Actor Zachary Quinto talks about his slate of forthcoming movies, including the Oliver Stone NSA-whistleblower drama Snowden and I Am Michael, which examines the gay-to-straight conversion of onetime LGBT advocate and publisher Michael Glatze.
When I first met Zachary Quinto, he was hanging out with his two dogs (Noah and Skunk) on the steps of his trailer on the set of I Am Michael, one of a handful of films the thirty-nine-year-old is starring in now—and over the next few months. Quinto plays the longtime boyfriend of Michael Glatze, a former LGBT activist and colleague of mine at XY magazine, who shocked everyone who knew him by publicly renouncing his homosexuality and becoming a Christian pastor.
In 2011, I went to visit Michael at a Bible school in Wyoming and wrote a piece about his new life for the New York Times Magazine. The story caught the attention of iconic director/producer Gus Van Sant and actor James Franco, a man who has rarely encountered a gay story line he didn’t want to make a movie about. The pair enlisted young director Justin Kelly to write and direct the film, and Quinto came on board to play Glatze’s boyfriend, Bennett. “This is such a strange, fascinating story,” Zach told me on the set. Indeed, it’s the opposite of a coming-out story. Recently, I spoke with Quinto by phone about I Am Michael, his role in Oliver Stone’s Snowden, our surreal presidential election, the future of gay life, and the enduring mystery that is James Franco.
Benoit Denizet-Lewis: Zach, you’re a busy guy these days, with Snowden, Star Trek Beyond, Tallulah, and For the Love of Spock all out now. But let’s start with I Am Michael, which hits theaters early next year. In many ways, the film is decidedly apolitical. It’s very much centered on one man’s strange, surprising, and often deeply aggravating (to many gay people, at least) choices. But that journey involves subjects and themes—sexuality, religion, ex-gay conversion—that are steeped in politics. I thought about that again this past summer when the GOP passed a staggeringly conservative platform, one that includes support for conversion therapy. Can a film like I Am Michael exist outside of politics? Did you see this as a political film?
Zachary Quinto: Let me just say that the GOP platform is so laughably backwards. I say “laughably,” but I’m incredibly troubled by the chaotic, sloppy, totally reckless position that this buffoon of a candidate has adopted in the name of the Republican Party. With that said, it’s important to remember that Michael didn’t undergo conversion therapy. He didn’t actually seek to change this aspect of himself. He arrived at a spiritual awakening for himself, which dictated this very unconventional path to identifying as heterosexual.
If it feeds into a discussion about the absurdity, futility, and total inefficacy of conversion therapy, then that’s great. With that said, I don’t know if I would have gotten involved with the movie if I felt it was politically motivated. None of us were interested in ridiculing Michael or using him to score political points. For me, it was a very human story that drew me into its complexity and uniqueness.
BDL: When we talked on set, you told me that what you liked about the role of Bennett was that he stayed true to himself through all of this. As an openly gay man, would you have been interested in playing the role of Michael, an ex-gay?
ZQ: I would have been open to it, for sure. But I felt like I was drawn to Bennett for his integrity and compassion, and the dignity that he worked with trying to preserve his relationship.
None of us were interested in ridiculing Michael or using him to score political points. For me, it was a very human story that drew me into its complexity and uniqueness.
BDL: You haven’t taken many gay roles since you came out publicly in 2011. Why is that?
ZQ: Yeah, I Am Michael is pretty much the straight-up gayest thing I’ve done. I’m open to playing more gay roles, but I don’t want to play a gay role just because I’m a gay actor, and I don’t want to be identified inextricably as a gay actor. That’s partially what fuels the decisions I make. Maybe I’m more inclined to play characters who are straight or who come at the world from a different perspective, because it’s not the one people most closely associate with me. We’re all trying to break out of the boundaries that potentially limit us creatively. I’m interested in continuing to be a part of the integration of the film and television industry to the point where it doesn’t matter what an actor’s sexuality is, whether someone’s gay or not. There’s still more work to be done to achieve that.
BDL: Speaking of gay actors, let’s talk about James Franco.
BDL: James told this very magazine that he’s “gay in his art,” and he’s certainly played more gay roles than you have. If we take him at his word that he’s only “gay in his art” and not “gay in his bed,” why do you think he is so interested in gay-themed projects like I Am Michael? I’ve asked him this before but have never really gotten quite as satisfying and introspective an answer as I’d like. So I’m wondering, what do you think? And what do you make of the criticism, leveled by some, that James engages in a kind of gay baiting?
ZQ: I think James has positioned himself as a ubiquitous provocateur.
BDL: I think he’d like that description.
ZQ: Yeah, he leans into areas that people aren’t necessarily entirely comfortable leaning into themselves, or not entirely comfortable seeing someone who is so conventionally successful as James leaning into. I think he is inexhaustibly curious, intellectually and emotionally. If you have to the opportunity to dictate your own experience the way James’s success has allowed him to, why would you do anything less? It’s so easy to be complacent, but James is anything but. I respect his initiative and willingness to explore things that are not always so palatable to people. And I don’t buy the gay-baiting thing. People are very quick to criticize and shut down other people’s ambitions and successes, and I just wonder how much of that is at play in people’s reactions to James. If the quality of the work is exciting and good and maintains, that’s my only question or concern. Is a person—James or anybody—able to give their entire focus creatively to the work they’re doing?
BDL: What’s the most meaningful role you’ve played in your career? Though you’re perhaps best known for Spock, you’ve played a number of memorable television roles, including Dr. Oliver Thredson in American Horror Story and Ace in season 4 of Girls, which Dave Schilling of Grantland correctly summarized as “unrepentant mind-fucking alt-bro played to risible perfection.” What role are you especially proud of?
ZQ: Tom Wingfield in the Glass Menagerie. I had such a profound experience working on that play. Three months in Cambridge, then six months on Broadway. It was enormously fulfilling, an acclaimed production, and I deepened my creative life significantly. I developed a much fuller appreciation for Tennessee Williams and the poetry of his language and how troubled and tormented he was, and what he was running from and what he was chasing. I was fascinated by how his sexuality played into that and his complicated relationship with his family. These were all ideas and themes that resonated for me in a personal way.
BDL: Let’s talk about your role in Snowden, which Oliver Stone directed and is in theaters now. You play Glenn Greenwald, the liberal journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for publishing a series of reports in The Guardian about classified material stolen by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I’ve had a crush on for about a decade, plays Snowden. What attracted you to the film?
ZQ: First, it was Oliver Stone. He’s been a hero of mine since childhood—I loved his movies and grew up inspired by his work. To get a phone call out of the blue asking me to come work with him was incredible. I felt like a kid. I couldn’t imagine another filmmaker more equipped to tell this story. And I’ve always been a fan of Joseph’s talent and especially his creative choices. He’s an incredibly gifted and committed actor, and he does beautiful work in the film and honors Snowden with his portrayal.
BDL: What was it like playing Glenn Greenwald?
ZQ: He’s an authentically adversarial, unimpeachably intelligent journalist who stands squarely on the ground he believes in. And I enjoyed learning about this issue from his point of view. Like many Americans, my understanding of this issue has been filtered through the mainstream media.
BDL: We’re living through what certainly feels like an endless (and endlessly strange) political season. Were you a Bernie or a Hillary guy?
ZQ: It was a tough decision for me. When I decided to support Hillary, I got lot of backlash from Bernie supporters. The more I heard where they were coming from, the more I felt that there was as extreme a way of thinking on the left as there is on the far right.
BDL: I think Michael Glatze surely proves that extreme thinking transcends party. Michael went from an ideologue activist on the left who believed he had most of the answers (and who believed that Christian fundamentalists were destroying the world) to an ideologue activist Christian fundamentalist who believed he had most of the answers (and that gays and liberals were destroying the world).
ZQ: In general, I feel hopeful but really scared right now. The fact that Donald Trump—an egomaniacal, manipulative, lying, misogynistic fascist—is the candidate being put forward is remarkable and horrifying.
BDL: It does seem like any movie about Donald Trump should logically be set in the Twilight Zone.
ZQ: The Republican Party has disintegrated upon itself. It’s delusional, regressive, and fear based. I don’t know where they go from here. I certainly hope that it’s with someone with more of a foundation of stability and dignity and grace than this buffoon. All I can think about is the Supreme Court, and what we need to protect our rights and liberties moving forward. Any Bernie supporter who would withhold their vote for Hillary just to stand on ceremony has no idea what they’re actually inviting into our futures and children’s futures.
BDL: Speaking of rights, I want to talk to you about gay marriage. You created a bit of a brouhaha recently when you were spotted wearing a ring, but you quickly squashed any engagement rumors. You’ve been with your boyfriend, Miles McMillan, for more than three years now. You’ve expressed some ambivalence about the institution of marriage in the past, though you did fight for marriage equality. Is marriage potentially in your future?
ZQ: Marriage is certainly something we discuss and discuss frequently, but I don’t feel like our commitment is any less substantial or meaningful just because we haven’t taken that step. I already feel married.
BDL: Are you sick of going to gay weddings yet?
ZQ: No way. Bring it on. It’s a fun party, and we fought so hard to make it happen.
BDL: What is your sense of what LGBT people might bring to the institution of marriage? As LGBT activists were fighting for same-sex marriage, they talked a lot about how we all just wanted the same rights, how gay couples are just as conventional and boring as straight couples. That’s certainly true in some cases, but many gay couples have a different perspective and understanding of the role of monogamy, for example. Do you think it’s one of the advantages of being gay that we can rethink or add to this institution?
ZQ: Just by virtue of the fact that for so long gay coupling was seen as other, seen as different, seen as abnormal, LGBT people have often had to fashion relationships in unconventional ways. But I also feel like we’re seeing a bit more discussion and openness about polyamory and non-monogamous couplings in the straight community. Whatever anyone chooses, it has to be about partnership, open communication, integration, and mutual respect.
BDL: In I Am Michael, your character is in a threesome relationship for several years. Gay filmgoers may not find a thruple all that shocking, but do you think straight people will be thrown by it?
ZQ: It’s certainly unconventional. Personally, I don’t know how a sustained three-pronged relationship would be navigable to me. It feels complicated emotionally based on how I’m personally wired. I know gay couples and straight couples who are open in that way, and if it enhances someone’s life and someone’s feeling of being cared for and loved, who are we to judge it?
We’re seeing a bit more discussion and openness about polyamory and non-monogamous couplings in the straight community. Whatever anyone chooses, it has to be about partnership, open communication, integration, and mutual respect.
BDL: I’m interested in what you think the gay man of the future might look like. In a recent New York Times interview, you said, “I think my traumas as a child became my greatest source of strength as an adult.” For a lot of gay folks our age and older, we grew up with some significant trauma around our sexual and emotional desires. Many of us grew up feeling alone, and we became really good at keeping secrets. Some of my older gay friends now see a real value in their struggle—they insist they became stronger and in some ways more interesting because of it. One older friend of mine recently lamented, “Young gay guys are so boring these days. They have it too easy.” What do you think will happen as more and more LGBT young people grow up without shame around their sexuality? Will these people grow up to be very different kinds of adults than we are? Will identifying as LGBT even be important to them?
ZQ: That’s a good question. I do think that our generation of gay men is really the last that was taught to suppress their authentic selves. This next generation is coming out at a much younger age as gay or transgender, and there’s a stronger support system for that kind of exploration and identification. For me, I’m grateful that I was able to overcome my self-imposed restrictions, my internalized homophobia, and the external forces I was struggling against to arrive at a place now where I’m in an open and integrated place with my sexuality. I hope you’re right that the distinctions of one’s sexuality or gender identity become less tied to someone’s overall identity. We’re at an incredibly interesting moment, where you’re walking down the streets of New York City, and you see all these people and think, ‘I have no idea how this person I’m walking past wants to be classified or gender identified,’ and that’s a great thing. We’re moving toward a place where lines are blurring. What’s underneath that is that we’re identifying ourselves as humans who are all in it together and will be facing challenges that transcend those labels and modes of identification.
BDL: At the same time, though, we seem to be at a moment with more and more ways that people seek to classify themselves based on identity, and there can be a real backlash if you categorize someone incorrectly.
ZQ: I do think we’re evolving faster than our lexicon provides for right now. The assignation of monikers and labels is still something that is a few steps behind how quickly we’ve blown past all the social limitations that have been in a place for such a long time. That’s exciting. It’s a period of adjustment. When we look back at our lives and look back at what we’ve witnessed right now, I think we’re going to recognize that this is one of the most exciting and vital times for social evolution and the LGBTQ community. We have been graced with living through the real tipping point, the real crossover that will inform generations to come.
BDL: Hopefully, we’ll soon be at a point where one label—ex-gay—never needs to be proudly worn again.
ZQ: Yeah, totally. It’s a cliché, but let’s just love who we love. You know what I mean?
BDL: I do.
This interview was originally featured in FourTwoNine’s Fall 2016 issue. To purchase this and other back issues, go here.
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