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Matthew Perry's GAY TANGO.

So, any chance ol' Chandler is not just Friends but family? Matthew Perry talks about the sitcom's gay sensibility and the love dance in Three to Tango, his new romantic comedy about mistaken sexual identity

Talk about gay-friendly! If gaydar actually existed, Matthew Perry would have to be considered the equivalent of a B-2 stealth bomber, flying in under the radar, scrambling the signals, unapologetically heterosexual and yet eagerly accepting roles in which the joke is that he's a straight guy who comes across as gay. A mere eight episodes into the first season of his hit series, Friends, Perry's Chandler was at first taken aback to learn that one of his coworkers assumed he was gay--not, as that other sitcom paragon of hetero fastidiousness, Jerry Seinfeld, would say, that there's anything wrong with that. "I just have to know, OK. Is it my hair?" Chandler grilled his fellow friends.

"Yes, Chandler," deadpanned Rachel (Jennifer Aniston). "That's exactly what it is. It's your hair."

"Yeah," chimed in Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), "you have homosexual hair."

But by episode's end Chandler was less concerned that his coworker thought he was gay than that she and another coworker didn't think he was enough of a stud to score with the office's hot gay hunk.

Not that there's anything remotely androgynous about Perry, 30, who has quipped his way through six seasons of Friends now. Neat, neurotic, hapless in love--don't count on his current romance with Courteney Cox Arquette's Monica to run smoothly--his TV alter ego, for all his ironic detachment, wears his unequivocally straight heart on his sleeve.

"Originally Chandler was just supposed to be the wise guy who delivered one-liners," says David Crane, the show's openly gay cocreator, "but as time has gone on, we've realized Matthew's got enormous emotional range, so we've given Chandler this incredible romantic arc, where you care for him and root for him."

Before Chandler bedded Monica, though, many of the show's gay fans were convinced that Chandler's true soul mate just might be his roomie, Joey (Matt LeBlanc)--the ever-squabbling Chandler and Joey seemed to be just about as close as two straight guys could be.

"But we never considered going that way," Crane insists. "The stuff he plays with Joey, where they are like a couple--it's much more fun if they're two straight guys behaving like a couple than if it's about a man who could be in a romantic relationship with another man."

The comic possibilities of straight-gay confusion seem to have made an impact on Perry the actor. In his just-released romantic comedy, Three to Tango, he dives even deeper into the comedy of sexual-orientation errors. The premise: Perry plays ambitious Chicago architect Oscar Novak, whose newest client, a tycoon played by Dylan McDermott, mistakenly assumes Oscar's gay and asks him to keep tabs on his mistress, Amy, played by Party of Five's Neve Campbell. Amy, in turn, is only too happy to unburden herself to the new gay guy in her life. Naturally Oscar falls in love, but if he comes out as straight, he risks losing the biggest commission of his career--not to mention the girl. For once, heterosexual love becomes the love that dare not speak its name. In the process, explains the movie's first-time film director, Damon Santostefano, "Matthew's character learns a tiny bit about what it is to be gay, and he also learns how to be a better friend and a better lover to a woman."

The movie's pratfalls are as much physical as emotional--which is fine with Perry, who calls its mix of sex and slapstick a "a nice middle ground" between his first starring feature, 1997's Fools Rush In--a more straightforward romance costarring Salma Hayek--and the film he just completed, The Whole Nine Yards, a broad farce in which Perry, as a suburban dentist, dukes it out with mobster-next-door Bruce Willis.

"I love romantic comedy," testifies Perry in an interview with The Advocate at his gated, contemporary home in L.A.'s Hollywood hills. Though still a single guy himself, he explains, "I love the genre because you're laughing and watching people's dreams coming true." In fact, with his writing partner, Andrew Hill Newman, Perry has written a bigscreen romance of his own, Imagining Emily, about a guy who falls in love with the adult version of his make-believe childhood friend. And, while that project awaits a green light at Warner Bros., he's also developing a sitcom that he would cowrite and produce--though not star in--about a psychiatrist who is turning 30 and whose life is a mess. "It's kind of like the original Bob Newhart Show, but with a young single guy, who unfortunately can't be played by me."

But gay--or presumed gay--he has no problem playing. And, Perry is happy to note, he's not alone. In the past, he says, actors "would shy away from those roles because people, might perceive that they were gay. But bat's going away in droves."

Why did you take the part in Three to Tango?

I really loved it a lot. I was actually talking with Jennifer Aniston today about the fact that scripts are so terrible for the most part, and [with Tango] I didn't put the script down.

You probably grew up watching Three's Company, where Jack sometimes pretended to be gay by mincing around and flapping his wrists. Oscar, in Three to Tango, doesn't resort to any stereotypically "gay" mannerisms. Did you make a conscious decision to avoid them?

Oscar is the nicest character I've ever played, and we wanted to get away from all those stupid stereotypes. We didn't want him dancing around and doing all that goofy stuff. Basically, this is a guy who, through a series of misunderstandings, is perceived to be gay by an entire city and by the girl he loves. We wanted it to be as real as it could be.

Did that mean you all had to sit down and figure out how broadly to play specific scenes?

There really weren't scenes like that in the movie where I had to "act gay." Everyone in the movie just assumes Oscar's gay. There was no Mr. Roper kind of character I had to pretend to be gay in front of.

The movie's end credits include a thank-you to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. What was GLAAD's contribution?

Chastity Bono [GLAAD's former entertainment media director] was there quite a lot, especially when I was doing the coming-out [as straight] speech at the end of the movie. Our goal was to keep it entertaining and funny and make sure we didn't offend anybody.

Did Chastity make specific suggestions?

Well, we hired a group of Canadian extras, who kind of looked like derelicts, for the awards ceremony [where the speech takes place]. And she made sure that at least the people in the first ten rows looked like upstanding gay businessmen and women. So there was that kind of stuff. And there were lifts from the scripts--things that could have been perceived as being offensive or could have been taken in the wrong way--and those were all carefully taken out.

The irony is that there's a certain kind of gay humor that a gay person sitting around with friends can indulge in, but if you put it up there on the screen, it's going to offend someone.

That's right. That's why Oliver [Platt, who plays Perry's openly gay business partner] was able to make fun of himself and other gay people. His character isn't only gay but is also the smartest guy in the whole movie. It's much like any other kind of sensitive issue --Eddie Murphy can make jokes about black people, but Steve Martin can't.

Just beneath the jokes about mistaken sexual identities, the movie really deals with the whole idea of the close relationship between gay men and straight women. Is that something you see a lot in real life?

It's one of the things that drew me to the script. That whole guy-girl "He wants to sleep with me, should I sleep with him?" "I don't want to open up because I might get hurt"--all that stuff is thrown out the window when the guy is perceived as being safe and gay. If straight guys could just calm down and really listen and get to know somebody, then they'd get what they wanted instead of having to go through the whole tumultuous relationship stuff.

When you encounter a relationship between a gay man and a straight woman like that, do you find yourself envious of it?

I suppose so. Not at the end of the day, but, yeah, I suppose. Women are much more apt to be honest and understanding if they're not thinking they're going to be taken advantage of.

So even though there may be an evolution in the behavior of younger straight men, you still find women keeping their guard up?

It depends on the woman. Men are learning they should listen and be more attentive. It's the best way to get to know a person and decide if you want to spend time with that person. Maybe that's just me--or maybe it's a problem I've had when I'm dancing around a person, trying to impress them and never taking the time to find out who they really are.

Doesn't that lead to a catch-22 for straight men that the movie touches on--you get points if you're "sensitive," but at the same time you open yourself up to speculation you might be gay?

I don't think it's that much of a problem. The stereotypical macho Marlboro man-type guy--at least in L.A. and the people I hang out with--is gone. You're much more of a man if you can cry and you can listen and you can care and all that stuff. Those seem to be more manly qualities these days instead of throwing a rope around a horse and all that stuff.

Both Oscar and Chandler Bing on Friends are "sensitive guys." Do you see a connection between the two of them?

They're both great dressers. But Oscar is just a really nice guy. He certainly has insecurities, but Chandler has 9 trillion insecurities, which he manifests by making fun of other people and being really neurotic. You laugh with Chandler, but with Oscar I think you feel for him because he's just this really nice guy who gets trapped in a ridiculous set of circumstances and doesn't know how to get out of them.

For a while there, there was a lot of fan and media speculation that Chandler might actually turn out to be gay himself. Was that an idea that was ever seriously discussed on the show?

It was never seriously discussed with me. I was very much up for the idea that people thought he was gay. And I'm always pitching those jokes because I think it's a neat thing about his character. But I'm not sure what would have happened to him if they had written a coming-out episode.

In reality he'd probably eventually drift away from the group and find a circle of gay friends.

You think? Well, then let's keep him straight.

With homosexuality being so much more out in the open, does that make straight guys more self-conscious about "guy" behavior that would have gone unnoticed in the past?

It's all exaggerated on a sitcom. So if you have two guys hugging and then they realize if they keep hugging for two more seconds, it's going to look a little awkward, that's going to be a big laugh. In real life you wouldn't do that. Those are some of those moments where we just wink at the camera.

So how has Chandler changed over the show's five seasons?

He's become more like Oscar. He's getting older and less scared of everything. But he's still terrible with relationships, and now it's getting interesting because they took the other person who's equally terrible with relationships, Monica, and now they're together--the two most neurotic people on the show trying to have a romance.

The Advocate recently polled its readers about their favorite TV shows, and Friends came in second, behind Will & Grace. I'd speculate one of the reasons gays relate to the show is that many of us have had the experience of creating a family out of a circle of friends.

Yeah. The whole pitch the writers originally began with is that every sitcom you'd seen before was based on people who had made their choices in life and were stuck with them. Friends is about people who have their choices ahead of them. They don't have their families anymore, so they create this niche for themselves, which is a great idea for a show.

The show has also included gay and lesbian characters--especially in the episode devoted to Susan and Carol's wedding--without attracting the wrath that the religious right directed at Ellen. Why do you think Friends emerged unscathed?

That episode was smart, and it wasn't coming from a bad place. Also, on Friends the gay story lines have always been secondary, the B story or C story. On Ellen it became what that show was about. If a show becomes about an issue, you should be on the Lifetime channel or something.

Still, a lot of current sitcoms--Friends included--display a gay sensibility.

I think that definitely is there. And any stupid stigmas that are attached to that are thankfully gone.

That may be true for writers and producers, but how about gay actors?

That stigma shouldn't be there either, and I think that stigma is going away somewhat too. Nobody had a problem with Anne Heche kissing Harrison Ford in a big movie, and everyone knew she was involved with Ellen.

Without asking for names, do you have any actor friends who are closeted?

Well, let me tell you exactly what their names are [laughs]. No, actually right now, in my circle of friends, I don't. But I don't think there's any fear of any actor playing a gay person anymore. I think people understand that.

Though it's still easier for a straight guy to play gay. If a closeted gay actor takes on a gay role, at the very least he's got to figure out how much to disclose in any interviews he does.

Those guys should come out of the closet--let's face it. If closeted gay people are afraid to accept gay roles or are just not going after them in the same way, that's unfortunate.

Friends has just begun its sixth season--how do you keep the premise fresh?

Yeah, we definitely talk about that: If we're 40 and still hanging out together, then we're real losers, and no one will watch us. I think the show can withstand the characters' having kids and the odd marriage or two. But the key to the show--and everyone knows it--is to make sure these people remain somewhat unhappy, because if you look at all the shows in history, they're about lovable losers--Cheers, Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. You put a happy couple on television, and you're finished. That's why Sam and Diane on Cheers failed once they got together.

Friends seems to have reached a point where it doesn't even depend on the lines--you get laughs just from your reactions to one another.

The writers were very smart, because they wrote to people [from the beginning]. They took everyone to lunch and wanted to know their quirky sides. Now I can deliver a line to any of the actors, and it changes the whole moment by how they act to it.

The show's been remarkably adept at balancing each of the six characters.

They used to have a pie chart in the writers' room. If they discovered they'd been light on Phoebe for three episodes, they'd change the stories around. Now they're so good at it, they just roll them up. Plus we used to kind of freak out if we were written light, but now we've done so many, if we're written light, we're kind of happy about it--a little time off.

And how have you managed to go into the sixth season without anyone bolting?

We just got lucky. There's not a jerk in the group.

But before you can go on to a seventh season, the cast all have to renegotiate their contracts. How's that going?

Right now we're not focusing on it. When it does happen, we just hope it happens quickly and everyone gets what they want on both sides because that stuff creates the sort of press that's hurtful to everyone. That's what happened last time. What I can tell you is, we are all having a blast, and it's still a really creative atmosphere. We're all having a lot of fun.

RELATED ARTICLE: 6 FRIENDS, 5 GAYEST MOMENTS

Remember the one where ...? We count down must-see TV's queerest episodes

5 "The One With Phoebe's Husband," October 12, 1995. Way hack in the second season, Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) married Duncan (Steve Zahn), a gay Canadian ice skater, so he could get a green card; in this show Duncan returns, insisting he's actually straight and wants a divorce. "I ... I don't know what to say," says Phoebe. "I mean, you know, you're married to someone for six years, and you think you know him, and then one day he says, `Oh, I'm not gay.'" Jokes series cocreator David Crane, "That wasn't hard to write or anything! What a line we had to walk."

4 "The One Where Eddie Moves In," February 22, 1996. Joey (Matt LeBlanc) gets a part on a soap and moves into a bigger apartment, leaving an abandoned Chandler (Matthew Perry) nearly bereft. In a parody of the Ross-and-Rachel (David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston) "star-crossed lovers" story line, the camera catches a lonely Chandler gazing through a rain-soaked window as "All by Myself" plays in the background. It's the episode that most fueled the Chandler-is-secretly-gay speculation.

3 "The One With the Birth," May 11, 1995. With his lesbian ex-wife, Carol (Jane Sibbett), about to give birth to his son, Ross quarrels nonstop with her partner, Susan (Jessica Hecht)--until the two get stuck in a janitor's closet and Susan reveals her insecurities: "You get to be the baby's father. Everyone knows who you are. Who am I? There's Mother's Day, there's Father's Day, there's no ... Lesbian Lover Day." Unfortunately, since the baby's birth and the women's subsequent marriage, Carol and Susan are rarely seen on the show, but Crane insists, "I would hope [they'll be back]. I love both the characters and the actors who play them. It's not something we've planned; it just happens as we write the episodes. But it's tough. We have to serve six actors, so it's hard for any of our guest stars to make recurring appearances. After all, the show's called Friends."

2 "The One Where Nana Dies Twice," November 10, 1994. As the gang attends a funeral for the grandmother of Monica (Courteney Cox) and Ross, Chandler obsesses over the fact that a coworker thinks he's gay. "It just happens to be one of the best episodes we've ever done--and not just because of that story line but because of the other ones in it," Perry says, laughing. And though Chandler resigns himself to his heterosexuality, he's offended when told that Brian in payroll is out of his league, "I could get a Brian," he sputters, "If I wanted to get a Brian, I could get a Brian."

1 "The One With the Lesbian Wedding," January 18, 1996. Ross walks his ex-wife, Carol, down the aisle as she marries her girlfriend, Susan, with Candace Gingrich playing the officiating minister and Lea DeLaria as a cruisy wedding guest. "It was smart, and it was coming out of a good place," says Perry of the groundbreaking episode, which went off without a hitch and without significant backlash. Only the womanizing Joey complained, saying, "It just seems so futile, you know? All these women, and nothing. I feel like Superman without my powers, you know? I have the cape, and yet I cannot fly."

--Gregg, Kilday

For more on Friends and on Matthew Perry's career in film and TV, visit www.advocate.com

Kilday is a freelance entertainment reporter who contributes to Premiere and Los Angeles magazines.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Liberation Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Kilday, Gregg
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 9, 1999
Words:3398
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