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She wanted me to explore more of the cisgender actor angle.
I was thinking, “What do I want people to take away from this?
Now, with Jack Falahee on “How to Get Away with Murder,” we know straight and gay actors can play straight or gay characters. The culture is changing a lot, and you are seeing 12-13 year-olds coming out. I get called in more often for sassy black queen roles. You feel every time you see one, they have to represent. Patrick’s] queer black macho husband on “Six Feet Under,” I thought: Is there nothing soft there?
There is no way I could have come out when I was that age. I love seeing all of the different types, and not prioritizing one over the other. The term “thug” has been co-opted by conservatives as term for a black male—but there is a clear admiration for hyper-masculine depictions of black gay men.
Do you feel attitudes towards actors being out have shifted during your career?
When we made “Noah’s Arc” every interviewer was asking: Are the actors gay or straight? Doris Roberts from “Everybody Loves Raymond” does a type. It’s important for actors to know—and you see this with stand up comics, as comedy [trends] shift and change—you don’t know when something is working, if the moment will continue. How do you think people see you, and queer black characters, when they are visible on screen?
Stephens, who is as charming and affable in person as he is on screen, has just published “Required Reading,” a compelling book that describes his experiences as an out, black actor in the industry.
It is a wise, engaging memoir about self-awareness that touches on his personal and professional development: learning to embrace who he is, and not sell out by playing yet another sassy, black queen. Stephens, who previously published a wonderful novel, “Shortcomings,” is a writer who speaks candidly about the struggles he has both internally and with others.
It’s more about storytellers of color and transgender and female and overweight and differently-abled folks telling their individual stories so they can share in that knowledge. On that same subject, there is an interesting anecdote in the book about your being tagged by an activist in a Facebook post about the series “Transparent.” Someone had a beef about a straight male actor playing trans. I spoke with Janet Mock [the trans activist] about that.
On location, in 2007, for a big budget film, “BOLDEN!
,” he thought he had to hide his sexuality from his co-stars, who it appeared to him were uncomfortable about “the gay thing.” This behavior was a complete reversal for Stephens, who once left his agents because they didn’t want him working on “another gay project.” But then it hit Stephens.
Throughout his career, which includes working on the series “DLTA,” and films like the recent “Beyond the Lights,” Stephens felt he had to justify and represent the community with “fair and honest” portrayals.
His characters—from the fabulous, sissified Noah Nicholson to the hot, butch sex object he played in “Another Gay Movie”—inspired viewers as much as they drew criticism for playing up black and gay stereotypes.
There’s a tone—like on the set of that film, “BOLDEN!