Categories: EntertainmentScreen

How Murray Bartlett Ended Up a Gay Sex Symbol on “Looking”

We talk to actor Murray Bartlett about playing the show’s resident sex symbol Dom about the world of Looking – including his character’s signature ‘stache.

Meeting Murray

The mustache that Murray Bartlett sports to play Dom on HBO’s unique show about the lives and loves of three gay friends in San Francisco became instantly iconic — a bridge between the bushy upper lips of the 1970s and today’s facial hair–obsessed hipsters. He shaved it off after the first year of filming, but it’s back for the show’s sophomore season, and he’s not in a hurry to part ways with it — or Looking — any time soon.

METROSOURCE: It’s funny to hear your natural accent because your American accent on the show is so convincing. It takes me back to the first time I remember seeing you on film, which was the Sex and the City episode in which you played Carrie’s “new gay best friend.” What is your memory of that experience?
MURRAY BARTLETT: I was incredibly excited. It was my first job in the U.S., I think. … I was a huge fan of the show — still am — so I was terrified. I was just this guy from Australia who was hanging out and falling in love with New York … and suddenly I’m sitting across the table having brunch with Sarah Jessica Parker! It was very exciting and terrifying, and she was just so lovely and open and generous. It was a wonderful experience, but it was very surreal; so it feels like remembering a dream — with nightmarish sort of aspects to it.

I’ve heard Looking described as Sex and the City with actual gay men instead of women pretending to be gay men. Do you think that’s a valid comparison?
I think it’s wonderful to be compared with Sex and the City. The tones of the shows are quite different … but it’s an easy comparison because both shows are about a group of friends who seem to have kind of a gay man’s [mentality] — the way they talk about men and relationships and stuff.

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Since you’ve lived and worked all over the world, I wanted to ask how the energy of San Francisco feels compared to other places you’ve lived in, and whether you feel that’s reflected in the show?
I love San Francisco, and it’s very specific. I feel at home here because it has a similar vibe to places in Australia, but — having been in New York for 12 years or so — it’s sort of got a New York sensibility with a more laid back lifestyle. … It’s a weird and wonderful place. I was a huge fan of Tales of the City — all the interesting characters and mystery — and there’s that sort of magical quality about the city.

I have to ask about Dom’s mustache. Were you surprised by how obsessed fans are? I’ve read entire comment threads about it.
Oh my god, that’s awesome! It was almost accidental, in a way. I was in Egypt for four months the year before Looking came along. I grew a mustache to try and look less like a foreigner, and I’m not sure if that worked, but then I sent in my first audition tape to the show with the mustache and they liked it, so I kept it. … People tend to identify it as a really classic San Francisco gay sort of look, and I love that that has become a part of the show.

Dom turning 40 was a major part of the first season. You’ve talked about how he woke up and saw that he didn’t have things you’re “supposed to have” at that age, especially in terms of career and relationships. Do you think that Dom just stopped looking for it at all after he broke up with his toxic ex?
I think there was definitely an element of that. I think it was also just [what he was used to]. He had a job that was paying decent money, … a lifestyle that he liked, … sex with a lot of people: It sort of props up your ego — until that stuff starts to fade or becomes less satisfying.

You’ve spent a fair amount of time on camera less than fully clothed. Do you amp up your fitness regimen when you know you have a scene like that coming up?
I like to be fit, so I do that anyway, but I become a little more focused when I’ve got to do naked or semi-naked scenes. … I feel like Dom, my character, is really into his body and wants it to look good. He’d put energy into it, so I do.

With a role like Dom, who is supposed to have a magnetic sexual energy, how do you show that?
It can get you into dangerous territory as an actor because it can seem fake or just generalized. … Rather than thinking, I’m going to be sexy in this scene, it’s like: How do I captivate this person? or How do I seduce this person in a way that’s going to be hot?

Do you think there’s an advantage to being a gay actor when you’re playing a gay character?
I think definitely, when you’re playing a role, your own personal experience that’s similar to a character’s can really help. … Some of the straight actors do ask specifics about, “What happens in this situation?” or “Where does that go?” So we have an upper hand in some areas, but I feel like the straight actors we have on this show are incredible in their ability to — regardless of gender and sexuality — really connect to the intimacy of moments they’re in.

There’s an intensity about you and Scott Bakula as Dom and Lynn. How do you make that happen?
I feel like Scott Bakula is a magic that happens on camera. … He is incredibly open as an actor and came into this role and this show with a lot of affection and generosity. Fortunately, we came in with a similar intentions in the way we wanted to make something great, and we really care about the show. We have a really lovely rapport, and hopefully that reads.

Dom’s life is full of intense friendship. Does that leave room for a significant other?
That will be addressed.

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Well I don’t want to spoil the plot, but is there anything else coming up in Season 2 that you can talk more about?
One of the things I love is that we get more of Dom and Doris’ relationship and really explore what that is, and we get to see a lot more of Lauren Weedman [who plays Dom’s best female friend Doris]. In the first season, a lot of the time, she’s being a comic genius. In this season, she has a lot more layers.

The first trailer released for Season 2 reminded me of Queer as Folk, and it made me wonder how much Looking’s creative team has to consider other gay shows that have come before you?
I think there’s always a respect of the shows that come before us because they made their mark in really important and significant ways. Obviously you want to make a show something new and bring something different. … I don’t think it’s so much, “That show was this, so let’s make it similar,” or, “That show was that, so let’s make it really different.” It’s just like: “Here’s this group of characters; let’s make a show about them, and let’s give it this tone, and hopefully it feels like treading new ground.”

Where are you in the process of filming Season 2? Are you still working? If not, when did you finish?

I’m kind of a watery emotional mess today.

Is it different saying good-bye this time as opposed to the first season?
We have a wrap party tonight, so we still have a lot of good-byes to do, but, yeah, we all loved the experience. Last year, it was sad to say good-bye, but this time — I guess you go deeper, relationships are strengthened. … We’re all very close. The season was a lot more intense, and we had more episodes, so I feel a lot more emotional at the end of it this time. I want even more to have more of this show.

I’ve heard that the cast of Looking off-camera is just as close as your characters on camera. Is that the case?
Absolutely. I never had an experience like this. It’s been really amazing — even more so coming into the second season because a lot of the actors live in New York; so we hung out quite a bit in between the seasons. Then we have a really wonderful intense three months together [filming in San Francisco].

I did not realize until I started until prepping for this interview, that you had toured with Hugh Jackson in The Boy from Oz. Is musical theatre a passion of yours?
I love it. I absolutely loved working on that show, and it would be something that I would be happy to do again. [But] I feel like singing in front of people is really confronting and intense, and I never saw myself as a singer. I love to sing, but I guess I balk at it a little bit because I still feel like I’m not really a singer. Do you know what I mean? But I do love it. I think musical theatre can be really powerful.

Since you guys are such a musically talented cast, I was wondering if you’d thought about performing music on the show — either in a real context or a dream sequence type of thing?
[laughs] We’ve kind of joked about it because Jonathan Groff obviously is a spectacular singer, and we sing a lot on the set. We’ve joked that in season six — if we ever got to a season six — we would do a musical episode. But I don’t know if that will ever happen.

Does shaving your mustache when the season is over helps you like disconnect from the character?
Yeah, it’s weird. I get kind of attached to it, but I shaved it off as soon as we finished last year, and I look really different without it, I think. So it’s a little shocking. In a way it’s kind of cool to shed the character, [but] it’s an odd thing. it’s a semi-permanent prop that you carry around, and you can be released from it. I felt like it was a good thing: to do to do other work and stuff without it — just ‘cause it’s so specific to this character and this show, but I’m in no way itching to get it off. I love it on me.

How did you turning 40 compare to Dom turning 40?
When I turned 40, I went through a similar thing. You kind of re-evaluate your life. I feel I’ve seen a lot of gay men in that situation. There’s a real emphasis on being sexy and young. That’s not with everybody, but it is kind of held on a pedestal in some way, and when you put a lot of energy into that — which I feel not just gay men but a lot of people in general are pressured to do —you kind of draw it from other areas you neglect in life. That’s the trap of getting caught in more sort of hedonistic or transient things — it takes your energy away from deeper, more substantial things potentially.

When I think of characters like Dom, who have that sort of magical sexual energy, I think the benchmark for that is Chris Meloni on Oz.
Oh my god!

Cause I think Chris Meloni is generally a sexy guy…
Oh yeah.

But in that role like there’s, like, a sparkle to him — it’s hard to define.
Yeah, he does that, too. There’s an intensity for him — like whoo! It’s really magnetic.

I heard that — in addition to your on-camera work — you’re doing some writing and working on some film projects where you’re on the behind-the-camera side of things.
Yeah, I’ve just written a feature script, which couldn’t be more different than Looking, but I’m super excited about that. We just finished a draft that we’re really happy with, and we’re now looking for money to hopefully start shooting it early in the year. But I don’t really know. I feel like I’ll probably have some kind of creative/producing role in it, but I’m not sure yet how that’s going to move forward. It’s mostly set in Egypt, and it’s about someone dealing with a rapidly changing country and feeling kind of torn apart by things that are going on in [the] country and basically bringing into question all the things that you have grown up with in [terms of] a cultural identity and personal identity and how you make sense of that when your country is in turmoil.

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I wanted to finish up by just asking what your hopes are for the future, both for Dom and for yourself?
For Dom, I feel like he’s sort of on the road of finding himself in a more real way. That’s sort of what season two is about — although there’s a lot of stumbling through in season two for him. I think he keeps on that track and eventually…

Maybe finds love?
[laughs] It’s a TV show; so I guess he can settle down a bit, but there’s got to be some complications. I would like to see him keeping stumbling through for a while — figuring out who he is and working through what it is to be a gay man in his 40s. I think there’s a lot of s*** to look at with that, but I feel like I haven’t seen as much of that as I would like to see in gays on TV. I feel like the 40s are a really interesting period in a gay man’s life, and I would like to see the show explore that.

And for you?
I hope we have at least a couple more seasons [of Looking] because I want to keep working on the show with wonderful people, and I’m really excited about making this film that I’ve written. I like being part of creating something from the ground up. I would love to work in film more — particularly indie film. But, yeah, I feel like [Looking has] sort of set a benchmark in that I love the people I’m working with — which is increasingly important to me as I get older — and it’s so great to be surrounded by people [with whom] you have shared values … and I really believe in it. So [I hope to have] more jobs like that: good stories that I believe in and I think are important are worth telling.

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