The full Paige

By Michael Rowe

Originally published on Advocate.com June 02 2001 12:00 AM ET

Peter Paige is
not Emmett, and he wants you to know that. Their
differences are worth noting, if only because the contrast
between the actor and the character throws each into
sharp relief. In person, Paige is surprisingly
broad-shouldered and sinewy. He’s handsome, his face
wide and frank, and there is a solid middle-American
masculinity underlying his demeanor that stands in
sharp contrast to the willowy confection he plays on
Showtime’s Queer as Folk. Paige has
arrived at Café California, a restaurant on the gay
strip of Toronto’s Church Street, kinetic and
flushed from a morning workout, dressed in jeans and a
bulky-knit blue sweater. As he takes a window seat,
he’s oblivious to the covert attention
he’s attracting from the other patrons, gay and
straight, who, with typical Canadian reserve, are far too
polite to officially notice.
Paige quickly makes it clear that whether
he’s noticed or not matters very little to him
personally. He does, however, want people to notice
Emmett. “I pray to God that people are relating to
Emmett,” Paige says, “and that men who
are effeminate see a champion in Emmett. I love the
fact that he’s effeminate and not
self-loathing.” He recalls a family photograph
taken of him as a child, arms akimbo and wrists on wide
hips, an awkward, girlish pose that made him wince for
years every time he saw it. “I like to think
I’m a masculine guy,” he says, “but I
think that it’s when I made my peace with the
part of me that can be feminine—that was girly,
that is sensitive, that cries at romantic comedies and
Hallmark commercials—that I came into my power as a man.”
Yet even the best argument that Emmett honors
the feminine side of gay men will not satisfy those
Sunday night armchair sociologists who debate, often
querulously, whether Queer as Folk is “good
for the gays”—whether the show’s
portrayal of drug-taking, sex-seeking, flamboyant club
puppies paints an oversimplified and negative picture of
gay life, one that doesn’t accurately represent gay
people. The counterargument, that the show tells
secrets about a very real element of urban gay life,
only turns up the controversy to a fever pitch.
Not surprisingly, it’s a subject on which
Paige has a passionate response: “What I think
the show portrays is flawed, human, fully sexualized
gay people, which is something we’ve never seen
before on television. So hell yes, I think it’s
good for the community!”
There’s back story to that answer,
however. Paige’s journey from struggling actor
to flamboyant poster boy has included careful
consideration of what impact Queer as Folk would have
on viewers and on his career. “I read the
script and was alternately thrilled and horrified by
it,” he says. “I was totally captivated by the
writing, but there was a part of me that asked,
‘Are we really going to tell people this? Are
we really going to tell these stories?’ ” His
manager, also openly gay, called him before his final
audition with his own reservations. “He said,
‘I don’t think you should do it. The level of
sexuality in this piece is such that I don’t think
I’m going to be able to take you somewhere else
after this.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s a
really valid concern. Let me think about it.’
So I thought about it,” says Paige.
Ultimately, the character proved irresistible to
Paige, and the thought of someone else playing Emmett
was more than he could bear. “I don’t
think I could have lived with that,” he says.
“I knew I had something to offer this project,
and I’d rather risk it. And if the gods of Hollywood
dictate that this is it for me, so be it. I’ll move
on to other pastures. I wasn’t going to turn
this one down out of fear.” He still wrestles with
the specter of future typecasting but says frankly,
“I wasn’t willing to go into the closet
or create some bullshit PR smoke screen. I mean, here
I am playing this big queen, and I’ve never felt more
masculine or empowered. It’s ironic.”

Ironic, maybe,
but not surprising, once you know something of
Paige’s enlightened upbringing. He was born in
Connecticut, and his parents divorced before he was 2.
He lived and traveled with his mother until he was 11.
“My mother worked at a feminist bookstore,” he
says. “I don’t remember what it was
called. I always called it ‘Uterus Rising.’ I
used to sleep in a Babe Didrikson T-shirt. I was
surrounded by funky bisexual women who all changed
their names to reflect their African roots. At the age
of 6, I would go out with them and engage in
conversations.” That exposure to his
mother’s world, Paige says, “gave me a sense
that there was something out there for me.”
At 11, already intent on being an actor, he
moved in with his father. He attended an arts high
school in Raleigh, N.C., graduated summa cum laude
from Boston University in theatre arts, then lived in New
York and Portland, Ore., before settling in Los
Angeles—a city he now desperately misses.
Toronto in winter is everything that Los Angeles is not.
Paige misses his boyfriend, and he misses his best
friend. He misses his godchildren, Morgan and
Charlotte. Mostly, though, he misses the California
sun. “I feel like I’ve been on a submarine for
nine months,” he says lightly, looking out the
window at the slate-gray Canadian sky, streaked with
freezing rain. “I’m looking forward to a
little bit of shore leave.”
Paige’s casual openness about his life
has spared him the endless questions about straight
actors playing gay characters that other cast members
have faced. He has no patience with such questions, in any
case. “I find the idea that straight actors
playing gay roles is somehow exotic offensive in the
same way that I find the notion that I as a gay actor
might not be able to play straight characters after this
show offensive,” Paige sighs. “The fuel
to the fire is that the show actually has sexual
energy to it. Not only are these actors playing gay guys,
they’re playing gay guys who actually have sex.
They’re called upon to invest in the emotional
lives of the characters, and they’re called upon to
actually touch bodies.”
As for his fellow cast members’
occasionally ill-considered answers to questions about
physical contact, he says, “There is something about
the question ‘What’s it like to kiss a
guy?’ that is innately homophobic. What does it
matter? You’d never in a million years ask an actor
who was doing an interracial relationship what it was
like to kiss a black person.”
Paige acknowledges that apart from himself and
fellow out actor Randy Harrison, who plays 18-year-old
Justin, and many of the producers and writers, the
cast and crew members of Queer as Folk are mostly
straight as arrows. Dominated by craftspeople, a film set
can resemble a high-tech construction site at times,
and a blue-collar ethos more often than not carries
the day. Yet Paige says the culture on the set has been
embracing, if occasionally wondering, as any initial
trepidation among the heterosexual crew members
dissolved quickly.
“It comes back to the notion of living
out of the closet,” Paige explains. “One
of the grips came up to me one day and said, ‘Before
I started to work on the show, I was completely
homophobic. But seeing this every day and getting to
know you as a person has changed that. I was
completely wrong.’ And what the fuck else do you
need? That’s what I’m after.
That’s what I’m about. That’s
what’s important to me.”
Back at Paige’s apartment after the lunch
on Church Street, the phone rings several times during
the course of the afternoon, and at least twice
it’s Paige’s friend and costar Scott Lowell,
who plays Ted, Emmett’s emotionally repressed
sidekick. The two actors have formed a close
friendship over the past nine months. Paige has nothing but
praise for Lowell, and Lowell characterizes Paige as
“wonderful to work with” and
“very giving, very alive.” He proposes that
Ted and Emmett are unofficially “the new Odd
Couple,” referring to the fact that the two
represent opposite yet inseparable ends of the gay spectrum.
Behind the scenes, Lowell says, the actors have more
similarities than differences.
“You need to remember that our offscreen
personalities are quite different from our on-screen
ones,” Lowell cautions. “Peter is not as
flamboyant as Emmett, nor am I as conservative as Ted is. We
do share a similar sensibility. Peter has been great
for me in terms of calling me on my shit, and vice
versa. We’re both really good at listening. Early
on, those talks were dealing with the show and our roles,
and then we became better friends, and that led into
our personal lives. I don’t know what I would
have done up here without him.”
Lowell is well aware of the career risks Paige
has taken by playing it the way he has. Yet he
insists, “I really don’t worry about Peter
Paige or Randy Harrison. They have the strength to
prove themselves. The amount of bravery it takes in
this day and age to be out in this business is
unfortunate, though.”
“I’ve been a good boy my whole
life,” Paige says. “The main thing was
always to be pleasant, to be kind, to make nice. To play by
the rules. Well, one day that stopped serving me. It
took me a long time to realize that I had my own rules
and those were the ones I needed to live by. I needed
to figure out what I valued. When I did, that’s when
my career began.”

The obligations
of newly minted stardom include photo shoots like the one
the next day in the Toronto studio of photographer Chris
Chapman. In between shots, Paige does handstand
pushups. Feet against the wall, arms extended, palms
flat on the floor, he pumps the muscles of his chest and
shoulders as adeptly as any Calvin Klein model. He is
shirtless, his muscular alabaster torso rising from a
pair of trashy black leather pants selected by a
stylist. The makeup artist has smoothed and buffed the skin
of his face, highlighting the wide planes of his cheekbones.
He looks like a star today, lit by both the studio
lights and the sunlight streaming through the dirty
industrial glass of the studio windows.
“It’s very flattering,”
says Paige in response to a question about how he
deals with his new, higher profile. For years he went out
dancing to get cruised, to be noticed. Now the
experience is double-edged. “It’s an
incredibly vulnerable feeling as well,” he adds.
“They have a lot of information about who I am
and what I do, and I literally have no idea who they
are, so it’s a very uneven playing field.”
The ninth episode of Queer as Folk opened
with Emmett naked in front of the computer engaging in
cybersex. Paige asked his mother to “tune in
two minutes late” for that episode. He imagines that
her response to his new fame is a complicated one.
Although both of his parents were supportive of him
when he came out, he says, “there are likely
various elements” to his mother’s take on the
show: “There is seeing your son’s
success, seeing your son get semifamous, seeing your
son become a poster boy for alternative sexuality—and
other things that parents and kids aren’t
supposed to feel comfortable talking about. She’s
expressed real pride in my candor and in my lack of apology.
For Paige, personally, the as-yet-undefended
border is the line not between who he was then and is
now but between who he is and who—and
what—he is perceived to be. How it will affect his
primary relationship, the one with his boyfriend, is
anybody’s guess and likely nobody’s
business. Lately the two have spent more time apart than
Paige considers healthy. “Of course it puts
stress on the relationship,” he says softly.
“I think the notion that any two people can be apart
for nine months and not have it be a challenge is absurd.”
And Paige realizes he won’t be returning
to Los Angeles as the anonymous actor he was when he
left in July 2000. “I know [my boyfriend] has
concerns about what it will be like for us to go out and not
have it be what it was. I don’t know how he
couldn’t. I do. It’s not jealousy as
much as it’s fear of the unknown.”
It’s been a new experience for Paige the
actor as well as Paige the person. “I’ve
never played one role this long,” he says.
“I’m ready to get back to the world of
my life. And, yes, I’m a little scared. I hope
my life is essentially the same.”
Still, he has no regrets. “I’m
always drawn to edgy, interesting, controversial
stuff,” he continues. “I knew this would be
heated. I knew it would be dangerous. I knew it would
piss people off in every direction. I understand
people being uncomfortable with some of it. I get
uncomfortable sometimes. Sometimes I read a script and say,
‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m
doing this,’ or, ‘Boy, does this not show this
character in his or her best light.’ But I also knew
it was human and true. If I thought for one moment
that this was slanderous or dishonest or denigrating
to the community as a whole, I wouldn’t be involved
with it in a million years.”