? We’ve been in Hollywood too long. What do you say to that?” Lipman laughs, shaking his head in disbelief. He pressed a copy of the script into Harold’s arms and asked him to read it and call them at home the next day. “I was standing in the kitchen,” Cowen remembers, “and the phone rang and a voice said, ‘Hi, this is Brian Kinney.’”

“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.’”

Harold’s initial take was that the character would best be played as “a cross between Lou Reed and Oscar Wilde, with a gold tooth, and go completely over the top with it. Now we know that I can’t do that,” he says mischievously, “though I still think that’s how it should be done. It would be a lot dirtier. But he’s not allowed to be that.” Nor does he buy into the notion that Brian is a pure predator. “You have to like your character, because if you don’t, no one else will either. And if the point of the show is to create a character that nobody likes and everybody hates, that would be the way to go. Make him a predator. But I liked Stuart [the character on whom Brian is based]! I liked the guy.” The thought that he might be typecast playing a gay man never occurred to him when he considered whether or not to take the role. He had asked a gay actor friend whether he should accept the part, not because of Brian’s sexual orientation but because of the show’s merit. “If you want to be an actor,” his friend told him, “then act.” “There was the creative impulse and the chance to do something,” Harold says honestly, “but there was also $1,400 worth of parking tickets and back registration on my truck.” As he owed money to friends and back rent to landlords, the pragmatist in Harold knew it was time to grow up. “I’d been through the ‘hangdog barely making it’ thing over and over again. Your options run out.” Looking back, he says, he realizes that “the only difference between me now and me then, aside from the experience I’ve gained working on the show, is that I have money. That I’m able to support myself and pay off my student loans. And the ability to make things right with people over time. That becomes a really important thing as you turn 30.” This brings up one of those boilerplate questions Harold dislikes: Is he at all worried that his role in Queer as Folk might negatively affect his professional future? His answer is swift. “If someone doesn’t want to work with me because I’m playing a gay character, I don’t want to work with them,” he says calmly. “They can fuck off.” Even that succinct statement is more than Harold made to the press when Queer as Folk began. As speculation swirled about which of the actors were actually queer folk, Peter Paige and Randy Harrison identified as gay, Scott Lowell talked about his wife, and Hal Sparks discussed his instinctive discomfort during man-on-man sex scenes. Gale Harold said…nothing. Friends still fax him items pulled off the Net, comments that he allegedly made in interviews, “basically putting me in line with other heterosexual actors and their comments.” But Harold continues as he started. He doesn’t want to make what he calls “pretentious” comments on gay life, heterosexual life, or his own love life. “Gale is totally cool and secure enough not to be threatened by anything,” adds Ron Cowen. “He knows who he is. That makes him more than an actor; it makes him a very fine human being.” Another question that comes up constantly involves the nudity and the sex with other men. But the question people never manage to ask, though they want to, is “How on earth do you manage it?”—the implication being “Doesn’t it disgust you as a straight man?” Rather than addressing that homophobic question, the man who rocked Middle America in the first episode of Queer as Folk (when his character boldly instructed Randy Harrison’s character on rimming) is matter-of-fact about the mechanics of on-screen sex. “We have a really good crew,” he says casually. “Between the actors and the cooperation of the producers, we’ve been able to establish a protocol for the show, where every sex scene has a ‘sex meeting.’ The director has a shot list of what he wants. It not only demystifies it, but it’s like a rehearsal for scenes that aren’t rehearsed. If you know what you’re going to do and why, when you’re actually there doing it, you can. You’re not thinking, What the fuck is going on? Where’s the camera? Why are we rolling again? Why am I doing this again? You don’t have to deal with it. You understand the scene.” Harold is amused by the responses he gets in public. Heterosexual women beg him to tell them he’s straight. As for heterosexual men, he says, “The responses range from ‘My wife loves the show!’ to ‘I loved the show; it’s funny as hell!’” Gay men love or loathe Brian Kinney, and Harold sometimes gets the runoff. Example? At a Toronto Film Festival party, he heard an expletive fired his way as he passed a group of men he didn’t know. “But you can’t even acknowledge that as a negative response, really,” Harold says philosophically. His family, for their part, seem to have taken his newfound high profile and growing fame in stride. “Some of them were shocked,” Harold muses, “just by the fact that I had a job. I just let the information come out [bit by bit], so that by the time they actually realized I was on a television show with a budget and that I was getting paid and flying first class in airplanes, they were, like, ‘Jesus, that’s beyond anything we’ve ever considered.’” The key to understanding Gale Harold is likely not going to be found in this interview, or in any of the other interviews he’s sat for since he became “Brian on Queer as Folk.” It might instead be found by examining where he went while on summer hiatus, before the new season began shooting. Instead of heading off to Los Angeles to capitalize on his Brian Kinney status, Harold packed up and headed to the tiny SoHo Playhouse in New York to appear with George Morfogen in a low-budget production of Austin Pendleton’s AIDS drama, Uncle Bob. The stage was his first love, and he had arranged a summer tryst. His personal publicity from Queer as Folk followed him to New York as he tried to prepare for his stage role. “It was very distracting,” he says. “It was a blessing and curse. I wish it had just been the director and I.” Has he ever woken up and asked himself what he thought he was doing when he took on a role as potentially defining as Brian Kinney? “I haven’t, no,” he answers. “I’ve woken up after seeing this,” he adds, brandishing a page from a high-fashion magazine featuring him sulking elegantly for the camera, “and asked myself what I thought I was doing. Or seeing my cover for MetroSource, which was such a cheese dish, and said ‘What the fuck am I doing? I’m supposed to be working on a play!’” A publicist knocks on the door to see how the interview is going thus far. Harold smiles with genuine courtesy, but at that moment, it’s clear there’s one place he wants to be—back at work on the set, acting. He’s right: Interviews can be an enormous cheese dish. “If anyone can crack the publicity nut and figure out how to not come across hammy and contrived,” he says, sighing, “I’d love to talk to them.”