By Jeff Walsh
Truth isn't stranger than fiction for Wilson Cruz.
When Cruz portrayed Rickie last year on the acclaimed-albeit-canceled television show "My So-Called Life," truth doubled as fiction as he brought his own painful and sometimes repressed memories of growing up gay to the screen.
The show was lauded by critics for its honesty and willingness to talk about real issues concerning teenagers. And as many television shows spent the holiday season making oh-so-hip references to "It's a Wonderful Life" while showing family togetherness scenes that would make Newt Gingrich feel all warm inside, My So-Called Life told a bitter truth as it followed Rickie, who ran away from home before Christmas because he was having problems with his sexuality.
"A lot of things Rickie went through were based on things that happened in my life," the 21-year-old Cruz said, in an interview with YAO. "The creators of the show allowed me to be a part of the creative process of that character."
Cruz, who was born in Brooklyn, NY, didn't have to draw on any special acting techniques to wonder what it would feel like to be kicked out of the house for the holidays. It mirrors his own coming out process.
He says he came out to people in steps. When he was 16, he told four or five friends, a few supportive relatives when he was 17, and then went to college at California State University at San Bernadino, where he had a double major in theater and English and was "very out and open." He was a member of the school's gay and lesbian union.
"And then, while I was in college, the show happened," said Cruz of "My So-Called Life." "Which meant to me that I was going to have to tell my parents, because I was going to be playing this character on television."
In March 1993, he told his mother, but didn't tell his father until Dec. 24, 1993. "He and I got into a bit of an argument on Christmas Eve," Cruz said. "He asked, I told, and he threw me out."
"My So-Called Life" was still only a pilot at that point, and hadn't even been picked up as a series for the fall lineup. "I really didn't have a money, or a place to live," he says. "I only had my car. So, that's where I lived."
When it came time for Cruz to relive the experience as Rickie, he said it "was the most difficult thing I ever had to do in my life, because I still hadn't dealt with issues with my father. Even though my parents and I had talked about it, I -- on a personal level -- hadn't dealt with the emotions involved.
"So, replaying all that, I was allowed to get over it and go on. At the same time, it was a way of me to say to gay teens, look there's someone out here that understands you and wants you to live," he said. "To me, it was way a way of spreading some hope. That way Rickie wasn't so depressing."
In fact, Cruz says Rickie eventually became the moral conscience of the show. "He's the most sensitive person and he would put sex in his mind as this incredible experience," Cruz says of Rickie, who told Angela not to have sex with Jordan on the show.
Cruz's own experiences, and his strength to relive them on a weekly series, touched a nerve with gay youth across the country. Cruz said he a box at his home filled with letters and pictures from young people across North America.
"All of them seem to have one thing in common," Cruz said of the theme of many letters. "They all don't have someone to talk to. Writing to me is a way to be anonymous and voice their frustrations to someone who is sensitive to them.
"I can't tell you how many days I've sat here and cried my eyes out," he said of the letters. "It's frightening when you realize what these young people are going through every day."
To many teens, Cruz is an actor, role model, advice columnist and friend. And not knowing where to turn, they ask Cruz about life as a young gay man. "A lot of them want to know that there's hope," Cruz says of the letter writers. "A lot of gay teens have lost hope in their own minds as far as their future is concerned. They ask: Am I going to die of AIDS? Ever be happy? Be in love?
"I say, `yes, all are possible.' But you have to choose which ones will happen. Love is a huge possibility, with time; because I'm 21, I'm out, and I'm as visible as you get and I'm still single.
"And as far as AIDS goes, if you're 15 and 16, you shouldn't be having sex anyway if you're not in love. If you're not ready to say that you're gay, you shouldn't even be having sex, but I realize that's how some people find out."
He says he has answered a lot of his mail, but due to the volume it's a very slow process. "I wish I could get to all of them, but it's me here all alone," he said. "If I had to buy stamps for all those letters, I'd be broke."
Cruz also said that while gay characters and themes in TV shows and movies are leading to a heightened visibility, such a visibility also has a backlash. "Since the gay community is so visible now, it puts more pressure on young people because people are so aware. As a young person, you have to try and fit in even more. So, in a sense it's become more difficult."
But playing his role on the TV series wasn't difficult, it was almost like playing himself.
"I like to say Rickie is who I was when I was 15 years old, except for the fact that I didn't hang out in the girls bathroom and didn't wear eyeliner," Cruz said. "He had a much more interesting fashion sense as well."
The character also allowed him to release many feelings he had bottled up and forgotten.
"I remember me, in (the episode) `Guns and Gossip,' being pushed around in the hallway," Cruz said. "And just that feeling of always thinking someone's looking at you and saying something about you and finding out it's true. That was something I had completely blocked out of my mind, until I had to go in and play it.
"To me, it was very cathartic, very therapeutic," he said. "I was still dealing with some of the same issues I was playing at that point. When I was done with certain episodes, it was a way of letting go."
But Rickie being bullied about being queer was also "one of the most uncomfortable points of the show," he said, because now in real life "I would have gone off on those guys."
Cruz said that his sexuality was never hidden on the set, but that it was done primarily to put him at ease to play the role. "It allowed me to be free in an artistic way and I didn't have anything to hide," he said. "And I wanted them (the show's creators) to know that I was watching what they were doing. Not in a mean-spirited way, but I wanted them to know that anything that was right or wrong in story lines, I was going to be aware of it and if there was something I didn't like, I could talk to them about it."
Although he says it's "frustrating" being the only out young actor, he says being openly gay in the industry doesn't appear to be affecting his career. "I am an actor that doesn't have a problem with playing gay roles. You can be an out actor and do straight and gay roles," he said. "I'm the test case in a sense. If I can do both roles, then it's a message that we're sending out to Hollywood that they're wrong. The interesting thing is if they will allow themselves to be wrong."
Cruz has been busy since My So-Called Life finished filming in December. He did a pilot for NBC called "Seventh Avenue" that he expects will be picked up as a mid-season replacement. He will also be in an independent film about male prostitution on Santa Monica Boulevard called "Johns," which also stars Lukas Haas and David Arquette. Then there's another movie called "Girlfriend" that he's also shot. He also has some other TV things that are not yet finalized.
One thing that is final is that My So-Called Life is not coming back to television, despite what people say in various online discussion groups. He says all of the actors have been "released" and that the most recent rumor started when the creators of the show got a new deal to produce a show for NBC.
"Some people misunderstood that as meaning that the show would be returning on NBC," Cruz said. "It won't be, but the creators will be allowed to create a new show on NBC."
If all else fails, he has directing ambitions, is writing a one-man show right now ("but it's far from being finished") and has always wanted to perform on Broadway. So, the end of My So-Called Life is not the last we'll be hearing from this talented young man.