Pictured Wilson Cruz with writer Emmanuel Garcia at the DePaul event.
There I was, 12 years old and holding on to the remote control with my index finger over the change channel button just in case my mom decided to come into the living room. I was mesmerized by the intensity of one character on the TV show I was watching. The character was Ricky from the television show My So Called Life, which I had started watching that fall. There was always something about Ricky that reminded me of myself, particularly the way he handled himself. I was aware of his sexuality, partly because I was also dealing with my own sexuality at that age. At the time I wasn't aware of the importance this character played in the history of Prime Time television, nor did I even know who Wilson Cruz was.
Wilson Cruz has been in theatre, television, and film for the past 10 years working on such hits as ER, Party of Five, Ally McBeal, Sister, Sister, Rent, and, most recently, Party Monster, but his breakthrough role was in 1994 on My So-Called Life as Rickie Vasquez. On My So-Called Life, which lasted just five months on ABC, he portrayed Ricky, the gay best friend of the show's star, Angela, played by Claire Danes. His character's sexuality featured heavily in the show, which included plots that had him being detested by other teens and kicked out of his home and taken in by his teacher.
Cruz has used this part, and his other work, as a launching pad for an outreach program to the gay community. He currently tours the country, talking to college students about the importance of creating visibility within the GLBT community in a program titled 'My So-Called Life-Style'. On his recent stop at DePaul University I had the chance to sit down and ask him a few questions before he went on stage.
EG: The name of this magazine is Identity, how do you identify?
WC: As a gay man.
EG: What inspired you to be an actor?
WC: I always wanted to be an actor. There was never a time in my life when I didn't want to be an actor. I can't remember a time when I wasn't doing it, so it was a natural progression for me. The only other thing I ever considered doing was being a teacher. I was actually in school [to become a teacher] when I got My So-Called Life, and I left that to pursue it. Even then I would have been a drama teacher.
EG: Basically, you would have been a drama queen.
WC: Yeah, I think it's the fact that I have to express myself that way. I've always been an artistic person. I was always singing and dancing ˆ it was a natural progression to become an actor.
EG: You've worked on different projects within the entertainment industry. Is there something you would like to do professionally that you haven't?
WC:Yeah I'm always in search of the next challenge. There's a film that I want to make about someone who grew up not too far from here, in Minneapolis. But above and beyond that, I just want to continue to do good work and stuff that I'm proud of.
EG: The N cable network just announced that they will rebroadcast My So-Called Life this spring. Do you think the perspective of GLBT youth watching it for the first time will be different?
WC: I think My So-Called Life will be a period piece of what the '90s were like (giggles), but I still think it's relevant to this generation. What makes me sad is that there hasn't been something to follow along its path to take over what we were trying to do. Especially as far as my character is concerned. There hasn't been another actor of color who's come behind me, but I think in time that will change.
EG: Is it true that when you were on My So-Called Life you were also coming out personally?
WC: I actually came out to my parents right before we started filming the show. It was because of the show that I was forced to come out of the closet.
EG: Do you find yourself coming out now?
WC: I come out everyday; coming out is a powerful political act. It's probably the most powerful act we can do as people of color. Because it's actually one person saying to another person this is who I really am. Can you deal with that? It also gives our straight allies an opportunity to stand next to us. I think coming out is the most powerful act in our movement and one we can do everyday
EG: I read in an interview that you did in 1994 about how excited you were about what the gay community would be like in 10-15 years, has it lived up to your expectations?
WC: In some ways yes, and in some ways not as much as I would like. What excites me about where we are today as opposed to where we were ten years ago is that we have a whole generation of people now who have gown up in a time when there's been a conversation about acceptance. During my time in high school and college, that conversation was on the fringe, and now that conversation is being had in the mainstream and in politics. The fact that those conversations are happening is exciting to me. The reason for that is because of the generation that is making it happen ˆ these high school students creating Gay-Straight Alliances. What's not exciting to me is that when the gay community is spoken of or when it's shown, it's still shown predominantly as a white male community. We all know that to be untrue.
EG: You were one of my role models. Who where your role models growing up?
WC: Harvey Fierstein, Raul Julia, Rita Moreno, Oprah Winfrey, Harry Hay these are people that I talk about in my speech as well. These are people that convinced me that it was okay to be me and that I could achieve anything I wanted to ˆ if I worked hard enough to do it. But Harvey Fierstein stands out in my mind because I remember watching Torch Song Trilogy and the fact that he was openly gay as well. It was the first time I actually remembered thinking, 'Oh, wow, I can be an actor and be out and have a real life and hold my head up high and have dignity.' He opened a lot of doors for me. I think any actor from here on out has him to thank for it.
EG: Do you ever get tired of talking about gay issues?
WC: No, I don't. I think it's the most important work I could do besides being a good actor. I think that's why I'm here. I think there are too few voices out there, and I'm just trying to fill one of the gaps. I hope more people will come behind me and do more work. I'm not going to take it all on, but I can definitely lend my voice, which at times can be very loud (laughs). I don't get tired at all; I actually think we don't talk about it enough.
EG: What is the one message you would like to get across?
WC: That you don't have to give up any part of who you are in order to achieve anything in your life. Everything you are should be part of what you do.
Wilson Cruz is the only openly gay, Latino actor in Hollywood, and he was the first image of a gay teen on television for me personally. He is a true example of someone who isn't afraid to express himself and encourages others to continue the work that other role models have started. Although it may seem like we are making many strides as a community in general, there are many people who are not being represented. It's nice to know that there are actors in Hollywood who continue to put a face and an identity on those missing.
Emmanuel Garcia is a student at Columbia College in Chicago. You can find more of his writing on his Weblog at www.emmanuelgarcia.blogspot.com .