Two years ago Guillermo Diaz was invited to a party for Pinups, a gay magazine that features one pictorial a month, a matter-of-fact portrayal of a regular guy hanging out naked. "I'd never heard of the magazine," recalls Diaz, who met Pinups' creator and resident photographer, Christopher Schulz. "I was like, 'When are you going to shoot me?' And he asked, 'You want to do it?' I said, 'Yeah, let's do it. I want to be naked in a magazine.' "
So, TV career be damned, he did it.
It's pretty much how Diaz has approached his career from the beginning. Whether acting in mid-1990s indie films like Party Girl and Stonewall or, more recently, playing drug dealer Guillermo on Weeds and Angel, the gay nurse on NBC's short-lived hospital series Mercy, Diaz has gone with his gut, picking roles that grab him. And if they play into stereotypes or upend them, it's all part of a long career he hopes will be filled with, in his words, "emotionally crippled characters." He explains, "That's what I want to do. Dark, fucked-up characters have so much more going on than the hot guys. That whole sex symbol thing, it's hard for me to connect to that and the pressure of having to live up to that."
It should be no surprise, then, that Diaz showed up for his interview, at a West Hollywood cafe near his house, wearing black cords, Converse-style sneakers, and a black plaid shirt. Not quite the WeHo pretty boy uniform. And then there was his hair. "I did the Mohawk because we've shot the whole season already," Diaz explains, referring to the new ABC political drama Scandal, debuting April 5. He plays Huck, who, in the series' first episode, is a mysterious figure, unshaven, cloaked in a hoodie, lurking in the corners of the office run by Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope, a high-powered consultant and former White House publicist who spins her clients' way through political crises.
In later episodes Huck is revealed to be an ex-CIA agent, one of the show's fixers, and the firm's computer hacker. He hunts down information online and sometimes "goes out and takes care of it himself," Diaz says, cryptically. "He's sweet and tragic but really dangerous too. He's a nut."
And at least he's not another drug dealer. Not that the 41-year-old regrets having played one on Weeds, but as a Latino actor, Diaz finds the majority of roles he reads are for some sort of dealer, thug, or killer. But the character Guillermo -- who Diaz says was not named for him, as many people assume--was a brute, a drug trafficker who thinks with his groin and boasts of his conquests.
"It was so separate from me," recalls Diaz, who hasn't been on the show for the last two seasons. There's a chance he'll return for the upcoming final year. "I hope so. Playing that character and knowing that people were liking and accepting me as that sort of cocky, sexual dude -- it gave me a little bit of confidence."
And yet it didn't expel what lingered in his head from childhood. "I think the shit that you go through as a kid is so ingrained in your head," says Diaz, who, like so many young gay kids, was mocked relentlessly. "I guess I was a little bit effeminate, so kids would call me 'faggot' all the time. But everybody goes through that shit."
Getting mocked was the least of his concerns growing up in Washington Heights, his neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan. "It was the '80s, it was a fucked-up neighborhood," says Diaz, who commuted to a Catholic school in the Bronx. "That was even worse. There were drug dealers on the corner. We would get mugged on the bus to school."
In his sophomore year of high school, Diaz and a couple friends did a medley of Beastie Boys songs in a talent show, and suddenly some of his tormentors became fans. "I thought, Oh, shit, acting is what's making people like me." After graduation he started to pursue acting as a career, getting his feet wet with extra work and student films, and by joining Labyrinth, the theater company cofounded by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Soon Diaz was finding work in the newly emergent independent film scene, sharing the screen with Lili Taylor in 1996's Girls Town and playing a drag queen in 1995's Stonewall. He did a lot of gay press interviews for that film, and he had no problem coming out. "I always thought, if you don't want to work with me because I'm gay, then fuck you," he says. "I don't want to work with you either." But he got some pushback from his management at the time. "They were a little squirrelly about it. There was that, 'Well, don't be too gay.' "
Diaz was still living with his family when he came out publicly, yet he hadn't told them. "I mean, they knew I was playing a drag queen, but they didn't want to know too much about it." Diaz came out to his Cuban immigrant family when he was 27 and about to move out on his own. Now they're on board completely, and they know his boyfriend, Mike, whom Diaz has been with for seven years.
Ironically, it was gay audiences that gave him a hard time when he played another gay character, Angel, on Mercy. "I was trying to play him like a regular guy," by which Diaz means someone who "queens out" once in a while but is otherwise just like everyone else. But the network pushed him to be more flamboyant. "It's NBC," he says. "If a producer is telling me to gay it up, I've got to gay it up." Diaz continues, "I didn't necessarily agree with the way they were going, but at the same time, there are a lot of queeny guys and they're great. It's part of who we are, right? So I didn't get why people were upset, and at the same time, I kind of did."
It's at that time that he decided to pose nude for Pinups. He didn't think to tell his current management -- whom Diaz is quick to point out are open-minded women who are very cool with his sexuality. "I don't know why I didn't say anything," he wonders now. "I guess I thought it wasn't going to be a big deal." Sure enough, when the photos came out, he got a call. "Guillermo, what the fuck are you doing?" he recalls being asked. "You could be fired for this!"Diaz hadn't considered the morality clause, part of a standard television contract that he had signed with NBC. "I remember being really defensive and being like, 'You guys don't get it. What's the big deal? I'm just naked. I'm not hard. I'm not fucking.' "
Mercy was soon canceled, so any contractual crisis was averted. Now the photos are available with a few keystrokes of a Google search. "It's on Manhunt, and there's this thing that says, 'Would you fuck him or not?' " reveals Diaz. "And then it's all these people talking about me and how I'm fat or ugly. I mean, there's good stuff too, but the whole point of why I did the magazine is people acting that way."
He did it to prove a point -- to others, and to himself -- that he doesn't have to have a perfect body to be considered sexy, to be pinup-worthy, to be OK. "I'm not that hot guy, and I'm naked and you're still talking shit about how I look. You're proving me right. You know what I mean? It's kind of sad."
But he's resilient: "I'll just have to do another one. Just have to keep getting naked, until people get it."