“I love my nerd life!” exclaims Garrett Clayton. “Anybody who follows my social media and knows me, knows what a giant nerd I am. I’m a huge Pokémon fan. I do cosplay. [A favorite is Sora from Kingdom Hearts.] I play Dungeons & Dragons once a week with my friends. I have all these different video game systems in my house. I played World of Warcraft when I was in high school a lot. The only reason I stopped playing it is because they let you buy level 90 characters, and I think that’s cheating.”
Clayton, a native of Michigan, also loves his current domesticated existence. Speaking for an hour and a half on a lazy Sunday afternoon from his backyard in California, birds chirping and dogs barking in the background, he notes with ease how happy he and his fiancé, writer Blake Knight, are since making their nearly nine-year relationship public.
“I spend a lot of time in the garden,” he says. “We have a beautiful garden at home. And I’m an animal lover. We have two dogs. We might want to get a bird in the near future. I wear sweatpants and I play video games. I don’t know if that makes me a recluse or if it makes me an introvert, but in any other social setting, I’m the loud, obnoxious person.” He laughs. “I don’t know what kind of person this makes me, except for honest.”
Like many actors starting out in Hollywood, Clayton had a flurry of small, supporting roles. Then one day someone at the Disney Channel noticed his boyish good looks and asked him to audition for a part in a project that would forever change his life — 2013’s Teen Beach Movie turned out to be a monster hit for the cable channel, and a star was born.
Clayton laughs over the fact that most of the songs in the film were pre-recorded by another singer before he even auditioned, and that he lip-synced the role. The 2015 sequel, however, “is all me,” he says.
Shedding his Disney skin in 2016, Garrett went on to become a household name in the LGBTQ community, portraying real-life adult film star Brent Corrigan opposite Christian Slater and James Franco in the dark, disturbing King Cobra.
“People who say we can only tell positive stories about the LGBTQ community are silly,” he says. “We need to tell the horror stories just like we need to tell the good stories. You have to know what went wrong in the past. You have to know what we have to grow from. You need to know what the dark side is, because as my mom always said, ‘You can’t know light without dark, so you’ve got to make sure that you’re balanced.'”
The press was relentless in trying to get the then-closeted Clayton to admit he was gay, something that, to this day, troubles the actor. “I hate to break it to every journalist who got mad at me about [not coming out to them],” he says “but the film was about the murder of a porn producer who poached underage young men — and I didn’t feel that was what my coming out should have been linked to.”
Clayton finally did come out when he and Knight announced their engagement in 2018. Prior to that, his star continued to rise — in 2016, he portrayed what some have called “the perfect Link” in Hairspray Live! And in 2017, he starred onstage opposite Al Pacino and Judith Light in Dotson Rader’s opus to Tennessee Williams, God Looked Away. “She is wonderful,” he says of Light. “She asked to officiate my wedding, and I was, like, ‘Hell, yeah, Judith, you can marry me and my fiancé anytime!'”
Clayton will be in Washington, D.C. in a few weeks, appearing in the American Pops Orchestra’s Sept. 21 season opener, “Coat of Many Colors: The Songs of Dolly Parton,” at Arena Stage.
APO Maestro Luke Frazier is coy about what Clayton will sing at the concert, which also features pop legend Joan Osborn, Neyla Pekarek of the Lumineers, and local powerhouse Nova Payton. But he offers this much: “Dolly had a lot of famous duets with men, so I’m going to let you read between the lines.” He adds that Clayton, who he notes has a “beautiful voice,” will take on a few solos. “There are some particular numbers that are just, in my opinion, quintessential. Let’s just say he’s singing three super, super, super well-known Dolly songs.”
For his end, Clayton is excited for the opportunity to push his musical career forward. “Anyone who gets to sing Dolly Parton should be excited,” he says. “It’d be silly if I wasn’t. She’s an icon for a reason.”
METRO WEEKLY: You grew up in Michigan. What was your childhood like?
GARRETT CLAYTON: I kind of bounced around a lot. I lived in five states before I was four, because my dad was in the Army and in the Air Force. My parents split up when I was four and until I was about 15, I spent every other week at both of their houses. So I was a kid between worlds a lot. Just different familial settings, different economical settings. But I feel like I got a well-rounded growing up, and different experiences constantly. My dad’s side of the family is very working class. That’s just the way I grew up. I understand the value of hard work and what it means to fight for the life you want.
MW: When did you catch the acting bug?
CLAYTON: When I was younger I told my mom I wanted to try acting. She had done a little bit of modeling through the years and called some of her friends in the modeling world. I signed with agencies in Michigan, and worked as a commercial model from 13 to 15. I was meeting my agent at my modeling agency when they were casting for a movie. The people casting it saw me and said, “Hey, are you an actor?” And I said, “I’m trying to figure out how to get into it,” because that’s ultimately what I wanted. And they said, “If you want to audition for our movie, you can come in and read. We think you look like you could be good for this movie.” I got the job. I played an angry, precocious tween that got to be obnoxious. That was the kind of person I was at that age, anyway.
That first movie was a blue-screen movie. It was me and the other actors. They would put some furniture in the middle of this giant blue space and we would inevitably always be like, “There are no walls!” And they were like, “Just pretend, trust us. Just look at the tape on the floor, that’s the geography of the room. Don’t walk through a wall, and we’ll be fine.”
MW: After you moved from Michigan to L.A., how long before you got your big break — the Disney moment.
CLAYTON: Two years. I worked at a 24-hour restaurant for two years, and I worked from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m every day. When I wasn’t working, I was sleeping or auditioning, because I was working 12-hour shifts every night until the sun came up.
MW: Do you remember how you felt when you got cast in Teen Beach Movie?
CLAYTON: It was surreal. But the thing is, you never know how big anything’s going to hit. All I knew is I booked a really incredible job. Whether it was successful or if it was a one-off, I knew I was going to get to do something that I had dreamed about. I mean, a lot of people who come to L.A. think, “I want to be a movie star, and I want to get my own TV show.” I would never steer anyone away from having goals, but I would steer people away from closing off opportunity. I think a lot of people have a truncated version of what they think success means. But don’t put horse blinders on and close yourself off to opportunity. Just because you get your start in film doesn’t mean you can’t move to theater. Theater has always been my passion, but film was the thing that I found opportunity in first. So I took my opportunity where I got it. It really just depends on your openness to finding opportunity without trying to control the path.
MW: There’s a long legacy of phenomenal performers who have emerged from the Disney machine. What is it like being part of that?
CLAYTON: Pretty incredible. I’m just a working-class kid from Detroit whose dream came true. It kind of hits you in waves, you know?
MW: There’s a risk of being cast as a certain type of actor especially, it seems, if you work for Disney.
CLAYTON: I am an actor who got hired by Disney, and now some people see me as a Disney actor. I will never name names, but I know some people who really dislike their connection to Disney. That’s their prerogative. For me, I grew up watching the channel, I grew up believing in the Disney dream. For me, it was a dream come true. I don’t know peoples’ perception of me, but if they put me in the box of “He’s a Disney kid,” and that’s where it ends for them, cool. Regardless of anyone’s thought process, I will always continue to grow and evolve, and find cool new projects, and surprise people with my work. I will never ever be afraid to take a risk.
My two cents on it is that I am thankful for the opportunity I was given at Disney. It’s expanded my world in ways that I don’t know if I’ll ever fully realize. My fiancé is the one who reminds me to be careful no matter where I go. I’m like, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “People know you all around the world. People know your name, so you can’t just go around and do whatever you want. You have to be careful, now.” It’s him who really reminded me of that responsibility, because I’m always downplaying, I’m just like, “Oh, I fart a lot and I make a lot of weird jokes.” I have people around me who love me, and who not only respect what I’ve done, but remind me of who I am, and the things I’ve accomplished. I’ve really tried to own that responsibility and be a good example for young people.
Being on Disney might have a stigma for some people, but I’ve never let any of those thoughts cloud my judgment of who I am. I just think that was a career move, and all right let’s see what the next one is going to be.
MW: The next one was the LGBTQ real-life drama King Cobra, where you played adult film star Brent Corrigan. It was about as extreme as you could get from Disney.
CLAYTON: In reality, for me, it was about, okay, here’s a different part. Yes, people see me as a Disney kid, and while I’m grateful for that, I also know that I have been much more than that my whole life, so why don’t I just show them another side of me? I didn’t do this job to play it safe. Christian Slater and James Franco had already signed on, and who wouldn’t want to work them? They’re both brilliant actors, and I felt like I had a lot to learn from them. It was an intense story that happened to be true, and reading into this character there seemed to be a lot to delve into. So it wasn’t just about breaking away from the Disney image, it was also about challenging myself and seeing how far I could rise to the occasion.
MW: When you were offered the role, did your agent say, “Maybe you shouldn’t do this.” Where there any qualms about taking it on?
CLAYTON: The only qualm was it was a big, big risk. It’s the same thing when Mark Wahlberg did Boogie Nights — you don’t know what a decision like this is going to do for your career. But I wasn’t willing to stay in one type of box and never get the opportunity to get out of it again, so I was like, if this diversifies my work, I’m going to take the risk.
MW: You’re portraying a living person, one who is historically well-known within the gay community. You were a dead ringer for him in the film. If I recall, Corrigan was not happy with the movie.
CLAYTON: No, he wasn’t. I’ve never said this publicly, because at the time I didn’t really feel comfortable and there were so many headlines around it, but the truth of the matter is he read it, he signed off on the story, and he ended up getting paid. He read it before we shot it. He didn’t offer any notes to make it better. So why start all this drama if you got paid, and you signed off on it?
Honestly, I’m glad he kept his opinion to himself until the movie came out, because he didn’t really say anything about it when it was greenlit. He only waited until it started making headlines to say anything at all about his disapproval.
MW: Did you meet with him?
CLAYTON: No. I wanted to, and then was advised against it, because he was upset. I don’t poke my nose into things that aren’t my business, which is probably very unlike most celebrities nowadays, because people love to make a headline. I just don’t, because I focus on the work. And if anybody else needs to be distracted by — how do I word this? — if anyone else is trying to distract you with drama so they can stay relevant, then they must not be that confident in their abilities as a performer.
MW: As an actor, how do you interpret someone who is still alive? There’s something in you that must go “I need to stay true to who I believe this person is.”
CLAYTON: I went into it with a positive notion of all right this is a really serious story, and it’s my job to respect it, and to be as honest as I can in my approach. I read the book Cobra Killer. And I watched his original video when he was younger online. That video shouldn’t even be online anymore, but it’s all over the place. That, to me, was very uncomfortable, but I also thought if I’m going to tell the truth of the situation, I have to watch this and I have to make sure that I get the tone right, because I didn’t want to misinterpret the tone of that scene. I wanted to live through the truth of that moment correctly as I see it. That was my job.
I know a lot of people joked, “Oh, yeah, you watched the video, I bet that was hard,” but it does feel hard when you know somebody’s underage and that you shouldn’t be watching it. Yes, I do get uncomfortable seeing underage pornography. It’s horrifying. But if I was going to tell the story correctly, I had to see the story. And if you’re lucky enough as an actor to see the living story online of a moment that is so controversial, so talked about, you’d be a fool not to investigate it, to see what that feeling is, and try to replicate that emotion on the screen. It’s my responsibility to tell it as truthfully as possible.
MW: Was it uncomfortable to play the sex scenes?
CLAYTON: It depends on which moments, honestly. Nothing was without purpose, it wasn’t just sex for sex. That was the only thing I told the director. I was like, “The only way I see this film working is if there’s a reason behind each moment that you’re using sex.” But I signed up for the job. I knew what I was getting myself into.
MW: You weren’t out at the time the film came out.
CLAYTON: A lot of [media] tried utilizing that film to make me come out, but I was more focused on talking about adult performers’ experience doing these things. Because if you read into the aftermath of people working in the adult industry, it’s really tragic. I was trying to use the [press for this film] as a platform to talk about that. But interviewers were more interested in trying to make it about me coming out. At that time, I just wasn’t comfortable tying those together. I didn’t want my coming out to be tied to a murderous porn story for the rest of my life. I wanted it to be my choice, when I felt comfortable talking about it. [Some of the reporters] got really disrespectful, and it felt very offensive at the time.
MW: So journalists really pressured you?
CLAYTON: Every single one. My publicist was coaching me every day because I was freaking out. I’m like, “I can’t believe people are turning this murder story about underage porn into my coming out.” I was so distraught, and I was just very hurt. I had bloggers tweeting me, saying, “Fuck this guy for not coming out. Who does he think he is?” and “Great, another straight actor taking gay roles.” The ones who didn’t assume I was gay were mad because they thought I was a straight guy taking away gay roles. The ones who thought I was gay thought I was betraying the community by not coming out.
MW: You were closeted while you were at Disney.
CLAYTON: Yes. I had a team of people — not Disney Channel, Disney was never involved in this — but I had people who told me that I couldn’t come out because nobody wants to fuck the gay guy, they want to shop with him. And no one will ever hire a gay man as a lead in movies.
The sad part for me is I wish I wasn’t so young and impressionable at the time. I wish I could go back and use that platform to say, “You know what? Fuck this, these people are wrong.” It takes people in positions of clear visibility to stand up and be like, “No, I’m doing what you say gay people can’t do right now, and it’s more important that people see that I’ve done it, and I’ve been there, and I’ve accomplished the things they say people in our community can’t accomplish.”
MW: You knew you were gay from a young age, I’m assuming?
CLAYTON: Pretty much. The thing is I wasn’t closeted from the age of 15 to 19. After I moved to Hollywood, I was put back in the closet. From 16 to almost 19, when I was growing up, I was a club kid. My friends and I used to sneak into gay clubs with fake IDs and have fun. I was totally, completely fine with who I was. It wasn’t until I came to Hollywood that I was told it was bad. People who were going to represent me wouldn’t help me accomplish my dream unless I went back in the closet. You’re not in the position to tell people, “Well, then, I don’t want to work with you,” because if they don’t work with you, who are you going to work with? When someone’s holding your dream over your head and saying, “If you change this one thing, we’ll help you.”
MW: What does that do to you as a person?
CLAYTON: It destroys you.
MW: In what way?
CLAYTON: Mentally. Self-worth. I was having a meltdown about it, and I was dating my fiancé at the time. We secretly were together through all of this, and he really was my support system getting through all this, because a lot of it I was like, “I don’t know how I’m going to be here, I don’t know how I can keep doing this. I’m a liar. I feel bad. I feel like it’s my responsibility to be helping people, and I feel like I’m just saving myself. But if I don’t get to a position where I have a voice, then am I ever able really to help people?”
I just felt so conflicted about every decision I was making, and it was him who said, “You’re not a bad person, you’re a good person who is in a shitty circumstance, and you’re making the best of it while you try to accomplish your dream to get to a place where you are able to help people. You’re not bad, the people who are making you do this, so you can accomplish your dream, are bad.” He was like, “If they really cared about you, and cared about what you stood for, then they wouldn’t ask you to do this, they would support you in figuring out how to navigate other peoples’ prejudice.”
MW: Do you think deep down you took King Cobra to help pave the way to coming out?
CLAYTON: No. I legitimately looked at it as an acting experience.
MW: How would you have felt if the role had gone to a straight actor?
CLAYTON: It didn’t happen, so I don’t know. The place I’m at about that conversation now is when there’s equal opportunity, then everything should be equal. Right now, the balances are tipped — they’re still casting more straight people in gay roles, and still casting more straight people in straight roles. When there’s actual equality, and the casting is fair, then yeah, everyone should get to go after everything they’re after.
Right now, you have straight actors playing gay and straight roles and getting most all of them, but you have very few gay actors who might get to play straight. Every actor can go out for the gay role, and then they end up casting the straight person, so it’s not that I’m against straight people playing gay, it’s just we need to balance the playing field right now.
MW: What kind of roles are you being offered now?
CLAYTON: Honestly, I’ve taken a step back, because I’ve been doing a lot more theater, and I’ve been doing a lot more concert singing, and I’ve been getting producing credits on films. I’m really trying to diversify my career at the moment. I’m still auditioning for things, it’s just right now I don’t want to just be an actor, I also want to produce.
MW: How did you meet your fiancé, Blake Knight?
CLAYTON: About six months after I moved to L.A., when I was working at a restaurant, he would come in. And he wanted to start dating me and I said, “If you can find time in the 12 hours I work a day, the auditions I’m going to, and the acting classes I’m taking, then you’re welcome to do that, but I can’t make any promises because I’m very driven. I’m not going to be working at a restaurant forever.”
MW: How did he win your heart?
CLAYTON: He legitimately courted me. Like, it would be two in the morning, and it just turned Easter, and he had his best friend deliver a giant Easter basket he had made while he hid around the corner and watched me get it. He would just do all of these really unique personal things. I had lost a really big job about 10 months after I moved here, and he surprised me by convincing me to go stay at his house after work, I got off about 3 a.m., and he walked around the corner with a cupcake and a little candle, and a present and was like, “I just wanted tonight to be special.” It was really sweet, intimate things that he just won my heart.
MW: When you came out, and you announced your engagement on social media, what kind of reaction did you get? How did it feel?
CLAYTON: It was great. I honestly didn’t know how people would react. All I knew was it was on my terms, and it was the way I wanted to do it, and that’s all that mattered. I looked at him one day, and I was like, “You know, I think I want to come out soon,” and he said, “Really?” And I was like, “Yeah, you know, I’m too happy, we’re too happy, I cannot hide how happy we are from the world anymore.”
I think hiding it was a disservice to the time and the love that we put into our life together, and the real intense things we’ve been through, and I wanted to respect that, and it was finally on my terms. It was not anybody else trying to scoop a story, or trying to use me for their getting ahead. It was like, “This is my story, and I get to own it, and I love you, and that’s what matters.”
MW: When is the wedding, by the way?
CLAYTON: We don’t know yet. We were together seven years before we even got engaged. We’re not in a rush. We know we’re in this for the long haul. We’re going to get married when we’re ready to get married. I’ve also contemplated just going to a courthouse, and then minding my own business because, like I said before, I have nothing to prove.
MW: One final question. The #MeToo movement has impacted Hollywood in so many unexpected ways, some of them LGBTQ-related. What are your thoughts on the topic?
CLAYTON: I wish as a country we could come together and stop rewarding bad people, because when we stop rewarding bad people that’s where fixing the problem comes in. Just recently someone tried to hire someone who is known for assaulting people on a project I might do in the future, and I said, “I won’t work on this project if that person is working on this project.” I’m not going to let someone work with me and then benefit off of it because they’ve used their position of power to take advantage of others and they abused it. They shouldn’t be rewarded anymore. Until we stop allowing people who hurt others to get ahead, then what’s to stop them from continuing doing what they’re doing, making the things they make, and taking advantage of new people?
All it means is they’re going to be sneakier, and meaner, and try to get away with it in different ways, unless they really show that they’ve grown, they’ve done some self-searching, worked on themselves. I’m not religious, but the only word I can think of is “repent.” What are we teaching people? That you get rewarded after you hurt others? No. You’re not allowed to work with other people until you learn your lesson.
Garrett Clayton will appear in the American Pops Orchestra’s “Coat of Many Colors: The Music of Dolly Parton” on Saturday, Sept. 21, at 8 p.m., at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets are $25 to $75. Visit www.theamericanpops.org.