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It’s been a long journey (25 years to be exact) since the days of his role as the groundbreaking Ricky Vasquez on My So-Called Life, but Wilson Cruz’s advocacy and perseverance on screen and behind the scenes have been paying off. He has become and continues to be a humble trailblazer for the LGBTQ community who continues to champion inclusivity.
For more than two decades, Cruz has been taking roles on the screen and stage, and his plate has been full as Dr. Hugh Culber on CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Discovery as well as Hulu’s recent animated fantasy series The Bravest Knight, another series that continues to move the needle with LGBTQ representation. The series follows a knight, Sir Cedric (voiced by T.R. Knight), who has grown up and married the prince of his dreams, Prince Andrew (Cruz). In addition to going on Sir Cedric’s farmer-to-knight journey, the series introduces the couple’s adopted 10-year-old daughter Nia (Storm Reid), who is training to become a brave knight herself. With a cast that features the likes of RuPaul, Wanda Sykes, Christine Baranski, Dot Marie-Jones and others, the series is certainly continuing family series with LGTBQ elements. For Cruz, shows like The Bravest Knight and Andi Mack with LGBTQ characters in major roles have “come out of the closet” with marriage equality, providing more visibility for queer characters in family settings.
“I’ve been saying this about LGBTQ characters for decades, which is we long — whether we’re LGBTQ or black or brown or Asian — to see ourselves,” Cruz told Deadline. “When you don’t see yourself depicted, when you don’t see your stories being told in the media, it’s not just that you’re not there, it’s not like there’s just a void, it’s that you are invisible.”
He continued, “You feel that your story isn’t important, that it’s not as valued as the heterosexual, cisgendered norm. I think this generation of LGBTQ people and families are saying, ‘No, we want to be visible, we want to be seen,’ and they’re demanding and urging networks and streaming services to tell these stories. Those streaming services and networks are doing it because it’s in their best interest to tell these stories because they know that there is an audience for them. We’ve seen them succeed.”
Cruz has a special connection with family programming as he learned to speak English from shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. With that, he stresses how important these types of shows are for kids. “The lessons we teach our children at this young age stay with them forever,” he pointed out. “I learned a sense of community from those shows, I learned about the very basics of human interaction. If we teach these values to them now, they will take them with them into adulthood.” He added, “Imagine the world we can create when we’re talking about young people who were taught courage and inclusion and acceptance and perseverance at this young age.”
For many, Cruz is known for a specific role: Ricky Vasquez on the canceled-too-soon ABC series My So-Called Life, which ran for one season in 1994. Cruz made history as the first openly gay actor to play an openly queer character in a leading role on network primetime television series. At the time, he was about 20 years old, and he said that the character became a catalyst for more representation for LGBTQ stories to be told — especially for young LGBTQ people of color.
As the show closes in on its 25th anniversary, Cruz still recognizes the significance of Ricky and the impact he has had on television and the lives of many members of the LGBTQ community. “For me now, at 45 years old, to look back after 25 years, and having worked not just on screen, but behind the scenes, to create an atmosphere where these stories can be told and where LGBTQ people of color are being hired to tell these stories, it’s a dream come true,” he said. “You know, I’ve been saying for 25 years… I’ve been building an army and when I look at the people who are now part of this rainbow of representation on TV and film — people like Billy Porter, Mj Rodriguez and Sara Ramirez — these are people that are telling three-dimensional stories about our real lives.”
The Hollywood landscape has been more open when it comes to LGBTQ representation, but during the days of Ricky, Cruz was one of a few and he felt “an enormous amount of pressure to try and be all things for all people.” That is an impossible feat, and he certainly shouldn’t have felt that way — but the pressure was there nonetheless. In 2019, however, things have changed.
“I was the most visible and the only one willing to talk about it, all the questions were coming to me,” he said about the early career as an actor. “Now, I don’t have to answer the questions all by myself and I get to share this moment with all of these incredibly talented and diverse representatives of our community. I am elated that we have reached this point, and I can’t wait, honestly, I cannot wait to see where we go from here.
Cruz does not take Ricky for granted. It is still very much close to his heart and when people approach him about how the character has changed their lives, he gets emotional — even while talking to us, he got choked up. “It’s overwhelming for me…I’m a bit of an empath, so I’m easily led to tears,” he laughed. “There’s this give and take now that I have with these people who were inspired by Ricky Vasquez — who are now inspiring me and helping me in my work and the way I walk through the world. I’m the luckiest man in the world and it brings me to tears every single time.”
After My So-Called Life was canceled, Cruz wanted to continue to telling LGBTQ stories and be a groundbreaking voice as a gay actor playing gay characters. He did a TV movie Seventh Avenue with Luis Guzman and Eileen Galindo that originally started as a CBS pilot, and also appeared in the indie All Over Me as well as Nixon. He then went on to play the role of Angel in Rent on Broadway, further showcasing his talent not only as an actor but as a singer and dancer.
But it wasn’t always an endless line of work for Cruz; he admits that it hasn’t always been daisies and roses — especially between 2000 and 2010 when he was struggling for roles just so that he can get medical insurance. Still, he persevered to be his authentic self as an actor and landed guest spots on shows as a trans prostitute on Ally McBeal (which he admits was a bit problematic now) as well as The West Wing and Grey’s Anatomy.
Having recently been awarded a Vision Award by the Stonewall Community Foundation, Cruz continues to be a celebrated LGBTQ advocate. As an actor, he has a couple of plates spinning when it comes to stories he wants to tell (he remains tight-lipped on those), but right now, he continues to venture off to the final frontier as role as Dr. Hugh Culber on Star Trek: Discovery.
Admittedly, he is a Star Trek nerd — specifically Next Generation. He said he was a huge Beverly Crusher fan and that he was over the moon to play a doctor on the franchise. Star Trek: Discovery continues Cruz’s platform of inclusive storytelling because of the first same-sex relationship in the history of the franchise. The relationship echoes the basis of which Gene Roddenberry started Star Trek: an ideal world where our differences are celebrated rather than demonized.
“I think people turn to this show and maybe even all sci-fi and fantasy because sometimes the world that we actually exist in falls short of our dreams, and I think sci-fi and fantasy and Star Trek, in particular, gives us an opportunity to dream — and dream big, right?” he said. “I think Star Trek offers us an opportunity to visualize the ideal, what it would look like — and I know it’s trite and it’s been said over and over again, but if you can see it, you can be it.”
Cruz, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, also champions representation of Latino stories just as much as LGBTQ stories. In fact, some of the projects he is working on have Latino narratives (again, he remains tight-lipped on those). There seems to be somewhat of a void when it comes to Latino stories on film and Cruz points out that with the numbers the community can pull in at the box office, there should be more. He points out: “Just like African-American women are the key to the election in 2020… Latinos are the people who are buying movie tickets. So they need to be speaking to us.” With films like West Side Story and In the Heights on the horizon, he hopes that the doors will fling wide open for more nuanced stories beyond “cartel” and “chola” narratives.
“I think it’s an issue of a) us creating and being confident in the fact that our stories are worth being told and made, and access to the people who can get them made,” he said of creating more Latino-centered films. “We talk a lot about creating storytellers and supporting them, but are we giving them access to money? Are we giving them access to marketing? Are we giving them the access it takes to see the kind of success or give them the eyeballs and the opportunity to succeed?.. We need to be a bit more — I was going to say assertive, but I’m going to say aggressive.”
From My So-Called Life to Rent to guest spots on various TV shows and films to Star Trek: Discovery and the animated The Bravest Knight, Cruz has maintained a career and proved that advocacy does not have to be compromised in Hollywood.
“I literally blazed my own trail,” he said. “I had to knock my own doors down. I make no apologies for that, I think that’s your job as an actor. You have to demand to be seen, no matter gay, straight, whatever. But you have to believe in yourself enough to demand to be seen.”