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Randy gets real

Commentary8722002-09-172002-09-02

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 Kennedy (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 Folk'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 Advocate about life before and after Queer as Folk.

It seems the role in Bang Bang You're Dead 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 Folk'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.
Yeah.

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 Folk 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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