Interview with Greek’s Paul James

Probably the last thing gay viewers watching the debut of ABC Family's new hit college drama Greek expected to see when they tuned in was a gay teen character. Yet when Calvin, a freshman rushing a fraternity, was seen emerging from the bedroom of another male character, that's exactly what they got. And Calvin isn't just any gay character, but a fully developed gay character that is a star jock, confident, and even has a love life — not exactly standard fare for television, especially on a network better known for broadcasting Pat Robertson's 700 Club.

AfterElton.com recently caught up with Paul James, the actor who plays Calvin, to chat about how he got the role, playing gay again, and how lucky he is to have great parents.

AfterElton.com: Congrats on the show getting picked up for another ten episodes. Were you surprised that you got picked up so quickly?
Paul James
: I think when we started the energy behind the show was kind of amazing to begin with, so everyone's feeling was sort of, there's no way it's not going to get picked up. I would ask the director, “Can you foresee a way where it doesn't get picked up?” And then we're all sort of nervous … but we all were like it should get picked up. When it did get picked up, there was a weight off everyone's shoulders.

AE: So many shows come out and sink beneath the waves so quickly, even sometimes after just one or two episodes, yet Greek turned out to be such a big hit almost immediately. All the downloads on iTunes for instance. Why do you think it has hit such a chord?
PJ: There hasn't been many shows that are about college, for some odd reason. There's been a couple like Undeclared, but Greek came out in the summer when there's not a lot of competition from network TV. Also I think that just the fact that it's about college, a lot of young kids are looking at it and anticipating that's what's going to be their future. And there's a lot of people who are older, you know, in their 20s and 30s who are looking back on it like that was my past.

AE: There's some in their 40s, as well.
PJ: Yeah. I mean my aunt is like 79 and she watches it, too.

AE: We're now four episodes into the season, Is there anything you can share with us about Calvin in the second half of the season?
PJ: Yeah, the guy that you saw coming out of the door with, Heath [Zack Lively], in the the fifth episode, the starts delving into their relationship more. You see them sort of relate, which is kind of fun.

AE: Does Calvin come out to his fraternity at some point?
PJ: Something happens in the tenth episode, the season finale, which has that in it. I can't give away that. But the tenth episode is full of, [it’s] very dramatic and there's a lot of stuff going on. It's like the sh** hits the fan pretty much. And then next season we just sort of explore what the house means to Calvin.

AE: What would you like to see happen with Calvin and his relationship with Heath, and just Calvin in general?
PJ: Oh, man. I really enjoyed the first episode and the sixth episode because those were the episodes where it's not about him being gay. It just is an aspect of his character. Like in the [fourth] episode, which is beautiful, which is just a beautiful episode…

AE: Is that the coming out one?
PJ: Yeah, the one where he came out and then so that was really about him being gay. I really enjoy the episodes where it's just a matter of, “Oh, by the way, he is gay.” It's not a bone of contention or this big thing that needs to be talked about. I have the most fun, when he's just a regular kid.

The other episodes, he's got to deal with the issues and stuff like that, and deal with another guy and another house and like that kind of thing. That's fun, too, but in a different way.

AE: I think gay fans really like Calvin just being someone who happens to be gay and would like to see his relationship with Heath just have regular relationship issues as opposed to…
PJ: Oh, we do. That's completely what, for Heath and I, the fifth episode is about and, I think, the eighth episode. It's about me and Heath and our relationship issues. You don't really see him as much with Rusty. And the rest of the season he sort of goes with Heath and Ashley a little bit more and, the coming out is a big issue. It's huge, but I feel like people kind of just want to see him be a regular kid, kind of navigating through college.

AE: Where are you from originally?
PJ: I'm from Maryland. I was born in D.C., but raised in suburban Maryland.

AE: Have you always wanted to act?
PJ: Yeah, pretty much. My mom actually wanted to be an actress and my father actually wanted to be a painter, which is pretty funny, but neither of them really ended up doing that. They both have regular jobs.

AE: Were they supportive of your being an actor?
PJ: Oh, yeah, most definitely. They really approved. They came to all my plays and when I did theater in college they drove up to every single play I was in. I count myself lucky because there's a lot of people who come out here with no money or without the support of their parent. My parents helped me out a great deal, especially when I first came out here. I definitely am very, very lucky to have had that.

AE: How did you get cast as Calvin?
PJ: I was working at P.F. Chang's in Santa Monica, which is a great place. I worked there for three years and they would always let me come in late if I had an audition. There was a casting director named Johnny Barba, and he became friends with a bunch of us who worked there. He told me about a project he was working on, but wasn't sure I'd be right for it because it was about fraternities and sororities.

I said I was actually in a fraternity in college. So we sort of set up the audition. I went to the audition and I think it went well. We got along really well and then like a week later I hadn't heard anything and then I called him. He said that I had sort of fallen off the table, and that even though I had done a good job, they just kind of forgot about me. So he got in touch with the directors and I guessed they popped my tape in and then the director and producers were like, “Oh, he's great. Have him cast tomorrow.” That's how it worked.

AE: At what point did you know it was going to be a gay role?
PJ: I knew from the beginning. It was written in the break down. But all I had to go from was the pilot and if you've seen the pilot you see it's not mentioned until the end of the show. But you know, the thing I've found out about TV is you just never really know, you can base your character on the pilot and then with every succeeding episode you get more information about your character and you sort of have to alter your view of what you're going to do.

AE: Was there any concern for you or for your management on taking a gay role?
PJ: No, there definitely wasn't. Because if the characters are well-written, then that's all you can hope for as an actor, especially a young actor. There's really not a lot of great parts.

There is this movie I auditioned for once. I don't remember what it was called, but it was just awful. And there was a gay character and it was a complete stereotype. You know, being a black guy I'm very sensitive to stereotypes. The role shouldn't even be on screen. I was just trying to get out of auditioning for the role and my manager, who is great, but forceful, said, “You gotta do it” and I'm like, “Awww, I don't want to do this.” She's like, “It's because you're gay? Everyone plays gay.” It's not because of that. It's because it's poorly written.

AE: Are you surprised by the strong reaction of the gay community to Calvin?
PJ: I don't really know what the reaction is . . .

AE: It's really positive. People really like the way you're playing him.
PJ: I guess I'm not surprised. I think it's pretty well written. You know, Sean's [Greek's creator] said from the beginning he really wants this character to not be a stereotype. He wants him to be one of the first gay characters on TV who doesn't have angst about being gay. … and he's comfortable about who he is. He's unsure of his surroundings and stuff.

I did get a really nice note from one of my friends from college and he said thank you so much for the portrayal, a positive portrayal, and that was really cool. That meant a lot. It's been really nice so far.

AE: I'm curious, and I kind of have a sense of this already from what you were saying before, but playing a gay character, do you feel a greater sense of responsibility in how you portray that character than maybe just a regular role?
PJ: Yeah, I definitely do. When the fourth episode that just came out [last week] … we were arguing about it and it had been rewritten so many times because originally my father, they wrote him as not tolerant. I was arguing with Sean. I wanted to change it to being very supportive. I'm like, this gives me less to act against. This gives me less to do. He was like, yeah, we've seen the whole like angry father so many times that I don't want to do that again.

I sort of realized then that my character was probably the one character out of everyone that was going to have to different standards to live up to. He [Sean] really is using Calvin sort of to say how he feels about being gay. Calvin is a character, but he's also sort of a little bit of a mouthpiece of what Sean has seen in his life and how he wants to portray a certain character, whereas the other characters are written purely as entertainment.

AE: I'm curious, your attitude about gay people and gay issues seems really progressive. Is that something you learned at home from your parents or was that something that you sort of encountered when you went to college and just sort of being out in the world. Where does that come from?
PJ: Yeah, it does come from my parents. My parents are very great people. My dad grew up in Alabama, in the Civil Rights movement, and so there just wasn't any tolerance for bigotry in the house at all.

And then I went to college and I majored in theater and was around a lot of gay and lesbian people. Everyone was shocked at first, [because] you know in high school you weren't really around that. But you just realize that they're the same people as you are. It probably comes from being black, too. You hear people discriminate against gay people, you can just replace gay with black and go back 30 or 40 years and it's the same thing.

AE: Well, it's interesting you say that because not everyone – in some segments of the African-American community don't really see the connection that way –
PJ: Oh, yeah, they're just –

AE: Is it kind of important to you to try and change that perception?
PJ: No. You can't. It really isn't. My parents said you can't argue with ignorance. I mean what can you do? A lot of people in the Black community are from a really religious background and for some odd reason, or actually it's not odd, it's not surprising that a lot of times religion goes hand in hand with intolerance. They come from this perception that, they go by this book. … For them being gay is bad and there's nothing you can do to change their mind.

AE: I thought it was interesting what you said in a different interview about there just aren't that many interesting black roles written so you're not really picky.
PJ: There's not. And all the ones that are, they go to Nick Cannon automatically for some reason. That's why the movie The Architect, I mean it turned out actually pretty terrible, but it's an interesting movie and the acting is great and the idea was great and I took it because the character was beautiful.

AE: How is Shawn the gay character you played in The Architect different from Calvin?
PJ: Oh, completely different. Night and day. Shawn was this like very delicate creature who grew up around a lot of ugliness in the projects and so he sort of lived an imaginary life. He sort of walked around like very spacey. He was looking for love, you know, in any place, just wanting someone to love him. That's all he wanted.

Calvin is very different. Calvin is not looking for that. Calvin's got some walls up … I wouldn't say [he's] wary of people, but I would say he's definitely, he talks a good game and fits in really well, but at the same time he doesn't really trust that many people. But he's very confident in himself, which is different than Shawn, and he's very sure of who he is. I guess he's just unsure of how other people will respond to him and in his life that's his whole world, he thinks that's the most important thing, so that's very important to him.

AE: Which is real and believable and again, I think that's part of what people are responding to. Does having Sean Smith, the creator and head writer, who is gay himself, writing the show, does that make you more comfortable and confident in how you play the role? Do you go to him or do you go to gay friends with questions about how to play Calvin, or do you just make those choices on your own?
PJ: No, I just make those choices on my own pretty much. It's hard because they're, Sean and Carter, another writer, are coming from their experience and like there was in one episode … where everyone was sitting around cleaning stuff, an Omega Chi project, and the guys were talking about girls. Calvin gets annoyed by the conversation and I was like, if he's joined a fraternity, I feel like he wouldn't get annoyed about guys talking about girls. I feel like that wouldn't annoy him.

I don't know about Sean, but Carter wrote that episode and that was something that he felt from him being in a fraternity. And I was like, well, that's not where I would come from. I couldn't imagine feeling that way. So there's some times where it's different and there's some times when it's great and if I have any questions, I can ask Sean, like how would you react in this situation … But for the most part, when I was cast, I was told just to play it like a regular guy.

AE: You said you were in a fraternity. Did you know any gay frat brothers?
PJ: Uh, no. Not when I was there. I remember there was this one time when a gay guy was actually in theater with me, we did a play together, he wanted to rush our fraternity, and it was like a big deal. We had a huge talk about it and we ended up giving him a bid, but he didn't end up accepting. He was accepted at another house. But no one that I knew was gay in the house.

AE: Thanks for talking with us and doing such a great job with the role.
PJ: It's been a lot of fun and I really can tell you that. I've never had more fun working on a project and I'm not sure I ever will, than I've had on this one. Thanks for doing the article and supporting the show.

AE: I'm glad it's such a success and I'm glad you guys got picked up. I'm really looking forward to the next season.
PJ: Thanks so much, Michael. It's been great talking to you.

Greek airs on ABC Family on Mondays at 9 PM.