By his own admission, actor Randy Harrison is where he is today because of Justin Taylor, the twink he played in the US version of Queer As Folk. That was in 2000, when he was 23. He just turned 40. In New York, Ian Horner spoke to Randy about his new pro
DNA: Apologies in advance for bringing up Justin and Queer As Folk.
Randy Harrison: Oh, that’s fine. It’s okay.
But first, how hard is it for gay actors to be out?
I don’t know how to answer that. You see, I’ve always been out, since before I was a professional actor, since my early teens. I can’t compare and contrast because I’ve never been in the closet or a heterosexual actor. All actors struggle with hardship and difficulty getting work during different periods. I don’t know if the struggles I face are because I’m openly gay.
Some of the frustration I had early in my career was from being so strongly associated with one particular role but that would’ve happened to any actor. But maybe it happened to me very early because it was Queer As Folk and because I was out. Queer As Folk was very encouraging for young guys who were not out, and was probably the first show to do that. There aren’t many shows since then that’ve had that same message.
No, I don’t think so. There hasn’t been a show quite like it. I’m proud to have been part of it and it’s one of the reasons I’m where I am. Also, it contributed to my own sanity and my own sense of authenticity. Mind you, I was out on my own as well.
Many working actors can’t afford to come out, which is a real shame.
It is. Something that served me well is that I’ve never lived in the Hollywood paradigm. I didn’t aggressively pursue a big film or television career after Queer As Folk. I’m a New Yorker, I’m an EastCoaster, not a Hollywood type.
I knew that when the show was over, and I did rather well as an actor and got into some creative work and literature and theatre writing that I wanted to do. It helped that I wasn’t playing the Hollywood game, which could’ve potentially damaged me.
If I was trying to be an action star I’m sure being a gay actor would’ve been much more of a detriment than being gay in regional theatre. That’s just a very different [he smiles] world.
One more question about Queer As Folk.
Justin was systematically and repeatedly betrayed, lied to, condescended to and humiliated by his boyfriend for four years – why on Earth did he stick with him?
I don’t know. I didn’t write the character, you know! Um… It was a sort of queer co-dependent relationship. It wasn’t a healthy relationship from a rational point of view but from a serial television point of view it was a beautiful dramatic story for a lot of people. A lot of people felt it was redemptive and romantic for both characters in some capacity. I didn’t create the relationship. Or the characters. It was just my job to play it. Yeah.
Your latest project is called New York Is Dead, which you’ve directed. What’s it about?
It’s a black comedy about two struggling New York City artists who are gradually being forced out of the city because of rising rents and the culture. Then they get mistaken for hitmen and decide to continue telling people that’s what they are so they can stay in the city. It’s very funny. It’s violent, it’s
Cabaret speaks so directly to using hate to generate political power, and to the consequences of being disengaged politically and ignoring what’s happening.
dark and sort of fun. They’re despicable characters, and there’s a bit of a social commentary about the economic situation in a bunch of American cities. Why did you opt for just a small role yourself? Too much to direct yourself?
Yeah! I didn’t really have any interest in directing myself in a large role. Directing is so much more work than acting. I only have bit parts in every ep, and very different characters. We ended up shooting all my parts in one day and that was the day I felt like I was least able to direct well.
Maybe with a lot more resources I’d be able to act in a large role and direct but we were on a very low budget. The first episode is 11 minutes long. How much more is coming?
We have six episodes that are between five and 11 minutes long. It’s about 52 minutes of content all up. That first ep, the pilot, was online during the Tribeca Film Festival. Tribeca screened it twice and hosted it on their site. [The first episode is currently on Vimeo.] How will we get to see it all?
That’s what we’re working on now. The pilot is finished. We paid for it. We produced it, I directed it, my friends wrote it, we finished post-production… so we’re looking for the best way to get it distributed and get the most people seeing it as possible. When you get up in the morning and you’re going to direct, as opposed to acting, what’s going through your mind?
You have a lot more control as a director, it’s much more of a leadership role on set. You need to know the material and you need to make a ton of quick decisions. You need to earn the respect of your crew and the actors in every moment, constantly.
As first-time director, what did you take away from it; what did you learn about yourself?
I learned a ton about myself! There’s lots of different ways of being a leader on a set. It’s really like you’re running a company. As an actor, I’m used to having a lot more time, especially in theatre, to be collaborative, to work with people to figure out ideas, to run things past people. As a director on set when there are limited resources and time you need to make the decisions quickly. It was really informative for me.
Who else is in New York Is Dead?
The main cast is Matthew Wilkas and Jenn Harris [who starred in Gayby together]; and Ana Gasteyer [The Good Wife, Saturday Night Live], Jemima Kirke [Girls], and John Early [Other People]. We landed Bebe Neuworth [Cheers, Frasier, Madam Secretary] because Jenn Harris and she had done a show together and they adore each other. She was extraordinary to work with. It was such a thrill to have her on set and she nailed her role.
Matthew and I have been in New York for 17 years each, working all over the country in theatre and film and television, so we’ve met a lot of people and made a lot of remarkable friendships with actors and directors and editors and cinematographers so we definitely called in every friend we had and we were very fortunate to get most of them. We called in a lot of favours.
How long were you in Wicked on Broadway?
I was in it for five weeks – that’s it. I was a vacation replacement for Christopher Fitzgerald who was the original Boq. Stints are not usually that short but I just went in during summer when he was having a break. I think I went into it the week after the Tony Awards. I did it with Kristin Chenoweth [original Glinda] and Idina Menzel [original Elphaba] and most of the original cast.
Sure, five weeks is not very long, but it’s long enough to have a blast?
Yes! It was great. It was very fast. I’d never been a replacement before so to join a show where the track was already set I really had to work. I rehearsed by myself, with the stage manager, the dance captain, the musical director but not with any other actors. Then I had to go in on a Friday and my first performance was on the following Tuesday. It was a process I’d never done before. But it was really fun and the cast were wonderful and helped me. Even though it was at the beginning of the run, that show was already like a finely-tuned machine. It was crazy to be part of.
You’ve done theatre all over the US – how does Broadway compare?
To be honest… I just finished 14 months touring the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Cabaret
[in the lead role of the Emcee] and we played a lot of big touring houses that are much bigger than most Broadway houses. Broadway is definitely an achievement, it’s part of so many kids’ dreams and I was happy and proud and wanted to perform on Broadway and still do… but I think the most special thing about doing Broadway is touching the history of the American theatre, the history of Broadway, and being a part of that community, which is extraordinary. I want to perform in a lot of terrific theatres around the country and around the world. Let’s discuss Cabaret; it’s a crucial piece of theatre for today, would you agree?
It’s frightening to be drawing parallels between Hitler and, er, other political leaders.
It’s horrifying. We were touring throughout the entire US election last year and we were performing on the night of the election and it was horrible. Cabaret speaks so directly to using hate to generate political power, it speaks so directly to the consequences of being disengaged politically and ignoring what’s happening.
As an artist, I felt I was doing as much as I could to send a very important message during the election year. It felt like a wonderful act of resistance to get up on stage every night and do that.
Did the Cabaret audiences take that message away with them?
I think the audiences were open to it, very clearly. Different people see different things but I think most people saw very clearly what the show is about. I love the show. I loved the role. I’d love to do it again. I loved using the show to send a powerful political message. That’s what art is all about… well, one of the things. MORE: Check out the preview and first episode of New York Is Dead on YouTube and Vimeo.
…AS THE EMCEE IN CABARET.
RANDY HARRISON… WITH HAL SPARKS AND GALE HAROLD IN THE US VERSION OF QUEER AS FOLK.