When “My So-Called Life” debuted in 1994, there weren’t many portraits of gay teenagers on television. But Wilson Cruz changed that with his depiction of Rickie, a proudly rebellious high school sophomore who was a key member of Angela Chase’s social circle. As a true confidant to Claire Danes’ Angela, Rickie was both a TV trendsetter and a wonderfully ordinary teen. And Cruz brought an LGBTQ character into living rooms before “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Dawson’s Creek” did the same a few years later.
On a recent evening, Danes takes a break from shooting “Homeland” in Morocco to chat with Cruz for Variety’s Pride Issue. It feels like no time has passed between the two co-stars as Danes recalls one of her favorite episodes, set at an AIDS dance-a-thon. “I remember dancing with you to ‘Sweet Dreams,’” Danes tells Cruz. “That was a seminal moment of my life. I don’t know if I had done that before, gone out dancing for the sake of it. It was euphoric.” Here’s what they had to say about the groundbreaking series created by Winnie Holzman.
Claire Danes: Wilson, can you remember what we did 25 years ago?
Wilson Cruz: I was 19 when we made the pilot. You were 13. But I felt no separation from you. I remember having these conversations with you and thinking back, “Could she really comprehend what I was talking about?” But you did.
CD: We were all kind of venturing forth into a big unknown. For you, it was probably that much more heightened, because there hadn’t been a precedent.
WC: I felt like A.J. [Langer] and Devon Odessa had worked so much, and they were so savvy.
CD: Jared [Leto] had done a Noxzema commercial, so he was big time.
WC: My agent sent me the script, and she didn’t necessarily know that I was gay. I read it, and I had to decide whether or not I wanted to disclose to her. I waited. I had made a deal with myself that I would come out if the series went. I wanted people to know that I, as a gay man — a gay boy at the time — really put my stamp of approval to what we were doing. So that’s when I told my parents, and that’s when I was kicked out.
WC: I lived on friends’ couches and in my car until we started filming the series. I remember we were with Winnie on our way to something, and I told her what had happened with my dad. Months later, I get this script where Rickie goes through a very similar thing. When I look back on that whole experience, I think of my fictional world and my reality converging. It was cathartic. I wonder if there were things that you felt that way about.
CD: Oh, my gosh. Yes. I was in so much pain. I don’t think I’ve ever been in more pain in my life. That’s a very challenging age, especially for girls. I had just gone through junior high school. I felt bludgeoned, navigating my way through those social gymnastics. I was so bad at it.
WC: Nobody is good at it.
CD: Some people are better than others. I was especially miserable at it. So then I was rescued on so many levels. One, I didn’t have to go to school suddenly. I was privately tutored. Also, I had this language delivered to me by a brilliant writer. She said everything that I wanted in my heart but didn’t have the means of articulating.
I don’t mean to compare our experiences actually because adolescence is something everybody has to go through, and of course it’s dark. But what you were doing was remarkable. I don’t think I was able to know that from my vantage point at the time we worked together.
WC: You knew I was gay, right?
CD: I knew you were gay, and I knew you had made this choice to come out, and you were still very raw from that. I don’t think I really knew that you had been rejected by your parents.
WC: Honestly, I wasn’t really talking about it. Did I ever tell you what happened in the audition room?
WC: I went in kind of dressed like Rickie. I put on these bright red Levi’s and a rainbow shirt. I sprayed my hair to the hilt. I put on eyeliner. When I got there, there were three or four guys going for the same part, but they were wearing khakis and a polo. I thought, “Boy, did you guys miss the mark on this one.”
So when I walked in and met with [casting director] Mary Goldberg, it felt really personal to me. We went through the scene. There wasn’t a lot in the pilot, because I didn’t say a lot. Mary looked at me like, “Thank you.” I started to well up. I walked to the door to leave, not knowing if I was going to come back or not. I turned around and said to her, “Before I go, please do me a favor and tell Winnie Holzman, this would have meant so much to me when I was 16 years old to see this guy on TV.”
WC: I started to cry a bit. She came up to me and just looked at me, and she goes, “I’m not going to tell her, because I have a feeling you’re going to be able to tell her yourself.”
WC: I know you went through a pretty long process, right?
CD: We went through the gauntlet of auditions to get the pilot. Then the pilot did not get picked up. I went back to high school. Suddenly, poof, it did get picked up. I felt very jerked around. It was really jarring and confusing. It was a strange way to begin because I had mourned the loss of it.
WC: And then I think we said goodbye three times. Remember? Every time they’d do a short order, we’d have a wrap party. Then we’d be back. Not to be corny, but we had a time.