Jonathan Scarfe: Open Bar

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com June 05 2009 12:00 AM ET

Led by Saved by the Bell alum Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Steven Bochco's legal drama Raising the Bar is back in session June 8 for its sophomore season on TNT. Jonathan Scarfe steals his share of courtroom scenes as conflicted law clerk Charlie Sagansky, who came out of the closet at the end of season 1 after an affair with his female boss. Best known in America for his appearances on ER and in the miniseries Into the West, the Toronto-born "Canadian Emmy" winner defends the still-closeted friend who inspires his role.

Advocate.com: For the benefit of those who missed season 1, why did Charlie stay in the closet for so long?
Jonathan Scarfe: Charlie's career aspirations are to become a judge, and he was concerned that being out would slow down the process of getting on the bench. He got some encouragement from Mark-Paul's character, who basically helped him see that he was lying to his friends and that he had to be true to himself. And he told him that there are gay judges out there, so being gay is not going to make it impossible for him to go down that path. When Charlie did come out, his peers were completely fine with it.

What's new for Charlie in season 2 now that he's out? A gay relationship?
I would love that, but where we've gone with the scripts so far — I've only seen up to episode 8 — we haven't seen that. That's something I keep fighting for. But they have introduced another character, an older gay judge [Judge Albert Farnsworth, played by John Michael Higgins]. He's sworn off romantic relationships, but he's become a sort of mentor for Charlie professionally.

Eight episodes and no action?
No action, man, and I gotta say that I'm kind of disappointed. At the end of the day, it's a big ensemble cast with a lot of characters to write for, so you have to be patient. But I hope that's down the road.

As a straight actor, did you have any hesitations in taking the role for fear of getting typecast?
Oh, that doesn't occur to me at all. I look pretty much like a leading man, but I play characters all the time. I've always struggled with the fact that I get brought in for the lead guy, but then I'm always a little too offbeat for them, so they want me to play the psycho, the weirdo, or Jesus — something outside the box. And I'm a second-generation actor, so it never occurred to me that playing a gay character would ever be a bad thing.

Did you ever have any conversations with series creators Steven Bochco and David Feige about how your character's sexuality should inform your performance?
We haven't had those discussions at all. Those decisions were left up to me, but I suppose if I were doing something outside of what they wanted, they would've told me. I have a very close friend who is essentially this character, except instead of an aspiring judge, he's an actor. He's in his mid-late 30s and he's very much a leading man kind of guy, so he's been very cautious about being out because he feels like it's going to get in the way of his career. He's also in a long-term relationship that he's always trying to hide, and I've always felt that it wasn't really fair to his partner. I've spent my whole life saying to him, "You've got to be out, you've got to be true to yourself." His response was always, "You just don't know, man. You're a straight guy, so you have no idea about certain realities of being gay." But early on in playing this character, I was amazed at how often you hear gay jokes on a film set in Los Angeles. Not that the crew really has a problem with it, because they're lovely people, but every day there's some reference to the gay thing. Constantly. It was the first time I got a sense of what my friend was talking about. Even in L.A., where you think the gay thing would be a nonissue, it has enough of an effect on people that their immediate go-to response is to marginalize it in a "hee hee, ha ha" way. I was shocked.

Would you be comfortable coming out as an actor if you were gay?
With my personality type, I would be completely out. I'd just feel like, "Fuck you for making me feel like I can't be." I have more of a combative edge in my personality than my friend does. But he refuses to be not considered for certain roles because of someone else's prejudices.

Do you feel any pressure to represent the gay community respectfully?
Yes, I do. That's why I really want them to explore a personal relationship; otherwise, I feel like it's chickening out. If I'm going to have this coming-out story line, I don't want it to then get dropped away because they're shy about exploring a gay relationship. We've gotten into all kinds of discussions about how we were going to proceed with Charlie, because, knowing my friend's situation, I felt there were places where we weren't being truthful. I was very concerned that it would become a sort of gimmick.

What sort of feedback have you gotten about Charlie's coming-out?
I've had a really positive response. People have come up to me and said they love the character or it's their favorite character on the show. A lot of that has to do with the fact that he's one of the more complicated characters on the show, so he's more compelling. But I don't hear from that many people because I live on a tiny island in middle of nowhere off the coast of Vancouver, so I was out of the country the whole time the show was airing. This season I'll actually be around when it starts airing because we'll still be shooting.

The other big change in season 2 is that Mark-Paul has chopped off his long mane. Do you prefer the new 'do or the old 'do?
I'm definitely a fan of the new 'do.

Were you a fan of Mark-Paul from his Saved by the Bell days?
No. [Laughs] I was already working back then.

You played Greg Louganis's boyfriend Keith in the 1997 TV movie Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story, which starred Mario Lopez as Louganis. What was it like to play Mario's love interest?
It was hilarious. Yeah, how weird is that? Two times that I've played a gay character and it's been opposite someone from Saved by the Bell? Mario's a very, very sweet guy, but he always struck me as more of a jock than an actor. I don't know what else to say, because I don't want to say anything bad about the guy. [Laughs] Actually, the best part of that job was getting to meet Greg Louganis, because he was a lovely guy.

According to IMDb, you also appeared in two episodes of The L Word. You've certainly covered all your bases in building a gay fan base.
Oh, I forgot about that! I played a gay character in that too. There were these group therapy sessions, and I was one half of a gay couple that was trying to adopt a child.

As a fellow Canadian, it must've been exciting to star opposite Alanis Morissette in the upcoming sci-fi film Radio Free Albemuth.
It was fun to get to work with her because it's a much bigger part than she's played in the past. But I'd actually met her a few times before because she was engaged to a friend of mine a long time ago. So I wasn't starstruck, because I've already seen her with a cup of coffee in her hand at 6:30 in the morning.