Day 6

Out on Television: Wilson Cruz on the rise of LGBTQ roles in Hollywood

Wilson Cruz made history as the first openly gay actor to play a gay teen on primetime television in his role on My So-Called Life. Now, he's one of the executive producers of Visible: Out on Television, a docuseries that traces the highs and lows of LGBTQ representation on TV.

'I would argue that television has been our greatest tool,' says the groundbreaking actor

Wilson Cruz attends a screening of Apple TV+'s Visible: Out On Television on Feb. 25, 2020. (Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

Originally published on Feb 28, 2020.

Wilson Cruz knows firsthand the power of television to alter perspectives and change lives.

The openly gay actor, who played gay teen Rickie Vasquez on the popular 1990s TV drama My So-Called Life, says the show helped him reconnect with his estranged father.

Cruz is one of the executive producers of Visible: Out on Television, a new docuseries from AppleTV+ that traces the highs and lows of LGBTQ representation on TV.

In an interview with Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho, he looked back on that history and how his own onscreen roles have changed since the 1990s.

Here's part of that conversation.

In this TV series you describe your audition for My So-Called Life. What did you say to the casting director when you walked out of that audition?

We had just gone through the scene. I hadn't had many professional acting credits at that point, and so I didn't know if my audition was going to be good enough to get a callback.

And so before I walked out the door, I just had a real need to turn around and say to [the] casting director that had I seen a Rickie Vasquez on TV when I was 15 to 16 years old, it would have made a world of a difference to me.

I understood in my very first job the power of television and the responsibility that comes with it.- Wilson Cruz

To be able to see someone who looked like me, who represented my experience ... would have gone a long way to help me understand that things would be all right.

You were barely out of your teens yourself when My So-Called Life came out. How did the show affect your own life?

You know, I came out to my parents because of the show. My father threw me out of the house before we started filming the series and we didn't speak for a year.

It was the show that allowed me to have a conversation with my father again, because he was watching it and could ... understand a bit more about what my life has been like. [It] gave him the ability to reach out to me because of that.

It set me up for the rest of my career, as well, in the sense that I understood in my very first job the power of television and the responsibility that comes with it when you're making something like My So-Called Life. It's a gift to your audience that you're offering a view of the world that they perhaps wouldn't have received had it not been for you.

So it changed everything for me.

Cruz attends the Opening Night Gala of Outfest L.A.'s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 2003. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

That really goes to the heart of what you're trying to do with this series. How important has TV been in changing public perception of the LGBTQ community?

I would argue that television has been our greatest tool, and that's really what the series is about.

It's about how the movement used this agent of change in order to tell the truth about who LGBTQ people are. We did it through scripted television, but it also came through the way we were covered in the news. And those depictions happened because people were fighting behind the scenes in order to make sure that they were being done in an honest and sensitive and truthful way.

And so this series is really about all of the people that really risked everything in order to do it.

Cruz with Wanda Sykes promote Visible: Out On Television at an AppleTV+ event in California. (David Livingston/Getty Images)

When gay characters first started to appear on TV, most of them were played by straight actors — in part because so few actors were actually out at the time. How do you feel about that?

I'm grateful to them. You know, I think about somebody like Jane Alexander, who did a TV film with Gena Rowlands about a lesbian woman who was trying to keep parental rights after she divorced her husband and got into a relationship with a woman.

There weren't any openly lesbian actors who were willing or capable of taking on that role, and had someone like Gena Rowlands and Jane Alexander not stepped up with their name recognition and their respectful careers, that movie may never have been [made].

When you look back at some of those shows that were the early depictions of gay people on television, like Three's Company or Soap, which really walked a fine line between representing gay people and completely mocking them, how do you feel about those shows now?

Well, you know, there are two sides to those coins. We needed visibility, and I think especially in terms of Billy Crystal on Soap, it was a transitional time between when it was acceptable to mock LGBTQ people and the beginning of when we were being depicted as sympathetic.

Cruz with trans actress and activist Laverne Cox at the Annual GLAAD Media Awards in 2014. (Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images)

And so you could tell that the audience didn't quite know how to react yet. They hadn't really been given permission to see themselves in these people yet. And so it was a difficult time in storytelling for LGBTQ people, who were still informing them about the truth of our lives.

When you look back on it, it was a very awkward growth period.

When was the first time that you watched television and thought, "Yes that's that's close to my life. I can see myself in that"?

You know, I've said this before and I mean it: I didn't really see myself on TV until I saw myself on TV. 

So many people talk about how we would try to find ourselves in shows that had nothing to do with us directly. That's why people love The Golden Girls so much: that's a chosen family, you know, with humour that was taken directly out of our own community.

Cruz with the cast of Star Trek: Discovery in 2019. (Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images)

So we would try to replace ourselves in those lives. It's this thing called the Tennessee Williams effect; you know, every female character that Tennessee Williams ever wrote was really a gay man. And we saw elements of that on television as well through shows like The Golden Girls or Designing Women or Sex in the City.

Now we're at a point where we're allowed to be those characters ourselves.

It has been 25 years since you played Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life. How have the characters you've played since then been different?

I think they've become different because I'm different. I think there's less explaining now about what being a gay man is. I'm given much more permission to just be and to exist without having to explain.

I mean, I think My So-Called Life and Rickie Vasquez were really an introduction. It was, you know, "Gay Boy 101." And now on Star Trek Discovery, there's no mention of the fact that we're gay.

Cruz and his onscreen partner Anthony Rapp attend the Star Trek: Discovery panel during New York Comic Con in 2018. (Craig Barritt/Getty Images for New York Comic Con)

It's just these two people are in love and are part of an epic love story ... and the most important thing about them is that they're part of a team that saves the world.

They are just like every other couple on that show. And that's the way it should be.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation, download our podcast or click Listen above.