For six seasons and counting, media mogul Tyler Perry has put his gift for crowd-pleasing melodrama to use crafting OWN’s hit primetime soap The Haves and Have Nots. The network’s highest-rated series to date, the series chronicles the tumultuous lives of two prominent and wealthy Savannah, Georgia families, the Harringtons, who are black, and the Cryers, who are white, as well as both families’ interactions with the working class Young family. Serving a full course of sex, scandal, conniving, and cliffhanger endings, The Haves and Have Nots is an undeniably mouthwatering guilty pleasure that’s attracted a devoted following, especially among fans of the show’s many LGBTQ characters, like the semi-closeted scion of the Harringtons, handsome rehab counselor Jeffrey.
Portrayed by Brooklyn-born Gavin Houston, Jeffrey and his messy, often hazardous, love life — including dalliances with hot, closeted stalker Officer Justin (Nicholas J. Muscarella), and hot, not-closeted PR whiz Landon (Kristian Kordula) — add fuel to fans’ Have Nots addiction. And Houston says the show’s faithful aren’t afraid to let him hear about it.
“People will walk up to me on the street, like, ‘You need to tell your momma this!’ or ‘You need to tell off, Justin!'” he says. “Okay, do you want me to tell them now, or wait until [the director says] ‘Action!’ and then tell them?”
Houston acknowledges that Perry’s formula for soapy storytelling is fairly foolproof. “It’s so funny, it’s almost like the way it’s written, the way it’s drawn out, it makes you want to yell at the TV screen, cause it’s like ‘No! Don’t do that! That’s a terrible idea! That’s a terrible decision, are you stupid? Do you not have common sense?!’ They want to yell at me on the TV, so when they see me in person, they just make up for it in person. It’s how that works out.”
Much of Houston’s interaction with viewers concerns the contentious, yet loving, relationship between Jeffrey and his ice cold, homophobic mother Veronica, the show’s queen bee, played by Angela Robinson. “I’m always sure to let people know that my costars in person, like Angela, who’s pretty much the villain on the show, is actually a really nice person,” he says. “Even in TSA, an agent was rude to her because of the character she plays on TV! She’s completely the opposite. One lady met her and slapped her on the shoulders and told her she needs to be nicer to her son. So it really shows they think it’s that serious. I’m grateful that they’re so tied in, but sometimes [fans] just have to reel it back when it’s in person.”
Despite the occasional overzealous Jeffrey supporter, Houston, who identifies as straight, is pleased The Haves and Have Nots offers an opportunity to explore the prickly topic of homophobia within the African-American community, and the subject of LGBTQ rights in general.
“Jeffrey’s a little more of a situation,” says Houston. “His mother at least has this mapped-out life that she’s planned for him, but he [is] gay, and she didn’t approve of that, his father did, so it’s been an ongoing battle and fight for independence, for his acceptance and for the love from his parents, and they’re going back and forth. The hero would be Jeffrey and his mother Veronica would be the villain, and every time he tries to move forward with his life, she tries to find a way to sabotage it, so it’s been an interesting ride.”
Unfortunately, not everyone watching the show will agree that Jeffrey deserves to live his life freely. Recognizing that some in the audience might side with Veronica’s conformist wishes for her son, Houston says, “I feel like what it does, which I really love, and what’s important for people to get from it, is that we get to see a warped love from his mother, because everything she’s doing is out of love. She doesn’t want to hurt him, she just has this little idea of how he should live and she wants to see that through. And I think what this show has done, it has exposed life behind the curtain. A lot of times, people don’t see the backstory.”
In Jeffrey’s case, part of his backstory included deliberately misleading his parents about his sexuality, until finally he came out at the end of season one. “At first, audiences didn’t like my character, and I think once they saw the bullying, once they saw the treatment, they started to get a little more compassionate for the person,” Houston says. “Whether they agree with the sexuality or not, that didn’t matter because they started to see the human aspect of it, and the human feeling behind it, and I think that’s been a great lesson for everyone, is that [sexuality] is not important. Once you see the person through a different lens and you view them as a human first, that’s the lens you should be looking through. I think it’s been a great reminder because the people who were against him are the people rooting for him now because he’s kind of been the underdog in the situation of just trying to be himself and be loved for it.”
For Jeffrey, being himself on the show also means disrobing for many, many shirtless scenes. In fact, The Haves and Have Nots puts plenty of male pulchritude on display, across all generations. Even erstwhile Dukes of Hazzard star John Schneider, who portrays Cryer family patriarch Jim, has to stay fit for the series’ steamy love scenes. The set sounds like it could double as a bodybuilding camp.
“There is an amazing gym on set, it’s literally downstairs from everyone’s dressing rooms, so we have no excuse,” says Houston. “First of all, I think we’re all pretty much athletic, we’re all competitive with each other, but we’re also all friends, so I think it’s almost like having a teammate, you get inspired by seeing a teammate coming in shape, and it inspires you to go down to this gym. Plus, we shoot so much so fast and so quickly, that we’re just at the studio all the time. So we have this idle time and you’re either in your dressing room, you could be in the gym, or just walking around, I guess, so we make use of that. There’s no trainers, but Mr. Perry keeps it hot down there. It’s got literally everything you need, there would be no excuses. He uses it, in fact, and blasts the music. We all — the men — come from some sort of fitness background, which has been great, so we just all kind of push each other and kinda challenge each other. And John Schneider, he still keeps in shape, he’s doing his workout. Bo Duke’s gotta be able to slide across the General Lee, so he keeps himself in shape.”
The show is in good enough shape after six seasons that seasons seven and eight are already in the can, with season nine set to shoot. While Houston prepares for another season of soapy shenanigans, and looks forward to pursuing a film career, he’s proud of the work he and his castmates continue to do on OWN.
“In two weeks we’re going back for season 9. We’re like the NCIS of melodrama,” he says. “It keeps going, and it’s still a hit on OWN, and it is such a blessing. What it’s really a testament of, I think, is the cast, because we’re so close. I mean, I went scuba diving with two of my costars just a few weeks ago. We spend Christmas parties together and stuff like that. We talk to each other, so we’re so close that it’s kind of like a family, there’s not one person who doesn’t fit or is arrogant or is ‘Hollywood’ in any way. I think we’re just, as a group, so normal and down-to-earth and grounded, and I think that’s added to its longevity, and that’s why everybody comes back. People are off doing their other projects, but they come back because the fans have been supporting this show, so we want to give it back to them.”
Gavin Houston appears at Tease: The Official D.C. Pride Event on Friday, May 24 at Ziegfeld’s/Secrets, 1824 Half St. SW. Tickets are $25. Admission is free for DWP Party Pass holders. For more information, visit www.darylwilsondc.com.
Tyler Perry’s The Haves and Have Nots airs Tuesdays on OWN. Visit www.oprah.com.