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'Face' to Face: Gay Actor and Writer Craig Chester
by Gregg Shapiro

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From his formative years in Southern California and Texas in a fundamentalist Christian household to his discovery of like-minds in the realm of theater to his coming out and his reputation as an openly gay film actor, Craig Chester (Swoon, Kiss Me Guido, I Shot Andy Warhol, and many others) casts a loving eye over his 37 years in Why The Long Face? The Adventures of a Truly Independent Actor (St. Martin's Press, 2003, $23.95). Told with humor and heart, Chester's unique personal story gives the reader plenty of opportunities to laugh out loud along with him.

Gregg Shapiro: What can you tell me about the decision to tell the story of Why The Long Face: The Adventures of A Truly Independent Actor in a series of humorous personal essays as opposed to novel form?

Craig Chester: The intention, from the beginning, was to write about my life. St. Martin's press had approached me about writing a book about being an openly gay actor and what it was like for me being out from the inception of my acting career. I told them that I'd be happy to do that, but I also had other stories about my life—the fact that I was a born-again Christian growing up and that I had had a deformed face —those stories actually made the fact that I became this queer cinema poster boy more ironic. I took their original idea of writing a dishy Hollywood book and expanded on it. It wound up being more of a memoir, although it was originally intended to be a collection of essays.

GS: The stories you tell are full of descriptive details. Is there potential for any of the essays or for the entire book to be made into a movie?

CC: It's funny (because) I never thought of it that way. But it seems that everybody who reads it says that it would make a great movie (laughs) and has suggested that, including Shirley MacLaine. We'll see what happens with that. I think I do write visually and because I'm an actor and have worked in movies, I do see things that way. I've also written several screenplays; it's probably because of that that it does have that visual, cinematic appeal.

GS: My younger brother also had maxillofacial surgery … . He had a very severe under-bite and that was how it was corrected. Your graphic description really does the trauma of the experience justice. This is not a subject that has been written about in too many books—was it traumatic for you to relive it for the sake of the title essay?

CC: That was traumatic, but I think the process of sitting down and writing about things is not so much traumatic as it is healing. I've told that story before, but a lot of people didn't know about my face and what I went through. In a way I was sort of coming out about that (laughs). The whole book was like this great purging and putting things to rest. There is something that happens between the brain and the fingers that's very purifying and healing. I think that's the nature of all art. Taking something that was painful or challenging and using it in a positive constructive way.

GS: I'm glad you used the word "healing," because you write about your difficult formative years with great humor, including your mishaps at summer camp, on Halloween, and with religious zealots. Did you find that revisiting those times from an adult perspective also allowed healing to take place?

CC: Yes. I think this book is very much about being my age and also having done some self-examination at this point as an adult and having that perspective. Comedy is all perspective. What makes something funny is taking something that is true and looking at it in a specific light once you're removed from it. It's hard to find comedy in a situation you're actually in at the moment.

GS: If you hadn't found a fellowship in the world of theater and film, are there other careers that you could have imagined yourself undertaking?

CC: I think I would have liked to have been a psychiatrist. I'm fascinated with human psychology, which is one of the reasons why I love writing. I love peeling the onion of myself or of a character. I'm fascinated by interpersonal dynamics and subtext. But I also said (laughs) that I would love to be a chef. I love cooking (laughs). There's something very creative about that and that appeals to the people-pleaser in me.

GS: The chapters in which you write about your experiences as an openly gay actor in the world of independent film, including the one titled "Smells Like Indie Spirit," don't paint a very rosy picture. Do you have regrets about the effect that being out has had on your career?

CC: (Thoughtful pause) No. I never had regrets. There were times when I was afraid, (when I thought) am I shooting myself in the foot at the beginning of my career. There was a lot of fear around the early parts of my career, which is what those chapters deal with. It's more about that decision to be out from the beginning. There were times in the beginning when I was like. 'I should have stayed in the closet and made some money. Then when I was famous or on Will & Grace, or something like that, then I could have come out and it would have been this big to-do.' I came of age during this whole AIDS activism/ACT UP mid-'80s political movement where my understanding of things and life had to do with politics. I was very involved in the politics of HIV and I was going to ACT UP meeting in 1986 when I first moved here (to NYC). Since that was my introduction to my identity as a gay man, that understanding of politicizing things bled over into my acting career. I think my generation, we're as willing as generations before and since to make those compromises in our personal lives. I felt like a well-adjusted gay man and I didn't want to go backwards. Whatever regrets I've had have been superficial ones. I think my life is much more interesting because I'm out. I think my career is much more than if I had not been out. I didn't have to turn down gay roles because I was worried about the repercussions.

GS: You've paved the way for a lot of other artists, which brings us to the essay in which you attend at party at Melissa Etheridge's house, in the early 1990s, where the guests included Ellen DeGeneres, Dermot Mulroney, Catherine Keener, and Brad Pitt. It was a very touching scene. Have you maintained contact and friendships with these people?

CC: No. I was invited to that party and I spent an evening with them. But none of us exchanged phone numbers. It was one of those things where I didn't realize what was going on at the time. When there's all this stuff going on around you, it's like what you said about being older and having perspective. It wasn't until my friend Lisa, who went to the party with me, said to me, probably about a year ago, and we were talking about that party, and about how Ellen and Melissa and Julie Cypher were asking me what it was like to be out. Lisa said she remembers looking at me across the room and thinking, 'This is sort of an unusual thing that Craig is doing. This is sort of a big deal.' She actually made me aware of it, in retrospect, once they came out. At the time I was trying to share what it was like to be in a gay movie. I sort of dumped on them all the things that I had experienced (laughs). What it was like for me was that it felt so isolating. It was really hard because I didn't feel like there were that many other people that knew what I was going through in terms of being 25, being out, being in gay movies and dealing with Hollywood and agents and casting directors that didn't know what to do with me.

GS: It places it in a historical context.

CC: Yes. Now that Ellen and Melissa are out things have changed a lot. A lot of the stuff that I write about, about the homophobia that I've experienced in Hollywood, is meant to be a time capsule about the early '90s.

GS: Have you started work on another book?

CC: Yes, I have. I started writing another collection of essays. The great thing about the next book, for me at least, is that it's more fun. I have less of the burden of having to explain my whole childhood (laughs) and life. It feels more free.

GS: Now that you've gotten that out of the way you can have fun.

CC: Yeah. It's less political. Why The Long Face was my statement as a person. I have an essay (in the new book) called 'Fag Hag Hag.' I have all of these famous actress friends, for some reason, and it's a story about what it's like to be gay and have your friends be all of these gay actress icons.

GS: Your take on your lack of luck in love is pretty funny. If there was a potential partner out there, either reading this interview or reading your book, do you think that you are ready to give love another chance?

CC: (Big sigh) Funny that you should ask that, because I haven't dated since my boyfriend broke up with me on 9/11 (laughs). You get to the point with all of that stuff where you realize that it's a lot about you and who you are picking. I'm coming at it now with a little more of a sense of responsibility. In the year and half that I've been single, I've started to find different qualities attractive in people that I didn't find before. I've always been very laid back about it all. I'd meet someone and they'd be like, 'Want to be my boyfriend?' 'Sure.' 'Want to move in together?' 'Sure!' I never drove any of my relationships. I just went along with them. Now I'm looking at it very differently. You get to a certain age and you're not playing around anymore. You also realize that your heart isn't coated in Teflon. It's a big deal to let someone inside. I'm a lot more cautious, but ultimately I'm a total romantic and I believe in the work of a relationship. I think I'm a catch (laughs).

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