"My life is now an open book," says Sean Maher. The actor, best known from the Emmy Award-winning cult series Firefly and its big screen spin-off, Serenity, has a smile beaming across his boyishly handsome face before he takes a sip from a double latte at a French bistro near his home on the east side of Los Angeles. "For years I was petrified of an interview like this, being asked personal questions and trying to avoid revealing too much." It's a well-earned smile.
In September, just after the premiere of his NBC series The Playboy Club, the 36-year-old actor came clean. Maher ended more than a decade of being closeted and revealed not only that he's gay but also that he's been happily partnered for the past nine years with Paul, an advertising agency president whose last name Maher prefers to not divulge. The men are also fathers to two young children, Sophia Rose, 4, and Liam Xavier, 16 months.
The actor says he and Paul had long discussions about the potential impact his coming out publicly would have on their family and decided it was time. "We looked back at all the games I had been forced to play and decided that I could turn it all around and somehow help others," he says. Maher says his role as a closeted man, by coincidence named Sean, on the early 1960s-era Playboy Club factored into the decision as well.
Maher came out to his close-knit Irish Catholic family during his freshman year at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He recalls that everyone offered unconditional love, and his younger brother even thought it was cool to have a gay sibling. A few days later, though, his father expressed his concern, unable to equate being gay with ever being happy and having a family. "My dad slipped me the number of a priest and said, "This is for people like you so you can be happy again,'" Maher recalls. "I said, 'Dad, what don't you understand? I'm finally happy.'"
Maher's happiness would be compromised in 1999 when he moved to Los Angeles after being cast as the title character in Ryan Caulfield: Year One, a short-lived Fox series about a rookie cop. With the weight of his first lead role on his shoulders, Maher buckled to pressure from his then-manager to keep a lid on his homosexuality.
"I was told specifically that if I didn't get a girl to be photographed with, people would start talking," he recalls. "I was told that if I wanted to be a leading man in Hollywood, I couldn't possibly be thought of as gay."
Maher describes the charade as exhausting and says it made him miserable. "I'm dating, but there's no one special," became his standard answer for prying interviewers. He became so afraid of being found out that he wouldn't even talk with his therapist about the misery the deception was causing. So he kept up the ruse until he met Paul, whom Maher describes as a real man's man. Maher's face lights up when he talks about his partner. "He's just so inspiring to be around," he says.
When he and Paul decided to expand their family, Maher became aware he'd eventually have to step out of the closet. "When my daughter was born I was a stay-at-home dad for the first two years," Maher remembers. "I realized that by living in the closet I wasn't being true to myself, and the morals and values that we were trying to instill in her were contrary to the way I was living my life."
Following his recent revelation, the outpouring of good wishes from both fans and the colleagues in the entertainment industry has been touching. He's received hundreds of tweets and emails commending his honesty. He says one in particular has left him feeling humbled. It's a four-page handwritten letter from a female fan who says she's been struggling with her sexuality and that reading about Maher's journey has given her hope.
Although NBC canceled The Playboy Club after a mere three episodes, Maher is upbeat about the future and says he walks with a new spring in his step. He even thinks the openness may have a positive effect on his acting career. "I've shed this skin of fear," he says. "I now feel raw and excited."
Producer Craig Zadan, who's worked with Maher on two television films, Brian's Song and Wedding Wars, agrees. "I think that now that Sean is officially out and no longer hiding his identity, he will work all the time," Zadan says. Maher has already completed his first post-Playboy project, a filmed-in-secret Joss Whedon-directed adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. "I'll just say that Firefly and Serenity fans are going to love it," he offers.
Maher's father eventually came around and is now very close to his son's family: "Paul has something my dad really connected with. Once my dad saw our home life he had an Aha moment." Maher says his father also played a prominent role in his decision to come out. "He's from such a different generation, and I felt by publicly coming out and just presenting my family and showing how we're overflowing with love and abundance, someone out there can see that this is a gay life and they can have it too."