Randy gets real


Randy gets real

Out actor Randy
Harrison talks about freeing himself from Justin, playing
a gun-toting straight teen in an upcoming Showtime movie,
and preparing for life after Queer as Folk

Out actor Randy
Harrison talks about freeing himself from Justin, playing
a gun-toting straight teen in an upcoming Showtime movie,
and preparing for life after Queer as Folk

By Erik Meers

Meers is managing editor of Paper magazine, based
in New York City

You might never
notice him on the street, and Randy Harrison likes it
that way. Walking into a restaurant for an interview,
Harrison is camouflaged with glasses and a baseball
cap. Once seated safely at a discreet table, the specs
and hat come off, and there it is: his signature mop
of fair hair. It seems the 24-year-old actor is having a
bit of an identity crisis these days and wants to talk about it.

The crux of his concern is Justin Taylor, his
Queer as Folk alter ego. While he remains devoted
to his costars and to the show, Harrison is also striving to
build a professional profile separate from the series.
At heart a stage actor, he spent May in an
off-Broadway production of A Letter to Ethel
(as a straight waiter) and appeared onstage
this summer in New York’s Fringe Festival. This fall
he’ll make another important step away from
QAF with a Showtime movie about high-school
bullying and Columbine-like violence. In Bang Bang
You’re Dead,
Harrison plays Sean, the
outcast students’ ringleader, whose response to
harassment couldn’t be more different from Justin’s.

Not that Harrison fails to acknowledge what a
boon Justin has been to his career. Just after earning
his theater degree at the University of
Cincinnati–College Conservatory of Music, the young
actor catapulted to fame in late 2000 with Queer as
’s much-heralded debut on Showtime.
Playing the nubile Justin, the 17-year-old trick who
wouldn’t leave 29-year-old Brian Kinney (Gale
Harold) alone, Harrison seemed to represent the idealistic
youth in search of true love that so many gays,
lesbians, and, yes, straights could identify which.
But such innocence was bound to be spoiled by the
bed-hopping, drug-snorting boys who surround
QAF’s core group of gay pals, and in the space
of two seasons Justin has dabbled in casual sex,
substance abuse, go-go dancing, and even sex for pay.

Like Justin, Randy has grown up considerably
after spending two years as the youngest out actor on
TV. While his cherubic face is as boyish as ever, it
is an older and warier Harrison who spoke with The
about life before and after Queer as Folk.

It seems the role in Bang Bang You’re
is a departure for you because you’re
playing a straight character.

I think it’s great, [but] it’s upsetting
that it is such a big deal. I wish it weren’t
an issue all the time. It’s funny that people say
it’s a departure, because I’ve been
acting since I was a child. I’ve played three
gay roles out of hundreds.

Did you have any trepidation about playing such a heavy?

No, it’s the type of thing I’m drawn to. I
didn’t even audition. The director [Guy
Ferland] wanted me for the part, and I read the script and
called them back [and said yes]. I was happy that they
offered it to me. I thought it was different.

Do you worry that since people identify you so much
with Justin, it will be difficult to get other work?

I know that I’m capable as an actor. I’m
tired of being solely being “Queer as
’s Randy Harrison.”
Unfortunately, you can’t be anything else until you
get other work out there. [But] it has also opened up
so many opportunities for me that I can’t
really complain too much.

What was your reaction when you first picked up the
QAF script?

I had actually read about the British show and the
character of [Nathan]. And I said, “They should
do an American version. I’d be perfect for
that.” This was one of the scripts that I felt, I
should do this part.
It’s so obvious.

Did you ever hesitate to take the part and be
openly gay as well? Did you ever think to yourself, Most
actors are in the closet?

No, I never hesitated once. I still aspire to a theater
career. The amount of celebrity that I have now seems
like a fluke to me. So I never felt a need to
manipulate my career from the outside—try to be
someone I wasn’t to get ahead.

There’s a big difference between stage actors and
Hollywood actors. There are many famous out Broadway
people, whereas most Hollywood actors feel the
need to be closeted.

Absolutely. I don’t know what it is. I just
don’t think that I could be the kind of actor I
want to be and not be honest with myself. Honesty is
very important to me as an actor and as a person. I
didn’t even think about it. I don’t want
to be Tom Cruise. I’m not after some movie
blockbuster career. That’s not the kind of work
I’m interested in. And frankly, it’s not
the kind of work I’m ever going to get.

Bang Bang You’re Dead was an
interesting choice for you in part because bullying is
such a huge issue for gay youth. Did you
experience that when you were in high school?

Absolutely, yeah. Mostly when I was younger. The typical
kind of thing.

Anything specific you remember?

I can, but I don’t like talking about it. By the
time I came out, that kind of stopped it. The bullying
stopped when I claimed myself and proved that I
wasn’t afraid. A lot of it was when I was hiding when
I was younger.

Did you witness any school violence?

A kid brought in a BB gun and shot another kid. He was
expelled. And someone got expelled for blowing up mailboxes.

So this story rang true to you?

It did. I could definitely empathize with the character,
with the feelings of helplessness—if only the
desperation and the feeling of isolation.

You grew up in Georgia, right?

I was born in New Hampshire, and I moved to Georgia when
I was 11.

Was that a huge cultural shift?

Oh, yeah. I’m definitely a Yankee, a New
Englander at heart. Both my parents are Southerners,
so they always wanted to go back to the South. I was
always the shame of the family—the one Yankee who was
actually born in the North.

Where did you live in Georgia?

Alpharetta. It’s a northern suburb of Atlanta, a
45-minute trip outside the city. Very conservative.

When did you start understanding that you might be gay?

I guess I had a suspicion of it my entire life without
knowing exactly what it was—knowing that there
was something different about me, which I attributed
to being an artist. At 11 or 12 I started sort of
clarifying for myself. It took a while.

When did you tell your parents?

When I had to. I mean, I love my parents. Coming out to
them was sort of coming out to myself. I educated
them, and I wanted our relationship to keep growing. I
wanted them to be a part of my life still. I wanted to
be able to share with them what I was going through.

Was this because of being bullied?

No, I wasn’t being bullied at school at this
point. I had a group of friends, and I was isolated
because I wasn’t communicating with my parents.
I wasn’t telling them what I was going through.

What was your parents’ reaction?

Positive. Dad said that he was prouder of me than
he’d ever been when I came out.

What was the reaction at school?

I just told my friends. At that point I was pretty much
out anyway. It was not a big deal.

Were you able to date?

No, I wasn’t dating anyone. I was hyperfocused on
acting. So I didn’t bring a guy to the prom. I
was the lone gay person as far as I knew.

Did you date in college in Cincinnati?

Yeah, yeah. It was fine. It wasn’t a big deal. I
didn’t freak out about it. I was beyond the
novelty of homosexuality. I just dated the people I
liked. Mostly I was concentrating on acting, fighting to do
what I wanted to do careerwise.

Tell me about how you got involved in performing.

I started performing when I was a kid. I don’t
remember myself not being an actor. When I was 4 my
parents couldn’t get a baby-sitter for me when
they were going to see a performance of Peter Pan. I
was fascinated by the whole thing. After I saw
Peter Pan I started auditioning for
community theater. I acted all through my childhood. I went
to Stagedoor Manor, this big Broadway kids’
camp, when I was 9 and 11. I’ve done two plays
a year since I was 6 until I got [Queer as Folk].

When you moved to New York in 2000, did you have an agent?

I had been doing summer stock every summer while I was
in college. We did a showcase, like most good
conservatories do—monologues and things that
agents and casting directors come to see. From that I got an agent.

But you were in New York for a very short time
before Queer as Folk.

A month and a half. I already had a summer job in a play
in St. Louis. Right before I left for St. Louis I got
the audition for the show and then a callback. So I
was late getting to St. Louis. I had a day of
rehearsal, and I got another callback, and they flew me to
L.A. After the second callback and third audition, I
knew I had gotten the part. I went back to St. Louis
and then back to Atlanta to drop off my stuff before I
flew to Toronto to start filming.

Tell me about filming that first scene of the
series—the one that everyone always talks about,
when Justin is having sex for the first time.

I’ve done sexual stuff before—onstage,
which is even more emotionally difficult. With a [TV]
crew around, you are stopping and starting; it becomes
really technical.

It’s not erotic at all.

No. When you watch it, you’re like, Wow. I
look like that.
But it doesn’t feel
like that at all. It was about communicating with Gale
[Harold] and getting across what I wanted to say about the character.

Do you ever get a script and say, “That
doesn’t ring true to my experience?”

The whole character of Justin and the club life he
lives—I have no experience with it. It’s
really foreign to me, which is annoying, but
that’s just how it is.

How do you feel about your fans?

It makes me really happy. There are some crazy ones. I
think the gay community is split: They either love
[the show] or love to hate it. For me it’s
always the middle-aged women and teenage girls. It’s
nice to see that people in Middle America are really affected.

I imagine you must get a lot of mail from at-risk
gay teens.

I do. I usually just write back and say, “Thank
you.” The stuff I get is not that severe like,
“I’m going to kill myself.” I do get a
sense that seeing Justin can be a great comfort to a
lot of people. They feel that they can stand up for
what they feel and who they love.

Are there things that you can’t do anymore
because of your fame

I can’t walk down the street with my head up.
I’m not a hat wearer, but now I’m a hat
wearer. I don’t want to be the center of attention.
My posture has changed. I walk with my head down and
shoulders slumped. Suddenly I carry myself as if
I’m ashamed of something.

Any unpleasant fan experiences?

Rarely, but it happens. It always weirds me out and
makes me unhappy that some people think I’m
Justin. I’m not. People can be talking to me
and I know they think they are talking to Justin.
It’s hard to explain. It’s a really
subtle kind of thing. It makes me feel like Randy Harrison
is not a human being to them.

Yet to many people, you’re the face of young gay
America. And you’re certainly one of youngest out
actors to appear on The Advocate’s cover.

It makes me proud, and it makes me scared. More than
anything, I want to be an actor and I want to keep
working, and I think there’s a danger in being
perceived as a poster boy for something. While it’s
great to be an out actor, I never really had any goals
of activism. All my goals are as an actor—to do
different kinds of work. It’s ironic too. Besides the
fact that I sleep with men, I have very little sense of
being part of the community of homosexual people, for
whatever reason. I have a group of six friends, two of
whom are gay. I associate the gay community with a
subset of the gay community that I’m not a part of.

You mean the subset that’s represented on Queer
as Folk


And you don’t identify with that set.

I’m just not one. It’s a clique that
I’ve never been a part of. It’s not like
I identify them in a negative way. A lot of my friends are
club people [laughs]. It’s not me.
It’s funny to represent that, because
it’s not me. I don’t fit into a gay club
setting. It’s just ironic that I represent that somehow.

So what do you feel when you see friends living out
some of the issues your character is dealing with in the
show—the drug use, casual sex?

I hope that they are finding satisfaction. I’m in
no way making a judgment. I know it doesn’t
make me happy. [But] I wonder what kind of lives they
will have built for themselves when they turn 45 and
can’t really have any connection with people
because they are so used to fleeting sexual… I
don’t know, I don’t know.

Do you think that the show is working toward an
answer to that question?

I can’t speak on behalf of the show. I’m
not a creator; I’m just a pawn. I think the
sense of community that exists with all the
characters—that’s the answer. The fact that
they have found a family in their friends. It does
give some depth and meaning to their lives. I
don’t know for Justin; he’s always looking for
meaning out of his relationships with people. I
don’t think he’s as trapped into the drug
thing as a lot of the others are.

Knowing what you know now, what would you advise
your closeted actor friends?

I actually have more respect for people who are in the
closet. You end up exposing so much of yourself
because you have to talk about your sexual life. You
shouldn’t have to talk about it. I don’t like
people who lie. But if you don’t talk about it,
it’s like you’re too pussy to talk about
it, which I didn’t want to be. I would say,
“Do it quickly and quietly at the beginning of
your career.”

I’ve read that you have been dating someone for
three years.

I was. I’m not anymore. That ended a while ago.

Are you dating someone now?

I’m not going to talk about it.

You’ve got two more years left on your Queer as
contract. Would you sign on for more?

No. Not because I don’t love the show; I want it
to end and start building a career outside the show.

What do you see yourself doing after Queer as Folk?

I’m confident in my ability to maintain a
career. I don’t know if it will be doing either
independent films or plays in New England. I sort have
this image of myself sort of disappearing for a while and
reemerging five to 10 years down the road again.
We’ll see.

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