Game Changers is a Yahoo Entertainment video interview series highlighting the diverse creators disrupting Hollywood — and the pioneers who paved the way.
A quarter-century ago, Wilson Cruz boldly broke one of network television's final frontiers by becoming the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay character on a prime-time drama: My So-Called Life's Ricky Vasquez. Warp ahead to 2021, and he's still changing the game on Star Trek: Discovery, the series that kick-started the storied sci-fi franchise's return to television. Since 2017, the Puerto Rican actor has played Hugh Culber, one-half of Trek's gay couple in Trek history alongside Anthony Rapp's Paul Stamets. And in Season 3, he and Rapp welcomed Blu del Barrio and Ian Alexander — the franchise's first non-binary and transgender performers, who play Adira and Gray Tal, respectively — to the show's Toronto set.
"I'm like a proud dad, literally and figuratively," Cruz tells Yahoo Entertainment about the long arc of TV history that led from Ricky to Adira and Gray. "They bring me such joy — they walk into a room and understand that they deserve to be respected. They’re not asking for permission to be seen: they are telling you they deserve to be seen. And they kill it every time! I'm incredibly proud of being a part of the cast that is bringing you the queerest Star Trek in history, and we couldn't be more thrilled about it." (Watch our video interview above.)
Star Trek: Discovery also fulfills Cruz's career-long search for roles that put actors of color front and center. Even though Ricky was frequently a focal point of My So-Called Life — most memorably in a moving storyline where he's thrown out of his home after coming out to his uncle — the actor soon found that experience was the exception, not the rule. "After I finished My So-Called Life, as well as my runs on Rent and Party of Five, everything dried up," he reveals. "We’re in the early 2000s, during the Bush years, and LGBTQ+ people are being discriminated against and made out to be villains. So there was not a lot of work for me!"
The roles that Cruz did manage to find were largely unsatisfying. "I played a lot of white girls' best friends," he says now. "And I loved my white girls! But that was a time when people of color needed to come into focus, and I haven't really started seeing those roles until recently. That happens because the veil is lifted and people start to understand and own the fact that we should be the center of our own stories."
In a wide-ranging conversation, Cruz discussed how his own life impacted Ricky's and the creative voices he believes are changing the game today.
Yahoo Entertainment: We’re speaking to you for our Game Changers series, and you were certainly a game changer for me growing up: when My So-Called Life premiered, I had never seen a character like Ricky on TV before.
Wilson Cruz: I had never seen a character like Ricky on TV before! [Laughs] People ask me all the time: “When was the first time you saw yourself represented onscreen?” And my answer is always: “When I saw myself onscreen.” So Ricky means a great deal to me, and he set me up pretty good. He not only changed my life, but he changed what I thought about what I did. At 19 years old, I understood on a comprehensive level that there was responsibility with this occupation that I originally. thought was just going to be a bunch of fun.
Who were some of the actors or personalities that you looked up to growing up?
I've thought about this a lot and I think what I did was to take parts of my identity and look to certain people who were a part of that. For instance, the fact that I'm Puerto Rican — and a New York-ian — meant that I was profoundly aware of Rita Moreno and all that she means to us as a people. She taught me how to speak English on The Electric Company! So I owe Rita Moreno many, many things.
And then I looked to someone like Harvey Fierstein, who was this openly gay man that wasn’t hiding any part of himself. He was using his life and his talent to inform the world and the country about his experience in the 1980s. Also the presence of Ian McKellen was a big deal because he was an openly gay man who was respected for his talent. So all of these people really allowed me to dream a bigger dream for myself.
When did you go from just watching those actors onscreen to saying, “I want do that”?
To hear my mother tell it, I came out of the womb singing a high note. [Laughs] So I think I always knew what I was going to do. I may not have always understood which element was going to bring me success, but I was a singer-dancer-actor just throwing it all out there, and doing everything I possibly could to fortify my talent and use it. For me, it was a matter of survival: what jobs are you going to allow me to do?
When you would share that dream with other people, were they encouraging?
I mean, I was a child of color living in the United States, so my parents wanted to see me succeed and do better than they did. They always were encouraging and would say, “You can be whatever you want: a lawyer, the president.” But I was always very aware of what I wanted to do, and when I would say it, they would always say, “That’s great, but if you can make it work for you.” My mother used to drive me to acting classes in Beverly Hills while she worked a full-time job five days a week and had two other kids. She supported me every single way. She could, but I had to make a lot of it on my own.
When you were first starting out, what was the biggest barrier: being a Latinx actor or an openly gay actor?
When I started, I wasn't openly gay. I wasn't even out to my parents until I got My So-Called Life. But I felt the obstacles of being a Latino. One of the things that, that I remember early on was that I had a commercial acting agent and the only roles they would send me out for were Spanish-language commercials. I kept asking them, “What’s the deal here? Is there anything else that I could go out for?” At the time, there happened to be a part on a show called Great Scott! Tobey Maguire actually starred on that show — it was his first big job. My agent was like, “They’re looking for three white boys who can sing.” And I said, “Well, why do they have to be white?” She said, “That’s what they want,” and I replied, “I think you should send my headshot and résumé. Why don’t we take a chance and see.”
I remember that it was with [casting director] Sally Stiner’s office. I went to the office and waited, and finally they were like, “OK, come in,” because I was being a pest. I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Sally looked at me and said, “You have balls. Come back at 3.” So I came back and met with the producers, sang my little song and that’s how I got my first job. I did three episodes of Great Scott! and the very next pilot season was the pilot for My So-Called Life. Because of that Great Scott! job, I was SAG eligible and could audition for the role. Being an actor of colors in the 1990s and 2000s meant that you had to make your own way and knock down the door in order to get in.
Later on, I had to go even further. I decided that if I was unhappy with the way the industry looks at and uses LGBTQ+ people in storytelling, I need to be a part of that conversation. The only people having that conversation at the time was GLAAD, so I spent two years having meetings with every network and studio in the industry about what it was important for LGBTQ+ people to be a part of their storytelling, and also that it needed to be a diverse view of our community. My job was to convince the industry and public at large: “Hey, what if we actually listened and told the stories of the entire community?”
How much of that change is getting those voices in writers’ rooms in addition to being in front of the camera?
A lot! In the past, so much of the work had been about getting cisgender straight allies in the industry to tell our stories right, and including us in their projects. Whereas now the work is about telling our own stories and informing society at large about our stories through our lived experience. I think of people like Lee Daniels and Billy Porter, so it’s happening. But I need people to understand that it didn't just happen — it happened out of a concerted effort that has been a decades- long journey, and it took people who risked everything in order to make it happen.
In terms of your own experience on My So-Called Life, I imagine you didn’t have people in the writers’ room who were able to write about your specific experience. So how did you tell them “This is my voice?”
I was the first openly gay man to play an openly gay role on network television. I’m proud that I’m that person, but also how is it possible that we got all the way to 1994 without that happening? In answer to your question, I had [My So-Called Life creator] Winnie Holzman, who was not LGBTQ+ but is the most amazing ally I could have asked for. She took her ego out of the scenario and allowed my voice to inform hers. She came to me, or I went to her and she developed storylines out of those conversations.
That’s the relationship I like to have with writers; I love that kind of creative energy. I’ve asked Winnie through the years about pushback, and she says that she was allowed to do whatever she wanted to do. Maybe she’s being protective of me, I don’t know! But I don’t remember there being any discussion about changing anything or taking anything out. I think ABC was pretty hands-off because we were a little under the radar.
An example of your own life bleeding into Ricky’s is the storyline where he’s kicked out of his house, which reflects your own experience after you came out to your father.
People always say, “Oh, My So-Called Life was too short.” Well, for one character at least, we got to see a beginning, middle and end. [With Ricky] we got to see this person who was confused and figuring themselves out get to the point where he can say out loud that he's gay. Part of that journey was his relationship with his family, which was also a part of mine. I was kicked out of my house by my father, because I came out to him when I was doing the show. It’s all very meta! Because of that episode, my father — who had not spoken to me for over a year — called me as the credits are rolling and we start a dialogue that leads to one of the most healing experiences of my personal life where my father learns to accept and love me because of who I am. We filmed that episode less than a year from the time that it actually happened to me.
When I think about it now, I wonder how much of it I actually processed before we shot that episode, and I don’t think I did very much! I don’t think I processed any of it until we started filming, which forced me to go where I needed to go. I needed to be honest about where I had been so that I could bring it with me. It was really hard, but I'll tell you this: it was also one of the most healing things I've ever experienced because I got to go through it again, feel all of it, and then just leave it there and have it be of service for over 25 years. There's a whole new generation that is receiving the gift of Ricky Vasquez, and it couldn’t make me happier.
How did that dialogue with your father continue over the rest of your career?
My dad and I don't really talk about work — we talk about life. I'll say this: I didn't really have a relationship with my father until I came out to him. We lived in the same house as strangers. We avoided each other, we were scared of each other. It was only through vulnerability and a willingness to show up on both of our parts that allowed us to really see each other, and accept each other for who we really are. I have a television show to thank for that.
Teen shows generally don’t get the respect they deserve from awards organizations. Did you feel slighted that My So-Called Life wasn’t recognized at the time?
I didn't feel slighted, because there was no reason in the world why that boy would have ever been even allowed to tell that story. The award, for me, was the episode and the reaction to it. I think Fyvush Finkel won that year, and he was 80 years old and died a few years later. So I was like, “Yes, Fyvush go live your life!” [Laughs] I do remember that they had a series of clips that opened the Emmys that year, and they used one of my favorite scenes where Ricky talks about what sex Sith another person should feel like. So that was a big deal, that a gay boy of color could help bring that into focus.
You mentioned how work dried up in the late ’90s — what kind of roles were you hoping to find at that point?
The roles that came later? [Laughs] I think what I wanted was less of these characters that were two-dimensional in the sense that they were there to bring levity or color to a scene.
We accepted a lot of things for decades that we shouldn’t have accepted. It took a couple of generations for people to look around at the television and media landscape and go, “I don't understand how we are most of this country, and we can't even see ourselves reflected in our stories on this screen.” We accepted a lot for a long time that we no longer accept. This pandemic has lifted the veil for a lot of people, and we’re going to start being loud about the fact that we deserve more and we’re going to make our own way. We were taught to be ashamed of who we loved and be ashamed of the color that we are. This new generation seems to have been born to say: “What have y’all been doing? How have you allowed this to happen?” For many of us, we hear them and say, “You’re absolutely right.”
In terms of casting, we’re still wrestling with the idea of whether straight actors should continue to be cast as gay characters. Do you think we’re in a time where LGBTQ+ actors should be seen first for those role?
I would hope that as storytellers, the people putting the projects together would go to LGBTQ+ actors first because the performance that comes from and is informed by a lived experience is very different from someone who is reaching and researching that experience. I'm not saying that one is better than the other, I'm just saying that they're different and as a viewer I can tell.
The second reason is that there are still so few opportunities for performers to tell our own stories. And if we’re not able to even take part in our art form, then what stories are we going to be allowed to tell? How do we nurture and support artists who need that experience if we're not hiring LGBTQ+ people? You know, you're not helping create a pool of talent that is useful because you keep hiring the same straight white guys to tell your stories. There are so many of us out here who are capable and hungry, and willing to work with you to tell those stories in the right way.
Who are the game changers that you are inspired by now?
I think Janet Mock is changing the game. I think Sara Ramirez is changing the game. I think Darryl Stephens is changing the game. I think Blu and Ian are changing the game! I could go on and on. There’s so much talent out there, and I’m so proud of them. And I'm not just talking about what you're seeing on screen — things are changing behind the camera, too. All of that is part of the change that needs to happen, and it's being led by a younger generation that’s not taking no for an answer. I’m excited about the future and being led by them.
My So-Called Life is currently streaming on Hulu; Star Trek: Discovery is currently streaming on Paramount+
— Video produced by Nurys Castillo and edited by John Santos
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: