The post-gay gay icon

April, 29 2002

By: Simon Dumenco
Edited by: Marcy
Gallery: New York Magazine
He's hot, he's talented, and he's out. No surprise that Queer As Folk star Randy Harrison has legions of fans. But who'd have guessed how many of them would be women?

Since this is the gay issue, and Randy Harrison is one of the stars of the gayest show on TV, Showtime's Queer As Folk, we might as well get the gay question out of the way. Which, actually, is exactly what Randy Harrison has done. "I told my close friends and my parents when I was 16," he says. And then he did something else: Unlike most gay actors, he never bothered to go back into the closet.

"I had a conversation recently with these gay movie producers about how in Hollywood pretty much everybody behind the scenes is out. But the actors still aren't. In a way, it just seems like it's too late for established actors to come out, because they've been part of the illusion, this mass manipulation, for too long." The machinery is still grinding away, says Harrison. "In L.A., people's publicists package them with other people to create the appearance of a relationship — they call the press and say, 'Be outside this restaurant at this time and you'll see this actor and that actress, and they're together.' Once you're caught up in that, you're fucked."

"How many people have done what Randy's done?" asks Ron Cowen, the co-executive producer, with Daniel Lipman, of QAF. "In terms of gay history, how many actors at 24 years old are out and are as successful and in as visible a position as Randy is? I can't think of any. In a way, he's a first."

Now let's get the "is he acting or just playing himself?" question out of the way. Short answer: He's acting.

Queer As Folk, for the uninitiated, shows a particular slice of gay culture: the sex-crazed, club-hopping milieu. For this reason, it's both loved (for its frankness) and hated (by those who think it reflects badly on the gay community). But when Harrison — who lives in the East Village when he's not shooting in Toronto — first got the part, he actually had to do research on gay nightlife: He went to Splash in Chelsea, "because I really hadn't been to a lot of gay clubs. I've always felt like a dork in gay clubs. Like I don't have the body thing, and I'm not into the body thing. And the first gay bar I ever went to when I was living in Atlanta, I felt more isolated than I ever have in my life. I thought, My God, is this internalized homophobia? Is this self-hatred? Eventually, I realized I'm just a gay man who hates dance music." (Harrison's partial to the White Stripes, Clinic, early Bowie, Lou Reed.)

In person, Harrison is quietly intense, and his look — wire-frame glasses, an exceedingly bland tan sweater, unremarkable jeans — is so understated that it doesn't even qualify as geek chic. On QAF, Justin's nickname is Sunshine because of his generally cheery disposition — though that's been changing a bit lately. In this, Queer As Folk's second season, Justin has gotten more nuanced: He's been recovering from a brutal gay-bashing in last year's finale.

"His character is taking some turns now," says Sharon Gless, the Emmy Award–winning actress (Cagney & Lacey) who plays the proud-mom-of-a-gay-son on QAF. "And sometimes I like just standing back and watching him work. Randy is a phenomenon." Gless says Harrison recently filmed a scene in which his character displays a dark edge. "The transformation he did from being this sweet child to being cold — cold! — was astounding. And I thought, Oh, my God, this kid is good."

Now let's get the personal- and professional-history stuff out of the way. Randy Harrison was born in New Hampshire, but his family moved to Atlanta when he was 11. (His dad is the CEO of a paper company; his mom's "a thwarted artist and a genius"; his older brother is a bank manager.) The acting thing happened in preschool: "My parents couldn't find a baby-sitter, so they brought me to a production of Peter Pan when I was 5. I was transfixed. I knew I wanted to be onstage after that."

His gay-style résumé has always been paltry. "I was so grunge in high school. I wore huge flannels and Doc Martens and cords." Post-high school, he survived the brutal (and renowned) theater program at CCM, the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, even though he wasn't exactly popular with the faculty. (The program director boycotted his rebel production, with a group of fellow students, of Shopping and Fucking.)

He moved to New York, and then, having never before appeared on-camera, got cast in Queer As Folk after one audition and two call-backs.

"Thank God they were desperate," he says of the QAF producers.

Now let's get the instant-fame thing out of the way. Here is the typical fan reaction — not just to Harrison but to the entire QAF cast — according to Harrison's co-star Peter Paige: "Obsessed! Screaming, crying, 'Ohmigod, ohmigod!' "

If you're picturing hysterical homosexuals, think again, because that reaction actually comes from teenage girls, says Paige. And lots of older women, too (though they're not nearly as rabid).

It's a weird quirk of mainstreamed gay culture that QAF is a hit with straight women. At a recent first-season-DVD-signing session at the Lincoln Center Tower Records featuring Harrison, Paige, and co-star Gale Harold, "it was like 'N Sync or something," says Harrison. "I think we signed 700 or 800 boxed sets." At $90 a pop.

Okay the graphic-sex thing. It's time to get that out of the way — because QAF really can be steamy, at least as steamy as, say, Sex and the City.

Harold, the straight actor who plays Justin's boyfriend, Brian, says, "A lot of it happens in editing, although Randy and I are certainly making out and simulating sex. We're comfortable enough with each other to be able to give them enough raw material, you know what I mean?" For his part, Harrison says, "The sexuality required for the role never scared me at all."

And then, finally, to bring things full circle, let's get the future out of the way. As in, does an out-at-24 actor have one?

Apparently, yes. Next week, previews begin for the MCC Theater's A Letter From Ethel Kennedy, directed by Tony winner Joanna Gleason. It's Harrison's New York stage debut. And later this year, he plays the "head of a group of total outcasts" in Bang Bang You're Dead, a scathing Showtime movie about high-school violence.

It's a breakthrough role for the breakthrough actor because Harrison's character is straight.

"I'm still associated with the gayest show on TV," he says, "but the fact that I got the coming-out over with means the gay-actor thing will be on the back burner. At some point it'll be, 'He came out so long ago nobody even cares anymore.'"