His costar Portia de Rossi might be a higher-profile homosexual, but Jonathan Slavin has been working steadily as an out actor since the early '90s. Best known as a regular on Andy Richter Controls the Universe and for his recurring roles in Caroline in the City, Wings, and My Name Is Earl, Slavin currently plays Phil, a geeky research scientist, in Better Off Ted, an absurdist ABC sitcom about a morally questionable corporation. Revisiting his queer roles in other series such as Summerland and the short-lived Inconceivable, the 39-year-old animal rights activist tells us how his sexuality has been a hard pill for Hollywood's schlubby gays to swallow.
By Brandon Voss
Advocate.com: The relationship between your character Phil and fellow research scientist Lem is really the heart of Better Off Ted. Tell me about that on-screen bromance.
Jonathan Slavin: We are an incredibly enmeshed couple. We fight, we bicker, and we've probably been together way too long, but neither one of us is going anywhere, because one of us would cease to exist without the other one. Malcolm Barrett, who plays Lem, is so funny and such a genius. Our favorite thing is when they just let "Lem and Phil" be "Lem and Phil."
In the third episode you even shared the same Hazmat suit.
After we shot the pilot, we came back a few months later to do the table read for the next episode, and that day they started fitting us for that suit. It was like, "OK, you guys are going to get to know each other really quickly. Start spooning."
You also have great chemistry with Portia de Rossi, who plays your boss. As an out actor, what's it like to work with gay royalty? Are there strict rules of etiquette like when you meet the queen?
Portia's so not like that. She's a little shy but so sweet that you just feel at ease with her. Portia's my girl, and I love her to death. When I found out that she would be on the show, it was like, "Are you kidding? Two gay vegans on one show? And both of us playing straight? How the hell did that happen? It must've slipped right under the radar." It's bananas because I've spent half my career being told people don't want to hire me because I'm gay. But it never occurs to [Better Off Ted creator, executive producer, writer, and director] Victor Fresco to think that I can't play a character who has a wife, or that Portia can't play a character who has sex with a guy. His mind just doesn't go there, but he's a weird anomaly in this town. People are usually very up-front about not hiring me because of my sexuality.
Have you been invited to Portia and Ellen's house?
Ellen's been amazingly supportive of the show, so we all got together and watched the premiere there. They have a beautiful home that's first and foremost a home; it feels very comfortable. There was lots of vegan pizzas, and vegan this, vegan that. I never go to a dinner party where I can eat everything on the table, so I was thrilled.
What was the moment you consciously chose to be out in your professional life?
There were two, actually, because I sort of did it twice. My partner, Michael, and I have been together since I was 24 years old, which was right after I moved to L.A. and started working. I did a lot of multi-camera half-hour stuff, and he'd always come sit in the audience, and there was never any kind of secret about who he was. But I had one show where a gay casting director asked me, "Is that your boyfriend out there?" I said, "Yeah." And that's someone who's literally never called me in for another audition. Gay casting directors can be way worse than straight casting directors when it comes to that. By the time I started doing Andy Richter Controls the Universe, there'd been a little lag in my career, and after auditions I had heard a lot of "They loved you, but you're just too gay, so they're not going to hire you." So I got a little skittish and thought, I'm just not going to address it. But that lasted for about a month, and then I couldn't stand it anymore. So my partner became a fixture around work again, and everyone knew who he was. There were some issues, and some stuff made its way back to me, like, "This person is concerned about what's going to happen..." But I didn't really care. I'm weird-looking, so it's not like anyone's trying to sell me as the hunk. Then in 2005 I got a series, Inconceivable, where I was finally playing a gay guy. The publicity people asked if I'd be willing to do any gay press, and I said, "Totally." I'd been willing to do press about my sexuality for years, but nobody ever really wanted to talk about it. With all respect for gay publications and the work that they do, I think that had I been 6-foot-2, blond, and gorgeous, I would've been approached sooner. I always was who I was; it just took a while for people to care.
But now that it's public, do you worry being gay might pull too much focus in mainstream media?
I was doing press one day on the Better Off Ted set, and I was talking to someone about all the reality shows that I watch. The interviewer said, "Oh, I guess your wife must be really understanding about that." And I said, "Well, my husband actually really likes them too." And he immediately went, "Oh. So what did you think of Sean Penn's speech at the Oscars?" [Laughs] I was like, "Wow, that was fast!" But I'll talk to anyone about it, and if you want to put it on E! or whatever, knock yourself out.
Let's backtrack to that gay casting director you mentioned. Why are gay casting directors worse than straight ones?
There's a significant amount of internalized homophobia that happens there. What happens sometimes with gay writers, gay directors, and gay casting directors is that they sort of look like me: They're sort of schlubby, middle-aged gay guys who have always been schlubby gay guys, and who have always wanted to be around really hot guys. When you give those people power, they tend to surround themselves with the people that they find dreamy, and they have a tendency to fetishize the conversion of hot straight guys. Like, you hear stories about them not yelling "cut" on the set of Brothers & Sisters when Jason Lewis and Matt Rhys were kissing. It starts with the gay people in power, but the responsibility falls on us in the gay community because we tend not to care if a straight guy plays a gay character as long as they're cute. We'll choose abs over politics, and that's our problem. It's up to us to say, "But I'd like to see a gay person playing a gay person."
Have you actively gone after gay roles?
I have actively sought after some gay roles that I haven't even been able to get seen for because they've said, "It's not that kind of gay; we want Brokeback Mountain gay, so we're only seeing straight guys." The industry thinks that in order to make a gay character palatable, it has to be gentrified. I love playing gay characters because gay characters are safer with gay actors than they are with straight actors. We can be more trusted to handle them. If someone said to me, "You can play nothing but gay people the rest of your life" — after Better Off Ted completes its seven-year run, of course — I would say, "That's great. I'm happy to do that."
You memorably played gay in the 2005 indie Hard Pill, in which your character participates in a scientific study for a new drug that turns gay men straight.
They had started that project a year before with a straight actor that they just loved, but a couple of weeks into the project he actually said, "I think you need to reconsider me, because I don't get this. This doesn't make sense to me." They went back to the drawing board, and I just happened to audition. They asked me if I understood the material, and I was like, "Uh, do I understand a plain-looking middle-aged gay guy? Yeah, I think I got it."
You played a new gay dad in Inconceivable, which was canceled after only two episodes. Did that experience influence your decision to raise a menagerie of pets instead of children?
I had some moments on Inconceivable where I was like, "This is great!" But then I'd be holding a baby who would start to get upset, so they'd bring me its sleeping, docile twin and switch it out, and I don't think that's what parenthood is really like. I love kids, but I have to be honest: I am that person at a dinner party who's a little relieved when the kids go to bed. Michael and I have talked about adopting an older child or a sibling set that's been stuck in the system, but babies are not that interesting to me. They don't really do much.
On Summerland, you portrayed an HIV-positive gay man, which seemed gutsy for a series on the WB network geared to a young demographic.
With Summerland I was so excited because I was coming on to this existing series, and it was one of the nicest groups of actors I've ever had the pleasure of working with. I continue to worship Lori Loughlin as a goddess. What's weird is that I played this gay character, and on my first episode I had this whole speech I say to her character because I'm trying to get her to life her life: "According to the best doctors of our time, I should be dead right now... You wake up in a hospital with a priest giving you last rites... And that's why I live the way that I live..." So Lori and I talked that day about how amazing it was that they were putting an HIV-positive character on a WB show. I saw some of the fan pages where people were either talking about how great it was to see an HIV-positive character or complaining, "Of course they introduce this flaming gay guy and the first thing he says is that he has AIDS." So the show folded right after I did some press for the California AIDS Ride about playing this character. Then I ran into the showrunner, who was like, "Oh, no, that speech wasn't about HIV. We didn't want to get specific, but in our heads he had survived a car accident." I told Lori that, and she said, "Well, that seems a little naive." If you have a gay guy my age talking about facing death, you're going to think it's an HIV issue. But I played it like it was HIV, so I'm glad I didn't know that. If they had thrown in a line about a car accident, I would've absolutely fought it, and then I probably wouldn't have gotten to do as many episodes as I did.
Because you worked on Summerland with Jesse McCartney and Zac Efron, are you allowed to find them hot now?
No! And I'm completely freaked out when people make them sex symbols. Leave them alone! Those are still little boys to me. Now Zac is this shirtless sex symbol? That child is 15 years old! Because I certainly haven't gotten any older since Summerland, so why would they have?
How do you feel toward actors who remain closeted?
It's certainly no way to win the revolution. It's the same way I am about being a vegan: I don't go to a dinner party and tell people what they're eating is bad, but I just try to be an example by the way that I live my life.
Which openly gay actor do you look up to most?
When I was a little kid living in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., I thought I was the only person who had the feelings that I had, and I would pray and pray that they would be taken away from me because I couldn't imagine living my life this alone. Then I read an interview with Terry Sweeney when he started doing Saturday Night Live, and he talked about how he told the producers when they hired him that he had a husband and wasn't going to pretend that he didn't. I had a moment of release, and it made me feel less alone. I know I should say something like, "Nathan Lane is great," but I will always remember that Terry Sweeney said that in People magazine, which I read furtively because it was weird for a little kid to read People magazine.
I read on various online sources that you're actually married to David Boreanaz's sister. Are you sure you're not a closeted heterosexual, Jonathan?
I worked with David, and he said, "Hey, my brother-in-law's name is Jonathan Slavin. I've never met another Jonathan Slavin." I was like, "Oh, weird." All of a sudden, it appeared on my IMDb page and my Wikipedia page that I was married to David's sister. I keep telling these sites that I've been married for almost 15 years to a guy named Michael, but it's hard to get those things corrected. It's kind of upsetting to me, and it doesn't thrill my husband either, to be perfectly honest. Until I can get it changed, I guess I'll just have to act as gay as possible so that no one thinks it's actually true.
Advocate.com, April 2009.