"I don't know anybody in the closet," insists Frederick Weller, before checking out his new military haircut in a mirror over my shoulder backstage at Manhattan's Second Stage Theatre. "Well, I heard about a guy — and I really don't know who this is — but somebody I know knows somebody who's apparently about to be a big film star, and when he wanted to break up with some guy because he was over the relationship, the guy threatened to out him."
You'll have to forgive Weller a gossipy indulgence or two. After all, the straight stage veteran has spent the last few weeks with a largely gay cast rehearsing Terrence McNally's new play, Some Men, which uses the framework of same-sex marriage to examine gay issues, situations, and milestones over the past century. "There are something like 90 gay characters in the play, so that's a lot of gay," Weller says with a laugh, "but it hasn't seemed like too much yet. I'm having a blast."
Weller plays six roles. "It's a great gamut covering the spectrum of denial and outness," he says of his characters, which include an Internet chat room cruiser, a married closet case, and a bathhouse "himbo" known for his ample endowment. But don't break out the binoculars just yet. Unlike Richard Greenberg's 2003 Broadway hit, the gay-themed, locker-room comedy Take Me Out, in which Weller played the bigoted Shane Mungitt, Some Men does not require the 39-year-old to drop his towel. "I think the New York theatergoing audience has seen enough of my dick," he reasons.
He considers playing a man whose lover is dying of AIDS the most challenging, saying, "You have a sense of responsibility with those heavy circumstances." But Weller particularly responded to the part of a soldier who recently lost his partner in the Iraq war. "When I first got the script I thought, Oh, my God, I have to play all these characters? But when I saw that scene I had this feeling like I hadn't had since I first read Take Me Out — that if somebody else got to originate the role, I would go crazy." McNally singles out this scene as Weller's most heartbreaking work in the show.
Though McNally and director Trip Cullman are both as gay as the play's subject matter, McNally asserts that they cast the play based on talent, not sexual orientation. Enter Weller, star of such films as The Shape of Things and most recently lauded for his performances on Broadway in Glengarry Glen Ross and Seascape. "I assume he's not gay because I've met his wife," McNally teases. "He's just such a brilliant actor of gay characters simply because he's a brilliant actor. He was equally brilliant doing Take Me Out, where the character was so homophobic, but he's atoning in this one." Referring to the flamboyance trap that many straight actors flounce into when playing gay, the Love! Valour! Compassion! playwright continues, "Bad straight actors do that. A good actor observes how gay men really behave."
Indeed, finding himself in the minority backstage, Weller takes full advantage of his queer peers. "Sometimes I find myself studying the gay actors," he says, "trying to pick up on subtle differences and asking myself, Why would I suspect that he's gay? When they play a gay character, most straight actors will do too much — although I've got a couple of characters in this where that's just fine. The nice thing about playing six is that you can have a range." Cullman is also quick to share his gay wisdom with the handful of heterosexuals, Weller adds: "Trip's direction frequently involves the phrase, 'When you're picking somebody up or you're in a bathhouse — so I've heard...'"
Though his director and some fellow cast members may have enjoyed more firsthand gay experiences, Weller has never felt at a disadvantage. "He just sort of gets it," McNally explains. "Certain actors just get what I'm about, and Fred is one of them — which surprised me. Natha n Lane is someone with whom I've never discussed what a line means or how to say it, and Fred's the same way."
If you recognize Weller, it is probably from his performance in the 1995 indie classic Stonewall, where he played a young, fresh-off-the-bus gay man who falls in love with a drag queen he meets one night in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn. "I'm weirdly getting back to my roots," Weller jokes, referring to yet another part of his in the play that he describes as "a drunk, maudlin guy who loves show tunes." Based on the memoir of the same name by gay historian Martin Duberman and produced by Christine Vachon, Stonewall, which was shot in 1994, marked Weller's first major film role. "It was scary," he recalls, "because at that time this type of thing wasn't really done in America. But my agent and my manager were reassuring, and it was such a great part." He endured some razzing from his friends but says the decision made his parents particularly uneasy. "They're pretty old-school," Weller notes. "I understand their reservations about a couple of scenes, but I was very happy with it."
Any hesitations he might have had 13 years ago about playing gay have evaporated, he says, thanks to the social climate changes created by Brokeback Mountain and Tom Hanks's Academy Award win for Philadelphia. "He was Turner & Hooch before that and now he's the guy!" Weller exclaims. When asked if he's ever used the f word, Weller echoes the sentiments in Hanks's memorable Oscar acceptance speech. "My views and my comfort zone have evolved since I've moved to New York, but I don't think I was ever bigoted," he says when discussing his upbringing in Nw Orleans, where he attended an all-boys Catholic high school. "I was already fairly forward-thinking compared to some of the other kids in my school because I was in the theater program. I knew that my high school director Sonny Borey was gay and I worshipped him. I'm still forever grateful to him because I wouldn't be an actor if it weren't for him."
As for the handful of celebrities who have recently come out, Weller says that the closeted characters in Some Men emphasize how empty hiding one's identity can make a person feel. "I can appreciate why an actor would have reservations about coming out, because an actor's primary obligation is to his work," Weller says, citing Grey's Anatomy's T.R. Knight, "but none of the guys I'm working with are closeted, and it seems like that's the healthiest way to be. Sure, they're not Hollywood superstars, but I still think it's honorable that they're not trying to keep anything secret. I'm glad there's nothing about me that I have to keep secret."
Weller is especially open about his faith in and admiration for Some Men, which he feels has the potential to be a big hit that will connect with gay and straight audiences alike. "I hope that people are moved and amused by it," he says, "and I hope that they derive the same life-affirming sense of appreciation for love that I had walking out of Brokeback Mountain. In this play we've got comedic and tragic stories, but ultimately they're all in praise of love."
So how does the love of his life, his wife of more than three years, feel about his playing gay? "She likes it," he whispers, with a mischievous grin. "She thought Stonewall was hot."
The Advocate, April 2007.