Wilson Cruz Knows the Power in Storytelling
Visible exec producer talks new LGBTQ docuseries, his groundbreaking gay teen role and what he’d tell his younger self
The first openly gay actor to play an openly gay series regular in a leading role on TV, Wilson Cruz has witnessed firsthand the changing tides of TV representation. Cruz paved the way for shows such as Will & Grace and Ellen with his portrayal of Rickie Vasquez, the troubled gay Latino high schooler on the teen drama My So-Called Life, which ran for one season in 1994. Cruz was 21 when he played Rickie.
Now 46, the actor reflects on the role as one of the interviewees in the new Apple TV+ five-part documentary, Visible: Out on Television, which, along with Wanda Sykes, he also executive produced. Emmy-nominated filmmakers Ryan White and Jessica Hargrave directed the series.
Through a wide range of archival footage and interviews with actors, journalists and activists, the docuseries investigates how TV has shaped the American conscience. During it, Cruz recalls auditioning for My So-Called Life and turning back to late veteran casting director, Mary Goldberg, and telling her: “I don’t know if I’m ever going to see you again, but please tell whoever wrote this that it means a lot to me, that it would have made a difference if I had seen this when I was 15.” Then, as Goldberg replied, the twist he didn’t see coming: “Don’t worry,” she said, “you’re going to be able to tell it yourself.”
Here, Cruz talks about the docuseries’ evolution, Rickie as his own personal catharsis, and his issue with studios casting straight actors to play gay as awards bait.
How did you get involved with Visible?
Seven years ago (political activist and Visible producer) David Bender, who had been working on this project for many years, reached out to me because he was interested in interviewing me for the documentary, for obvious reasons (laughs). We had a long lunch and it became pretty clear really quickly that I had a passion for this subject matter, but also that I had access to many of the people he wanted to interview just because of the nature of my career and my relationship with GLAAD for over a decade, and so I could be very helpful to him. That’s how it happened.
Eventually we interviewed 60 people on our own, and it became clear that this was going to be more than two hours and that we were going to need some help. We came to Apple and Apple brought on two amazing documentary filmmakers, Ryan White and Jessica Hargrave, in order to finish the film and really mold it. Then I came back on to help them continue to bring them who they needed to speak to, and also to make sure that we always had an eye on this not just being a documentary about the LGBTQ movement but really about how television was used as an agent of change by the movement.
How do you think Visible broadens the historical perspective of the LGBTQ experience?
I think that there’s a lot that we forget just because that’s the nature of the human experience. But what the series does really well is to remind us of what happened just within some of our own lifetimes – that, yes, we have come a long way and a lot of work went into getting us here. A lot of people risked a lot in order to have this conversation. It wasn’t just LGBTQ people – it was LGBTQ people and the people who love them who took up the baton when we were unable to, when we weren’t being hired to tell our own stories or we were afraid to come out and be public about it. We needed people who were willing to take on those roles.
More recently, we forget that the way the network news was talking about HIV and AIDS during the height of the epidemic was incredibly problematic, and that the only people who were going to save us at that time was us. That’s when GLAAD was created. That’s when ACT UP was created. It was this community that really started to say, “If you’re not gonna save our lives, we’re gonna have to save them ourselves and we’re going to have to demand that we be seen.” We could no longer afford at that time to be invisible and that’s where visibility started to really begin in earnest.
In the doc, you talk about how playing Rickie helped you reconcile with your father. Your experience with him – being kicked out of the house after you came out to him – was written into Rickie’s story, and he watched that storyline play out. How did that moment illustrate to you the power TV can have?
I talk all the time about how television is an intimate medium: We are in your bedroom, we are in your living room; we come into your homes and you invite us in and we tell you our stories. In my personal experience, it was an invitation to my father to see me because Rickie Vasquez was very much who I was when I was a teenager, and his life parallels mine in many ways.
My father and I didn’t speak for a year, but within that year he was able to turn on the television and I was able to have a conversation with him that I couldn’t have physically and he learned a lot about me and about what my life had been like. He was moved to a new place and it gave him permission to reach out to me, and I have that series and that character to thank for the supportive father that I have today. That’s no overstatement. So it is a testament to the intimacy of television and the power of storytelling.
Looking at the work that you’ve taken on, from Noah’s Arc on through Star Trek: Discovery, the transformative power of representation seems to be something you still believe in.
Whenever I take a project on, one of the first things I ask myself is, “What is the message that this is going to leave an audience member with? What are we offering through this?” The other thing that it is for me is that so many actors are like, “Oh, I don’t want to play too many gay roles (laughs) because I just don’t want my career to be about that.” Whereas I have gone out of my way to look for roles that I feel will add to the conversation. I’ve wanted to have those opportunities.
Why do you think that is when so many other actors go in the other direction?
Because, with the first role I had on My So-Called Life as Rickie, I got to see how powerful that story could be and I wanted to continue to tell stories like that, and I felt like there were few people who were willing and excited to take on those roles and here I was.
As for your part in Hulu’s The Bravest Knight, the first children’s animated series to have openly gay characters, what about that spoke to you?
My brother who’s also openly gay and married to his husband had just had a baby or was pregnant when they approached me to do The Bravest Knight. I thought it was a great opportunity for me to give a little gift to my nephew. On top of that, I think there aren’t enough children’s programs that depict families like the one we do on The Bravest Knight, because there are thousands of LGBTQ families in this country who would love to see their lives reflected back at them and their children so they know they’re not alone and that their families are just as valuable as anybody else’s.
Have you been able to gauge what it means to Star Trek fans to have a more LGBTQ-inclusive Star Trek?
Yes. For 52 years people have been clamoring for real LGBTQ representation on Star Trek, and to be a part of the couple who actually gives that to an audience is overwhelming. People reach out to us all the time, and I’m excited for people to see season three because we’re expanding it in a very special way.
In a very special gay way?
That’s all I’m gonna say. (Laughs.) I want to keep my job! But there is a lot to look forward to in season three for LGBTQ fans, that’s for sure.
You’ve known Anthony Rapp since Rent. Rapp originated the role of Mark Cohen on Broadway, and you later joined as Angel Dumott Schunard. What’s been the best part about getting to work with Anthony, who plays your lover in Star Trek, all these years?
Well, first of all, he’s one of the most supportive actors that I’ve ever worked with. We are a team, we are a unit. But the best thing about working with him is that, because we find this couple in the middle of their relationship, there was very little work we had to do in order to get to know each other. We brought with us a 22-year history of friendship, and so I feel like it comes across on screen that these two people know each other and genuinely love each other, because we do.
Since you’re both gay men playing gay men on Star Trek, I wonder: Do you think LGBTQ roles should go to exclusively LGBTQ actors?
No, I’m not going to say that we should only be the ones allowed to play them. But I will say that I think what an LGBTQ actor brings to an LGBTQ role is different; there’s just something innate and lived-in that comes across, but that’s not to say that a straight actor cannot give a powerful performance. What is worrisome to me is when a production will hire a straight actor to play that role because of some notion that because they’re a straight actor that it’s that much more difficult to take on this role. So its awards bait. These are our lives. These are experiences for a lot of people. And if you’re a straight actor playing these roles, I think it’s important that you acknowledge and understand that.
I will say that in terms of trans actors playing trans roles, I think that is incredibly important because there are so many trans actors out there who are just waiting for the opportunity to be able to tell their own stories. Especially in terms of trans people of color and trans women of color and trans men of color, we need to see more of them.
In the doc, actor Ryan Phillippe, who played a groundbreaking gay character on One Life to Live, reads a letter from someone changed by his character. Where do you keep the letters you’ve received?
Well, seeing how I live out of a suitcase these days (laughs) … actually, I don’t have a lot of the stuff from the old days anymore. I have to tell you that most of the young people who watched My So-Called Life back in the day didn’t really reach out to me until years later when I would see them out publicly and in person, when they were adults, because so many people were processing their own stuff when that aired. But the onslaught (laughs) and the daily messages I received from people who felt and feel it necessary to reach out to me to tell me how powerful it was for them is very real. It happens almost daily on social media. It’s just a trail of tears.
When was the last time you revisited episodes of My So-Called Life?
It’s been a while. I think it’s hard for me to watch myself, and I think the last time I watched it was about 10 years ago with my brother at home, but I think that was it.
I ask because I’ve noticed that Rickie is so embedded in your identity that you get choked up just talking about him. What about him gets you emotional even now?
(Sighs.) I think what’s important to me about it is he was a way for me to process my adolescence, which wasn’t easy. I think that’s probably why I haven’t watched it too, because when I did it I literally saw it as a way to walk through those experiences again and leave them there on that stage and then be able to walk away from them and move on. But for me, when I think about him, and if I do see an episode every now and then, it’s visiting your teenage self. You just want to hug them. You just want to say to them, “It’s going to be all right.” And I just want to grab him and say, “I’m gonna be fine.”
But he does – he means everything to me because without him none of this would have happened. He set the trajectory for my career and also gave me my life’s passion of making sure our stories are told, and part of his legacy is Visible.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.