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Transcript of an interview with Wilson Cruz by Tim Chipping

25May2007

As we informed some days ago Tim Chipping did an interview with Wilson Cruz for channel4.com/music.

There is a lot of stuff could not fit in the published version, so Tim allowed us to publish the whole transcript.

An interview with Wilson Cruz by Tim Chipping
11/05/2007

Hi Wilson. I think we should probably start at the beginning

It’s a very good place to start, as Julie Andrews would say.

I can’t believe we’ve already got to that point, so early in the interview.

Ha ha ha! I know.

How did you come be in My So Called Life?

Oh, we really are starting at the beginning. Do I even remember? It was like 13 years ago.

It was actually very funny. I received a phone call from my agent and she was being very coy, she was like, “I think there’s a part in this show…um, that you might, how can I put this, that you might like very much. I think you might relate to it.” And so I read it and, I’m not kidding, tears were falling down my face because a) I thought somebody was stalking me through high school and b) I thought, finally somebody’s telling the truth about what it’s like to be a teenager and being gay.

So was Rickie’s experience really similar to your own?

God, yes. It became more similar, when we started doing the series, because Winnie Holzman the creator of the show and I became very close and she started to use my personal experiences to tell the story. But the pilot episode was eerie. I’d like to say that Rickie Vasquez was who I was in high school but he was also who I wish I could’ve been. He means a great deal to me. I’m still very protective of him and I adore him.

Is he allowed to be called Enrique yet?

He is now! Hee hee…

Was it immediately obvious how good the writing on the show was?

Oh yes. What made the writing amazing to me was the fact it was universal in its appeal. Anybody, whether you were a teenager at the time or not, could relate to it. It took place in the 90s but it could’ve taken place in 1950. The issues were the same, the language was a bit different, the clothes were a bit different but I think everybody experienced those emotions. I think that was the point of the show – that we’ve all been through this. We can watch this show and see these kids who look different from who we were when we were kids but we can see that they were actually very much the same. And I think that’s still very true to this day.

Claire Danes was famously just 13 when she took the role of 15 year-old Angela Chase. Were you aware of her prodigious talent?

Oh absolutely. She was a revelation to all of us. I consider her one of my first acting teachers; I would just watch her and learn from her – I was like a sponge. Because I was more of a theatre person at the time – musical theatre – and this medium was new to me. And so I learned from her how very little was necessary on screen and how powerful it really could be when you allow yourself to just be present and be authentic and genuine. As opposed to, when you’re on stage, you’re playing to the balcony.

The whole cast is immaculate and faultless but Claire is so note perfect it’s astonishing. There’s the remarkable line when she returns home from the party and her parents are worried about her and she says, “I fell in some mud. I’m ok”.

Actually she says: “I fell in some mud. [pause] I’m o-k.” God! She was brilliant and she still is brilliant.

One of Rickie’s lines also seems to have stayed with us: “Could you like, pick a sentence and go with it.”

Ha ha ha. I still use it, to be honest!

How did the script stay so constant and true to the characters when it was written by several different writers?

Well, there were a number of different writers but each would submit their script to Winnie and she would ‘finish them’. Storylines and rough drafts were submitted and then Winnie take her magic hand to it. Jason Katims became very essential as well.

Rickie’s sexuality was dealt with in a way that was unique to television. Was it something they discussed with you beforehand?

We never really knew what was gonna happen next. The way it happened was Winnie, and all of the kids, really became quite close and we started to notice that some of our conversations would end up on the page! And that was really fine because we were really committed to making it as real and as honest as possible. But we never knew, week to week, what would happen next. But I did know that Rickie was on a journey of self acceptance and Winnie and I were very much in unison there. I knew that what I wanted to see was this person go from a place where he was ambiguous and kind of unformed, and by the end of that season I wanted him to be at a place where he could say out loud that he was gay, to somebody. And really accept it and step into his own skin. And I think we saw him do that. I think we saw him become his own person. At the beginning he was, at best, a friend of a friend. He was the sidekick of a sidekick and I think by the end of the nineteenth episode he was his own independent person with a fully realised character and we knew who he was and what his journey was and where he came from.

Another of the unique elements of the show was the how, often, the parents’ storyline would parallel that of their kids in brilliantly clever ways.

Well that was a big thing for the show too - we’d see the relationship with the parents at home. I think what Winnie was saying is we’re all still teenagers at heart. And we might be a little larger now but we’re still dealing with the same issues, rightly or wrongly. I think that was her point. It’s a bit of a cycle we’re in. The parents and children sometimes look at each other like they’re aliens from two different planets but they’re really not. They are the same.

Were there plans for a second season?

There were prayers and rosaries held for a second season! We were all hoping but, you know, throughout the shooting of the first season we all knew that the axe could have fallen at any time. We did a pilot, then they ordered eight then they ordered six then they ordered four, something like that. We kept getting these short orders and so we kept saying goodbye to each other, and kept coming back. And because of that we so much appreciated the experience while we were doing it. And it made it that much fuller for us. And also, I think we were very aware of how special it was.

Obviously it would’ve been great for you to keep working but do you agree that the show ends perfectly as it is?

I am one of those people who does think the show ends perfectly. There are those that will argue with me, who are like: “No, we needed to know who she ends up with!” And I say, isn’t it beautiful that you do know who she ends up with, without actually seeing it. Or you get to interpret it.

Part of the beauty of the show is its relationship with the audience and the conversation that this girl and these people were having with the audience. And now, because it ended so abruptly, maybe, the audience gets to continue the story. And becomes the next character in the show. For me, it’s a beautiful ending.

At the time I wanted to kill something, because I was very upset. And it would’ve been nice to have continued. When I see Jennifer Aniston and Dave Schwimmer I just want to poke their eyes out! Because were on opposite them here in the States. We premiered the same year that Friends did, in the same time slot. So I look back and think, we had no chance in hell!

But what you must know is that for everyone who watched My So Called Life, it remains one of their favourite shows and probably always will be. Is that amazing to you?

It means a hell of a lot, as far as I’m concerned. Oh my god. I know it sounds a bit arrogant but I think we knew how good it was. We really did. I’m not gonna say I knew how good I was. I was a nervous wreck! But I knew that I was a part of something very special and I think everyone else could say the same. And does it amaze me that we’re still talking about it? Hmm… It amazes me that it’s still on TV. It amazes me that people loved it as much as we loved it. Because my memories of it are not just what ended up on screen. My memories are about becoming a fully realised person. My journey very much mirrored Rickie’s, at the time. So I have memories of becoming Wilson Cruz and accepting the fact that my work could be powerful and transformative to other people; that I could use this thing that’s really fun for me to do, that could be a little self indulgent, as a very powerful tool in order to make change. And I never realised that before. It’s very special. You’re gonna make me cry!

Then would you just indulge us with this last question? Did you have a time?

Oh… I did. I had a time.

© Tim Chipping and channel4.com/music

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“Lately, I can't even look at my mother without wanting to stab her repeatedly.”

Angela Chase, Episode 1: "My So-Called Life (Pilot)"