February 5, 2002
by Michael Rowe
Photograph by Chris Chapman for The Advocate
Note: This article is Michael's original manuscript and is reprinted with the express permission of the author. Please do not post the content to other websites or distribution lists. Thank you.
The tall, slender man locking his bicycle outside the resolutely unpretentious Toronto restaurant designated for our interview is wearing a fedora, tilted down over his eyes in a way that suggests a desire for great distance, as though a veil of inviolability has been drawn about him like an invisible cloak. On anyone else, the hat might seem like a bohemian affectation. Worn this late-fall afternoon by actor Gale Harold, for whom anonymity–or inviolability for that matter–has become a rare commodity in the almost two years since his character, Brian Kinney, the gay white shark of Showtime's Queer As Folk, seared himself into gay consciousness and pop culture, the tilted brim of the hat (tilted down, thank you) is as declarative as the visor on a steel helmet.
If he could mark off more private territory–for instance, never do another celebrity profile, with the journalist's necessary excavation of his private life in order to satisfy the public's immense curiosity about the actor who breathed life into Brian Kinney–he wouldn't.
Questions about what it's like to be a straight man playing gay, or what it feels like to make love to another man in the nude in front of cameras, or what it feels like to be so handsome, or what it feels like to be so famous, exasperate him beyond distraction, as well they might. In what other circumstances but Queer As Folk would a journalist be able to keep a straight face while asking a 32 year old man, a professional actor at that, what his Mom and Dad think about him engaging in male-on-male sex in front of millions of people every week?
And if Queer As Folk had faded away into the elephant's graveyard of long-lost cable television shows, instead of exploding into a cultural supernova that even its detractors can quote, chapter and verse, Gale Harold might have faded away with it, and nobody would ask any of these impertinent questions. But it didn't.
Inside the restaurant, the waiter has brought him a cup of tea, and we have ordered lunch.
"How could I not be ambivalent?" Harold says in response to a pointed query about his deeply equivocal relationship with his new fame (he'll very reluctantly, and with some humor, accede to semi junior league star). If being famous means that you get to work on great projects all the time, with great people, then I'm not all that ambivalent. My idea of fame may include that. But," he says with some distaste, "it doesn't necessarily include...fame."
Harold reluctantly acknowledges that television culture, with its immediacy and spurious intimacy, is the reason why people think they know him, and want to know more. But he doesn't like it, or trust its motivation. "I'm grateful for the attention," he says, softening for a moment, "because it validates that I'm doing something." Even as he says this, Harold acknowledges that it sounds like something hundreds of overexposed celebrities have already said.
"There is a genuine human impulse to want to know more about people you're interested in, for whatever reason. But that impulse has been manipulated as an industry--a bad industry--to sustain itself. It can be tweaked by publicists and studios. It didn't develop as a benevolent machine to provide more pleasure to people. It developed as a tool to sustain itself."
"Gale has very strong opinions, and he's very political," says Queer As Folk executive producer Ron Cowen, with no small measure of pride. "Sometimes I think he's the smartest person I've ever met. I know a lot of smart, well-educated, well-read people. But there's something about Gale where it takes a leap, from education, or keen intelligence, to some other place. Genius is a cheap word, especially in Hollywood. But he's really smart."
Gale Harold, it seems, has always been asking questions. He was born in Decatur, Georgia in 1969, to an engineer father and a mother who sold real estate. He is the third generation of his family to carry the name Gale Harold. His parents were devout Pentecostals, and his childhood was a classic southern mélange of church, school, and sports.
There were so many little things about my childhood that were southern," he says, "and so many that were suburban American. There was a dairy farm behind my house at one point."
Harold manifested an early affinity for soccer. As he moved towards adolescence, however, he began to question the carved in stone tenets of both all-American jock culture, and religion."I burned out very rapidly on what you refer to as 'jocks'," he says. Harold dislikes the word, feeling it has negative connotations. "I couldn't really handle that state of mind. I don't know what it's like to be a girl in team sports, but definitely for a guy in the States, there are so many flag-waving impulses forced upon you. Excellence in sports is a good way to keep you moving in the direction of allegiance to your school and your country."
Although he didn't have the terminology available to him at the time, young Gale was able to observe the homophobia tightly woven into the shining fabric of his suburban world, both on the playing fields of Southwest Dekalb High School, and in his parents' church. He is careful not to dwell on the subject of religion out of respect for his mother, who is still Pentecostal (his father left the church several years ago.)
"I started to lose all interest [in religion] at around fifteen, around the time I got my driver's license," Harold remembers. "I knew it was bullshit, you know? The choir director was gay. The assistant choir director was gay. Most of the men in the choir were gay. It was obvious. And these were people I talked to, and grew up knowing. These were my friends, and my parents' friends, and members of the church. And they're up there, singing and clapping their hands, then they sit down, and some ogre walks up and starts saying something that is basically potentially fatal under the right circumstances. And we know how fast those circumstances can shift and become dangerous.
"I think [today] it's probably gotten easier and easier for people to deal with," he muses, "but it's still a monumental achievement for some people to say, 'You're gay, can we talk?' They're so scared, because they don't know what it means about them, about God. But that's happening more now than ever before." Harold suggests it might be generational. Even so, he says, "I wouldn't want to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, even now."
Likewise on the playing field, where Harold was once forbidden to play soccer because his hair was too long. The explanation was that it made him look unmasculine. The same impulse that kept suspected faggots outside the golden perimeter of high school acceptance kept jocks in their place, with short hair. Furthermore, "because he took my side, our goalkeeper wasn't allowed to play either." Harold sighs. "When you're a kid, you instinctively know when someone's blowing smoke up your ass. You react to it, or you don't.
Atlanta, even then, was a culturally mixed city. The best record stores were in gay neighborhoods, and Harold and his close friends would often find themselves rifling through the stacks in those establishments. "You look up and you realize, 'Oh, this is the deal,'" he shrugs, remembering his nascent awareness of a larger gay presence.
Closer to home, he had friends he says he knew were gay. But it wasn't discussed. "Say I'm fifteen years old," he suggests, remembering. "And I know you're gay. And you know I know. We never actually talk about it because you never bring it up, and I don't feel like invading whatever that might be. We're not going to feel compelled to go there. I never had one of those moments when someone came out to me as a confidant," he says. "The acknowledgment was already strong enough. It wasn't like they needed me to tell them that I knew."
After high school, Harold won a soccer scholarship to American University, but dropped out after his first year and moved to San Francisco, attending the San Francisco Art Institute.
"In high school I was attracted to plays as literature," he says. Years later, being a "totally different person than I was at sixteen," he isn't sure of the exact moment the seeds of his subsequent career were planted, but he developed an interest in acting during his early years in San Francisco. In addition to his studies, Harold worked a series of low-paying jobs that seemed tailor-made for a young man searching.
"I was waiting tables, taking out the trash, painting houses. A bunch of menial shit," he says cheerfully. As time passed, though, his lack of concrete direction began to take its toll. "I wasn't looking [for a direction], and life had started getting beyond the point of enjoyment, you know?" With adulthood setting in, Harold began to think about where his talents and passions lay. When a friend asked him to appear in a movie (which, in the end, was never made), his interest was piqued.
He'd been struggling in San Francisco–the city had grown expensive, and Harold was working in a job he disliked, debating whether or not to leave a relationship. When the building in which he was living was sold, and turned into a parking garage, he realized he was at a threshold of sorts.
"I knew at some point I was going to have to do something, whether it was moving to Los Angeles, or whatever." Feeling in a rut, he left for L.A. in 1997. "I'd met a teacher there I was intrigued by, and I took a week-long workshop."
The craft of acting struck Harold as somehow immediate and visceral, in a way that two-dimensional, or visual, mediums didn't. "I had some friends there who were really good to me, and helped me out with jobs and places to stay. They helped me get on my feet."
Waiting tables, going to acting classes, he studied "to the exclusion of everything else, for a solid year and a half." He had been planning to move to New York when he acquired a manager, who'd seen him in a play and thought he had something special. For a year, Harold made the actor's boot camp round of auditions, but nothing clicked. At one point, he asked his manager to stop sending him out for television work, sure that there was nothing for him in that medium.
Photograph by Chris Chapman for The Advocate
Meanwhile, across town, Daniel Lipman and Rob Cowen, the Emmy-award winning writers of the groundbreaking AIDS drama, An Early Frost and the long-running drama series Sisters, had acquired the American rights to the gay-themed British drama series, Queer As Folk. They had already cast actors Scott Lowell, Peter Paige, Hal Sparks, and Randy Harrison as a group of gay friends whose intertwined lives would form the basis for the American version of the story. The casting had been nightmarish for Lipman and Cowen due to the reluctance on the part of agents to send their clients in to read for the parts in the show. The part of Brian Kinney was particularly contentious.
"Here's a gay man, very sexual, very masculine, not the kind of gay character people are used to seeing," says Lipman. "If he were a straight male character, fucking every woman in sight, he'd be a hero. So this was not like the other roles, and that was part of the difficulty."
"It was an extremely distressing experience trying to cast Brian, because of what we discovered to be the massive amount of homophobia [in Hollywood]," says Cowen. There are still traces of the pain clearly evident in his voice. "We were so shocked, and so upset, because we went into this thinking that in the years since An Early Frost things had changed. And what we had discovered was that things hadn't changed one iota."
Late on a Friday afternoon, with a meeting the following Monday at 8:30 a.m. scheduled with the Showtime executives, ostensibly to introduce their cast, Lipman and Cowen still didn't have their Brian Kinney. There were two more actors to read for the part, and at the last minute one of them had dropped out.
"It was a test of faith, and by Friday at 5:00 p.m. faith was running out," Lipman says ruefully. At 5:45 p.m., their casting director called. "She said, 'Come on over right now, he's here!' We raced over to the office." The casting director ushered in one last actor. "In walks Gale Harold," Lipman remembers, "and we're looking at him, and he's reading the scene, and Ron and I are looking at each other, and it's like, 'Is he fucking fabulous?'"
"He fell out of the sky," Cowen breathes. "There's truly no other explanation."
Lipman asked Harold to be at the Showtime offices in Westwood at 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning. "He lit up a cigarette and, very Brian-esque, he said, 'I'm with this repertory company, and we have to strike a set on Sunday night, and I don't think I can make it.' And we're thinking, Is he for real? Who says that? We've been in Hollywood too long. What do you say to that?" Lipman laughs, shaking his head in disbelief. He pressed a copy of the script into Harold's arms, and asked him to read it and call them at home the next day.
"I was standing in the kitchen," Cowen remembers, "and the phone rang, and a voice said, 'Hi, this is Brian Kinney.'"
"What helped me recover," says Cowen, describing the aftermath of the casting disaster averted in the eleventh hour, an experience that clearly devastated him, both as a film maker and as a gay man, "was that Gale was brave enough to take the part. It was the same way with Aidan Quinn [who was one of the few actors willing to consider An Early Frost, in which he starred as a gay man with AIDS.] You need the one actor who is not afraid, and who is very politically committed to what he's doing. In a way, that was the emotional salvation."
"There was an attraction," Harold concedes, when asked if the chance to play a sexual hunter-gatherer like Brian Kinney--as far from the 'gay upstairs neighbor' as possible--appealed to him. "Another attraction was that it was an interesting story. It wasn't West Hollywood 90210, which I never would have been called in for. I'm not that 'type.'"
Harold's initial take was that the character would best be played as "a cross between Lou Reed and Oscar Wilde, with a gold tooth, and go completely over the top with it. Now we know that I can't do that," he says mischievously, "though I still think that's how it should be done. It would be a lot dirtier. But he's not allowed to be that." Nor does he buy into the notion that Brian is a pure predator. "You have to like your character, because if you don't, no one else will either. And if the point of the show is to create a character that nobody likes and everybody hates, that would be the way to go. Make him a predator. But I liked Stuart [the character upon whom Brian is based]! I liked the guy."
The thought that he might be 'typecast' playing a gay man never occurred to him when he considered whether or not to take the role. He had asked an actor friend, a gay man, whether he should accept the part or not, not because of Brian's sexual orientation, but because of the show's merit. His friend urged him to do it. If you want to be an actor, his friend told him, then act. On the heels of that, Harold realized that he had come to a critical watershed in his life on the threshold of turning thirty."There was the creative impulse and the chance to do something," he says honestly, "but there was also $1,400 worth of parking tickets and back registration on my truck." Owing money to friends, and back rent to landlords, the pragmatist in Harold realized that it was time to grow up. "I'd been through the 'hangdog barely making it' thing over and over again. Your options run out." Looking back today, he says, he realizes "the only difference between me now and me then, aside from the experience I've gained working on the show, is that I have money. That I'm able to support myself and pay off my student loans. And the ability to make things right with people over time. That becomes a really important thing as you turn thirty."
The biggest challenge to face Gale Harold since Queer As Folk, it seems, has been speculation and perception. Not, as one might suspect, speculations about his sexual orientation, and the effect it might have on his future. He dismisses those out of hand.
"If someone doesn't want to work with me because I'm playing a gay character, I don't want to work with them," he says cooly. "They can fuck off.""Gale is totally cool, and secure enough not to be threatened by anything," adds Ron Cowen. "He knows who he is. That makes him more than an actor; it makes him a very fine human being."
Photograph by Chris Chapman for The Advocate
The nudity and the sex with other men is a question that comes up constantly. The question people never seem to manage to ask, though they want to, is how on earth do you manage it? The man who likely rocked straight middle America off the Richter scale in the first episode of Queer As Folk, when his character coldly instructed Randy Harrison's character to rim him, is matter of fact about the mechanics of onscreen sex.
"We have a really good crew," he says casually. "Between the actors, and the cooperation of the producers, we've been able to establish a protocol for the show, where every sex scene has a 'sex meeting.' The director has a shot list of what he wants. It not only demystifies it, but it's like a rehearsal for scenes that aren't rehearsed. If you know what you're going to do, and why, when you're actually there doing it, you can. You're not thinking, 'What the fuck is going on? Where's the camera? Why are we rolling again? Why am I doing this again?' You don't have to deal with it. You understand the scene."
Harold is amused by the response his involvement in the show elicits in some straight viewers. "I've had middle-aged men come up to me, on a shoot-the-breeze level, and bring up the show. The responses range from 'My wife loves the show!' to 'I loved the show, it's funny as hell!'" Women beg him to tell them that he's straight. Gay men love or loathe Brian Kinney, and Harold is the occasional recipient of the runoff. At a Toronto Film Festival party recently, he passed a group of men he didn't know, and quite naturally didn't stop to speak to them. As he passed, he heard an expletive fired his way.
"But you can't even acknowledge that as a negative response, really," Harold says philosophically. Friends fax him items pulled off the net, comments that he allegedly made in interviews, "basically putting me in line with other heterosexual actors and their comments."
His family, for their part, seem to have taken their son's nascent fame, and newfound profile, in remarkably sanguine stride.
"Some of them were shocked," Harold muses, "just by the fact that I had a job. I just let the information come out [bit by bit], so that by the time they actually realized I was on a television show with a budget, and that I was getting paid, and flying first-class in airplanes, they were, like, 'Jesus, that's beyond anything we've ever considered.'"
The key to understanding what Gale Harold will allow us to understand about him is likely not going to be found in this interview, or in any of the other interviews he's sat for since he became Brian-on-Queer-As-Folk. It might instead be found by examining where he went while on summer haitus, before the new season began shooting.
Instead of heading off to L.A. to capitalize on his Brian Kinney status, Gale Harold packed up and headed off-Broadway to a tiny SoHo playhouse on Vandamm and Sixth, in New York, to appear with George Morfogen in a low-budget production of Austin Pendleton's AIDS drama, Uncle Bob. The stage was his first love, and he had arranged a summer tryst.
His personal publicity from Queer As Folk followed him to New York, like a wasp in a car on a long road trip, as he tried to prepare for his stage role.
"I haven't, no," he says when I ask him if he's ever woken up and asked himself what in the world he thought he was doing, taking on a role as potentially defining as Brian Kinney. "I've woken up after seeing this," he says, brandishing a page from a high fashion magazine featuring him sulking elegantly for the camera, "and asked myself what I thought I was doing. Or seeing my cover for Metrosource, which was such a cheese dish, and said 'What the fuck am I doing? I'm supposed to be working on a play!'"
To his credit, Harold acknowledges Brian Kinney helped open the door for him there, too.
"To be honest," he says, "the profile of [Queer As Folk] was one of the reasons I had an introduction to the project." And yet, he admits, "It was very distracting. It was a blessing and a curse. I wish it had just been the director and I."
A publicist knocks on the door to see how the interview is going thus far. Gale Harold smiles with brilliant courtesy, and at that moment, my heart goes out to him. I'm very sure there's one place he wants to be, and that is back at work on the set. Acting, and being with other actors. Working. He's right, interviews can be an enormous cheese dish.
"If anyone can crack the publicity nut, and figure out how to not come across hammy and contrived," he sighs, with honest reluctant resignation, "I'd love to talk to them."
Copyright © 2002 by Michael Rowe