By Jeff Walsh
In December, Showtime began airing Queer As Folk, a gay soap opera that sparked praise from critics and debate within the gay community. A group of gay men constantly on the prowl, doing drugs, turning tricks, and cracking wise was a horror, according to some people I've talked to. To me, it's just a delicious, decadent soap opera that I wait to see every week.
If the people who dislike Queer As Folk want to get together and create a series about a group of monogamous, spiritual gay men who are nice to one another and everyone does the right thing and their lives are all honey and hugs, fine. But it sounds horrible to me.
Now, it should be noted that Queer As Folk is a fantasy. I grew up in Pennsylvania, albeit not Pittsburgh, and this queer wonderland they've put together just isn't there. Even now, as I live in the Castro in San Francisco, it seems heightened and fictional. But, television isn't supposed to be real. I think the gay community is so ready to fight stereotypes, we neglect to realize that nearly everything on TV is a stereotype. Do you really think straight people watch all these sitcoms and romantic comedies and see their reality?
Queer As Folk pushes buttons. That's its job. In the UK series (upon which the Showtime series was based, although the US version has taken the characters beyond the initial six UK episodes), the underage character was intentionally made to be 15 years old because the British government was considering lowering the age of consent for gay boys to 16. So, the age was reduced to 15 to ensure he would be underage even if the law were to pass before the series aired. Add in some full frontal nudity, rimming, and drugs (all within the show's first 15 minutes), and you've got some controversial, compelling television.
The US series has totally delivered on its promise of not holding anything back. Each week, there's a bevy of butts, bumps, and bitchiness. I don't want to give the wrong impression, though. The show also has a lot of heart. But like any good soap opera, it's the drama that keeps everything moving forward. One of the main plots involves Justin, the naïve, underage character (his age upped to 17, albeit still underage, on our shores), who ends up losing his virginity to Brian, the 29-year-old who initially appears to have no interest in anything except his next sexual conquest. Justin is played by Randy Harrison, a 23-year-old Atlanta native, whose Queer As Folk audition was one of his first after graduating from theater school in Ohio and moving to New York City. Harrison recently spoke with Oasis about the amazing ride he's been on since Queer As Folk started shooting last July.
"I was just beginning my career, so this is a big, quick jump for me. It's been intense and wonderful," Harrison says. "It was like, 'Wow! I can't even believe I'm auditioning for this.' I actually read the script after my first callback. I was being flown to L.A. from New York for the callback and I read the script on the plane, and I loved it. I was shocked by it, and that's what impressed me most, because I'm not easily shocked. I was like, 'Wow, if they really have the balls to show this on TV, it's going to be something special.'"
They did and it is, according to Harrison. "I know it's the most popular thing Showtime has. It's a huge hit for them." (The show has also been picked up for a second season, although when that will debut depends on the potential strikes by the writers and actors unions)
Harrison, who seems to be naked in nearly every episode, said he never had any concerns with baring (nearly) all for the cameras.
"I had done a lot of stuff like that on stage before," he says. "I felt it was an important enough piece of television and it was well written enough that it wasn't completely trashy, so I had no problem with it."
While some viewers and critics initially complained that the US version seemed to have a no-penis rule (as opposed to the UK version), several of the cast members have since appeared in the altogether. Harrison says the cast has no idea when nudity will appear in the show.
"We shoot completely naked a lot of the time," he says, "and we're not in control what ends up on the editing room floor."
Harrison and Peter Paige (who plays Emmett) are the only two openly gay actors on the series, something he says was never a big decision for him.
"I never had any intention of concealing it," he says. "The fact that I got famous in any way is more of a shocker. I never expected that to happen."
Unlike his character, who finds drama around every corner by trying to start a Gay Straight Alliance at his high school or sleeping with his best friend (a girl!), Harrison said his own coming out was no big deal.
"It was very un-dramatic. It wouldn't make good television," he says. "I just told my parents and friends I was gay when I was 15 and it wasn't even an issue."
Harrison says the cast and crew of the show are as close-knit as the characters they portray, in part because they were all relocated to Toronto to shoot the series and all bonded because they didn't know anyone else.
"We got very close, very fast, because we had to be our working environment, and family, and friends - because we were all transplanted here. Everyone just gets along. It really came together," he says. "I think they did a great job in casting, because we really solidified and came together like the characters do. It was really natural. There were no huge dramas or anything like that."
When the show first debuted, Harrison says he read everything that came out, but he has since stopped keeping track of the media.
"When all the press stuff first started coming out, I was so sort-of amazed by the fact I was in a magazine at all, I would get every one," he says. "Now, it's kind of overwhelming to keep track of it all and worry about it all, so I don't really. When all the reviews started coming out, I just didn't read them. It doesn't help me to be obsessed with that kind of thing."
Harrison also easily avoids the entire UK vs. US debate as he only watched the pilot of the UK version, and even that was months after they started shooting the US version.
Being focused on making the show in Toronto, Harrison is still unaware just how the show will affect his life.
"I don't think I've entirely dealt with the repercussions of it, because I haven't stopped working on it. The only thing I've been concentrating on has been doing my job well," he says. "I've been in Toronto, so I haven't been auditioning for other things and dealing with other people yet. During the hiatus, when I'm back in New York, I'll probably realize how it's changed since the last time I've been there."
As to whether any similarities exist between Harrison and his character, he quickly responds, "Not really, honestly, no. It hasn't been like that. He's on the edge and... I don't know. The whole world of Queer as Folk is fantastical to me. It's amazing. It's crazy to be a part of it from an actor's point of view, like Babylon and the clubs and it's all romanticized and much more dramatic than anything I've experienced. It's kind of a gay wonderland, but it's comforting for gay people to see this fantasy in some ways, an almost all gay world."
Harrison doesn't see Justin as a role model, either, just as a character with good traits and some flaws.
"I don't think of him as a role model, but I don't think of any of the characters on the show as being particular role models," he says. "Justin does a lot of things that are great that people would want to emulate, but at the same time he does a lot of obnoxious stupid things, too. But just the fact that there is a gay, young character on TV is significant in and of itself. Just being able to see someone you can relate to in that way."
And he plays it coy when asked if any Randy Harrison fan sites exist.
"I think there are ...," he says, laughing nervously. "Do I go? No. It would be too perverse, wouldn't it? My mom seems to go everywhere and tell me everything I don't need to hear. 'I went to a Web site on you and found a naked picture of you!'
There's bound to be a few...