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Wilson Cruz: Life after Life

May 1996

Wilson Cruz - Life After Life

Interview by Edwin J. Bernard

With his portrayal of Rickie Vasquez in last year's short-lived ABC series, My So Called Life, Wilson Cruz became the first regularly appearing gay teen character in a prime time American television series. In spite of a massive letter-writing campaign to save the show, My So Called Life was cancelled after its first season because of low ratings. On the heels of his small screen success story Cruz talks to Edwin J. Bernard about his latest forays onto the big screen, the truth about the show's demise, being a spokesperson for gay teens, and how success has affected his love life.

My So Called Life was the first prime-time American television series to depict the life of a gay teen so spine-tinglingly accurately. And Rickie Vasquez, as played by Wilson Cruz, now a fully out 21-year-old, was no simpering victim, either: he was tough, funny, insightful, and morally strong - rather like Cruz himself. But despite winning critical acclaim, a GLAAD award and four Emmy nominations, the show was canceled by ABC under a rather murky cloud of suspicion. Now, Wilson Cruz tells the truth about the demise of MSCL and his own, remarkable life.

How do you feel about My So Called Life being canceled?

I'm angry. I'm extremely upset. I came away from the show with a career, and friendships, and huge loyal employers. The fans have nothing. They have this one season. I hope that it may be enough, but I doubt it. I am bitter and angry and I don't know who to fault.

The rumors are that it was because Claire Danes (the show's Emmy-nominated lead actor) wanted a movie career.

Claire is an incredibly talented girl... and anybody who has spoken to me is getting the truth from me. And the truth is, she did not want to come back to the show. Which is where my confusion comes. She, of course, is denying it for whatever reason. And I have a problem with that. If you're going to make a decision, if you're going to say that this is not what you want to do any more, stand by that decision and at least honor that much of yourself. I don't understand why she did not want to come back. I fault her managers and her parents more than I fault her - because of the fact that she is 16. Now I'm not saying that she's too young to know between right and wrong because that's crap. She knew what she was doing when she did it. I just with that she would have thought more about the people that she was affecting, that's all. She can deny it 'til the cows come home, but everyone who was on that show knows the truth.

So are you saying that ABC would have continued with the show if Claire Danes hadn't walked?

I'm not saying that at all. ABC didn't want to bring the show back. They were losing money, we were at the bottom of the ratings. It was not financially intelligent to bring the show back this season. But they could not find a way not to bring it back because of the fact that it was so highly acclaimed, there was so much viewer response for the show. Basically there were hundreds and thousands of letters that were mailed between January and May to the network. So they really would have looked bad if they did not bring the show back. So what they were looking for was a way to not bring the show back and save face. And by her going in there and saying she didn't want to do it, she gave them the opportunity to say, "Well, we were going to bring it back, but... she didn't want to come back." And she knew that. I know very well that she knew what she was doing when she walked in there and said she didn't want to do the show any more.

She allowed herself to be a scapegoat.

So I'm angry.

You were 19 and living a closeted life at home in an LA suburb with your parents and two younger brothers when you won the role. How has your life changed since making the series?

It's been a huge roller-coaster ride. Right after I came out to my father, he asked me to leave, and I really had nowhere to go. For a couple of months there, I was homeless. I lived in my car, on the street, at friends' houses.

How are things with your father now?

Everything is much improved, much to the credit of my family - it was my mother, my aunts, and my grandparents who educated him. They are the ones who said to him, "Look, this is your son. You have to acknowledge the fact that he is not what you wanted him, to be but you must love and accept him for what he is." I'm not going to sit here and say that he has made this 360-degree turn, but I am much closer to him now than I was before I came out to him. I can actually look him in the eye now, whereas before I was always hiding something from him. There's no violence involved any more, where as of last year that wasn't true.

Do you think that the show helped him understand what you went though?

That has more truth to it than you know. After the Christmas episode had aired, where Rickie gets kicked out, my father called me and apologized to me. It wasn't until then that he actually knew what he had put me through. It was a huge step for him to apologize.

So you used some of your own personal experiences in the show?

Yeah, when we did the Christmas episode where I get thrown out of the house, and I'm homeless, and I'm looking for a place to live, stuff like that. There's an episode at the school dance, where I end up going with this guy who doesn't really want to be there with me, he wants to be with my best friend. And I think he's there with me. And the very last episode where this girl asks me if I am gay. It's the first time that I actually say, "Yes, I am."

So life imitates art imitates life...

It was a great opportunity for me to tell a story. Because my story is not unique. That's the sad truth of it. It happens every day, all the time in this country and around the world, where a young man or young woman comes out to their parents and they're not accepted. So it was a huge opportunity for me to go to the writers and say, "I want to bring truth to this." And the fact that they were willing to do that, to put their butts on the line, and be honest... at a time when America really doesn't want to hear it.

Was it a difficult decision to come out?

No. I came out because I wanted people to know that the life that I was portraying on TV was real. I wanted them to know that they were watching something that was actually happening in life. And I think, in that sense, it opened a lot of people's eyes.

Isn't it a drag, though, being a spokesperson for gay teens?

No, I think it's about time they had a voice. And if they can speak though me that's cool. The truth is, I'm not a teenager... but I played one on TV! And I think they need to see someone who's been where they were. I really am disturbed by the suicide rate for gay teens, and I'm also extremely disturbed by the overwhelming feeling this generation has that they are going to die of AIDS. If I can help educate them... they're not a statistic and there is hope, then I'm doing my job.

It was hard getting to you for this interview, so I guess you must be busy. Is there another series in the works?

I did a pilot for NBC called 7th Avenue (about the New York fashion industry), but I don't know if it's going to be picked up in the Spring as a mid-season replacement. I'm doing films. I have a cameo in Oliver Stone's Nixon. And I'm doing an independent film called Johns which is about male street hustlers out here in West Hollywood. It's really a wonderful film, with David Arquette and Luke Haas. I'm hoping and praying that things will come along because of the show. I know I'm much farther along in my career than I was before the show came along, so I have faith that I'm going to be okay.

Are you continuing to play gay characters?

They're gay... but it's not because I haven't had the opportunity to play a straight character, it's because I haven't found any other characters that I was willing to play. These scripts were good scripts and good opportunities for me, and so I took them. I will play straight characters. I'm an actor first and foremost, who happens to be gay, who happens to be Puerto Rican. That's the way I see it.

Has being on My So Called Life provided any dating opportunities?

Oh god, I wish I could say that it were true. But I'm starting to think that people are avoiding me. Well, not avoiding me. But I think people assume that because I'm on television and I'm somewhat successful as far as that goes, that I'm taken. This is not true. This is so far form the truth that it disgusts me. I have been single for two years now. And not because there was lack of trying. I'm starting to think there's something wrong with me.

I guess you have to make the first move.

I know, and I'm so awful at that. Are you kidding me? I would die. I'm a pretty outgoing person but I don't know if I could handle going up to someone and saying, "Hi".

They say love always happens when you least expect it.

I keep hearing that. I'm not expecting anything! I haven't been expecting anything for a while now... so where is he?

“I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother.”

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