Stephen Guarino, an alum of Logo’s The Big Gay Sketch Show who has also appeared in Confessions of a Shopoholic and I Hate Valentine’s Day, is spellbindingly chatty in his recurring role on Happy Endings as the “sterotypically gay” pal Derrick. Derrick crackles with pop culture references and even outpaces the insanely fast cast’s dialogue, which makes him both the broadest and most subversive character on the show. And perhaps the funniest, if we’re being honest.
Guarino also co-stars as Quincy in the new Logo webseries Eastsiders, the Silver Lake-set dark comedy funded mostly by a successful Kickstarter campaign. Against the wry tone set by castmates Van Hansis, Constance Wu, Jon Halbach, and Matthew McKelligon (as well as star/creator Kit Williamson), Guarino is a standout, since his role bubbles with auctioneer-quick jokes.
We caught up with the out 37-year-old actor/comedian to discuss Eastsiders, Scruff suitors, and competing for laughs with the cast of Happy Endings.
The Backlot: How did you get involved with Eastsiders?
Stephen Guarino: John Halbach and I met in like 2002, I think. When did we meet? When the hell did we meet? He was on Broadway doing Tartuffe. Didn’t he do Tartuffe? Maybe. I was briefly dating T.R. Knight then, back before he was famous. [Laughs.] He was in the show with John. I think we met there. Or we may have been friends with someone in Tartuffe. So I’ve known John for years, and I’ve known Kit [Williamson] since then. They asked me to be in Eastsiders when they got it going. I knew very little about it, but — such a hit!
TB: Your character is a standout — your snappiness offsets the dramatic love triangle at the center of the show.
SG: Yeah, I agree. I’m not sure how it fit in the first place, because most of these guys are hip and subdued. I have more of an old-school over-the-topness. I think they utilized me for something over-the-top at that party, and they enjoyed having me, so they had me back. Between you and I — and this article — I was probably meant to be a one-off, but I think they liked what they saw! They’re trying to use and abuse some of my cachet with Logo.
TB: Your character on Happy Endings is similar, but is it more fun to play the fast-talking, funny role on a series like Eastsiders when you’re the only one going so fast?
SG: It’s not as fun as you think, because — well, it’s fun because it usually goes quite quickly and you get to be outrageous, but I’m having an issue with that in my career anyway where it’s fun, but it doesn’t feel like acting a lot of the time. It’s just not real. I think I’m one of those people who does over-the-top stuff, but it somehow remains just grounded enough that you believe it. But it can be very limiting, you know? Happy Endings can be so much fun, shooting that stuff, but I never feel like my character is actually going through some kind of arc or anything. That would be very tiring if I were on every episode doing that.
TB: Derrick is a character who is more defined by his mode than an arc, yes.
SG: Yeah, exactly. As an actor, that can get really tiring. But as a comedian, it’s very rewarding. You get a lot of praise for not doing a lot of work, but rather feeling the room and doing what’s funny.
TB: But it must be gratifying to be able to turn out such a strong, emphatic, memorable performance, even if it’s exhausting.
SG: Yeah, it is very gratifying. In fact, I’m doing this new show on NBC called The Gates, and I’m not doing all the things we just talked about, and I already immediately miss them. I’m actually required to be subdued and act. I’m like, “Ugh, the crew isn’t praising me. What’s happening? I didn’t get to do something outrageous and have everybody talk about it on lunch break.” So my ego’s in check.
TB: Are you determined to take roles that are different than what you’re known for?
SG: I would like to diversify myself a little and be considered a more legitimate character actor [rather] than just a screaming queen. But I pride myself on the fact that every time I go to a screaming queen audition, I beat out 30 or 40 guys I know. There’s still something to be proud of. But I’d like to diversify my portfolio here. It’s going to get real old soon. [Laughs.]
TB: But the fun of your work on Happy Endings is, that’s probably the only TV environment in which you’re surrounded by five or six people who can match your quickness.
SG: Yes. It is. And I’ve heard from the cast that, like, guest-stars will crash and burn. The show just has a no-holds-barred approach. The day I got there, they just started. If you weren’t ready to improvise and be as funny as them, you would just feel terrible. And God bless them, but I don’t think they helped out either. They are all so quick — Casey [Wilson], Adam [Pally], Eliza [Coupe] — it’s so fast you can’t keep up. But I think that’s why I stuck around with the show. The actors are so much in control of that set, I wonder if — sometimes the show can lose its shape and it looks like a “comedy-off.” Does that make sense?
TB: Oh, the show is basically a big six-sided comedy duel.
SG: It’s a duel. It becomes less of linear-arced show and more of a broad free-for-all, but I think that’s why people like it.
TB: It’s unpretentious about being an unending train of jokes, I’d say.
SG: Exactly. That’s it. I think there’s room for that in this world, big time. But maybe that’s not a primetime slot. Who knows?
TB: Based on your experiences in comedy, I take it you’ve been used to being the funniest person in a room. Does that ever wear on you?
SG: Well, it’s funny. I think it’s true to a certain extent, but I know some really f*cking funny, ambitious people. So I don’t often feel like that, especially when it comes to live performances. I don’t have the crazy necessity to be the best in that environment, even in the eight or ten times I’ve done standup. I kind of just did an OK job at it because I don’t have that zeal for live performances like that. I don’t know what it is. But when I’m on camera, I want to make sure my sh*t’s the funniest. Does that make sense. Actually, I don’t think [being funny] wears on me, because I’m constantly aware of people who are funnier than I am. [Laughs.] Let me rephrase that: There are so many people who have more relevant comedy than I do. In retrospect, I was really giving you 1998-2002 comedy. I really should’ve changed it up.
TB: I read an interview with you from around the time Happy Endings started, and you wondered if any gay people watched the show. Now, every gay guy I know watches the show. Have you experienced an uptick in recognition from gay viewers?
SG: Oh yeah. Yes. It was just not on the radar season one, but now I get gay fans who recognize me all the time, especially on Scruff. I’m getting annoyed with it, because of course I have to immediately write, “I am nothing like that character.”
TB: Right, since Scruff and Grindr are filled with guys seeking out masculine — er, “MASC” — guys only.
SG: Of course! But then you meet every “butch, masculine” guy on there and after you have sex, all the f*ckin’ real nelly comes out. But I don’t mind that. I like the artifice of it. I think it’s part of the fantasy. Like, sure, we’re all masculine in different ways and at different points.
TB: Do you miss The Big Gay Sketch Show? Such a funny series.
SG: I wish I knew what I knew now doing. I was 30 when I got that show. I’m 37 now. I was just so serious when I got that show, and I was so into the [work] gossip and “Does Scott the head writer like me?” and now, in retrospect, I think, “What did I think I was a part of?” It should’ve been the greatest three seasons of my life. You know what I mean? There were a lot of the same pressures as a straight production, a lot of competition amongst us to get stuff on. A lot of people being upset if something was cut. In retrospect, I never would’ve been like that again. I would’ve just sat in my dressing room and soaked it all up, you know? Because it was amazing. It was great. And now Kate is on SNL! Amazing, isn’t it?
TB: She was just on Ellen doing her Ellen act!
SG: Oh, did she? She kept coming to LA, and I thought she was going to be on Ellen, but then she wouldn’t go do it. I wonder if they were just holding off and finally did do it.
TB: What’s up next for you?
SG: The Gates is in the pilot stage, and I should find out about that in the next couple weeks. It’s on NBC, produced by Fox, and stars Ken Marino. It’s about passive-aggressive energies between mothers at a private elementary school, the teachers, and the principal. I’m one of the mean girls, and with Diana Riva, we sort of play the really c*nty mother figures that the other mothers have to deal with. We have children, wear lemon yellow yoga pants, and are just awful people.
TB: That sounds awesome.
SG: It sounds amazing. I think my character was a woman in the British series it’s based on, but of course in America it’s a gay guy now. So, perfect. I pray to God it goes and is a big hit. I’m a series regular on that, so I’ll be in every episode, which is just heaven. Right now in New York I’m doing Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. It’s a five-person production off-Broadway, and I’ll be in it for nine weeks. That’s worth seeing if you want to see me playing everything but the gay guy. I literally play a detective, an Irish guy — we all play about nine characters, so that’s exciting. To answer your other question, when I fantasize about television roles, I sort of always think about Bradley Whitford or Denis O’Hare. I like the idea of being on a West Wing-style, Aaron Sorkin, really heady, cerebral, fun, crazy-fast, over-scripted, political comedy. That’s what I fantasize about, but I have yet to get into that world.
TB: I would argue that The Newsroom needs you!
SG: I would kill to be on that! Something like that really excites me. Something where I have to go and do homework on the subject matter? That excites me. I love Happy Endings and that I don’t have to go and look up Chicago lore to perform it, but on The Newsroom, you’d have to know what you’re saying. You’d have to know what you’re talking about. Any time you get to perform while learning is twice as fun.
TB: Finally, out of curiosity, what movies and performances do you watch and re-watch most often? Do you have favorite scenes? Comedians usually have their favorites.
SG: It’s interesting that you ask that. I had this great conversation with Kathy Najimy; we did this movie together called Bear City. Someone asked Kathy if she wanted to be a talk show host and she was like, “Oh, I could never do that.” And I said, “Why?” She said, “I’m not a fan. I’m not a fanatic.” I was like, oh my God. That’s me! I don’t lack passion, but I lack obsession. I’m not obsessed with anything. If I had to literally tell you the things I watch repetitively, it’d be like Family Guy. And that’s not a good answer. I watch adult cartoons, but that has nothing to do with what I’m up to. I rarely watch anything twice.
TB: That’s kind of refreshing to hear! One of my favorite movies is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and I’ve only seen that the whole way through once.
SG: The Jane Fonda movie? The dance marathon?!
TB: Yes, yes!
SG: That’s amazing. I love anything with Jane Fonda in it. You’re actually hitting on one thing; when I want to feel settled and in my own skin, I watch anything from the late ’60s to the mid-’70s. So, any Faye Dunaway movie. Network, any Paddy Chayefsky. Or even the ’50s, like Marty with Ernest Borgnine. Those movies make me wish I was a part of that era. There’s a teleplay version of Marty with the not-as-famous dude from Doctor Zhivago and Tony Soprano’s mother. Anyway, it’s just heartbreaking. So good!
TB: Funny enough, Jane recently said her biggest career regret was not landing the lead role in Bonnie and Clyde.
SG: I mean, Jane sort of laughs at that now because, you know, Faye lives in a one-bedroom on Fuller Ave. or whatever. She lives right by Michael Serrato; when I go visit him, I say, “There’s Faye’s house!”