Beloved for ruffling Robin Williams's feathers in The Birdcage and for voicing mouthy meerkat Timon in The Lion King, the Tony- and Emmy-winning Nathan Lane is about to tackle the role of Estragon in Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett's seminal masterwork, which opens April 30 at Studio 54 on Broadway. However, one of Lane's most famous roles is that of out actor. The 53-year-old tells us why he will never be a politician and reveals the real story behind his rumored rendezvous with Ricky Martin.
By Brandon Voss
The Advocate: It's been 10 years since you came out officially in The Advocate. So how've you been?
Nathan Lane: [Laughs] I've been fine! Everything's good. Ten years ago, huh? How time flies.
How do you view that milestone in retrospect?
Well, it wasn't really a milestone for me. It was just something that felt right for me to do at that time. It was important for me personally; I wasn't doing it for anybody else but me. Even if people cynically look at you and say, "Oh, yeah, we already knew, there's no news here," it's still worth doing, especially for the young folks out there who are looking for a role model or examples of someone who is successful and openly gay. I've had letters from young guys who have written to say, "I look up to you for what you've done," and that's always incredibly moving. When you read something like that, you realize that you can have a positive effect, even if it's only on a few people.
When you did come out, some in the gay community criticized you for not coming out sooner. Now that you're on the other side of the door, have you ever found yourself growing impatient with or resentful of those you know to still be in the closet?
It's such a personal thing, and I don't think it does anybody any good to out people or force them out of the closet. I don't see the point. It can still be very difficult in this business, so I'm sympathetic to that. You hear rumors and gossip, but nobody really knows except that person, and it's ultimately up to them. Now, there are times when the press goes easier on or is more forgiving of someone, and I say, "How come he got a free pass?" But ultimately, I don't feel resentful.
Are there days you wish you'd remained sexually ambiguous in your professional life?
[Laughs] Yeah, and maintain the air of mystery surrounding Nathan Lane? The sexual ambiguity of Nathan Lane — an enigma wrapped in a conundrum? No. It so doesn't matter. And if it does matter, you don't want to work with those people anyway. Look, if you're at all involved in musical theater, you're always slightly tainted.
I imagine young gay actors must come to you seeking guidance and wisdom on the coming-out process.
Me? Yes, I'm like the homosexual Oracle of Delphi. They all come to ask my advice! [Laughs] No, nobody's coming to ask my advice. It would be hard to give a young actor advice on that. Yes, I think it's the right thing to do and the healthy thing for everyone, but it's also a business, and there are those considerations.
T.R. Knight costarred in your short-lived 2003 sitcom Charlie Lawrence. Did you not give him any encouragement in that area?
No, that never came up. He was always a very private person, although, yes, I did know he was gay.
Out stars like Knight and Neil Patrick Harris often attend events with their boyfriends. Why do we not hear more about your partner?
Well, he's a private person, and I respect that. We've been together a long time, and he prefers not to be in the spotlight.
Do you not belong to the Ellen DeGeneres school of thought that talking about one's partner helps further our cause?
I suppose that's one point of view, but... I don't really have an answer for you.
Do you want to get married someday?
No, I have no interest whatsoever. I'll fight for the rights for everybody else, but we're perfectly happy the way we are.
You played the U.S. president on Broadway in November, and you starred as a gay actor-turned-congressman in Charlie Lawrence. Could you see your career going in that direction?
Oh, absolutely not. I have no interest in politics either. But I'm grateful that there are people like Barack Obama who want to do it.
Your 1998 sitcom Encore! Encore! was another high-profile flop. Would you ever try another TV series?
It's all a crapshoot. When something just works with great writing and a terrific cast, it's like winning the lottery. So sure, if the right script came along, I'd certainly consider that.
When Tom Cruise, of all people, announced plans to produce a Birdcage sequel at United Artists in 2007, were you thrilled or horrified?
I was delighted. It would certainly be a fun thing for me to revisit if someone could come up with a great script. There had been talk from time to time of a sequel, and then there was some issue with losing the rights, so I know they were trying to work that out. But I don't know if that will ever happen.
You're starring in a revival of Waiting for Godot, an all-male classic that has inspired various homoerotic interpretations over the years. Do you see the lead characters Estragon and Vladimir as gay?
No, but I would say that their relationship is like a marriage. They've certainly been together a long time, and they bicker, but they also need each other.
Your flamboyant lounge singer Bobby Fine married Bitsy von Muffling in the fifth season finale of Sex and the City. Bitsy attended Carrie's rehearsal dinner in the Sex movie, but Bobby was conspicuously absent. Is it possible that their marriage of convenience didn't last?
[Laughs] I think you're reading far too much into that scene, though one could speculate. He might have just been off performing that night. But I have no idea what happened to Bitsy and Bobby.
How did it feel to be romantically linked to Ricky Martin last year on the gossip blogs?
Oh, man. The Ricky Martin thing was hilarious just because we've actually never met, but I'm sure he's a very nice young man. Yeah, that was probably more flattering for me than for him.
Speaking of nice young men, Bruce Vilanch famously conducted your Advocate coming-out interview. So whose coming-out interview would you like to conduct?
Oh, God almighty. So, in a sense, you're asking me to out somebody?
If you'd like, but I'd settle for a heterosexual fantasy.
How about George Clooney? Wouldn't that be manna from heaven for everybody?
The Advocate, April 2009; extended online version.