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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 Cafe 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."