When The Advocate last spoke to him for a September 2002 cover story, Randy Harrison had only finished his second of five seasons as gay teen Justin Taylor in Showtime’s groundbreaking drama Queer as Folk but was already planning an exit strategy. “I sort have this image of myself sort of disappearing for a while and reemerging five to 10 years down the road again,” said Harrison, at 24 the youngest out actor on television. It’s been more than four years since the controversial series ended, but the stage vet, who made his Broadway debut as Boq in Wicked, has remained very visible in the theater world. Now 32, Harrison is currently creating a portrait of polarizing pop artist-filmmaker Andy Warhol in the Mark Brokaw-helmed world premiere of POP!, a Factory-set musical by Maggie-Kate Coleman and Anna K. Jacobs, which runs through December 19 at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Conn. Advocate.com made the most of 15 more minutes with Harrison, who continues to elevate his “post-gay” position on fame, activism, and sexuality to an art form.
By Brandon Voss
Advocate.com: How familiar were you with Warhol and the Factory before you started working on POP! at Yale Rep?
Randy Harrison: More than most. Near the end of college I was really into the Velvet Underground, which sort of brought me to Warhol. This was back when Kim’s video store was still open in the East Village, so I rented a lot of Warhol’s movies from there, like Lonesome Cowboys. I’m fascinated with him. I admire the fact that he just turned out art and created such challenging work, specifically his movies. I also think he’s funny as hell.
Did you study archival footage and old Warhol interviews to prepare for the role?
I did a bit of that, but I ended up having to drop a lot of it to tell the story. A perfect Warhol imitation doesn’t work for creating a convincing musical theater character. A lot of his real mannerisms weren’t useful, and you can’t really project his real voice and keep sounding like Warhol. He spoke in a monotone with almost no inflection and little enunciation in a flat Midwestern accent, which is completely untheatrical. I have to break into song as Warhol and have it be believable.
But since Warhol was an actual living person, do you feel a responsibility to represent him accurately?
Fortunately, this show is such a different context to put Warhol in, so I don’t necessarily feel the same obligation I would if I were doing Warhol in a film. Mine is a very fictionalized Warhol.
POP! doesn’t directly explore Warhol’s sexuality, but many critics over the years have examined the ways his homosexuality shaped his aesthetic and also posed an obstacle for him to overcome in his career. Some of his contemporaries were angered or intimidated by the frankness of his sexuality in his work, but he refused to butch it up for anyone. Do you relate to that aspect of Warhol’s character?
Oh, absolutely. There’s this fascinating book called Pop Out, which is like a queer studies examination of Warhol’s life and career. It’s interesting that Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg were also gay but acted butch, so they wanted nothing to do with Warhol. To me, the most amazing thing about Warhol was that he intentionally played up the “swish” aspect — “swish” being the word that he used — in popism. I have a lot of admiration for that.
When The Advocate interviewed you in 2002, you said that you were scared you might be “perceived as a poster boy for something” because you “never really had any goals of activism.” Considering how much the marriage equality debate has heated up since then, have you found yourself becoming more political?
I always have been political, but I’m political personally and not as a celebrity. I’ll go march in Washington with my friends, but I’m not going to go as Randy Harrison the spokesperson because I’m not comfortable playing that role. But I’m active like any human being should be.
You also told The Advocate, “Besides the fact that I sleep with men, I have very little sense of being part of the community of homosexual people, for whatever reason. I have a group of six friends, two of whom are gay.” Now that you’re in your 30s, do you feel more connected with the gay community? Or, at the very least, have you made more gay friends?
[Laughs] I don’t have any more gay friends! Maybe I feel slightly more connected, but not really. I don’t feel hugely different about it. I’m still not engaged with gay nightlife, but I am a gay person who wants equal rights, so I’m engaged with that. All my friends, straight or gay, are engaged with that.
For a Vanity Fair cover story in 2003 called “Gay-Per-View TV,” you participated in a glamorous photo shoot that featured the major cast members of Queer as Folk, Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, The L Word, and Boy Meets Boy. What was it like to play such a major part in that watershed moment for our mainstream media visibility when you didn’t even feel a part of your community?
For me, it all felt like a fluke. Now, looking back, I can sort of see how that kind of visibility was progress to some extent, but I remember doing that shoot and just wanting it to be over.
Are you serious? In one photo you’re inches away from Megan Mullally and hanging on Thom Filicia while Jennifer Beals is serving face in the corner. That shoot looks like it was a blast.
Really? Oh, my God, no. My memory of it is that it was stressful and nerve-racking. But I have a difficult time with photo shoots period.
Do you wish you could’ve achieved your current marketability in the theater world without actually having to do Queer as Folk?
Not really, because the only reason I’m financially stable is from having worked in television. I’m sure Queer as Folk opened up a lot of doors for me, even if it closed some too, so I’m grateful for it.
Echoing the controversial statements gay directors Todd Holland and Don Roos made earlier this year, Rupert Everett recently advised gay actors to stay in the closet, saying, “The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the... film business.” As a former 25-year-old homosexual who hasn’t done much film work since Queer as Folk, do you think he’s right?
I’ve never really tried very hard to be a part of the film industry, so I don’t know if he’s right or not. Queer as Folk was a fluke, and then I just went back to theater. I’ve been significantly more satisfied with the work I’ve been doing since Queer as Folk ended. It’s been almost all theater, but that was my mostly my intention, so I’m doing what I always wanted to do.
But do you feel like your coming-out has hindered your career in any way?
I don’t know what decisions are being made behind closed doors in casting sessions or what people think of me, so I don’t know what kind of difference it would’ve made or what kind of career I would have now if I hadn’t come out. I just know that not coming out was something I wasn’t capable of doing. I don’t regret it. The one thing that’s been frustrating for me is that coming out has forced me to have to talk about my private life, which is something that I have no interest talking about in general. I don’t feel like actors should ever be obligated to open up about that. I want to be out because it’s important to me socially and politically, but at the same time I don’t think it’s anybody’s business who I sleep with.
Then it must have been strange when New York magazine put you on the cover of its 2002 “Gay Issue” and labeled you “The Post-Gay Gay Icon.” What did that mean to you?
At the time — and I was feeling this a lot when I was doing Queer as Folk — I was frustrated with how much ghettoizing there was of the gay community: The “us versus them” mentality as far as gays and straights. So I sort of understood the idea of “post-gay” as being beyond labels of sexuality.
A recent Newsweek article claimed that effeminate gay characters on television shows like Glee, Ugly Betty, Entourage, Modern Family, and True Blood might actually be hurting rather than helping the LGBT community. What do you think of the representation of gays on TV today?
I don’t watch all those shows, so I don’t really know who the characters are, but just the fact that they’re out there is important. Maybe adults can’t use them as a political tool in some way, but I know — and this was important to me when I was doing Queer as Folk — that any kind of visibility is a comfort when you’re 14 and living in the middle of nowhere. Now it’s easy to find two boys kissing on TV, so at least you don’t have to go to a weird video store to search for an old Merchant-Ivory movie.
In retrospect, could the substance-abusing, hypersexualized characters on Queer as Folk have done more harm than good in the long run?
Just last night somebody came up to me and was like, “I wouldn’t have gotten through my adolescence if that show hadn’t been on television.” So that good outweighs however obnoxious the show might have potentially gotten.
Do you ever stumble across the edited reruns that currently air on Logo?
No. I wouldn’t watch it. I have a lot of friends that I’ve made since the show who’ve never seen it, and occasionally they’ll say, “Oh, my God, I was watching TV and I saw that show you were on.” They always say, “You were so blond!”
What are the chances of a Queer as Folk reunion special? I’d totally watch A Very Queer as Folksy Christmas.
I’m pretty certain there will never be a reunion, but I do see the cast maybe once a year. I’m in New York and they’re mostly all in L.A., but when I’m out there I try to see some of them for lunch. We all get along.
Getting back to your theater work, the last time you appeared on the New York stage was this past spring at the Public Theater in Craig Lucas’s The Singing Forest, a complicated epic in which you played a gay Starbucks barista and a straight Nazi officer. In one scene, your Nazi character raped Olympia Dukakis’s character from behind for what felt like an eternity. Does that top of the list of surreal things you’ve had to do onstage?
Yes, it does. I was really excited to be a part of that project because I’m such a fan of Craig and the two roles I played were so extraordinarily polar opposite. I’d done a lot of classical work like Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Beckett, but I hadn’t done a new play since A Letter From Ethel Kennedy in 2002, so I really wanted to work on something new. It was a great experience. Olympia’s such a great actress, a great acting teacher, and a great person to just be in a room with so you can watch her work.
The reviews of The Singing Forest weren’t exactly raves. Did critics just not get it?
Oh, I don’t read criticism at all. I can’t. But I’d say 60% of actors don’t read criticism. It confuses you, so it’s just not worth it. I learned during Queer as Folk not to read any of the things people say about you.
You also played Alan Strang in Berkshire Theatre Festival’s celebrated 2005 production of Equus. How did you, unlike Daniel Radcliffe, manage to avoid having a picture of your penis posted all over the Internet?
Well, ushers were running down the aisles taking cameras out of peoples’ hands. Actually, I have heard that there is a way to get one — which isn’t a surprise, knowing some of my fans. I don’t know if it’s online, so you may have to go into one of those fan forums or live chats and talk to some middle-aged, overweight woman who probably has it in a file somewhere on her desktop.
Speaking of fans, novelist Christopher Rice once told me that he sometimes gets mistaken for you on the street. Do you ever get mistaken for Christopher Rice?
Nope. That’s weird, because isn’t he really tall? I often don’t get mistaken for myself anymore, which is comforting.
Advocate.com, December 2009.