Matt Ross: Bigger Gay Love

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com January 10 2010 3:10 AM ET

Unless you view its portrayal of fundamentalist Mormon polygamists in Utah as a metaphor for all misunderstood alternative families, gay content has been somewhat slim on HBO’s Big Love — especially considering the show’s creators and executive producers, Will Scheffer and Mark V. Olsen, are life partners. But that’s about to change in season 4, which premieres January 10, when the villainous Alby Grant, played by Matt Ross, finally gets a boyfriend. Having long struggled with his sexuality in secret, the power-hungry son of murdered prophet Roman Grant develops feelings for Dale Tomasson, a state-appointed trustee for the United Effort Brotherhood who’s battling his own gay demons in a reparative therapy group. Ross, a 40-year-old straight actor who also played gay in American Psycho, kisses and tells all.

Advocate.com: Will Scheffer and Mark V. Olsen, the creators and executive producers of Big Love, have praised your “career-defining” performance in the show’s upcoming fourth season. How are you feeling about the buzz?
Matt Ross: It’s very exciting. This season was challenging because I got to explore a part of Alby I’d never explored before, and it felt very unusual. People will see an Alby they haven’t seen before, which is what I’m most excited about.

Did you know when first accepting the role that Alby would be struggling with his sexuality?
I actually did not know. In the pilot I only have, like, six lines, and I’m just sort of the son and right-hand man of Roman Grant. Really, up until the seventh episode, it wasn’t clear who Alby was at all. Mark and Will had sort of pitched to me who Alby might become, so I had this idea about him, but it was never on the page. Frankly, all I did for most of the first season was just lurk in the background, tremble in fear, and say, “Yes, Papa,” and “No, Papa.” But in the seventh episode, Alby’s sent by Roman on an errand into the city and picks up a male hustler. Even at that point and in that scene, I didn’t know if Alby was gay or not. I still hadn’t talked to Mark or Will about it, so I sort of answered it for myself that he was one of those isolated people who’s so dead inside that he puts himself in dangerous circumstances — like picking up a stranger — in an effort to feel something.

So when did you realize that Alby was gay?
It wasn’t until the following season, when Alby was in a police station, secretly implicating his father, that it said in the stage directions that “Alby is checking out the cops’ butts.” So at that point I was like, “OK, well, now it’s pretty clear he has some sort of homosexual longing.” I still hadn’t discussed it with Mark and Will, but that’s when I realized what that scene with the hustler had been about. Then there was an attempted tryst in a truck stop bathroom in the third season, and by then it was really clear, but it was still unclear whether or not he had ever acted on those feelings.

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Once you finally knew Alby was gay, did you begin looking to Will and Mark for more insight into your character?
Well, Mark and Will sort of let you do what you’re going to do, and then they comment on it. So we still haven’t had discussions specifically about Alby’s homosexuality, but I just think it’s sort of clear what’s going on: He’s living in a society where he’s not allowed to be what he is. He has his political ambitions, but I think Alby truly does believe in their God and their culture’s beliefs. There’s no way he can be out of the closet and be prophet of a polygamist fundamentalist organization, so I don’t know what that’s going to mean for Alby’s future.

When you found out that Alby would have a love interest this season, did you as a straight actor see that as a challenge?
No, because love is love. The challenge for me was just making the emotional adjustment to being more emotionally present. He has many wives and he has children, but he’s obviously not heterosexual, so he’s clearly suffering a great deal. I always thought of Alby as this sort of junkyard dog who’s been kicked and beaten for his whole life by his father, so I had this idea of him as this emotionally disturbed, soul-deadened individual until I learned that he was living this secret life. To open that up and actually feel love was difficult for me to navigate.

The gay community appreciates representation on TV, but not so much when the gay character’s a ruthless villain like Alby. Will having a love interest make Alby a more sympathetic character?
That’s an excellent point, and I hope so. I’m clearly built as an antagonist on the show, so when his homosexuality began to be sketched in, I worried about that too, because you don’t want to portray a community’s negative characteristics. But then I also thought, Well, we’re not a public service announcement; we’re a narrative drama and people are complex. I applaud what we’re doing because it’s more truthful not to worry so much about creating a positive image of a gay man, but instead try to create a complex image of a man who happens to be gay. That’s at the heart of what we’re doing here. Alby’s not defined by his homosexuality, and I think that’s a very mature, evolved way to write drama.

Mark Olsen has said that he anticipates your story line causing controversy in the way it shows the relationship between the Mormon Church and its gay members. Can you elaborate on that?
It’s one of those things that people just don’t want to talk about, frankly, because they don’t know how to deal with it. I grew up around a lot of Mormons, but none of my close friends are Mormons, so I can’t predict what their reaction will be. I don’t even know if they watch the show. But just looking at statistics, there have to be gay people not only in the greater Mormon Church but also in the fundamental branches. I hope that we’re accurately showing what it would be like to have to hide your sexuality because of religious necessity.

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Olsen also revealed that Alby is going to "ex-gay" therapy this season.
Well, he doesn’t go to cure himself. He only goes because Dale is going and he’s chasing Dale. He’s in love and he’s not going to give up.

What do you think about ex-gay therapy — can a person pray the gay away?
[Laughs] I’ve certainly done some reading on the subject, and I think it’s absurd. I mean, come on. Frankly, I think it’s deeply, deeply sad that someone would even try to reconcile their religious beliefs with their homosexuality, because there’s really no reconciliation allowed. By and large, these churches represent a really antiquated view of the world.

Can we look forward to any love scenes between Alby and Dale?
There are many kissing and postcoital scenes, but there are no scenes of them actually having sex. It’s certainly possible in the future, though. It’s HBO, right?

Tell me about working with Ben Koldyke, who plays Dale. Was it easy to be intimate with him on camera?
Well, we didn’t know each other before, but I was very fortunate to have Ben, because you never know who you’re going to get. Ben is just a very open, present, serious actor who’s really game for anything, which is what the role required. Frankly, intimate scenes are no less awkward if it’s with a man or woman, but it can be awkward when you view the other person as a close friend, so I was happy I didn’t know him. You just sort of show up, do the work, and let go. It was very comfortable. We both just wanted to do justice to the relationship and make it real.

Could some of the tension between Alby and Bill Henrickson, Bill Paxton’s protagonist, stem from the fact that Alby finds himself sexually attracted to Bill?
[Laughs] I like that. There was a scene that got cut during the second year where I was in a truck with Bill and I was sort of holding Bill’s hand, massaging it and looking into his eyes, and Bill was extremely uncomfortable. That kind of suggested what you’re implying, but I think they cut that with good reason, because if there is any attraction to Bill, it has to be hidden and so subtextual. Bill’s clearly an attractive man, but I don’t think their relationship has ever been overtly sexual. Alby has probably never opened up about his sexuality to anyone until Dale. His wife, Lura, perhaps has an inkling, but I don’t think he would ever discuss it with anyone.

Lura’s probably the perfect wife for a closet case like Alby because she seems to care more about power than love or sex. Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah. Again, this is something I never talked to Mark or Will about because they have, like, 30 characters to deal with, but Anne Dudek, the woman who plays Lura, and I have talked behind the scenes about what that relationship’s about. As first wife she has all the power in the community, so we decided that she’s a Lady Macbeth character and that they sort of have an arrangement. Because how could she not know that he’s gay? Their relationship does change a little bit this season because of something big that I don’t want to give away, but you and I can discuss that next year.

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You mentioned the truck stop restroom scene in season 3, but that wasn’t the first time in your career that you’d played a closeted gay man getting attacked from behind in a bathroom.
Oh, in American Psycho? I think I was attacking Christian Bale! [Laughs] No, you’re right. He came in the bathroom to kill me and I turned around and kissed him. So it was sort of the same, only last time I was singing Les Misérables.

Are there any gay characters in Renaissance Men, the screenplay you’ve written with Rainn Wilson about Renaissance fairs?
You really have done your research! As of now, there are no gay characters. That script is something that Rainn and I actually based on another script we had written where there was a gay couple, but we went back and forth about that a lot, frankly. One of my favorite movies of all time is a British movie called Withnail & I, and there’s a fantastic character in that who is gay. We were going for something complex like that, but I felt very insecure about it because there’s a fine line between having characters who happen to be gay and who do stuff that’s comedic and having gay characters where gay people feel you’re making fun of them. The way our characters were written was the antithesis of that, but I was still worried about it. I would worry the same way if I were writing an African-American character, just because I’m not African-American. It’s a tricky thing that goes back to what you said earlier about people looking to have their community positively represented. Not that it’s the function of comedy or drama to do anything other than portray people in a nuanced, realistic manner, but I definitely worry about things like that.