Tony Nominee Robin de Jesús on His Gay Awakening, “Boys in the Band” Movie

Also: "Rocketman" is way gayer than "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Robin de Jesús was a standout in the all-gay production of Mart Crowley’s classic The Boys in the Band, playing Emory, the expressively campy queen whose comfort with his own sexuality sparks some hate in a sexually ambiguous visitor. De Jesús made the part—portrayed memorably by Cliff Gorman in the 1970 movie version—fresh and funny, while bringing waves of poignancy and vulnerability to it as well.

De Jesús has been Tony nominated for his performance, making this his third nod. (Previous ones were for In the Heights and La Cage Aux Folles). The gifted actor filled me in on his rise to the heights.

Hello, Robin. Congrats on your third nomination!

Thank you. It’s so odd. A part of me was just arrogant enough that I figured I’d get one in my lifetime. When you’re young, you have this naïve confidence. Or maybe you know your self-worth better than the world. I didn’t think it would be three.

So far. What was it like being in an all-gay production [also featuring Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Zach Quinto, Andrew Rannells, and others]?

It’s interesting because the year or two leading up to the show, I had been in such an odd place of not knowing how to take up space in my life. I was performing humility constantly, to the point where I shrunk myself. The word pride kept coming up. The reason was because the sheer image of us nine out gay men doing this show that’s so gay—you heard pride, pride, pride everywhere. It became so meaningful to be in that group because I tapped into that pride and it gave me permission to take up my space.

Bruce Glikas/Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

You played Emory differently than I’ve seen him done before.

I had no choice. I’m so different. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a product of my culture or a mashup of many cultures. Maybe it’s because I didn’t obsess over the movie. I think that’s the beauty of [director] Joe Mantello’s casting. He’s so good and sees so much, but he also helps guide you to find things you had inside you but didn’t know you had. Mart is such a genius of a playwright because he wrote this play such a long time ago. It was already so interesting and beautiful to watch a white actor do the part. But the genius of Joe was in casting me as a person of color—even though I’m so fair skinned that half of the audience didn’t know. They came backstage and had no idea.

They couldn’t figure it out from your name?

Exactly.

I love when Emory apologizes to the black character, Bernard [played by Michael Benjamin Washington] for his insensitive language.

It’s interesting to have two people of color having that conversation—the nuances. Emory is the bravest, most compassionate person of the group. He and Bernard are hands down the most ostracized and marginalized. Emory knows what it feels like to be called names and laughed at and reduced. He needs to have that reminder.

Even in our own community, some people are placed lower than others.

All communities ascribe some kind of hierarchy, but gays think because they’re a minority, they know what it’s like to be a part of all minority groups. We forget that even gay white men receive benefits of privilege that create an other-ism or a barrier to real compassion and understanding of one another. It’s good we are so diverse. That play has so much more diversity in terms of gay than a lot of work produced now.

Emory is flamboyant, which sometimes means actors flapping their arms around, but you didn’t do that.

Sometimes with straight actors playing gay, it’s just limping their wrists. They just gesticulate.

And lisp.

Yes, lisp for days. I’m a very physical actor. One friend makes fun of me. He says whatever role I’m performing is the personality we get when I sit down and talk. When I was doing In the Heights, he said, “You’re giving me butch realness today,” and I didn’t even notice it because it just happens. With Emory, for me, a lot of his gesticulating was less informed by his sexuality than his culture. Latinos can gesticulate, as well. If he was Puerto Rican, Italian, and gay, that would be the ultimate.

I’m the only Italian gay who doesn’t use his hands. So you’ll be in the Netflix movie version, produced by Ryan Murphy?

We all are. It’s a full feature. We’ll shoot interiors in L.A. and exteriors in New York, starting July. We will rehearse a little beforehand, as well. We’ll discover that language as a group. There’s a fluidity and passing of the baton and an ebbing and flowing, and it will be interesting to discover that as a group again. It’s also to be comfortable when we get to set, so we can just focus. For someone as neurotic as me, that is so comforting. I’m looking forward to the intellectual stimulation of figuring out Emory for the camera.

Joan Marcus

Were you always openly gay in your career?

With the movie Camp [2003], I remember really struggling. I was so confused with my sexuality. I thought, “If girls get me hard, then I must be bi.” And they could. But that has less to do with my sexuality than being a male whore. [Laughs] Although I was so pure and innocent then, bless his heart! I was at Sundance with Camp and a reporter who was really ugly as a person, he cornered me and said, “So, what was it like coming out as gay?” He jumped to an assumption based on the role I was playing. I mumbled my way through it and stuttered, and that time period is when I was leaning into my gayness. But it was such a vulnerable time and I wasn’t open for someone to ask a question on that platform. I talked to my agent, who said, “Say whatever you want to say and feels honest, and I’ve got your back.” I always thought agents were ruthless human beings—he was the opposite. A month or two after that, I started using the word gay.

Did you ever get a boner for a girl again?

Yeah. But I think my sexual orientation is more defined on a heart level and intellectual level. I’m attracted to women on a sexual level occasionally. I have nothing against women. But on a heart and emotional level with them, it’s friendship that I seek.

Do you have a husband?

No, I don’t. I’ve just been using my rightie and leftie.

That doesn’t sound very dignified for a three-time Tony nominee!

It reminds me of a Kander and Ebb song. “Me, my rightie, my leftie….”

[We laugh] Well, congrats again, and it’s great that we have so many gay actors being recognized for gay roles.

Actual gay men playing gay roles! I hope we keep getting better at that. Diverse, complicated, ugly, messy gay roles.

Good Old Reliable Nathan

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Another openly gay Broadway treasure, triple-Tony winner Nathan Lane, was honored last week at the New Dramatists lunch, where he was praised for his current gig, playing the title clown-turned-janitor in Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus. In his acceptance speech, Nathan appeared none so self-impressed, saying, “It’s hard to sit through an event like this without asking yourself that terrifying question, ‘When did I turn into Angela Lansbury?’” He added that everyone in Gary was Tony nominated except him, “and in other good news, on June 9, I’ll be going bowling with Glenda Jackson!”

He then went into serious remarks about the joy of doing what you love, then stood still for a good 15 seconds as the audience wondered what was going on. “I guess I’m having a moment of silence for my career,” cracked Nathan. Well, if he wants to line up another job, there’s already a proposition on the table: In the program was an ad from producers Fran and Barry Weissler saying, “If we promise to keep making donations every time you are honored, will you finally accept our offer to play Billy Flynn?”

A co-star of the original Chicago, Chita Rivera has become a brand, as her wonderful Chita Rivera Awards for dance proved last night. It was an exciting evening celebrating the passion, focus, and energy of dance people, and I stood and cheered so much I felt like one of them by the end of the night. Cher won an Ambassador for the Arts award, but was busy on a bus heading to Manitoba for a concert. “Dancers keep her alive,” we were told, which is better than other pop stars, who feed off the blood of young virgins.

Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
The 3rd Annual Chita Rivera Awards.

Chita herself danced the tango from The Visit in a tribute to the night’s big honoree, choreographer Graciela Daniele. And in the winning cast of Smokey Joe’s Café (which nabbed Outstanding Ensemble, off-Broadway) was Dwayne Cooper, also known as Milan from Drag Race! At the after party, Milan told me, “I spent so many years in drag, it’s amazing to be acknowledged for a male kind of part.” He added, “To have worked at Lips drag restaurant lip syncing Chita songs and to do Smokey Joe’s Café. I’ve had the best of both worlds.” And a whole new world awaits with his new group, the Doo Wop Project. Is he the lead singer? “I’m not trying to be Beyoncé,” he laughed. “I’m one of five.”

Give an award to the Playboy Club for continually coming up with new weekly events to draw bunny lovers. For Comedy Night last Wednesday, we went to the big room, where I was reminded of the time I was on that same stage with Bianca del Rio when we co-hosted the Glam awards at the then-gay club XL. This time, the humor was straight and pretty funny, one comic elaborately describing the way his girlfriend instructed him to use his entire hand to reach up and excite her, as if beckoning a small animal. Another comic did gay, AIDS, rape, and Holocaust jokes with constant self congratulatory asides, and I didn’t laugh, not because I was offended, but because he wasn’t funny and his manic explanations of why laughing at all this is important helped kill the comedy. (He should consult with Bianca.) But this was a night for experimental comedy, so I forgave and enjoyed checking out the hetero lifestyle for a change.

But back to honors: Vogue’s Lynn Yaeger is getting the Eugenia Sheppard Media Award at the CFDA Awards on June 3, so I hosted a congratulatory dinner at the swanky Club Room at the Soho Grand, where the fashion crowd was forced to eat, albeit with some boundaries. Paper magazine’s slimmed-down editorial director, Mickey Boardman, revealed, “I’ve lost 40 pounds on WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers. I’ve gone to them off and on for 20 years and it always works when you follow the program. It’s all about developing a new relationship with food, and thanks to the program, I can come to this gorgeous dinner and enjoy it.” Gosh, I’d love a new relationship. I might have to try this.

I Guess That’s Why They Call Them the Gays


But nosh on this, kids: Last year, Bohemian Rhapsody showed rocker Freddie Mercury in bed with his lady love, though the same-sex stuff was pretty limited, including two rather chaste kisses. And the film made a fortune and won awards. But it sounds like the Elton John biopic, Rocketman, has more cojones.

According to the Hollywood Reporter’s Cannes report, the film has “multiple scenes with overt gay coupling, including ones between Taron Egerton, who plays John, and Richard Madden (portraying his first gay lover, music manager John Reid). In addition to frank talk about John’s sexuality (unlike Bohemian Rhapsody), scenes included men kissing, simulated oral sex, and a steamy bedroom scene with both Egerton and Madden unclothed.”

The item adds that China would never accept an R-rated movie featuring gay sex (for that market, Bohemian Rhapsody willingly chopped out any suggestion that Mercury was gay), and as a result, “The studios are increasingly hesitant to green light a film with gay characters, never mind graphic gay sex.” Well, the studios can lead the way and change things, while still making mountains of cash, so thankfully this appears to be a step towards making “gay” not seem to be the hardest word. Though I’ll change my tune if the Chinese version of Rocketman turns out to be a five-minute short about the time Elton married a woman.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.
@mikeymusto