Lights up. Colton Haynes breathes cautiously and steadily as if every exhalation releases a veil he spent years hiding behind. For the first time in his public life, the young gay actor is exposed, even defenseless. But despite his vulnerability, it’s evident by the power in his words that he’s not broken. And he never was.
The Hollywood darling has come a long way from being one of MTV’s most promising talents, launching to superstardom on the network’s highly rated and meme-able Teen Wolf, which averaged nearly 2.5 million viewers each week. Ever since he played Jackson Whittemore, Haynes’s star quality has endured. He eventually landed the role of Roy Harper, i.e. Arsenal, in the CW’s superhero series Arrow, playing Green Arrow’s sexy sidekick, which solidified his place in TV history as one of very few out queer stars to play a superhero in a mainstream project.
But the rise to fame was a slow burn for the man from Kansas who admits that as a child he never wanted to be an actor until he was scouted by a big-time modeling agency when he was 14 — the same year he came out to his family. It was the beginning of a flourishing career and the end of the life he once knew.
“[Teen Wolf] really just exploded because we went from shooting the pilot to presenting at the MTV Movie Awards, which was insane,” says Haynes. While overnight success seemed like a dream, it also came at a price. Still closeted, Haynes remembers being told not to let anyone know he was gay because it could “jeopardize the show.”
He later found out that someone at the network, who is “no longer there anymore,” actually didn’t want Haynes to star in the show at all due to photos that surfaced online of him kissing another man. But Teen Wolf’s out creator, Jeff Davis, put his foot down and gave an ultimatum to the network: “If you’re not going to hire this person because they’re gay, then we’re going to remove this character completely.”
“He really fought for me,” remembers Haynes. “And despite the fact that I was gay, I hid my sexuality throughout being on Teen Wolf. Everyone knew, obviously, when we were filming, but I definitely butched it up and kind of hid it while I was filming.”
Now 30, Haynes finally came out publicly in 2016. While he “doesn’t encourage” young actors to remain closeted, he understands that Hollywood’s system is constructed in such a way that many queer performers feel like they don’t have a choice.
“In order to be seen as being able to play a leading man or being able to play the roles that I’ve played thus far, I really did need to create this persona,” he explains. “Unfortunately, Hollywood can be very limiting with their choices. Since I’ve come out, all I’m getting auditions for are gay roles, which is interesting because it is acting, but I think [the limited perspective] is still there. I think Hollywood still has a long way to go, but things are changing.”
Haynes couldn’t have burst on the scene at a better time. Having blossomed alongside out gay producers Davis, Greg Berlanti (Arrow), and most recently Ryan Murphy in American Horror Story: Cult, the star is becoming one of the most trailblazing queer actors of his generation — whether he realizes it or not.
Haynes, who has been open about living with anxiety and drug and alcohol abuse, has faced tremendous trials in the past few years. He lost his mother, Dana Mitchell, in March 2018 due to advanced cirrhosis of the liver (due in part to her own struggles with drinking); less than a year later his husband, Jeff Leatham, filed for divorce. The media and blogosphere feasted on his private turmoil. It eventually came to a head.
The actor revealed to Attitude magazine this spring that he’d locked himself in a hotel room at the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills for a weeklong drinking and drug binge, nearly rupturing his kidney and ending up in the hospital under a psychiatric hold. A rude awakening, it prompted the star to finally seek treatment.
In hindsight, Haynes says there’s “no one to blame but myself” when it comes to the public attention he received. “I was posting every second of my life online. Every positive, every negative,” he explains to The Advocate. “Eventually I became click bait, eventually everything that we all joke about — how I could literally say something online and the trolls will pick it up and spin it into something, that ‘I’m spiraling out of control.’ I did make myself [look] that way, not knowing I was doing that.”
But things have changed. The actor, who admitted to Attitude that his drug and alcohol abuse was so bad that over 10 years, there were “maybe 25 days I didn’t drink,” can find solace in knowing that by sharing his story so honestly, he’s become a folk hero to young queers craving authenticity in a world drenched with superficiality. It was a revelation that eventually turned his pain into purpose.
“I lived so many years of my life in this industry, trying or going along with that package,” he says of the typical Hollywood formula. “And unfortunately, I wasn’t able to keep it up, so I needed to be myself. Even though sometimes I share a lot, my struggles can help other people. I’m still hearing from certain people that have gone through what I’ve gone through. Even though a lot of it isn’t as in-depth as the way that I’ve shared, it helps me to be able to share a lot more because I’m like, Oh, I’m not alone. I’m not crazy. My struggles aren’t just my own. A lot of people go through this.”
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in June, Haynes can’t help but acknowledge those who came before. “There are so many people who paved the way for me to come out,” Haynes says. “But the problem is, for as many people who are super supportive and super inclusive, there are those few who are still [standing in the way].”
But Haynes isn’t worried. Though he is a superhero to many die-hard fans, for him the most important role he’ll ever have is the one he’s playing now: himself.
“A hero, I think, is someone who can just be true and authentic, and someone who can really stand for something they believe in,” he says. “I do think it’s in all of us. I didn’t know that I was going to grow up in a town of 600 people and eventually be able to do what I do now. It’s totally in all of us, and it’s really special. Everyone just needs to tap into it.”
Photography by Luke Fontana
Stylist Aisha Rae
Assistant Stylist Angel Cross
Hair and Makeup Sameerah Hoddison and Claire Gonella
(Black shirt Atelier Michalsky, Black Pants All Saints, Shoes Vince Camuto)