Ordinarily actors who won't discuss their sexuality give me a pain where pain can be pleasurable, but Jamie Harrold is an exception. He's played a drag queen, a notorious gay murderer and a teen hustler. He's also played a number of straights, including his current role as a man whose life was ruined by the accusation that he was gay, in the FX original movie A Glimpse of Hell, which premieres Sunday, March 18 at 7 p.m.
Harrold doesn't discuss his political views either, but appears in films that take on PG&E ( Erin Brockovich ) and the U.S. Navy ( A Glimpse of Hell ) and has stood up to filmmakers who wanted him to play stereotypical gays. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. "I'm not an activist," Harrold declares; but when you review the work he's done and his reasons for doing it ... we need more non-activists like him!
He's not a household name and doesn't want to be. This is, he says, the first interview he's ever done-;despite many requests-;except for his hometown paper. He purposely picks diverse supporting roles ( "I like being the person on the set everybody likes and nobody's threatened by" ) rather than getting locked into a screen persona and being typecast.
If you remember Harrold it's most likely from Erin Brockovich, where he played Scott, the nerdy clerk at the Lahontan Regional Water Board.
For A Glimpse of Hell, Harrold says, "I had to shave my sideburns and goatee" to play Gunnersmate Kendall Truitt. The film is the true story of the 1989 explosion aboard the USS Iowa that killed 47 sailors, and the Navy's subsequent attempt to paint it as a murder-suicide carried out by conveniently dead and allegedly gay sailor Clay Hartwig, seeking revenge on Truitt for dumping him.
Harrold never met Truitt during the filming ( "At that point he'd stopped doing interviews. He wanted to get on with his life." ) and was surprised to learn the man lived 45 miles from Taylorville, Ill., the "small farm town" where Harrold was born and raised. The actor was able to fall back on the native Midwestern twang he's spent 12 years trying to lose.
The film makes it clear that the Navy, desperate for a scapegoat to conceal that the ship had been poorly maintained without regard for the safety of the men aboard, fabricated an absurd story, assuming from their own homophobia that a homophobic nation would believe it.
While the Navy didn't try to interfere with the production of A Glimpse of Hell and even permitted some scenes to be shot aboard a real battleship, it remains to be seen whether the film will generate what Harrold calls the "desired response: that they'd come out with an apology." The late Hartwig was officially exonerated in 1991, but the Navy said the true cause of the explosion has never been determined.
Since Harrold reveals himself through the roles he chooses, we'll let him talk about them. His debut was in the little-seen urban drama Up Against the Wall, directed by Ron ( Superfly ) O'Neal. It was followed by the TV docudrama Darrow, which starred Kevin Spacey and featured Calista Flockhart, neither of whom was well-known in 1991. "I did a play with Calista Flockhart too," Harrold says. "I remember she was rocking back and forth a lot and playing with her hair."
In Darrow Harrold played Nathan Leopold, the youth who with friend and sometimes sex partner Richard Loeb, murdered a young boy for kicks. The story was explored in more detail in Swoon, part of the New Queer Cinema of 1992, and fictionalized in Compulsion.
Next came Chain of Desire, one of a wave of contemporary versions of La Ronde in the '90s on stage and screen. The premise is that 10 people are connected to each other sexually, with the new character in one sequence becoming the old character in the next. "I had the best-written part," Harrold boasts. "I link Malcolm McDowell to Tim Guinee. I play a teen prostitute crack addict"
In To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Harrold was Billy Budd, the stutterer who worked in a clothing store where Wesley Snipes found some fabulous frocks. "Patrick Swayze gave me a book, Diana Vreeland's autobiography, and it cured my stuttering."
Soon afterward Harrold was the one in the dress, playing Jackie Curtis in Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol. He says they were given a tremendous amount of research material on the people they were playing. "I had three scenes. I tried to mimic Jackie and personalize him at the same time. I was told he could care less if he was in drag or not, he was most known for his extraordinary wit. He was just a boy in a dress, not like Candy Darling who lived as a woman."
Whatever the character's psychology, Harrold must have been convincing. "I didn't work for the next year and a half," he says. Of the next 20 scripts I got, 19 would have had me playing a drag queen."
He had a similar problem after the telefilm Family Pictures, in which he played "a low-functioning autistic retard." Most of the job offers that followed were to play developmentally challenged individuals.
In Getting Away with Murder Harrold was Dan Aykroyd's stepson. The picture, which also starred Jack Lemmon and Lily Tomlin, "was hideous," Harrold admits, but it started with "one of the best screenplays I ever read in my life." It shows you can never tell how a movie's going to turn out.
On the other hand was "one of the cheesy movies I've done that I loved: Bed of Roses." He almost quit in the middle of shooting, he says, because the writer-director suddenly decided to make his character gay "to make Christian Slater look cool." That was too cheesy for Harrold, who threatened to walk. The idea was dropped.
When he auditioned for last year's Autumn in New York Harrold turned down the first role he was offered. "It was a gay part just to make Winona Ryder look cool by having a gay friend." Instead he took a smaller role as Ryder's ex-boyfriend, and it was subsequently cut from the film. "I saw it," he says. "It was a terrible movie and the gay character was stereotypical, just as I thought."
Not that Harrold shies away from playing gay. When he was cast as the groom in the heterosexual wedding at the center of I Think I Do, he says, "I specifically wanted to make him a feminine straight guy who gets married. In A Glimpse of Hell, on the other hand, I wanted to do hyper-masculinity."
Barring more cuts you'll be seeing Harrold this July in The Score, a caper comedy with a high-powered cast: Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Marlon Brando and Angela Bassett. Playing a computer hacker, Harrold has most of his scenes with De Niro and a couple with Norton.
Since the press no longer has a "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, we have to ask Harrold if he's gay, even though he doesn't have to answer. "I'm not going to answer for several reasons," he says. "I understand why people ask that, but I chose specifically to be an actor and I want the widest range of parts possible ... . Being an actor I have gone out of my way when gay parts are involved to take excruciating pains to make sure they're not stereotypical."
It's not that he thinks people are so much prejudiced anymore, but "if you go to Middle America-;Matthew Shepard land-;if somebody's known to be gay it's hard for them to suspend disbelief" and accept them in straight roles. "Look at Rupert Everett. Every time you read about him it's 'gay actor Rupert Everett.'"
By avoiding the spotlight, Harrold feels, "I've been allowed to do absolutely everything. I'm 33 and still don't want to get stereotyped. I like hiding behind characters."