THE TALL, SLENDER MAN locking his bicycle outside an unpretentious Toronto restaurant is wearing a fedora tilted down over his eyes in a way that suggests a desire for great distance, as though a veil of inviolability has been drawn about him like an invisible cloak. On someone else, the hat might be a bohemian affectation. For 32-year-old actor Gale Harold, it's a practical strategy. Anonymity--or inviolability, for that matter--has become a rare commodity in the 13 months since his character, Brian Kinney, the gay white shark of Showtime's Queer as Folk, seared himself into gay consciousness and pop culture.
If Harold could mark off more private territory--for instance, never do another celebrity profile--he would. Questions about what it's like to be a straight man playing gay or what it feels like to be so handsome exasperate him beyond distraction. He doesn't like fame or trust its motivation.
"I'm grateful for the attention," he says of his fans' devotion, "because it validates that I'm doing something." But even as he says this, Harold points out that it sounds like something hundreds of overexposed celebrities have already said. As he talks, reaching past the conventions of celebrityspeak for something truer, you begin to realize that if you thought this man was just some diva of the month, you could not be more wrong.
"Gale has very strong opinions, and he's very political," says Queer as Folk executive producer Ron Cowen, with no small measure of pride. "Sometimes I think he's the smartest person I've ever met. I know a lot of smart, well-educated, well-read people. But there's something about Gale where it takes a leap from education or keen intelligence to some other place. Genius is a cheap word, especially in Hollywood. But he's really smart."
Inside the restaurant, the waiter has brought him a cup of tea, and we have ordered lunch. "How could I not be ambivalent?" Harold says, talking about his new fame. (He'll reluctantly, and with some humor, accede to being a "semi-junior league star.") "If being famous means that you get to work on great projects all the time, with great people, then my idea of fame may include that. But," he says with distaste, "it doesn't necessarily include--fame."
Harold acknowledges that television culture creates a spurious intimacy. "There's a genuine human impulse to want to know more about people you're interested in, for whatever reason," he says. "But that impulse has been manipulated as an industry--a bad industry--to sustain itself. It can be tweaked by publicists and studios. It didn't develop as a benevolent machine to provide more pleasure to people. It developed as a tool to sustain itself."
Nevertheless, the story of Harold's casting in Queer as Folk has that Hollywood-miracle aura that publicists love. Executive producers Cowen and Daniel Lipman, the Emmy-award winning writers of the groundbreaking AIDS drama An Early Frost and the long-running drama series Sisters, had acquired the American rights to the British drama series Queer as Folk. They had already cast actors Scott Lowell, Peter Paige, Hal Sparks, and Randy Harrison as a group of gay friends whose intertwined lives would form the basis for the American version of the story. The casting had been nightmarish for Lipman and Cowen because agents wouldn't send their clients in to read for the parts in the show. The part of Brian Kinney was particularly difficult.
"Here's a gay man, very sexual, very masculine, not the kind of gay character people are used to seeing," says Lipman. "If he were a straight male character fucking every woman in sight, he'd be a hero. So this was not like the other roles, and that was part of the difficulty."
"It was an extremely distressing experience trying to cast Brian, because of what we discovered to be the massive amount of homophobia [in Hollywood]," says Cowen. "We were so shocked and so upset, because we went into this thinking that in the years since An Early Frost things had changed. …