Even if it was almost 30 years ago in 1992, Wilson Cruz will never forget his first audition for a television series.
“They wanted three white boys to play choir boys in this series that Tobey Maguire was starring in,” Cruz say on today’s episode of “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s weekly podcast. “It was called ‘Great Scott,’ on Fox, and they wouldn’t see me because I wasn’t white. So I stormed [casting director] Sally Stiner’s office and badgered her to see me — and she did because I wouldn’t relent. She got me that part and was like, ‘You’re a freaking fighter.”
The job helped Cruz get his Screen Actors Guild card. A year later, he auditioned for “My So-Called Life.”
Cruz made history on the coming-of-age drama because not only was he openly gay, but so was his character Rickie.
That pivotal moment is just one of many featured in “Visible: Out on Television,” Apple TV Plus’ five-part docu-series about the history of LGBTQ representation on television. Cruz, along with Wanda Sykes, is an executive producer of the seven-years-in-the-making series.
Not only does “Visible” take a close look at how the queer community has been portrayed on television, but it also examines how activists used the medium to help propel their fight for equality. In the 1970s, activists staged a series of protests during live television broadcasts. Walter Cronkite was anchoring “CBS Evening News” in 1973 when Mark Segal ambushed the set with a sign reading, “Gays Protest CBS Prejudice.” Not only did Cronkite become friends with Segal, but he started airing more stories about LGBTQ issues. “Some people I’m sure at the time thought, ‘This is crazy. Maybe this isn’t helpful,’” Cruz says. “But you know what? It was. It forced people to have a conservation about why [Segal] did this.”
Years later, a segment on the AIDS activist group ACT UP on “60 Minutes” is credited with pushing the government to fund more aggressive HIV/AIDS research.
For Cruz, he can’t imagine having to navigate his career in the closet. “I think it made me a better actor,” he says. He appears with Anthony Rapp as the first gay couple in the “Star Trek” franchise on “Star Trek: Discovery.” “I think being honest with yourself is part of the job and living authentically as you can is part of the job, because it informs everything. So I have no regrets. I went through a period where I wondered what could have been different, but I have no regrets.”
Being out may have also saved him from people exploiting him because he couldn’t be scared into submission by threats of exposing his sexuality. “There were people who are no longer with us who offered their help if I were to be willing to help them in some way, physically, and I was really capable of removing myself from those scenarios,” Cruz says. “I had the power in that situation, I held onto my own power in that way…but I was also really good at being charming and getting myself out of it. [I’d say], ‘Look at you. Oh, stop. I’m going to go.’ I’d roll my eyes, but a lot of people weren’t as lucky as I am in that regard.”
Fortunately, many LGBTQ actors who have come after him have had Cruz to look to for inspiration. “There isn’t a day — and this is not an exaggeration — in 25 years where somebody has not shared how important Rickie Vasquez was to them,” Cruz says. “That’s really moving, it still moves me. It’s still really moving to me to hear that because some people wait a whole lifetime to have an impact with their work, and I started my career that way.”
“Visible: Out on Television” is available on Apple TV Plus.
You can listen to the full interview with Cruz below. You can also find “The Big Ticket” at iHeartRadio or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.