There’s an exchange on an early episode of America’s Next Top Model that has stuck with Jonathan Slavin for years, he told me. The scene finds Tyra Banks talking about how she always had to work three times as hard as her white peers if she hoped to see a fraction of their success. As an openly gay actor who has made a steady career out of not passing for straight, Slavin, who currently stars on Dr. Ken—Ken Jeong’s half-hour comedy, which returns for its second season this Friday, Sept. 23, on ABC—said that he identifies with the feeling of having to jump over hurdle after hurdle even when you know full well that your path should be clear.
“On one of the shows I did a while ago, someone got drunk and told me that there had been a meeting after the show got picked up so they could figure out what to do about my gayness,” the actor said in a phone interview last Thursday. “I knew that I could never be late. I could never not know my lines. I would always be nice. I would have to be better than the straight people on set to make up for this strike that’s already against me.”
The 47-year-old actor, whom TV viewers might remember for his roles on Better Off Ted and Andy Richter Controls the Universe, told me that he’s even been fired on account of his sexuality on at least one occasion, and that’s not even counting all of the smaller homophobic comments that have piled up behind casting room doors over the past two-plus decades.
There is progress yet to be made when it comes to the kinds of opportunities afforded to openly gay actors in Hollywood, but Slavin remained optimistic about the future throughout the course of our conversation, which also touched on what it’s like to play a gay character who isn’t desexualized on Dr. Ken, being both “too gay” and “not gay enough” for TV depending on the day, the pushback against Matt Bomer’s casting as a transgender woman in the upcoming film Anything, and the importance of “telling our own stories.”
Hi, John! Sorry we had to push this interview back a little. We were running through a complicated episode and had a delay.
What was so complicated about it?
It’s a Halloween episode, so it’s a little high concept with a back-and-forth-story. But I get to wear a schoolboy uniform, so what’s not to love?
The second season of Dr. Ken premieres this Friday. How do you feel?
I’m excited about it. It’s a good season. I’ve really liked what we’ve done so far. I was really proud of the show last year. It doesn’t get as much credit for its diversity that it should. Dave Foley is our one straight white dude! Anyway, I’m excited to see the storylines about my character, Clark’s, relationship with his boyfriend. They’re getting a lot more serious, which has received some pretty predictable comments on the internet. I got called a “fag” on Twitter back when we kissed for the first time.
Oh, no. Wow. Haven’t heard that one before.
Like, do your worst, right? I tweeted something like, “I kissed a man on national television, and only one person called me a ‘fag’ hashtag progress.” I love that our relationship is flourishing and that the showrunners let us be physical with each other in a really casual, really couple-y way. No one has batted an eye. That would’ve made a big difference in my life—would’ve made me a lot less suicidal—if I could’ve seen gay people like that on television as a kid. I’m glad to be a part of that.
Have you ever played gay characters who weren’t allowed to be affectionate or physically intimate with their significant others?
Absolutely. I don’t think there’s an actor my age who plays gay characters who hasn’t had that experience. I’ve been the funny asexual gay who never talks about their relationships. I was actually on this show that only lasted a heartbeat where there’s literally a scene where my character’s partner and I were about to find out if our newborn child was going to live or die. I reached over and took the boyfriend’s hand, and—”CUT!” They told me it would be “more powerful” if we didn’t touch.
Yeah. The guy playing opposite me—he was a really fine actor, but he was straight. If I had tried to go to bat for grabbing his hand, I would’ve been the only one in the room. I don’t know if I would’ve had anyone to back me up. That’s one of the reasons I’m so in favor of us playing ourselves. I played a similar character a few months later on Grey’s Anatomy, and the issue of us touching never came up. The doctors in the scene were drilling into our son’s head, and I turned away to hide my face in my husband’s shoulder. They even set up a shot where he specifically grabs my hand. It varies from project to project, but we’ve still really come a long way. I remember when Doug Savant’s character on Melrose Place was supposed to kiss another man, but then they edited it out.
What’s it like to work with Stephen Guarino, who plays your boyfriend on Dr. Ken?
I get to dance with Stephen. I get to kiss Stephen. We get to hold hands. Like a couple. When I found out they were going to give Clark a boyfriend, I made two requests. First, I asked them to cast an actor who would believably date me. I’ve been in the gay world for a long time, and I know that the young hot twentysomething they might cast would never go out with me. [Laughs.] My other request was that they find another gay actor for the role. Stephen and I have such good chemistry together. We can fuck around on set and laugh, and there’s just no safe word between us because we are safe. It’s effortless.
Is it not always so effortless?
I’ve played opposite more straight people than gay people, and it’s not usually like that. I did a scene once where I came in to hand my husband a cappuccino. I asked if I could kiss him, since that’s what I would do to my husband. No tongue or anything. Just a peck on the lips. After a 20-minute meeting, they finally decide to let me kiss him, and then they ended up cutting it! That whole experience is so different from how it works on Dr. Ken. There’s this wedding scene in season one where Stephen and I are dancing together. Without thinking, he turned me around so my back was facing him, and we just swayed back and forth. It was lovely, as if we were a couple. If I had seen that when I was 10, I wouldn’t have thought I was the only gay person on Earth. It would have brought me so much comfort.
You’re in kind of a unique position as an openly gay actor who has managed to get steady work in the mainstream for such a long time. Not many people can say that. Are there any other changes you’ve noticed as far as the roles you’ve been up for or the opportunities you’d get?
I moved to Los Angeles about 22 years ago to start doing television. I’d been doing theater in New York for about five and a half years before that, primarily Off Broadway but a little Broadway. The rules are different for television, always have been. People would call after an audition and say I was “really, really funny” but “really, really gay” and they were “not interested in doing that.” Agents told me I might be “too gay for L.A.,” that I should think about going to speech class, that I might have to go back to New York. People don’t say that as much anymore. I’m not saying that they don’t say it behind closed doors, but there’s a heightened level of awareness about how that’s a really offensive thing to say to somebody.
What other kind of feedback have you gotten?
I’ve also lost parts because casting agents were looking for “Brokeback Mountain gay,” which to me just means “a straight person playing gay.” I’ve also been asked to be gayer during auditions, even though I don’t think I play those campy roles—the kind of part Harvey Fierstein called “the sissy”—very well. They won’t usually say, “We want you to be gayer,” word for word. But they’d find a bunch of different euphemisms to use. “Be more arch.” “Be more sarcastic.” Eventually, I started pretending I didn’t know what they meant. I wanted them to hear what they were saying and how it sounded.
This is all in the mainstream TV and film industries, right? Where straight people were in charge? What about independent projects where you were auditioning for gay people?
I’ve never been seen as desirable enough for independent gay projects. I’m a lumpy, schlubby weirdo. They tend to cast hot people in those roles—really hot, sexy gay guys. In any corner of the industry, they’re almost always looking to cast an uber campy gay guy or a gay guy who, well, there’s nothing “gay” about him. “He’s extremely masculine,” is something I’ll read in a character breakdown a lot, or that it’s a “surprise” that he’s gay. Whenever I see that, I have to take myself out of the running because most people meet me and know I’m gay immediately. I’m not great at being campy, but I’m not going to butch it up either.
Do you feel hopeful about how openly gay actors will fare in Hollywood’s future?
The tide is turning. I found the LGBTQ community’s response to Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall really encouraging. Roland Emmerich is perfectly entitled to tell that story if he wants to, but you can’t tell that story and call it “Stonewall” after cutting out all of the actual gay and transgender historical figures who were at the riots. I’m also encouraged by the response to Matt Bomer’s casting as a transgender woman in Anything, although I do so from a place of empathy for him. I don’t know what it’s like to have to consistently pass for straight like Matt Bomer has had to in all these years of being a romantic lead. That’s not been my career, and that’s not been my experience. But I have found it unfortunate that the gay community is not supporting our trans siblings enough when it comes to acting opportunities. There are transgender actors and actresses who are just as talented as cisgender actors and actresses and should be afforded the opportunity, unilaterally, to play themselves. It’s unfortunate that trans women characters are consistently played by straight, cisgender, white dudes in a dress. I do think that’s less likely to happen when you have a trans person at the helm. A major solution to all of this would be to just let us tell our own stories.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.