COVER STORY - Wilson Cruz
Witty, charming, and sexy as anything, Wilson Cruz has it all. However, he is more than your typical actor. Almost every role Wilson has taken on can be described as powerful, influential, and often trailblazing for the LGBTQ community. From being the first openly gay teen on prime time TV as Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life, to playing Angel in the Broadway Rent, and now being half of the first openly gay relationship in Star Trek. Unlike how Wilson grew up, he is making sure the LGBTQ community has a role model and presence they can look up to and relate to. Having this voice in mainstream media has woke people to the struggles of the LGBTQ community, helped families better understand each other, and given the youth of today a much safer environment to grow up in.
Wilson does acknowledge that some communities need more help than others, which is why he also has been very active with the Latin LGBTQ communities, and was even the National Spokesperson for GLAAD.
Please read further to learn more about this inspiring and joyous man, in Jejune’s exclusive interview with Wilson Cruz.
Foreword by Kira Bucca, Editor in Chief of Jejune Magazine.
Where are you from?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York, but we were in Rialto, California, which is about 60 miles outside of LA, for most of my youth.
Where do you currently reside?
I’m based in LA, but obviously, splitting my time between there and Toronto, these days.
You have been quite the LGBTQ trailblazer over the years in media! When you went into acting, was this a goal of yours, or did you just fall into it?
My LGBTQ activism sprang directly from the overwhelming response to my first major role, Rickie Vasquez, on My So-Called Life. Because he was a first in many ways, he was a beacon for so many LGBTQ people, people of color and those of us who exist at the intersection of these marginalized communities. When you add in the fact that I also came out publicly, at the time, it gave me the opportunity to give voice to those communities and our issues. We were and are living in revolutionary times and I believe, as I did then, that we must all use whatever tools we have at our disposal to work towards a more diverse, loving, educated and accepting society. I had my voice and my ART. I learned in those early years the importance and POWER of visibility and representation and, along with being an actor, it’s become my life’s work.
One of your first roles was the character Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life, the first openly gay teen on a primetime network. How did it feel to play this character that you could relate to so well?
First, I should say, that I will ALWAYS carry Rickie Vasquez with me. He is part of me. He was a gift to me. I was 19 when we made the pilot and 20 when we made the series and playing 15 year old Rickie Vasquez was a cathartic experience that allowed me to go back and deal with a number of issues that effected me in very similar ways as they did Rickie. From being bullied to being thrown out of my home because of my sexual orientation, I was able to walk through those experiences and work through those feelings and MOVE ON! I think I turned out to be a different and better person because I got to be Rickie Vasquez. I needed him as much as all of those people who have written to me through the years to tell me how much he meant to them.
How did it feel to know that you would be one of the first opening gay teens on TV?
It was exhilarating and exciting and, to be perfectly honest, scary. I had no idea what the response would be, but what I DID KNOW was how important that character would’ve been to me, personally, when I was 15 years old and I was and am so grateful to have had the chance to be that for someone else. I knew that it would encourage other young LGBTQ people of color to see and love themselves and that outweighed any concern I had about ignorant or violent reactions.
Things really haven’t changed over the years. You played Angel in Rent, who, in my humble opinion, is the most interesting character in the Broadway musical, and one of TV’s first transgender characters on Ally McBeal. Other than the fact that you are strikingly beautiful as a transgender woman, what were your thoughts on these roles?
I loved playing those roles. Growing up as a theatre nerd and, later, a theatre major in college, all I ever wanted to do was be on Broadway. So, to have had the opportunity to play the iconic role of Angel, was literally, a dream come true. Once again, I could use my art as activism, as we told the story of people living with AIDS. As for Stephanie on Ally McBeal, as problematic as we now know that episode was, it was an opportunity to convey the humanity and struggle of a person in the midst of their transition. As much as I love her, and loved working with Calista, Jane and all of those people, Stephanie wouldn’t be a role I’d take on today. There are so many Trans actors who would be far more appropriate and better suited to tell her story from the perspective of someone with the lived experience.
There is some debate if Angel is transgender or a drag queen. What are your thoughts on this?
Honestly, I always saw Angel as a baby drag queen and street performer. That’s how Angel was always described to me and that’s who I believed I was playing. Drag brought him joy. For me, he wasn’t living or presenting as a woman in his life. He was creating costumes for performances - the Santa suit for Xmas, Pussy Galore shower curtain dress for New Year’s Eve. These were characters he took on and played with in order to bring people JOY and LOVE! When we see him outside of performance, we see him dressed as a boy. Could he have, as he aged into true adulthood, come to realize and understand something else about himself? Maybe, but, he died of AIDS, like so many young beautiful boys of color, and so he never lived long enough for him or us to know.
Now you are trailblazing again, acting as half of the first gay couple on the very popular series Star Trek: Discovery. Did you first meet your partner on the show, Anthony Rapp, on Rent? How does it feel to be changing the world with him on Star Trek?
Anthony and I, actually met, when I joined the Broadway company of RENT during his last month, before he left for London to open the show on the West End. I consider it an honor to have been able to share that stage with him then and it’s still surreal that we get to do this, now. For over 50 years, LGBTQ Star Trek TV fans have longed for and waited for true representation in the Star Trek universe, so to be able to bring them this epic love story is overwhelming for them and for US! I’d also like to say that I’m so grateful for the way our producers and our writers have embraced and been excited by this love story. The very fact that it was our same sex LOVE that saved, not just this universe, but ALL UNIVERSES, should tell you how valued these characters and their love for each other is to the story.
You told Jejune that you grew up loving Star Trek and always wanted to be on it. How does it finally feel to have this dream come true?
It’s true, growing up, I wanted to be on Broadway and be on Star Trek and somehow, both os those things happened… and WITH ANTHONY! I feel like I’ve overused the words overwhelming and surreal for the last 2 years, but that’s, truly, how I feel… and GRATEFUL for the opportunity to live these dreams. Pinch me.
Spoiler Alert: At the end of the first season your character was killed off, and many people were outraged: “Of course they killed the gay minority character!” How did this make you feel?
I understood it. I probably would’ve reacted in a very similar way, but I knew the truth pretty quickly that Dr. Culber would be returning and that his death really was ONE chapter in this epic love story. A chapter in his story that was necessary for us to tell this story. Which is why the producers and I wanted to alleviate any of those concerns for the audience and let them know he would be returning.
Fortunately, in Star Trek, being dead doesn’t mean you are gone. Can you tell us a little bit about how your character has developed in the second season?
All I can and will say is that we really do flesh this character out, for lack of a better term and that we get to know more about Paul and Hugh, both as a couple and as individuals. If I say anymore, they’ll kill me… again. Just kidding!
What do you think it means to young guys (and girls) watching Star Trek to now be able to see an openly gay couple on the show?
It’s impossible to overstate how powerful it is to see TWO openly gay men playing TWO men in love in the future - one of which happens to be a man of color. Arguably, Star Trek, is one of America’s true mythologies and to have LGBTQ people included as a part of that mythology underscores the FACT that we are, always have been and always WILL BE an integral and valued part of this society. I hope that when a young person watches Discovery they feel comforted by our presence, yes, but more than anything I hope they feel inspired to do their part to CREATE a world where we are all seen and valued for ALL that we are, including our race, gender, age, or sexual orientation.
What is your favorite part of being on Star Trek?
If I had to name JUST ONE thing, I’d say, my favorite part about being on Star Trek is this cast. These people who inspire me in my work and in my life. They make me want to be better and do more. I can’t say enough about them. I relish every opportunity to create with them.
You are also on the hit TV show Thirteen Reasons Why, which is another very controversial show. Do you intentionally look for roles and shows that are breaking away from social norms? If so, what inspires you and what do you look for in particular?
Sometimes, I don’t know if I’m looking for projects that challenge the audience or if they’re looking for me! Both, Discovery and Thirteen Reasons Why, were projects I was approached for and I jumped at the chance. I just know what excites me when I read it and it usually calls for a lot of heart.
Do you have a particular favorite role?
I will always be Rickie Vasquez to a lot of people and I’m more than OK with that.
What Jejune loves about you, is on top of all this trailblazing you find time to give back! Can you please speak about your role as National Spokesperson for GLAAD, the nation’s leading LGBTQ media advocacy organization?
Well, while I still work closely with GLAAD on specific projects and issues, I am no longer serving as National Spokesperson for the organization. That is a FULL TIME JOB and there’s no time for doctoring or lawyering on TV when you have it. GLAAD and I have had an almost 25 year relationship. I’ve sat on their board, I’ve hosted their awards shows, I’ve worked there and I am still in constant contact with them because I believe in their work in amplifying the stories and lives of LGBTQ people. GLAAD works with the media to tell our stories honestly and responsibly because we know that it’s harder to hate someone you know. The organization was founded as a direct response to the ignorant and hate filled stories told about us in the mainstream media during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 80’s and has been our champion ever since.
You also work with Puerto Rican (since you are Puerto Rican) and Latino LGBTQ youth, helping them feel safe with coming out. Can you please tell us which organizations you have worked with doing this and how this came about?
GLSEN, the GAY, LESBIAN, STRAIGHT EDUCATORS NETWORK, is an amazing organization that works with educators and school districts around the country to realize their goal of making EVERY school in the nation a safe space for LGBTQ students. I’ve had a relationship with them for many years and will be working even more closely in the near future. More news to come shortly!
Why do you think Latino LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk of problems when they come out?
I think it’s a challenge for anyone to come out. It’s one of the most vulnerable things a person can do.I think it’s especially difficult for Latinx young people because of a convergence of stressful elements within the culture, which include, among others, conservative religious dogma and strictly defined gender roles. These seem like insurmountable mountains to climb when you’re faced with them, but here’s what I know to be true, because I’ve seen it in my own family, with every latinx lgbtq person who comes out we create and clear a path for the next person because nothing is more powerful than the truth. We change the world with our stories - by living them but also by speaking them and sharing them with the people we love and challenging them to love us completely.
Seeing how the media has become much more LGBTQ inclusive over the years, partly thanks to you, how do you think this would have changed your own coming out story?
I probably would’ve had an easier time identifying the reasons why I am lovable and beautiful just the way I am. I would’ve saved a lot of time as a kid hating who I was and wishing I was someone or something else. I wouldn’t have entertained the painful thoughts of ending my life. Look at all I would’ve missed out on. Look at all the love I would’ve never known. Look at all the life I would’ve left unlived.
What is next for Wilson Cruz?
At the moment, I’m finishing up Season 3 of Thirteen Reasons Why. After that..? We’ll see… I’d say the sky is the limit, but I work on a Starship, so I’ll say the EXOSPHERE is the limit!