I have quite a “history” with Darryl Stephens, and before you start imagining things, let me explain. Long before Darryl became a LOGO TV sensation on Noah’s Arc, I got to see the future Noah in a tiny now-defunct West Hollywood theater in a play called The Joy Of Gay Sex. That was back in the year 2000, after which (a few years later) I saw Darryl again in a production of Martin Sherman’s Bent that had me so moved, I couldn’t get out of my seat for minutes after the house lights came up.
Cut to 2005 and I’m watching Darryl Stephens in his starring role on LOGO TV’s Noah’s Arc, and at Outfest in the feature film Boy Culture, and then in 2008, in a truly inspirational moment for me, I’m hearing Darryl, newly out, raising his voice against Prop 8 at the downtown L.A. protest after its passage.
All this is to say that when I finally got to meet Darryl after his performance as Bernard in the West Hollywood revival of The Boys In The Band (Joy Of Gay Sex and Bent programs in hand), the thrill for me was huge.
Darryl Stephens then went on to score an Ovation Award nomination for his performance in Gary Lennon’s The Interlopers (maybe the only of his stage performance that I missed).
Fortunately, I did get to catch Darryl’s terrific performance opposite Sean Wing in Lennon’s A Family Thing and more recently I’ve been watching him as the top-billed star of LOGO’s DTLA.
And now, here we are in May 2014, and Darryl Stephens is back on our L.A. stages in Dates And Nuts, his third Gary Lennon play. I don’t do a lot of interviews on StageSceneLA, but when I saw Darryl Stephens on the cast list, I knew this was one opportunity I couldn’t pass up!
Hi Darryl! It’s so great to get to talk to you!
Thank you Steven for that illustrious introduction. Meeting you after Boys was an incredibly thrilling moment for me. My theater career in Los Angeles was hardly remarkable at that point, and you approaching me with programs from those two shows really made me feel very special. It was a more important moment for me than you probably know.
Darryl and The Boys In The Band
I had no idea! Why was that?
I saw the character Bernard in Boys In The Band as a black man struggling with being largely invisible in his group of white friends, friends who in the play had more developed back stories and character arcs. The moment you walked up with your big, bright smile with programs from productions I’d been in ten years before made me feel less invisible in that particular play. So thank you.
I was just an awestruck fan, but you’re very welcome! So let’s start with the here and now and your latest stage project! I notice that in the Samuel French published edition of Dates And Nuts, the character of Patrick is conspicuously missing, and my spies tell me that for the play’s West Coast Premiere, Gary wrote this brand new role specifically for you! How much of a thrill and honor is it for you to be originating a role written with you in mind?
As you mentioned, this is my third play with Gary Lennon. When he told me he was creating a new character for me, in an already published play, I was incredibly honored. I love Gary’s work and in that moment, I felt like he was telling me how much he loved my work. He and I have had very candid conversations about the ways the industry is shifting and how difficult it is for an actor like me to find work that challenges and showcases what I do. So his creating Patrick for me to play honestly made me feel like somebody sees what I do and appreciates me enough to keep challenging me with new roles. I’m incredibly grateful to Gary for his belief in my talent. He is fiercely loyal and loves his actors. And Patrick is a hoot!
Darryl and Trevor Peterson in The Interlopers
As you did in The Interlopers, you’re once again donning lipstick and heels for a role. (Actually, if I recall correctly, you did that in Bent as well!) A reviewer described The Interlopers’ Victoria as “gleefully trashy, a queeny yet incredibly well-muscled hedonist.” Did you have any qualms about playing another drag queen in Dates And Nuts?
To be honest, I was a little concerned about the drag aspect at first.
And why is that?
Darryl on Private Practice
After getting a fair amount of attention for playing the elegant but tortured Jane Finch on Shonda Rhimes’ Private Practice and the Ovation nomination for Victoria, I really thought it might be time to retire the heels and the lipstick. Not to mention, Interlopers was also at Bootleg Theater and I worried that people would see me on the same stage and think I was doing the same thing. I never want to repeat myself and I don’t like the idea of getting stuck in a role. For me, being unpredictable and challenging people’s expectations is really important.
How do you mean?
I’m an openly gay black actor. That already puts me in a small box in the eyes of most people. But fortunately, Gary doesn’t like to repeat himself either and he made sure that Patrick was an opportunity for me to do something new.
How different—or similar—is Dates And Nuts’ Patrick from Victoria?
While Patrick and Victoria are both funny, and I loved that reviewer’s description, I actually saw Victoria as more dignified. She was a transgender activist. She took issues affecting the LGBT community very seriously and dedicated her life to educating those around her. Sure, she had a potty-mouth, but her sense of humor was part of her charm. Her first scene was a four-page monolog delivered directly to the audience about how dedicated she was to the cause. She was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice—the snip-snip sacrifice—in the name of progress.
Patrick, on the other hand, is a hyper-sexual, hood-rat of a drag queen. He’s a guy who probably grew up on the streets, and found drag as a way to make money and seduce men. He is explosive, quick to go off on people, and is all about his hustle. There’s no “cause” for Patrick beyond paying his rent and getting his rocks off. He’s not motherly like Victoria. He’s actually more of a thug, and our director Wilson Milam has given me space to really explore that aspect of the character. It’s quite possible that at the end of the day, I’ll be the only one who sees those distinctions, because ultimately, Darryl in a dress is just going to look like Darryl in a dress. But I’m really enjoying playing this guy because he’s a hot-head.
That must be fun for you!
I’m not usually cast as violent or rough around the edges. Gary is fantastic at writing characters that are very human and relatable but severely flawed and occasionally unstable. And every line is juicy!
Since Patrick was not one of Dates And Nuts’ original characters, how has Gary woven him into the story and how does the play benefit from his presence?
I think the inclusion of Patrick makes the play feel a little more timely.
How is that?
All these stories about groups of white heterosexuals living in white heterosexual bubbles seem to be getting harder and harder to sell. They don’t reflect the diversity that most of us see in real life, and with new media allowing more people to share their personal stories with audiences across the world, contemporary stories need to be more inclusive.
And I gather that Gary is part of that inclusiveness, right?
For the last few years, Gary has been writing and producing for some very popular hour-long dramas, like Justified, The Shield, and Power. I imagine he’s constantly confronted with the reality that many network executives are still reluctant to include queer people of color in stories for mass consumption. As such, when he’s given an opportunity to tell his own stories, without the input of executives, I think he feels compelled to include characters like Patrick, who reflect the diversity of the folks who’ve inspired him in his own life. Gary was a busboy at Studio 54 in its heyday, so it makes perfect sense that a black drag queen would walk through the middle of his romantic comedy.
So how exactly does Patrick enter into the story?
In this play, Eve, played by the insanely brilliant Elizabeth Regen, has just realized that her ex-boyfriend was also sleeping with men while they were together. She’s developed some resentment towards gay men, which, let’s face it, is how many women in that situation would respond. Patrick sweeps in to take her to task and point out her own culpability in her failed romantic relationships. He helps make the whole conversation more current and relevant to audiences who watch Bravo and Logo and understand that gay folks just want to be loved like anyone else.
What is it about Gary’s writing that keeps you coming back for more? I loved how A Family Thing dealt with serious issues in unexpectedly hilarious ways. Is Dates And Nuts at all like that?
Gary is genius at writing the way people actually speak. Sometimes, I have to hear actors read his dialog out loud before I can really wrap my head around what’s happening. In life, sometimes our conversations aren’t completely linear. Sometimes we say the opposite of what we mean and just expect our family and friends to understand us. Sometimes we’re so desperate to be loved and so convinced that we don’t deserve to be loved that we attack the one person who is trying to love us. His characters reflect that. They are intricately flawed and rich with personal history and sick with longing. Gary’s writing requires actors to be fearless. I love that.
Darryl as Lenny on DTLA
I know that a lot of gay actors worry that (whether or not they come out publicly) they will end up limited in the kinds of roles they get to play. Correct me if I’m wrong, but though you’re probably best known for gay roles, there’s been no lack of diversity or challenge in the parts you’ve played. DTLA’s Lenny couldn’t be more different from Noah’s Arc’s Noah, nor could A Family Thing’s Joe be any different from either Victoria or Patrick. How do you respond to those who feel that their choice of roles or career trajectory will somehow be “less” unless they hide who they are? You don’t seem to have suffered a whit!
Thank you, Steven. I really can’t say whether my being out has hindered my access to roles. Before Noah’s Arc, my agents had me auditioning on the soap opera circuit, reading for exclusively straight characters. They knew I was gay, but they saw me as more of a romantic lead. A young Blair Underwood. They had those old school concerns about typecasting and they wanted me to have a long, profitable career. When I accepted the role of Noah, against their advice, we parted ways and my career went in a whole new direction. But since I’ve been playing gay characters, and since I’ve been deliberate about diversifying those roles, I think I’ve become a better actor.
How do you mean?
There’s been a freedom that has allowed me to really flourish and explore since I’m no longer concerned about someone catching that glimmer of that thing and uncovering my big secret. Now, whether I’m playing gay or straight, that honesty and freedom emboldens me and helps keep me real in my work.
Darryl as Lenny on DTLA
Having followed both Noah’s Arc and DTLA, I can’t help but notice that, unlike your TV costars, you keep coming back to doing live theater. It’s certainly not for the “huge” sums of money 99-seat theater pays its actors, so what is it that keeps bringing you back to the stage? Has theater always been one of your loves?
I started on stage. I just love the process. I love the experience of getting to know a group of artists and exploring the lives of imaginary characters through the prism of our collective life experience. Every single person involved brings something specific to the telling this particular story, and that’s exciting. We don’t have executives dumbing us down to make our characters more palatable for Middle America. We don’t have to worry about our performances being lost on the cutting-room floor. We bring everything we have to the stage, and each night, based on the audience and each actor’s response to the given circumstances, it’s a completely different show. Live theater is where you really get to experiment and push your limits as an actor. And there’s nothing like the immediate gratification of an audience that enjoys your work.
Can you talk a bit about your early theater work?
The first play I did in college was called Three Ways Home. I played a welfare kid named Frankie who had a complicated relationship with his single mother. He was obsessed with the X-Men and he had a little crush on his female social worker. But when his mother discovered that he’d been prostituting himself, he decided to fly off the side of the building, like his favorite superhero. After seeing that play, my mother walked up to me in tears. I knew I was onto something.
It seems that any actor who truly loves his craft would want the excitement and rewards of fleshing out a role and playing its full arc night after night. So why do you think it is that more working actors in Hollywood don’t do theater?
Ninety-nine seat theater is time-consuming and doesn’t pay. Most plays rehearse for a month and then the play usually runs for another six weeks, at least. That’s a lot of time and energy to dedicate, especially in a town where our worth is often based on how much money we make. Many artists make their livings working in restaurants and bars, and those weekend nights are crucial to their employment. It’s a huge commitment. Also, a lot of L.A. actors are more concerned with being famous and being rich than they are interested in honing their craft. It can be tricky out here. We’re surrounded by movie stars and flashy cars. Acting our hearts out in a tiny, dark room in the valley for two and half months can sometimes seem impractical.
You’ve obviously acquired a fan base in the years since TV viewers discovered you in Noah’s Arc. How does it feel knowing that there are folks in the audience who are there for the chance to see Darryl Stephens live on stage? Have you had any “interesting” fan encounters at the stage door?
When we were doing A Family Thing, the LA Times ran a large color photo of Sean Wing and I, shirtless in bed. After one show, a group of about eight to ten interracial gay male couples approached me and told me that they came to see the show because a black man and a white man were in bed together in the publicity photo. Most of them were familiar with my TV work, but it was the fact that they were seeing their own lives reflected in that particular photo that got them down to the theater. It’s always incredibly rewarding to have people tell you that your performance resonated with them because it somehow validated their own lives and experience. Oh, and I met my first boyfriend after his best friend brought him to see me in a play called Medea The Musical in San Francisco.
We were only together for two years, and this was back in the mid-‘90s, long before Noah’s Arc, but he’s still one of my best friends. He’s actually the makeup artist who taught me how to paint my face for Patrick.
I couldn’t help think of your own trailblazing when Jason Collins and Michael Sam came out, and then got signed to play professionally as out gay athletes. I wonder if you felt any personal reaction to the recent “game-changing” events.
It’s incredible. Truly incredible. Actors and R&B singers coming out is a big deal, but it may not be terribly shocking to some that a handful of the guys who like to play dress-up and sing love songs are “playing for the other team.” And I don’t say that to negate their courage or the impact of their being honest. Frank Ocean is still a personal hero. But now we have these incredible athletes standing up and challenging “traditional notions of masculinity” by excelling in their fields while being accepted and even embraced by the majority of their peers, and it really shows how far we’ve come.
So coming out remains one of the most powerful things we can do as individuals and as part of a community?
Yes, every single person who comes out and manages to do so with dignity (as opposed to someone like Rupert Everett, for example) is a champion for progress. It’s rarely an easy decision and we still have a long way to go in terms of general acceptance and representation. But one doesn’t need to be famous to have an impact. Sometimes it’s that person in your family or in the cubicle next to yours who really wakes you up to the ways you need to change your thinking. Mr. Collins and Mr. Sam are just the beginning and I couldn’t be more excited for them.
I know you made your own “It Gets Better” video a few years back, and a beautiful one, by the way. How important is it for young gay men, particularly young gay men of color, to have role models like Jason, Michael, and yourself? Do you wish there had been a Darryl Stephens when you were a teenager?
Thanks! Gay kids are growing up in a completely different world than the one you and I grew up in. Will & Grace, Queer As Folk and Looking didn’t exist when we were young. Anderson Cooper and Neil Patrick Harris weren’t speaking publicly about their same-sex relationships back then. We’ve made tremendous strides in gay visibility in the last ten years. But I imagine that young kids of color are still struggling to find role models who look like them. Guillermo Diaz is on Scandal, the biggest show on TV, but I’m not sure how many young Puerto Ricans know he’s gay. He’s very open about it, but for whatever reason, it’s rarely talked about. Wilson Cruz is very visible and vocal, but I feel like Wilson and I—we’re three months apart in age—are getting a little old to be role models for teenagers. We really need more young gay people of color to step up. I still hear from young black folks who are just beside themselves about the cancellation of Noah’s Arc, and that happened eight years ago! The truth is, we’re still very behind on this issue. The most popular black filmmaker right now is Tyler Perry and for the most part, his depictions of men who sleep with men are… regressive. And that’s putting it nicely. We have a lot of work to do.
When we see HIV rates among black teenagers skyrocketing, disproportionate to their white counterparts, we know we’re missing out on opportunities for education and outreach. Leaders in the black church are still discouraging people from being honest about their sexuality, and that has a direct impact on how people self-identify and the risk they subject themselves to when engaging in sex in secret. I’m digressing into a much more involved conversation, but to answer your question, yes, it’s very important for young gay people to have role models with whom they can identify. We all need people with whom we can identify.
I know that writing is another of your passions. Can we look forward to any “written by Darryl Stephens” projects in the coming months?
I’ve been working on a number of screenplays. One is a movie with original music that I wrote with my friend Kyle Puccia. It’s sort of like All About Eve meets Purple Rain meets The Comeback. The follow-up to my first novel Shortcomings is in the works. I’m also developing a web series and there is still a chance that DTLA will come back. I was a writer on that as well.
Darryl on 2 Broke Girls
If you could pick a dream project to star in either on TV or film or onstage, what would that be?
As much as I’ve always wanted to do something like Scandal or House of Cards, these days I think I might be more suited for a half-hour comedy. Lately, I’ve been watching shows like Veep, Girls and The Mindy Project and there’s something about a tight comedy ensemble that I really love. I probably wouldn’t have said that three or four years ago, honestly believing I was more cut out for drama. But I think working with Gary the last few years has really got me in love with the ensemble. Louder, faster, funnier… with some sexiness, some grittiness, and some heartbreakingly brutal honesty thrown in for good measure. I’m ready!
Darryl, thank you so much for taking the time to answer all these questions. I can’t wait to see you in Dates And Nuts!!
Steven, you’re the best. Thank you for your thoughtful questions and for your unwavering support of Los Angeles theater. You are a living legend!
Darryl Stephens stars opposite Elizabeth Regen, Dianna Aguilar, Dave Scotti, and Josh Randall in Gary Lennon’s Dates And Nuts, running from May 31 through July 13 at the Bootleg Theatre.
Darryl’s headshots by Rebecca Sanabria