As an out actor starring as The Book of Mormon's gay character, Rory O'Malley knows what you're wondering: How will a Broadway show from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone go over with the gay audience? After all, this is the same Emmy-winning duo who created Big Gay Al, portrayed Kanye West as a gay fish, and showed Satan screwing Saddam Hussein. "Gay people won't be offended," O'Malley insists. "Like in South Park, these guys will make you laugh your ass off, but they're always saying something important. It's satire at its best."
Written by Parker and Stone with Tony-winning Avenue Q co-composer Robert Lopez, and codirected by Parker and out choreographer Casey Nicholaw, The Book of Mormon is scheduled to open March 24 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. O'Malley plays Elder McKinley, the closeted Mormon leader of a Ugandan mission. "Elder McKinley wants his homosexuality to be turned off," says O'Malley, who explores that desire in the song "Turn It Off." "To be a perfect Mormon, he has to put his feelings away."
To say O'Malley relates to Elder McKinley would be an understatement. "I feel like I studied this character for 19 years as a closeted Irish Catholic kid with a very strong faith," says O'Malley, who considered Jesus his imaginary best friend as a child in Cleveland. "I was an altar boy who'd pray that God would change these feelings I was having" for other boys. Though supportive, O'Malley's family didn't exactly break into a musical number when he came out at 19. "It was definitely a process," he says. The first soul he told was his mother, a single parent with whom he feels a special bond as an only child. "I told her, 'It took me 19 years to accept this, so I can give you a little time.' A straight Irish Catholic woman doesn't know much about modern gay life. I didn't either."
But O'Malley quickly discovered that being closeted professionally wasn't an option for him. "Life comes before the business," says the 30-year-old New Yorker, who was featured in the movie Dreamgirls and last appeared on Broadway in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. "Maybe some actors haven't gotten a role because they came out, but who gives a shit if you aren't happy? I do have it easier because I'm not a leading man, but I can't imagine having the energy to be in the closet. Besides, gay actors who start up gay organizations can't exactly get away with it."
O'Malley is referring to Broadway Impact, the coalition of theater professionals raising funds and organizing events in support of marriage equality that he founded in December 2008 with friends Jenny Kanelos and Gavin Creel. After working on Barack Obama's presidential campaign as a volunteer in Cleveland, O'Malley returned to New York City to try to find a place for theater folk to express frustration over the passage of California's Proposition 8. "For Broadway people to really make a push for equality, we knew we had to own our part of the movement," he says.
In a mere 10 days Broadway Impact planned a rally to support New York governor David Paterson's marriage equality bill in 2009; it was attended by more than 5,000 people, and featured speakers including Cheyenne Jackson, Cynthia Nixon, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Paterson himself. "We didn't sleep for 10 days, but it was awesome," O'Malley says. The group also arranged free transportation for 1,400 performers and fans to attend the National Equality March that year in Washington, D.C. "The challenge now is to continue rising to the occasion and finding new ways to get the theater community involved," he says.
As he gears up for The Book of Mormon's opening, O'Malley may be going through the busiest time in his career thus far, but he continues to make time for the cause. "For a long time I felt it would hinder my acting if I focused on anything else, but I found myself wanting to broaden my horizons," he says. "There comes a point when you have to be more than an actor, and doing something else that means a lot to me has actually made me a stronger actor. It's stimulated something else in my brain and heart."
O'Malley swears that the prospect of marrying Gerold Schroeder, his boyfriend of three years, has never driven his activism. "Hey, one thing at a time," he says with a laugh. "Straight people don't have the right to get married because they want to get married. It's about equality!" It's this kind of passion that inspires Schroeder, who isn't in show business, to call O'Malley an "actorvist." Or "Norma Rae." "He started saying that to annoy me," O'Malley says, "but now I'm trying to own it."