An Interview with the Talented, Sexy, Bearded and Beautiful Murray Bartlett

Written by | Books, Entertainment, Headlines, Screen

murray bartlett

Years after Looking, Murray Bartlett heads back to the City by the Bay to give an iconic queer story a new chapter.

Once Upon a “Tales”

In the 1970s, author and gay civil rights pioneer Armistead Maupin began spinning the tales of a group of people whose lives revolved around 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco. What began as a series of stories in San Francisco newspapers would go on to spawn nine Tales of the City novels, multiple musical projects and three seasons of television. Now, Netflix is bringing a new generation of viewers back to Barbary Lane with a fourth season that set to premiere June 7, 2019.

Among the cast returning from earlier iterations of Tales are Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis. Linney plays Mary Ann Singleton, who was the wide-eyed young woman who first visited San Francisco at the beginning of the Tales series and decided to stay. Dukakis plays Anna Madrigal, the eccentric, trans, marijuana-loving landlady who plays surrogate mother to her tenants. The show will welcome a new generation of radically queer characters, including Ellen Page as Mary Ann’s daughter Shawna, Bob the Drag Queen as the manager of a local burlesque club, and Josiah Garcia as a young trans man named Jake.

But the show’s returning central gay character, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, will have a new face, that of an actor who famously helped tell another story of queer lives and loves in San Francisco as Dom on HBO’s Looking: Murray Bartlett. As he steps into the pivotal role, he offers some very clear and pointed opinions about why this show is so necessary now.

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Going Back to San Francisco

METROSOURCE: Last time we spoke, the second season of Looking was just beginning to air. How would you compare the world of that show with the world of Tales of the City?

MURRAY BARTLETT: The worlds are obviously very similar. There’s a lot of crossover because it’s the same city and it’s the same community. So there are a lot of parallels. I guess the difference for me is in the character. This character, Michael, is a little older than Dom and has a different sort of breadth of experience and a different connection to the history of San Francisco, particularly in terms of LGBTQ civil rights. And he’s HIV positive, so went through the AIDS epidemic in a different way than Dom did and also a little earlier. So he has a different experience of the city.

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When Murray Met Armistead

You also happened to mention in that interview that you were a  fan of Tales of the City. I was wondering what your experience with it was before this project and how you went about reacquainting  yourself with the world as you moved into this new chapter.

It’s very surreal to be honest, that I end up playing two gay men in San Francisco. Tales of the City has always been such a special kind of thing for me. I saw it first in the ‘90s and it was this very important marker in a lot of our lives. Then it was very much an inspiration for Looking. Armistead sort of became our godfather. We hung out with him a  few times, and there were very strong connections between the two shows. So I came to it with a lot of reverence and a lot of love.

Basically what I did is, the month before we started shooting, I happened to be up in Provincetown. … I read all the books again, and really just wanted to hear the stories direct from Armistead again, just really immerse myself in that and let him kind of give me Mouse. … It was a wonderful way to dive in because they’re such beautiful books. And I hadn’t read all of them before. I’d read the first couple. So it was really intense and kind of overwhelming in the best way.

Charlie Barnett as Ben and Bartlett as Mouse

Charlie Barnett as Ben and Bartlett as Mouse
— image by Alison Cohn Rosa courtesy Netflix

Hair, There and Everywhere

You’ve once again managed to end up with some statement facial hair. Obviously Dom had his signature ‘stache, and now Mouse has this curly, bushy hipster beard. Was that drawn from the books or a decision you made with the creative team?

I had some of that beard when I went to the audition. I’ve got a lot of gray in my beard. I’m not that much younger but a little younger than Mouse, so I feel like it was a little helpful [in showing his age]. And there’s a lot of beards going around, so it felt like it fit the character too.

And Where Is the Body?

Fairly early on, his boyfriend Ben mentions Mouse spending two hours a day six days  a week in the gym. Did they adjust that line to fit what you were actually doing, or did you come to it and think, “Oh God. I guess that’s my gym regimen now.”

It did freak me out when I read that. But I think he’s joking — exaggerating. That’s the way I read it. [laughs] I’m fit, and I think that Mouse is a little bit vain and definitely aware of his body and wants to be in good shape, so that makes sense. But yeah, I think Ben’s poking fun at him and I don’t think he really spends that much time at the gym. Although it is  kind of a statement on the fact that, as gay men, a lot of us tend to put you know a fair amount of emphasis on that, and it does tend to get a little obsessive.

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Giving a New Face to Living with HIV

In the first scene we see Mouse, he’s taking his HIV meds. We also see him grapple with the idea of having unprotected sex after many years of not being able to. Then there’s also a moment when he realizes someone else has seroconverted when he comes across someone else’s meds. Would you agree that we’re just not seeing stories like these told anywhere else on TV right now?

Yeah, I would agree, and I think it’s really important. There’s a big shift in terms of those kind of stories — in terms of the fact that you know the medication has changed. It’s interesting in Mouse’s story because when he was first diagnosed, it felt like a death sentence at that time. For a lot of people, it ended up being that way. And he moved through that and now it’s not that way at all. And it’s so fascinating. I think one of the reasons it definitely strikes a chord for me is: I grew up at a time when you know safe sex was like the ult- you know, a necessity and there was a lot of fear around it, fear that was probably necessary for survival.

A Brave New World

And you’d say Tales is showing us a world that’s moved beyond that type of fear?

It’s different now. We have PrEP and there are a lot of different attitudes about sex, which is wonderful. We’ve become a lot more sex positive in a lot of ways, which is fantastic. But there’s a little bit of a disconnect between the two generations, and I think there’s a lot to be gained from the two generations communicating with each other about what’s changed, what’s important about what’s changed, what went before and what’s important to remember about what went before. Did you see Episode Four [in which the generations clash at a dinner party}?

I did. I thought that was a pretty extraordinary example of exactly what you’re talking about.

What’s amazing I think about the writing in this show — and particular in that episode — is it shows those two points of view of an older perspective and a younger perspective. And it allows you to see that you kind of agree and disagree with both. You can’t take a side. That’s what I felt anyway, which is amazing. It really throws [these differences] up in the air and will hopefully start a lot of conversations that we should be having, I think.

Then you see beyond those scenes — scenes with Ben and Michael where they start to kind of bridge those perspectives, which what we really need to do (laughing). So I think it’s important that we’re telling these stories to shift the ideas about what it is to live with HIV these days and the realities of that, what people are facing through it, and also those intergenerational perspectives to come to grips with those.

Laura Linney as Mary Ann and Olympia Dukakis as Anna

Laura Linney as Mary Ann and Olympia Dukakis as Anna courtesy Netflix

On Working with Laura and Olympia

What was it like to work with the returning actors who are practically synonymous with the series?

Because I came to Tales in the ‘90s when it first came [to TV], I feel like I’ve lived with it a long time. I also felt a lot of connection to Mouse throughout the progression of the books and from the beginning point. They were very different in a lot of ways, so it was this surreal experience to step into Mouse’s shoes and to be doing scenes with Laura Linney, who I still have strong associations with as Mary Anne, and the same with Olympia. … They’re such phenomenal actors, and it’s such a beautiful experience to work with actors like that, that are so open and so available and giving. Doing scenes with those two particularly; I just look into their eyes and listen to what they’re saying and go for the ride.

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Queer Actors in Queer Roles

Now more than ever we’re hearing calls to see gay characters played by gay actors, trans characters played by trans actors. Do you think it will be important to fans that you are an openly gay actor?

It’ll be interesting to see, yeah. I think it’s a really wonderful wave that we’re riding to be more inclusive in casting and across the board — in production and the whole team. I mean you see this with men and women, you know. For many years, particularly roles like directors and producers were played by men, and there’s a lack of women in those roles still. It’s partly because men have been given those experiences and so they have all this experience doing those jobs, so then it’s harder for women to get into those jobs.

I think the same has happened for gay and trans actors. The gay and trans roles have often been played by, you know, straight cis actors. And I don’t have a problem with that, but I think that it needs to be an equal playing field. What’s wonderful about this wave of inclusivity is that we’re saying, “Okay, let’s really focus on making sure that we’re trying to cast trans and gay actors in these trans and gay roles, because we haven’t before and we need to be giving opportunities to these people. Then hopefully as we go further down the track in the future, it will be a more even playing field and maybe that’s something we won’t need to be as aware of because there will be famous trans actors who are playing trans and cis roles. And gay actors will be playing gay and straight roles.

Bartlett shares a scene with Laura Linney

Bartlett shares a scene with Laura Linney as Mary Ann —
image by Alison Cohn Rosa courtesy Netflix

Pushing Boundaries in Telling Our Community’s Stories

Now that we see more gay characters on TV, what place does Tales of the City have in further exploring of queer life?

Two things come to mind. Firstly … in most shows we have a predominantly straight cis story. And to have a show that is predominantly LGBTQ characters is – I mean – I think it’s something that a lot of people crave, particularly in the LGBTQ community. There’s such a lack of that, and it’s a wonderful perspective to bring into the world of TV and film because it’s an amazing community. …. It’s really important to have that as a counterbalance to the vast amount of straight cis-dominated shows that we have. … I think it’s really about the writing and being specific and looking at what stories are really important in these communities and really talking about issues that are universal so that we can reach everybody with the show, which I think it does.

And also looking at the intricate specifics of – you know, for instance, the character of Jake, looking at what that is for this young person to go through a transition and all the sort of challenges and interesting things that brings up is fascinating. I think it comes down to having really great writers who are attuned to that and are telling great stories. And I think that we have that. We have  a really diverse wonderful writer’s room who are very familiar with these stories, have a great love for telling stories about the LGBTQ community and I think that’s the key really is: whatever community it’s about, having good writers who are attuned to hopefully stories that are relevant and sort of enlightening in some ways and connected to hopefully what the community will want to see.

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Looking to the Future

How do you plan to celebrate Pride this year?

I’m going to be up in Provincetown this year, so I’m going to be celebrating with whoever’s up there. That’s a beautiful place to celebrate up there. It’s a wonderful community, and it’s got its own kind of rich LGBTQ history.

Do you know if this new Tales was designed to be a one-and-done or if there’s a possibility of more?

I’m not sure at this stage. I think, I would love that too. We’ll see.

Want more Murray? Check out the time we interviewed him about “Looking”:

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Last modified: November 18, 2019