Twenty years ago, Anthony Rapp played the role of Mark Cohen in the off-Broadway debut of the musical Rent, a cultural watershed that made the AIDS crisis resonate with a wider audience and, for many straight and queer people, offered the first glimpse at a loving, homosexual relationship. Rapp, now 44, has helped to sustain Rent‘s legacy, and not just by reprising his role onstage and onscreen in the 2005 film version—he’s performed numerous nuanced portrayals of homosexual characters throughout his career.
Both films that Rapp is set to present at the Reeling Film Festival in Chicago on Monday night, bwoy and Do You Take This Man?, feature contemporary queer male characters with knotty interior lives. However, the middle-aged roles that Rapp embodies in each—a grieving father and husband who becomes obsessed with a young Jamaican man he meets online (Jimmy Brooks) in bwoy; an insecure fiancé on the eve of his wedding to a younger partner (Jonathan Bennett) in Do You Take This Man?—handle their struggles in entirely different ways. Plus, bwoy, written and directed by John G. Young, is a slow-burning thriller; while Do You Take This Man?, from writer-director Joshua Tunick, is a sweet, familiar romance.
Rapp and I talked on the phone earlier this week about what drew him to these projects and to these characters. We also discussed the importance of bucking stereotypes, the influence of Rapp’s midwestern upbringing on his work, and the advice he gave to the Hamilton cast, who join him as members of a landmark, Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.
Leah Pickett: Let’s start with bwoy, which is the festival’s centerpiece. How did this film come to you?
Anthony Rapp: I met John [the filmmaker] years ago—I think almost 25 years ago—around his first film Parallel Sons. I knew the actor who played the lead in it. But I hadn’t seen or talked to John in all those years since, and he reached out to me last spring, maybe even earlier than that. He wrote me an e-mail and said he had this script and he wanted to talk to me about it. And he sent me the script and I read it, and then we had a really good meeting. That’s actually one of the ways that I love for a project to come about: when [the filmmaker] is somebody I have some kind of relationship with—even if it’s a very small relationship—we have a good conversation, and we start on the same page. That kind of meeting is a very attractive way to begin a project for me, because collaboration is so important to me, and having a good relationship with the people I work with is very important.
In bwoy, you play a man who deals with the death of his young son and the disintegration of his marriage in a seemingly unusual way. Though as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the online relationship is loaded for your character and actually makes a lot of sense for him. Was that part of the pull for you?
Oh yeah. I’m very interested in the darker undertones of human behavior and experience, and I feel like the script really rang true for me. I’m interested in people who do things that are complicated and weird, and when people act out in ways that don’t necessarily make a lot of logical sense, but make emotional sense—that is very compelling to me. And it’s been a while, I feel, since we’ve had stories that have been complicated and interesting about the closet, living in the closet. And so it was interesting in that way too, because there are all kinds of ways that living in the closet has a cost—to the person himself or herself, and to the people in his or her life—and I feel like this film talks about that in a very interesting way.
Something I’ve noticed about the majority of mainstream films with queer characters as the leads—and not as the sidekicks or sassy best friends—is that they tend to be sad, serious dramas, often tragedies. Do you think that the next frontier might be to show more gay characters as relatively happy romantic leads, not just in indies like Do You Take This Man?, but also in more mainstream romantic comedies?
I think it would be great if that could happen, honestly. To me, the ultimate goal is that [happy relationships] be part of the fabric of all kinds of stories; although I still think it’s important to show all of the range and complexity of people’s experiences, including the darker corners of them.
I haven’t really thought about ‘Well, we need more of this, x, y, or z,’ in terms of queer characters. I just want them to feel like fully rounded human beings, and that the whole spectrum of their experience is available to be explored. And, like you said, not just [showing them as] the wacky sidekick, or the tragic figure, or the murderer, or whatever. That the character could be those things also, but not [only].
Absolutely. I agree. And when you talk about your attraction to these smaller, more intimate projects, and how important it is for you to work closely with people and work on reading between the lines of the script, do you feel that might be because they feel like plays?
Yeah, very much so. I mean, I love going to see fun, good action films, especially when they feel like they have some kind of heart or soul. But I’ve worked on a couple films that were of that ilk; and as an actor, I don’t find it very satisfying at all. It’s not superfun to feel like I’m just a tiny cog in a huge machine, for me. I guess I’m just a little picky that way.
I would much rather do small, character-based, intimate, quirky little films, where we all have a voice and we all have something to contribute artistically, instead of just being part of some big machine. I’m sure that sometimes my agent and manager would rather I be more willing to do some of the bigger stuff; it’d be more money [laughs]. But that’s not what I’m most interested in.
You grew up in Joliet. You’re a Cubs fan. What, if anything, about being from the Chicagoland area informs your work?
I think it’s that, especially growing up in Joliet, it has a pretty small-town feel, even though it’s grown a lot since I moved away. But there’s not a lot of culture here. I think it helped me appreciate the wider world that much more, and I think there’s a kind of groundedness the midwest has that has helped to inform my work and my life in a way that feels really right.
I always feel a kinship to people from the midwest. I don’t know if it’s about being landlocked, too, but I think a lot of people from the midwest can sometimes feel, literally, like their horizons are not very wide. At least from where I grew up, people’s views of what’s possible in their lives don’t always feel wide open. And people from the coasts, it seems to me, often feel much more emboldened to take on all sort of things. I think that’s why so many people migrate to the coasts, California and New York being centers of showbiz. It just feels like people who live on coasts are thinking wider and farther, in some ways.
But I don’t know if I would have appreciated that aspect if I hadn’t come from the midwest, where things tend to be closer to the vest. There’s a sort of hard-nosed nature to it that I think is really a big part of my psyche. My mom was a single-mother nurse, and that’s a part of my psyche too: that work ethic, ‘you have to earn what you get,’ and ‘you should never take things for granted.’ And I think some of that can be unusual for people who do live in New York City or LA. I think that if you’re coming from the midwest, there is this sense that you have to work really hard. I’m not saying that people who didn’t grow up here don’t feel that way, but that’s been my experience, living in the midwest and living in those cities.
Yeah. I like what you said about how just living on a coast can make things feel more possible. It’s like having a portal, if you live in a port city—watching what comes in, what goes out. You feel like you have a kind of access.
Yeah, I think so. I think there’s something to that. And it’s funny, Chicago has the lake, and it’s major. I think if Chicago didn’t have the lake, it would feel very, very different.
I saw on your Twitter that you posted about Rent‘s 20th anniversary this year. You were 24 when the show debuted. Knowing what you know now, what would you go back and tell yourself, if you could? Or would you?
Well, I feel like I was doing the thing that I wanted to do. Because at that point I had been in the business for about 15 years, so I recognized how extraordinary the opportunity was, and to just drink up and enjoy and take in and be present for all of it, as much I could at that time. So, honestly, I’m not sure what else I might have done differently than that. And that’s what I would tell myself to do; that’s what I’d tell everyone who’s having that kind of experience.
And a lot of that was of course informed by the fact that Jonathan [Larson] wasn’t there, too. I mean, that just grounded it all. Although we already were really committed and unified before that happened, that just made the experience that much more urgent and real, for all of us.
I was fortunate enough to meet and spend some time with the Hamilton cast, and a couple of them asked me some questions, because there are a lot of similarities between how Hamilton is being received and how Rent was received. And that was what I tried to share with them—that it’s such an extraordinary opportunity, and to take it in, be present for it. You know, there’s this hurricane that’s happening, but at the center of it is this incredible piece that you are so fortunate to be a part of. And these sorts of things only come around once or twice, maybe, in a lifetime of being a performer. So I really do feel like I did that.