Wilson Cruz speaks on his "My So Called Life" legacy

Wilson Cruz speak about being the first open gay man to play the first openly gay role on television.

Video Transcript

WILSON CRUZ: I was not only the first Latino, but I was like-- I was the first openly gay man to play an openly gay role on network television.

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RICKIE VASQUEZ: Do not touch me.

- Rickie, come on.

RICKIE VASQUEZ: No, I can't anymore. You don't know how scared I was. I thought you were dead.

ETHAN ALTER: As a young kid growing up, like, I'd never seen a character like Rickie on TV before, so I think, you know, if anyone meets game-changer status, it's you for sure.

WILSON CRUZ: I had never seen a character like Rickie on TV before. You know, people ask me all the time, when was the first time you saw yourself represented on screen? And my answer is always, when I saw myself on screen. So, yes, he means a great deal to me and he set me up pretty good. He not only changed my life but he changed what I thought about what I did.

At 19 years old, I understood that there was responsibility with this occupation that I thought was just going to be a bunch of fun. The fact that I'm Puerto Rican, a New Yorican even, I was profoundly aware of Rita Moreno and all that she means to us as a people. She taught me how to speak English on "The Electric Company," so I owe Rita Moreno many, many things.

And then I looked to someone like Harvey Fierstein who was this openly gay man, overtly effeminate I think is safe to say. He was not hiding any part of himself and he was using his life and his talent to inform the world and the country about his experience as an openly gay man in the '80s. Ian McKellen was a big deal because here was an openly gay man who was respected for his talent. So all of these people really allowed me to dream a bigger dream for myself.

ETHAN ALTER: What was the biggest barrier? Do you think it was being a Latinx actor or being an openly gay actor?

WILSON CRUZ: When I started I wasn't openly gay. I wasn't even out to my parents until I got "My So-Called Life," until we knew that we were going to series, actually. I felt the obstacles of being a Latino, and one of the things that I remember early on was that I had an agent, but the only thing they would send me out on were these commercials and they were only, like, commercials that were Spanish language commercials.

And I kept asking them, like, what is the deal here? Like, is there anything else that I could go out for? And they were like, well, you know, look, take this for instance. Look at this audition, for instance. They're looking for three white boys who can sing. And I said, well, why do they have to be white? And she said, well, I don't know you know-- this is 1993. She was like, I don't know, that's what they want, so, you know, that's what we have to send them. And I said, well, I think you should send in my head shot and resume. And, well, they're not going to do anything about it. And I said, well, why don't we take a chance and see?

And so they did and I went to the cast-- it was Sally Stiner's office and I went to the casting office and waited. I sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and Sally Stiner looked at me and said you got balls. Come back at 3 o'clock. And so I came back at 3 o'clock, I met with producers, I sang my little song, and that's how I got my first job.

On "Great Scott" I did three episodes, sang every word, and the very next pilot season was the pilot season that included "My So-Called Life." I had to break down some walls every time. You had to be assertive. Being an actor of color in the '90s and the 2000s, you had to make your own way. You had to knock down the door in order to get in.

ETHAN ALTER: There's certainly an example of real life bleeding into Rickie's life was the episode about him being homeless, and that reflected your own experience, as you talked about after you came out to your father and your father rejected you, essentially, at that moment. Can you talk about the sort of origins of that storyline and how that represents something that you were able to bring to the show-- your lasting contribution to Rickie?

WILSON CRUZ: I've talked about this throughout the years, but Rickie's journey to self acceptance, which is what I was lucky enough to play in those 19 episodes-- you know, people talk all the time, oh, you know, the series was too short. Well, for one character, at least, we got to see a beginning, a middle, and an end. We got to see this person who was confused and figuring themselves out and we get to see him get to the point where he can say out loud that he's gay.

And part of that journey was his relationship with his family, which was part of mine. Winnie used a lot of what happened to me. I was kicked out of my house by my father because I came out to him because I was doing the show, and my character on the show goes through a very similar experience.

And because of this episode on television, my father and I-- who had not spoken for over a year-- watches the episode and we start a dialogue that leads to one of the most healing experiences of my personal life, where my father learns to accept and love me because of who I am and because of an episode on television in which I starred.

[LAUGHS]

- Look, if you need some place to crash, I know a place.

RICKIE VASQUEZ: Thanks.

WILSON CRUZ: We filmed that episode less than a year from the time that it actually happened to me, and I don't think I did very much. I don't think I processed any of it until we started filming that episode and the episode following it because it forced me to. In order for me to go where I needed to go, I needed to be honest about where I had been so that I could bring it with me.

And it was really hard. But I'll tell you this. It was one of the most healing things I've ever experienced because I got to go through it again. Look at it and feel it all of it and then just leave it there and have it be of service, I hope, for over 25 years.

[LAUGHS]

You know, it's on Hulu now, so there's a whole new generation that is receiving the gift of Rickie Vasquez and it couldn't make me happier.

ETHAN ALTER: I wonder if an episode like that, that's so important and such a moving portrayal, if you felt at all slighted that it wasn't recognized.

WILSON CRUZ: I didn't feel slighted because there was no reason in the world why that boy would have ever been even allowed to tell that story. So the award for me was the episode, the reaction to it 30 years later from young people who say that was me and thank you for seeing me.

ETHAN ALTER: Late '90s, early 2000s, roles dried up and it was hard to find work and you moved into activism, you said. But as an actor, what were you hoping to find? What roles were you hoping to find that weren't there for you?

WILSON CRUZ: I was looking for characters that were centered in the story and not just in service of the main character, the main white characters, the main white girl characters usually. I played a lot of white girls' best friends. I'm just saying. And I loved my white girls. I'm just-- I just thought there was a time when, you know, I think the people of color needed to come into focus.

I hadn't really started seeing those roles until recently. That happens because the veil is lifted and people start to understand and own the fact that we should be the center of our own stories. We accepted a lot of things for decades that we shouldn't have accepted, and it took a couple of generations for people to look around in their television and media landscapes and go, I don't understand how we are most of this country and we can't even see ourselves reflected in our stories reflected back at us on the screen. We accepted a lot for a long time that we no longer accept.

HUGH CULBER: Another millimeter and the palatine bone would have pierced his cortex.

- The frontal lobe is overrated. It only contains memory and emotional expression. It's completely unnecessary.

HUGH CULBER: Well, I'll save it. You know, just in case you might want to have a feeling one day.

ETHAN ALTER: Well, you can think on "Star Trek Discovery" right now. Last season introduced the first transgender non-binary performers on to the show in Trek history and that's a historic moment and it's part of the continuum that you've been on since the '90s to now. What was it like to welcome them to the set and watch them take part in this franchise?

WILSON CRUZ: Like a proud dad. They bring me such joy. They walk into a room and understand that they deserve to be respected. They're not asking for permission to be seen. They are telling you who they are and that they deserve to be seen. I'm incredibly proud of being a part of this cast, especially, that is bringing you the queerest Star Trek in history.

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