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Robert Gant works it out


Robert Gant works it out

From fat kid to lawyer to hunky new star on Queer as Folk, Robert Gant has been through remarkable changes. His latest transformation? For the first time ever he's ready to talk about his life as a gay man

From fat kid to lawyer to hunky new star on Queer as Folk, Robert Gant has been through remarkable changes. His latest transformation? For the first time ever he's ready to talk about his life as a gay man

By Bruce C. Steele

Standing in a sand pit in a playground off Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, Robert Gant could easily pass for the muscular guy who kicks sand in skinny kids' faces--could, that is, except for that radiant smile he flashes. It's the grin of the onetime weakling who has transformed himself into the strong, confident homecoming king; the smile that says, If I can get here from there, you can too.

Gant, 33, whose friends call him Bobby, is at once a teacher and a learner. He has that in common with Ben Bruckner, the HIV-positive literature professor he has played this season on Showtime's hit series Queer as Folk. The show's writers envisioned Ben to be "just as comfortable in front of the classroom as he is on the dance floor," Gant recalls, and the actor seems just as comfortable in a playground posing for beefy photographs as he was a few days earlier talking about his personal and spiritual growth for this interview.

But finding comfort in his own skin has been a long journey for Gant. Coming out publicly in this magazine is just the latest step in his lifelong effort to meld sometimes wildly different impulses. He once aced classes at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University Law School on his way to a position with the world's biggest law firm. When the firm closed its L.A. office just a few months into his job, Gant returned to the love of his life--acting--and now has 10 years as a working actor under his belt.

But even though some may recognize him as Phoebe's beau on Friends or Vice Principal Krupps from Popular, it's Ben Bruckner who has transformed Gant's life. Not only is Queer as Folk a steady gig ("Ben will be back every episode next season," he promises), it quickly brought him to the realization he needed to go public as a gay man. It was one thing to entertain the children as the Good Humor Man in one of his 40 or 50 television commercials and not be openly gay--"I remember thinking how ironic it was that I was this gay guy playing this American icon," he says. But it was quite another to find himself on gaydom's most-talked-about series and have to dodge the question when Larry King asked if he was gay.

"It was painful for me, in retrospect, to have to sit with that," Gant says.

Now he's ready to follow in Ben's footsteps in one more way: He's going on the record. "I read your interview in The Advocate!" exclaimed Ted (Scott Lowell) when pal Michael (Hal Sparks) introduced boyfriend Ben in Gant's first QAF episode. "You're so honest and so forthright and so revealing!"

And he is.

Why have you decided to come out publicly now? Obviously you don't have to do this. You're clearly not being pressured to come out by anyone from Queer as Folk.
No. In fact, that was made very clear to me. Actually, the producers [Ron Cowen and Dan Lipman] were very supportive. Given the fact that they've been around for a while in Hollywood and have seen a lot of changes, I think they get what it's like to be marginalized as gay writers or gay producers. And that still happens, and it's a frustrating thing. Among the myriad of fears [I had] was certainly that--being marginalized.

The whole coming-out process is pretty artificial to start with.
We have to waste so much damn time getting back to where we started, really, which is without a diminished sense of self-worth. Were we all socialized in a balanced way--which is to say, to treat others with respect and love and kindness--this would be a nonissue. We have to go through so much pain and effort to try to reverse [the effects of homophobia]. We have to reparent ourselves, or resocialize ourselves. And this is the first time I've gotten to the point of thinking, This is just silly.

Especially now, when there's such a range of openly gay performers. For example, I don't think you and Nathan Lane will be up for the same parts.
I think that's probably correct. [Laughs] In fact, you know, Randy Harrison and I won't be up for the same parts. It's just a different game. And even Peter [Paige] and I talk about the fact that we play slightly different parts. I [also] thought, OK, this could be the last job I ever do. I had to consider the possibility, as likely or not as it may have been, that this would hurt me. And I was counseled--I don't wanna say by whom--[to stay in the closet].

By people in the industry?
People in the industry who are openly gay. Things were pretty split right down the middle with respect to those who thought that I should come out as opposed to those who thought, "Absolutely not, this will hurt you."

Did the people who were counseling you advise you not even to take the role? Just not to go there?
Definitely some folks had pause. I'm happy to say that it was only a moment's consideration for me, really. The greater consideration was, Do I come out? And that started from the moment that I got the part.

What kind of conversations did you have with Randy and Peter on the set of Queer as Folk?
They absolutely wanted me to come out. [Laughs] There's no question. I knew Peter beforehand, and he's really the person with whom I had this dialogue most often. And I should say that when I mentioned this article to a couple of folks--"Oh, I'm coming out"--the response has invariably been, "I didn't know you weren't." [Laughs] Because I made a point of living my life without that sort of hiding.

Well, when Nathan Lane did his coming-out interview, he said, "Until I did The Birdcage, nobody cared about my sex life." Until you do the gay role, people don't ask. It's the industry standard that you're heterosexual until proved otherwise, and no one even asks until you play that gay role. Look what happened on Larry King--Larry went to every single actor on that show without question and said, "So--are you gay?"
Yup. And there were only two who were openly gay. Larry's presumption, then, was that if there were only two who were openly gay, then all others must be straight.

So when you finally decided to go ahead and let it all hang out, it was more of a personal decision for you than a professional one. It sounds like you'd run it through both sides of the brain, though.
Well, to get back to what you were saying, the producers were very encouraging of this being my choice. And a lot of my friends were disappointed that I was even contemplating waiting. My rationale for myself was I was basically ready to [come out right away] until, as I said, I was counseled to consider the fact that I only had--at that point--a 12-episode deal. (I ended up doing 14 episodes in the first season.) It was in great part a job stability issue at that juncture because everybody else had a five-year contract. Peter and Randy came into the deal knowing that they had--assuming the show went and worked--five years on the show.

But if you came out for the purpose of a 12-episode run, then what do you do afterward?
Exactly. I didn't want to be rash, you know. There was a lot happening very quickly. The way that I got the part and was flown up [to audition] without knowing that I had it, and if I got it, if I was supposed to stay and start [filming immediately]. It was crazy.

You went to Toronto not knowing whether you would come back to Los Angeles a day later with no job or stay for months to play the part?
It was bizarre. They said, "Pack clothes. In case you get it, you're staying." And I started filming the next day. So it was just a whirlwind, and I was having to focus so much on trying to get this character--who in the first episode reveals that he's HIV-positive--and it goes through a lot very quickly. I thought it was too much to have to make a life decision like that on the fly.

Why is it important to you to come out?
Because I'm not living the life that I want to live. Because being on Larry King Live and not being able to say to him, "Larry, sorry, you have some misinformation. I'm actually gay"--it was painful for me. I guess this whole thing has been a process; I've been inching into the water along the way. But [pauses] I think it's amazing how, on the other side, one can't see how that freedom is going to feel. And I have enough other examples of that to know it's gonna feel really good, because it already does.

Are you prepared for what comes next? To be urged to appear at every gay pride event and fund-raising dinner from coast to coast?
The truth is, we could speculate until the cows come home. But who really knows if any pride parades or whatever are going to ask me. They may; they probably will. I don't really know. And I think I may do myself a disservice by getting into that inner debate because what I've learned is that that robs me of right now. And I think also it's something that I have to be careful of. As a kid, I yearned for the applause. I yearned for the stage, and I wanted to be a star. Really, it was about self-worth--because I had a lot of self-worth issues, I yearned for that. What's nice now is not to need that so much. It's still there--like everything else, it takes time.

But whatever happens next, you can no longer mix with the gay world in an anonymous, private way.
You know, it's interesting. I feel a sense of responsibility. I'm careful not to get into this trap of not respecting my own needs and my own desires for my life. And yet I know that there is going to be a call for appearances--[to serve as] a role model or something. I already get that feeling. And it's interesting to try to balance those things because I do want to be of service. I do want to help change the world. I do want to help people get back to themselves because that's what I've worked so hard to do for myself--to give myself back to me through therapy and through all the books that I've read and working on myself and getting to a point where I can tell the truth about my sexuality, for God's sake.

You talk about how Queer as Folk has changed other people's reactions to you. How has Queer as Folk changed your feelings about yourself?
Well, you couldn't work in a more supportive environment with respect to sexuality because it's the nature of the show. One of the things that makes it a beautiful experience is that people have a sense of the show's specialness. People are actively learning to be tolerant, and you're watching that happen. Guys [on the crew] who otherwise would've been really uncomfortable with two guys gettin' it on are OK. They're like, "Yeah, whatever, fine--we've seen it a hundred times now, who gives a shit?" And so it's a very supportive and nurturing place that way. I feel empowered by it. I definitely do. One of the producers refers to it as this "pink bubble" that we all live in for this period of time [while we're filming], and then we come back to the real world. And it's interesting to see how the real world is or has changed or responds to this thing that we're doing. It's definitely made me more confident. And getting my deal [to return] for next year and the options for beyond were huge.

So we can expect Ben to come back, at least for the next season?
Ben will be back every episode next season. [Pauses] I am not foolish enough to be unaware of how my sense of job stability has helped my ability to choose this now. I mean, the reality is I was this close [holds up two fingers half an inch apart] to coming out right off the bat. In fact, I was prepared for it and really looking forward to it, and I told my manager, "I'm really excited about this--this feels right." And then I just gathered the intuition that I should just take a breath and wait. So no, I've been contemplating this since day one. However, job stability absolutely is a factor. Not the factor, not the overriding factor, but a factor, yes.

What else would you like to do professionally? Putting aside your being at peace with the possibility that you won't ever do anything else.
[Laughs] There are a lot of things I'd like to do. You know, there's a part of me that's a little spoiled by the opportunity to be doing something that's so substantive, and so part of me wants to continue down that road. But I think the truth is probably more that I'd like to do some other things: I'd probably like to get back and do some more sitcoms. I'd probably like to play a villain. I've always wanted to play a superhero, which actually may happen next year. [Laughs] But no more about that.

Superheroes are very big right now.
Yes, they are. You know, I don't really know. I'm open to whatever's out there. I'd love to start doing some film work. And I think Queer as Folk really prepares one for that, as far as each episode feels like a little independent movie. They use the preeminent Canadian independent film directors to direct these different episodes, and that's why they have the feel that they do. So it feels like we're making a little movie.

Having done Queer as Folk and also feeling like you can be more honest about yourself, does that give you more ability in your work to play somebody that you're not--like the nice boyfriend you played on Caroline in the City?
There's no question that the more honest I've become in my life, the more I've been freed up as an actor. And this, I'm certain, will have an enormous effect on my sense of freedom as an actor to create. It has a huge impact on my ability to express myself because I'm not having to sit in my head and be a constant watchdog to what I say so that I don't happen to say something that says too much.

What is that self-policing about? Why are actors still so afraid to come out?
It's fear. It's always fear. We're afraid that we're going to experience the kind of rejection that we either experienced when we were younger, or believed we would experience, yet we never did. So we're this fucked-up group around that. Hollywood can be so much about facades that it fits in perfectly with that whole gay kid thing: "Let me create this facade, and maybe no one will know who I really am--this glamorous exterior I need to exist in the world." The Hollywood culture only reinforces that. [But] it is absolutely changing. The world is changing. Are there still reasons for fear? Sure. Will there always be? Probably. I would like to contribute to those fears going away.

Does it help that gay consumers are increasingly visible?
Yeah. I said this to the people in Orlando--I was introducing episodes 18 and 19, and they were going to be the first people to see it before the rest of the country and they were all excited. And I took just a moment to say, "This is really exciting, we have Showtime to thank, we have lots of people to thank, but don't fail to realize that you have yourselves to thank more than anyone, because you are spending the dollars, you are buying the subscriptions, doing whatever it takes to cause people to perk up and take notice." There's a power and an energy there to instigate change that's untapped. It doesn't take much for this group to just step over. It's about ticket sales.

Your first contact with the Queer as Folk phenomenon was not as part of the cast, though. You're now the only leading actor on the show who got to watch the first season and see the response to the first season before you joined the show. What did you think of that first season--just as a gay man watching Queer as Folk?
I was really excited. I was blown away by the look of the show. I had seen the British production, and I'm one of those folks who didn't have a problem at all with how different this was. In fact, I expected it to be [the same]. I really saw them as apples and oranges because this is America [chuckles].

And it's an open-ended series that Showtime hopes will run for years, as opposed to the self-limited U.K. version. That time line requires a whole different concept of character and story line.
Exactly. And they're interested in drawing a really broad-based viewing audience. I don't think that the original production was so concerned with that. Here, profit's a part of it--welcome to America [chuckles]. This is part of what drives our industry.

So what excited you about it?
It was ballsy. I loved seeing the kissing, I loved seeing just the free physical expression, the freeness of sexuality. I thought the show looked really beautiful--like an independent feature in its style: the ramp shots, different split-screen kinds of things, and just all sorts of stuff that I didn't tend to see on prime time. I think my first thought was the classic actor envy. [Laughs] I think maybe part of me didn't want to watch it because I wasn't getting to be a part of this neat thing, to be perfectly honest. It's hard sometimes if you see something that really excites you that you would love to be a part of. I didn't used to be able to watch the Academy Awards back when I was in law school because I was so painfully aware of the fact that I wasn't getting to do the thing that I really wanted to do, the thing that I was really passionate about.


Queer as Folk

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