"I don't know anybody in the closet," insists Frederick Weller, before checking out his new military haircut in a mirror over my shoulder backstage at Manhattan's Second Stage Theatre. "Well, I heard about a guy--and I really don't know who this is but somebody I know knows somebody who's apparently about to be a big film star, and when he wanted to break up with some guy because he was over the relationship, the guy threatened to out him."
You'll have to forgive Weller a gossipy indulgence or two. After all, the straight stage veteran has spent the last few weeks with a largely gay cast rehearsing Terrence McNally's new play, Some Men (it opened March 26), which uses the framework of same-sex marriage to examine gay issues, situations, and milestones over the past century. "There are something like 90 gay characters in the play, so that's a lot of gay," Weller says with a laugh, "but it hasn't seemed like too much yet. I'm having a blast."
Weller plays six roles. "It's a great gamut covering the spectrum of denial and outness," he says of his characters, which include an Internet chat room cruiser, a married closet case, and a bathhouse "himbo" known for his ample endowment. But don't break out the binoculars just yet. Unlike Richard Greenberg's 2003 Broadway hit, the gay-themed, locker-room comedy Take Me Out, in which Weller played the bigoted Shane Mungitt, Some Men does not require the 39-year-old to drop his towel. "I think the New York theatergoing audience has seen enough of my dick," he reasons.
He considers playing a man whose lover is dying of AIDS the most challenging, saying, "You have a sense of responsibility with those heavy circumstances." But Weller particularly responded to the part of a soldier who recently lost his partner in the Iraq war. "When I first got the script I thought, Oh, my God, I have to play all these characters? But when I saw that scene I had this feeling like I hadn't had since I first read Take Me Out--that if somebody else got to originate the role, I would go crazy." McNally singles out this scene as Weller's most heartbreaking work in the show.
Though McNally and director Trip Cullman are both as gay as the play's subject matter, McNally asserts that they cast the play based on talent, not sexual orientation. Enter Weller, star of such films as The Shape of Things and most recently lauded for his performances on Broadway in Glengarry Glen Ross and Seascape. "I assume he's not gay because I've met his wife," McNally teases. "He's just such a brilliant actor of gay characters simply because he's a brilliant actor. He was equally brilliant doing Take Me Out, where the character was so homophobic, but he's atoning in this one." Referring to the flamboyance trap that many straight actors flounce into when playing gay, the Love! Valour! Compassion! playwright continues, "Bad straight actors do that. A good actor observes how gay men really behave."
Indeed, finding himself in the minority backstage, Weller takes full advantage of his queer peers. "Sometimes I find myself studying the gay actors," he says, "trying to pick up on subtle differences and asking myself, Why would I suspect that he's gay? When they play a gay character, most straight actors will do too much--although I've got a couple of characters in this where that's just fine. The nice thing about playing six is that you can have a range." Cullman is also quick to share his gay wisdom with the handful of heterosexuals, Weller adds: "Trip's direction frequently involves the phrase, 'When you're picking somebody up or you're in a bathhouse--so I've heard ...'"
Though his director and some fellow cast members may have enjoyed more firsthand gay experiences, Weller has never felt at a disadvantage. …