”Could you tell me, like, where’s a good place to go?” — Justin Taylor, Episode 1, Queer as Folk.
Randy Harrison (Photo by Todd Franson )
Many of us first saw Randy Harrison standing on the edge of Liberty Avenue, a cigarette tucked behind his ear and a look of nervous determination on his face. Against a blur of quick cuts and the background thump of Ruff Driverz ”Deeper Love,” we watched as a very handsome, very young-looking guy tried as hard as he could not to look out of place.
When I meet Harrison, the real Randy Harrison, it’s under much different circumstances. The blinking lights and choreographed bustle of Queer as Folk‘s very made-for-television gay neighborhood is nowhere to be found. We’re in a rehearsal space in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 8th Street studios. The large empty room is, in fact, the opposite of bustling.
And, in a very similar fashion, Harrison bears little resemblance to Justin, the character he played for five seasons on the hit Showtime series.
Make no mistake — he’s just as good-looking as he was when he stepped off the curb in that first episode. The killer smile is firmly in place. But this room seems to better suit the actor and where he is now. A space that is normally all about the craft of acting, a place to work to find that sweet spot that satisfies the actor and thrills the audience. At least, that is, when interviewers aren’t using it to talk about television shows that have long since faded from the airwaves.
Harrison is in town to play Sebastian in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s remount of Twelfth Night. Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night involves mistaken identities, characters not being who they are believed to be.
There’s a certain irony to that as it quickly becomes clear that anyone confusing Harrison for Queer as Folk‘s Justin Taylor is quite mistaken.
METRO WEEKLY: Queer as Folk was your first television show?
RANDY HARRISON: My only television show.
MW: When the series started, did you guys know you were doing something that no one had seen before?
HARRISON: We knew nothing like it had been done on American television before.
MW: And you were doing theater all through the time you were doing Queer as Folk?
HARRISON: Yes, and before.
MW: What was it like doing TV and still doing theater? Was there one that you wanted to get through so you could do the other?
HARRISON: Yeah, I always wanted to get back to theater.
MW: So what was it then that moved you to do the audition for a television series?
HARRISON: I’ll audition for anything if I respond to the material. I had finished school and I had just moved to New York. I was doing many more musicals than I was interested in doing and I knew that I needed to make a shift or I would get stuck. So I just got an appointment with an agent I was freelancing with and they put me on tape. I had two callbacks and I got it. And because it was so out of the blue – I had just gotten my equity card a few years beforehand – I wasn’t nervous. It just seemed silly.
MW: Silly? Really?
HARRISON: Yeah, because it seemed so arbitrary. It was like, ”I’m auditioning for a TV show?” Okay. Whatever. And when I was doing the audition, I was thinking about the callbacks because it meant I could go to Los Angeles. I had already been thinking of moving to L.A. because I thought the move would help me shift away from all the musicals I was doing. Maybe L.A. would be a better place for me.
I just thought of it as a free trip to L.A. I don’t think the flight was first class… or was it? [Laughs.] But it was nice. It was a free hotel room. I mean I was doing small regional musicals. Being flown out to L.A. was not the kind of life I was accustomed to at all.
MW: And you were already out when you did the audition?
HARRISON: Oh, yeah. I’ve been out since I was 16.
MW: And you were how old when you started doing the show?
MW: Showtime added a disclaimer that read: ”Queer as Folk is a celebration of the lives and passions of a group of gay friends. It is not meant to reflect all of gay society.” But was it ever weird? You were a young gay man playing a young gay man.
HARRISON: It was never weird because I had been out since I was a teenager. It was never weird to be out. What was weird was to be on television and be a little… not famous… but, you know, having people kind of know you. Even now people think I’m something I’m not because of that show.
I don’t think it has anything to do with being out, though. I think that anybody on television that played one character for a long time goes through the same thing. It’s weird to represent something that wasn’t created by you and isn’t you.
I’m sure that it’s caused things, made it harder for certain people to see me other than a certain way, but I think it’s also opened up opportunities for me.
I really try not to think about it too much. If I’m doing what I want to be doing I’m happy. But there are times when it’s, ”Another script to do that? No. I’m not interested. No.” You end up passing on a lot and fighting a little bit harder probably for things that are different.
But that was all a really long time ago. It was like 11 years ago that we started doing it and then we finished doing it five years ago. And I haven’t thought of it since.
MW: Except when interviewers ask you about it. Is that frustrating?
HARRISON: Not really. It’s to be expected.
MW: And there’s still a fair number of websites that bounce back to you in your Queer as Folk days.
HARRISON: Are there?
MW: You don’t know that? You don’t Google yourself?
HARRISON: I don’t. I do not search myself. I do not read anything written about me. I don’t.
HARRISON: Sometimes, like a sound bite or something if someone forwards it to me. But I don’t. I avoid it all.
MW: Do you read reviews?
MW: Have you ever read reviews?
HARRISON: Yes, but I stopped because, amidst a bunch of good reviews, I got one review that made it almost impossible for me to continue performing the show. It was just something that hurt me. And I realized that there was no reason to it. The review was meaningless to me, or anyone surrounding the project, so why risk something that’s going to make me unable to do what I’ve been hired to do?
MW: How did you manage to get past that? Because that’s a pretty weighty moment to think, ”I don’t know that I can do this anymore.”
HARRISON: I just kept on performing, but it was harder. The fact that a review was capable of becoming so distracting made me realize it’s not worth ever risking it. And it just doesn’t help.
You go through and you create a show with your fellow actors, with the writer if they are alive, with the director, collectively. And then when it’s up, you’re done. You’re doing the work that you’re doing.
I don’t know. I think the need to read reviews is searching for something that is never going to be fulfilled. You love to know that what you’re doing is working. You hear when everyone is saying a show is getting good reviews and you’re happy. It’s like, ”Oh good, I’m glad.” We worked hard and we think it’s good. But half the time you work really hard and you think it’s great and everybody hates it. Or, you think it’s not really working and everybody loves it. It’s just completely arbitrary.
MW: When you were doing interviews for Queer as Folk, were people interested in talking to you about the theater work you were doing?
HARRISON: I don’t really remember. I think that I would always mention it. You would get the question where they would want you to give a prophecy for the rest of your career. What are you going to do when this is finished?
I was just going to go back and keep doing theater. It’s what I love. I talked about it, but people were always less interested in it than in television, for whatever reason.
MW: What brought you to theater? When did you start?
HARRISON: I started acting when I was like 8. I saw a play when I was really young and I was at that age where the magic of the theater just blew my mind. That can actually still happen to me.
But it was like the proscenium was there and on the other side was a completely different world where magical things could happen. Anything could happen. I wanted to be on the other side of the proscenium and be in that world.
MW: Do you remember what show that was?
HARRISON: Yes. Yes, I do. It’s a little embarrassing. It was Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan. I was like 5 years old and she was touring in Peter Pan and I think she flew out over us in the audience. In my imagination, which is very vague, it felt like I could touch her, like she was flying right above me.
MW: My nephew, who’s now about that age, just saw Mary Poppins on Broadway and had a very similar experience. Mary Poppins flew over them in the balcony and he kept trying to figure out where she went.
HARRISON: It’s amazing.
MW: Every show should include someone flying out over the audience.
HARRISON: We’re flying in Twelfth Night.
MW: So you had this kind of magical experience. Was there a moment when you were doing theater when you realized that this was it? This was what you were going to do?
HARRISON: No, it sort of accumulated. I started because I was in love with it and really wanted to do it. Ever since I was 8, I would do like two or three plays a year, working constantly. So, after a while it was like, ”I’m going to keep doing this.” I think I knew when I was 12 or 13 that I was definitely going to keep acting professionally.
MW: You’ve done a nice range of stuff.
HARRISON: I think so. It’s definitely starting to get there. It’s been a fight to start doing everything that I wanted to do.
MW: Well, you’re here to do Shakespeare and you’ve done Wicked. You’ve done Equus. That’s a range right there.
HARRISON: I know, it is a range, right? I think one of my favorite things that I’ve done so far is when I did Waiting for Godot in the Berkshires. I think it was just a really, really good production. It was a wonderful director, and a wonderful company and people really responded to what we did. I love the play. I love Beckett. I think a lot of times Beckett can be kind of calcified in performance. People get too tied up in the idea of what it is and what it means, and it’s hard for audiences to let go of their preconceptions of the way they’re supposed to respond to it. People expect it to be more academic. I think something about this production – and I can’t pinpoint what it was – but I think people were able to see it completely fresh and respond to it in a completely human way.
It’s like what I said about not reading criticism. I didn’t read the criticism of the show, but at the same time the audiences – half of which were, you know, my friends – were responding. You can tell when somebody really, really responds to something, that the play meant something to them and affected them in a way that they didn’t expect.
And that’s why you become an actor, when you see theater like that you’re like, ”I hope I’m in a production that affects someone the way I was just affected.” And I felt like Godot did that to a lot of people that I care about and respect, so that made me happy.
MW: Is this your first time doing theater in D.C.?
HARRISON: Yes. I’m happy to be in D.C. I’ve wanted to work here for a very long time. It’s such a theater-friendly town. There’s such a group of really talented actors that are based here or work here all the time. There are so many really accomplished theaters – that pay living wages. [Laughs.]
MW: Which is the secret that no one knows about D.C.
HARRISON: I know! I think the whole idea that New York is the center of American theater at this point is a complete fallacy. There’s a lot all over the country and I think the competitiveness and the cost of theater in New York has really stifled it in such a way that the good stuff just doesn’t happen there that often anymore.
MW: Where else have you been?
HARRISON: I’ve been in New York a lot. A bunch of off-Broadway. I did Wicked. I worked at the Guthrie in Minneapolis (as Tom Wingfield in the Glass Menagerie). I just worked at Yale Rep in New Haven (as Andy Warhol in the musical Pop!). I’ve worked with the Anne Bogart’s SITI Company when they were in Alabama, which was a very interesting experience. And in the Berkshires.
MW: And you’re also a Southern Yankee.
HARRISON: It’s weird right?
MW: Because you grew up in Nashua, N.H., for part of your childhood –
HARRISON: – and then Atlanta. I feel like a Yankee ultimately. We left Nashua when I was 11, and then I grew up in Atlanta. But I never felt at home there. I went to school in Cincinnati and I felt less at home there. But since I’ve started working in the Berkshires and in western Massachusetts, I feel re-connected to the New England area. It’s always felt like home to me. I still have some family there. My aunt is there. But now I think of it like a summer home, which is kind of nice.
MW: Did you do Berkshires already this year?
HARRISON: Yeah. I did Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. I played Nagg. It was beautiful. Like I said, I love Beckett. I love his use of language. I love speaking it. I love seeing it.
Randy Harrison (Photo by Todd Franson)
MW: And what were you doing in Alabama?
HARRISON: I studied with Ann Bogart, I think while I was still doing Queer as Folk. SITI, which is her company, was in residency at the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville when I was still in school in Cincinnati. I’d drive an hour and see some of the amazing work that they were doing. I was 19 or 20 and it really changed my head at the time.
So, I was studying with them and they were taking this production…. Actually, it’s interesting. They were going to be remounting a production that already existed – just like I’m doing here. So, I’ve actually done a Shakespeare show at a really similar speed. In terms of style they’re really different, but as far as the rehearsal process it was the same.
I wanted to do the production so I’d have gone wherever. It was fun, but it was strange to be in Alabama at this Shakespeare festival that was deciding what it wanted to be. I actually think that that festival is doing musicals now.
MW: Which is what you started out doing, right?
HARRISON: I went to school at University of Cincinnati’s College–Conservatory of Music. I was a singer in high school as well as an actor.
The conservatory has an amazing musical-theater program but after four years of doing nothing but jazz hands, I was thinking, ”I want to do Shakespeare. I want to do Chekov. I want to do Beckett. If I keep doing musicals it’s going to be way too far of a leap to get there.” So I had to stop completely for a long time.
I like what I do now. I’ll do a musical every three or four years. I miss singing after a while, so I’m always happy when the time comes and I’m like, ”I think I want to do a musical.” And also, there are more jobs in musicals and they pay better. [Laughs.] So it’s good when you want to do one.
I think I hadn’t done a musical in seven years when I did Wicked. It was on Broadway and it was still the original cast, though they switched over when I was doing it. The guy I replaced actually had to leave – to go do Midsummer – so I just went in for five weeks. I think I started the week after Idina (Menzel) won the Tony.
MW: No pressure.
HARRISON: Right? And while I was in it Kristin (Chenoweth) left and Jennifer Laura Thompson came in. It was really interesting. Wicked is just such a huge spectacle and to be part of a show that big and that successful was fascinating. The hall we performed in was cavernous.
MW: And now you’ve landed in Brooklyn, where you’re part of an artists’ group?
HARRISON: The Artist Bureau. It’s really a group of people I know and love who are artists in various capacities. It’s sort of an umbrella and a way we can create things that we really want to do.
It’s funny, there are times when it gets really intense, where I’m really involved in making specific things and then there are times when I’m away and nothing happens for a few months. It’s arbitrary. They’re actually doing a bunch of readings in L.A. right now and trying to produce a friend’s play. I think that might be the next thing that happens, but I’m not sure.
MW: There are going to be people who are surprised how theater-centered you career has been. Is there something else that you’ve wanted people to know about you in terms of either this work or where you’re headed next?
HARRISON: No. People have been asking me that recently. I’m going to say no. I never want to volunteer any more information then is already out there. [Laughs.]
MW: I know that a good deal of time has passed since you were doing the series, but I think it’s fascinating how you’ve really been able to take a few steps back and done that thing that some actors aren’t able to do. You’ve completely established an identity for yourself in the theater in such a way that it doesn’t seem like people are going to see you thinking, ”I’m going to go see the guy from Queer as Folk do Shakespeare tonight.”
HARRISON: No. I think it’s just luck. When I’m auditioning I don’t feel very often that I’m considered any differently. Half the time people don’t even know when they’re casting me that I was in a television show. I don’t know that some of them have even watched it. It was successful in its way, but it was very niche. It’s not like I stepped on top of that success to do the work that I have been doing. The theater is like a whole separate thing. I’ve sort of started from scratch in theater.
I also think the kind of theater jobs that I could get from having been in Queer as Folk aren’t the kind of theater jobs I’m interested in doing. I don’t know what those would really actually be. I mean, Naked Boys Singing?
MW: That’s where I was going to go with that.
HARRISON: I know.
Randy Harrison will be appearing in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Twelfth Night, part of Free for All. Aug. 19 to Sept. 5. Visit shakespearetheatre.org for full details.