Tuc Watkins Is the Gay Character Actor of His Generation
The Netflix series 'Uncoupled' extends a fruitful career that includes 'One Life to Live,' 'Desperate Housewives,' and 'The Boys in the Band.'
Tuc Watkins would like for you to think of him as a gay Kevin Kline. At least that's how he'd like to think of himself. A reliable character actor who has consistently played queer roles throughout his career, Watkins—like Kline—looks for the off-kilter wink within a scene. It's a lesson he learned by way of a happy accident during his years on the soap opera One Life to Live (more on that later), and he has carried it with him though memorable performances in the Showtime series Beggars and Choosers, The Mummy, Desperate Housewives, Parks and Recreation, The Boys in the Band, Black Monday, and The Other Two.
Watkins' latest role finds him playing one-half of a newly uncoupled couple on Uncoupled, a Netflix comedy co-created by Darren Star (Sex and the City, Emily in Paris) and Jeffrey Richman (Frasier, Modern Family). His character, Colin, an even-keeled New Yorker facing existential doubts as he turns 50, suddenly announces he is leaving his real-estate-agent partner (Neil Patrick Harris) after 17 year together. The first season's eight episodes revolve primarily around Harris, but Watkins gives the plot its texture. Colin may have broken the likable protagonist's heart, but he is no mere villain.
Ahead of Uncoupled's debut, Thrillist talked to Watkins, who is dating his former co-star Andrew Rannells, about being one of his generation's go-to gay TV actors, coming out on The Marie Osmond Show of all places, and why tripping on a staircase changed his career.
Thrillist: You're the rare gay character actor who has consistently played a wealth of gay roles. Does it feel that way to you?
Tuc Watkins: It's funny you mentioned that, because I am a gay actor who's been playing gay characters since the '90s. When I did roles like I Think I Do and Beggars and Choosers, people said, "You can't be a gay actor and play gay roles if you want to play a wider range of roles." But they were great roles, and I didn't care. What has happened is, there have been more and more roles in the LGBTQ spectrum to play. There was a time not so long ago that the gay characters were the gay clown or the troubled person or the psychopath. There's so many more roles available, and there's so many more actors who are willing to play those roles.
Was there ever a moment when you felt like doing so became a limitation? When you couldn't break into a certain territory because of it?
I feel like I was caught in a catch-22. I was a gay actor who shouldn't play gay roles if I wanted to play straight roles. But I was also a gay actor who they weren't hiring to play the straight roles because they knew I was gay. It's amazing that I got any work. Just recently, I worked on a TV series, and I was hired to play a straight role by a queer television maker specifically because I'm part of the LGBT community. He wanted someone from our community to play a straight role as a political statement, and I'm here for that. It's called Unconventional. It was created by Kit Williamson, who created Eastsiders. That's on Netflix, and it's yet to drop.
When straight actors play gay roles, we talk about what they chose to do with their mannerisms. How did they adopt the physicality of that character, and do we approve of those choices? You had the opposite experience. Were you conscious of your mannerisms as a straight character?
Did I try to butch it up? Is that what you're saying?
What I've learned, especially in television, is we tend to play ourselves. Sometimes we play one click left, one click right, but we're usually in a pretty narrow window of playing ourselves. Movie stars and A-list TV stars get to play a wider range, but I think most of the stuff that I've played, whether it's straight or gay, I'm really just playing myself, for the most part. How would I personally act in that given situation? I've never really thought of myself as a Method actor. I'm more of a behaviorist. I don't try to put my mind into the mind of a serial killer if I'm playing a serial killer. I play it more like if I were a serial killer, and that's usually a little closer to home. The current climate of television is more about authenticity.
You've not only gotten to play gay roles, but characters who are fairly well-adjusted, with maybe the exception of The Boys in the Band. I'm not sure I'd describe any of those characters as well-adjusted.
Yeah, and that was set in 1968. It was a different era.
Not to say that a well-adjusted gay person looks like any one thing, but in Desperate Housewives and Uncoupled, these are people who are comfortable in their own skin, who have careers and are going about their lives in relatively productive ways. Even The Other Two, which is a more of a subversive version of that.
In real life, I wasn't always as well-adjusted as I may appear to be in the characters that I play. I grew up with a fear of being gay, what being gay meant, feeling like it was not an option. It took me a long time to reconcile that I was okay being myself. To be able to play characters that are okay with themselves—maybe I've been able to do that because I'm standing on the shoulder of giants, of people who came before me, who paved a path towards equality that made it easier for me to do so.
When you came out, so to speak, on Marie Osmond—
Can you believe I came out on The Marie Osmond Show of all places? The Marie Osmond Show! I told an Osmond!
I know! Was that a premeditated thing?
I was actually hoping that it would come up. I went on the show [in 2013] to talk about Desperate Housewives and the fact that I was a new father. I had become a father to twins through surrogacy, and in telling the story of how I became a father, intrinsic to that was that I was a gay guy who wanted to have kids but couldn't go through the traditional way of having children. What kind of person does that on his own? There's a backstory to it, and I was appreciative that I got to share that backstory, and in doing so, it included the fact that I'm gay.
In that context, it can't not come up.
For a long time, I dodged questions about my sexuality and who I was seeing. Even on Desperate Housewives, for a long time, I was not publicly out. Everyone I worked with knew I was gay, and that's just about a decade ago. I was still concerned that, if I put a rubber stamp on myself, I will only be labeled as one thing. I was still playing that silly game not that long ago. I think what happened was, when I became a dad, I thought, "I don't want my kids to see me dodging. I want them to see me being okay with who I am." For the most part, I was. I just didn't want to talk about it publicly. My kids actually helped me become a little more comfortable publicly with who I am.
There's another strategy that somebody in your shoes could have employed along the way, which was to resist the types of roles that you took.
But those are great roles whether you're gay or straight. I became an actor because I wanted to become a movie star. Becoming a movie star wasn't really working out, and great roles came along. I was never really interested in sidestepping a great role because I was concerned about how I would be perceived. If you don't get to be a movie star, you take great parts.
When you were thinking about your idea of movie stardom, who were you thinking about?
I have made a career out of stealing from Kevin Kline. Part of the reason I went to Indiana University is because I knew that he had gone there. I'm still aiming to be Kevin Kline, and I suspect that he might be trying to be John Cleese. I feel like I've got a father figure and a grandfather figure to look up to.
A comedic movie star, then. That's how I think of Kevin Kline.
Yes. He's really both. He's fantastic in the comedy that he does. I don't know how many times I've seen Soapdish and A Fish Called Wanda. I've also seen him do Chekhov on Broadway. He's in Sophie's Choice, which is one of the best dramatic films of all time. That guy really does it all, but he does it with a sense of humor, which I really appreciate.
By your own admission, your career wasn't going in the direction of movie stardom. What did your quest to achieve Kevin Kline-dom look like, and how did it evolve?
It wasn't so much that I was really trying to become Kevin Kline. It's just that, when I play a role, I tend to think, "What would Kevin Kline do?" He would always do something unexpected and funny when it wasn't necessarily supposed to be funny. I wasn't trying to have his career, because he sings, he dances. I'm barely a single threat. I'm just an actor.
It's interesting that you and Neil Patrick Harris are paired together for Uncoupled. If you were able to play gay roles over the years, Neil Patrick Harris occupied the opposite space. Despite being a very visible gay celebrity, outside of his theater work, his most famous roles were these macho, funny, bro-type characters.
He and I didn't really talk so much about process, but I think you make a good point. Neil is one of those actors who can do it all. He did Barney on How I Met Your Mother for a number of years and won awards for it, believably. I think we're making progress. I had never met Neil. When we started working together, I think I, like a lot of people in our country, had this preconceived notion of who Neil Patrick Harris was going to be. He was going to be this cute, silly, funny, likable guy. He showed up, and he's so good at what he does. He's kind of like a surgeon. He's precise, he knows exactly what needs to be done, he knows where the joke is.
I know he's a magician. He just got this tattoo recently of a magic trick on his shoulder. One of the magic tricks that he can do that I noticed: He and I had to do some pretty emotional scenes in this series. He had to cry a number of times. When he was in a profile shot, he was crying from his eye that the camera could see, but the eye that the camera could not see was dry.
He was reserving the tears in that eye for future coverage, in case he needed to do waterworks from another eye. Now that's a magic trick. He's a very facile, practical, magical actor.
That is wild, to have that control over your body. Could you do that?
The only other people who I know can do that are the women on soap operas. I've witnessed that in daytime. Neil has a real facility for it.
I'm sure you've witnessed a lot of acting tricks on soap operas in particular because of the pace of it and the intensity of emotion.
What's so great about Uncoupled is that there are a lot of men, because it's a gay breakup comedy, and the writing is specific and layered so that all of the different men on the show have a unique stripe to the tapestry. When I was on a soap opera, which is populated by a lot of men, all the guys were competing for the same lane. Everyone was trying to out-mysterious or out-smolder each other.
On One Life to Live, did you feel like you were also in that competition?
Yes, for the first year that I was on One Life to Live, I was trying to be a cool, mysterious con man, and I was fairly unremarkable at it. After about a year, I accidentally fell up the stairs in a scene, and everyone laughed at me. I was humiliated, but that's when a toggle switch went off and I channeled Kevin Kline, like I was saying. I thought, "David Vickers"—the character that I played—"is not a cool, mysterious con man. He thinks he's a cool, mysterious con man." That gave birth to the character that went on for a number of years who was decidedly different, because he was not trying to be cool anymore. He was a buffoon who was trying to fit in.
That's clever. What do you remember about your first day on the set of Desperate Housewives?
I remember Kevin Rahm—he and I played husbands—were doing a scene with Marcia Cross, and she approached our house with a basket of muffins. I said to the director between takes, "My character's standing up here on the porch. Wouldn't I walk down the steps and go greet her?" He said, "Tuc, let me stop you. What's the name of the show?" I said, "Desperate Housewives." He said, "Do you have any more questions?" Doug Savant, who was off-camera, came to me, and he said, "Now you know what it's like to be a guy on Desperate Housewives." I learned my lane on that show pretty quickly. That was a great show to be on. It was so much fun.