With his piercing blue eyes, sculpted physique, and enough masculine swagger to fill a cell block, it didn't take long for Christopher Meloni to gain the attention of gay men after he stepped into the role of bisexual criminal Chris Keller at the age of 37 on HBO's prison drama Oz. But it was his outspoken support of LGBT causes at the time that turned that attention into a loyal fan following. Now, 15 years later, the 52-year-old father of two quickly reminds me why he is still one of the strongest examples of a straight ally in Hollywood.
As we sit at a table near the back of the Universal Hilton's lobby lounge to discuss his latest role, on Fox's new comedy Surviving Jack, Meloni throws back his head and laughs when I ask him what he thinks of homophobic parents who claim same-sex marriage will confuse children. "My son is 10 years old, and he gets it," he says. "I remember when he was 7 and he looked at a gay couple who are friends of ours and asked, 'Are they married?' I said, 'They're partners and they love each other. That's what makes them happy.' He just said, 'Oh, OK,' and that was it. It was such a nonissue and it proves the point that once you take everything out of the darkness, once you shine a light on things, it's not a big deal."
Meloni had a rare opportunity during the time he worked on Oz to hear a number of stories from a generation of gay fans who shared how living in the darkness of a closet had affected their lives. "I got a lot of letters and had personal meetings where gay men of a certain age, usually men slightly older than me, let me know how important seeing that character was to them. It was important because they lived in Matthew Shepard country. They lived under that threat. They lived under this code of manliness in the middle of nowhere. I think they really identified, or finally had a symbol of, not the fey homosexual, but a man who happened to be gay. Even though that character used his sexuality as a weapon, it was a secondary issue for them. It was a guy who was fearlessly gay. It helped give them a sense of power."
In Surviving Jack, based on the novel I Suck at Girls by Justin Halper and set during the 1990s, Meloni plays Jack Dunlevy, an overbearing father who the actor describes as an "Archie Bunker type of guy, minus the racism." He says both the time period in which the series is set and his character have caused him to reflect on the progress that's been made in the battle for equality since the days when Hypercolor T-shirts were in fashion and grunge bands ruled radio. "That Macklemore song, 'Same Love,' that song is so important -- especially for young people," he says. "One of the biggest things about it that hit me when I heard it was him asking, 'My uncle is gay. Am I gay?' That's a big question, because you don't know enough information about yourself when you're young. That's why you need to have a responsible adult around you to guide you through like his mother did and say, 'You're not gay. And if you are, let's not sweat it. Let's deal with how you want to operate on that level.' You can't ignore these things and pretend like they don't exist."
It's a line of thinking Meloni says he applies to his own parenting as he tries to foster an inclusive view of the world in his own children. "My son plays football, and I remember when [NFL hopeful] Michael Sam came out. I told him, 'That's a real man. That's a guy with courage.' Right before he's about to take the next step toward furthering his career, he said 'I'm gay. Let's move on,'" says Meloni. "And my son was into it -- he agreed. I think that's the kind of example, the type of behavior, that's going to push us forward. For more people to say, 'I don't want to carry this silly burden anymore, this silly secret, let's move on. It's not the focal point of who I am.'"
"That said," he adds, "I'm not gay and I don't deal with it on a daily basis, but that's how it strikes me and I think we're already way far into it."
Meloni believes continually challenging long-held beliefs about gender norms and sexuality will ultimately be the undoing of widespread homophobia, and while many LGBT allies have paid lip service to ideas such as this in the past, it's obvious the concept is well-practiced in his own life. When I ask if he's surprised to find his gay fan base has remained devoted to him several years since he last played an LGBT character on Oz, he doesn't hesitate. "With the ass that I'm sporting? No," he jokes before bursting into a steady stream of laughter.
After regaining his composure he says, "When it comes to homophobia, I think it's a basic aspect of the human animal, which is to say we fear those things that we don't know or understand. There's comfort in tradition and change scares many people on a variety of levels. But it's just sex. Everybody relax. All these arguments against [LGBT equality] is a bunch of flack being thrown up into the air to try to divert attention. Bigots love it when they can grab on to any kind of 'gay perversion.' But who are they kidding? Straights are just as perverse. We're all a bunch of kinks, and we have a degree of kinkiness in all of us."
Surviving Jack airs Thursday nights at 9:30/8:30 Central on Fox.