Five nights and two afternoons a week on Broadway, “Angels in America” sets out on its grueling, eight-hour course. “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” as its playwright, Tony Kushner, called it, “Angels” is a knotty, furious history play, a jeremiad on the AIDS epidemic originally delivered at crushing ascent. It is also, at the same time, a skein of interconnected stories about love and betrayal and identity, God, man and Eros. Also, there’s a couple of Mormons. Before “The Book of Mormon,” no less.
Five nights and two afternoons a week, one of those Mormons, Joe Pitt, a closeted lawyer working for the infamous fixer Roy Cohn, goes through hell and out the other side to come out as a gay man.
And so, over the course of this production — now the play with the most Tony nominations in history — does Lee Pace, the man who plays him.
Mr. Pace, 39, has been working steadily in theater, film and TV for the better part of two decades, helping to prop up mega-budget studio tent poles like “The Hobbit” (he is the elven king Thranduil) and “Guardians of the Galaxy” (the ferocious Ronan the Accuser) and cult favorites like “Pushing Daisies” and the recently concluded “Halt and Catch Fire.”
Mr. Pace sometimes attracted attention — from the nominating committees of the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the Independent Spirit Awards — but mostly disappeared into whatever elves, necromancers or sales executives he happened to be playing at the time. That was by design.
“It was a real strategy to draw boundaries,” Mr. Pace said in a recent interview at his New York apartment, as his rescue dog, Pete, dozed by his feet. In interviews, he kept the focus on his work: “I believe very firmly that my work is the reason we’re talking, and my personal life is something I want to protect.”
But earlier this year, Brian Moylan, writing about Mr. Pace’s arrival in the “Angels” Broadway cast for W Magazine, put the question to him directly: What was his sexual orientation?
It seems an entirely predictable question for an interview about the cornerstone of the gay theatrical canon. Mr. Pace had already said in that interview that he “feels it’s important for gay actors to play the gay roles.”
But he was thrown. He seemed “flustered” and “surprised,” Mr. Moylan wrote, and he published Mr. Pace’s response: “I’ve dated men. I’ve dated women. I don’t know why anyone would care. I’m an actor and I play roles. To be honest, I don’t know what to say — I find your question intrusive.”
“He told me his truth, which is all I asked, and all I hope for from any interview subject,” Mr. Moylan said recently. “I don’t apologize for asking the question.”
In the past, Mr. Pace was so not out that occasionally gossip blogs would put him together with an actress, like his friend Judy Greer. He brought her to the premiere of “A Single Man.”
“At the time, I knew he was gay,” Ms. Greer said in an interview. “I didn’t really talk about it to anyone — not even really because he asked me not to, just because it’s his business. When I saw that stuff online, I thought it was really strange. I didn’t think anything of it but to be flattered that anyone would think he would want to go out with me. I was like, ‘Oh my God, whattt?’ He was so tall and handsome! I thought, I’ll ride this wave for a minute.” She laughed. “And I was single at the time.”
The W article made headlines, and Mr. Pace was displeased he had come off angry. In an effort to take back his own narrative, he announced on Twitter that he was a “member of the queer community,” and noted he’d been playing queer characters his entire career, from his breakout role as the transgender showgirl Calpernia Addams in “A Soldier’s Girl” through his Broadway debut in “The Normal Heart” to the bisexual former IBM executive of “Halt and Catch Fire” and now, “Angels.” “Onward,” he wrote, “with Pride.”
The positive response to his tweets — thousands of likes, many comments and now, regular references to them at the stage door after the show — has assured him that he made the right decision, though the old habit of reticence died hard.
“The truth is,” he said at his apartment, “when you grow up queer, you get tough. And perceptive. And you learn how to field it. When someone comes at you that you don’t know, interested in that area of your life, it’s not always a good thing. I certainly knew that when I was a kid.”
Mr. Pace was born in Chickasha, Okla., and grew up in suburban Texas. He came out to his younger sister, Sally, while still in high school. “She cried,” he said. “She said, ‘I don’t know what that means.’” But she was supportive. So were his parents. Mr. Pace headed to drama school.
Unlike Broadway, Hollywood can be less accepting. There are still relatively few out gay actors, along with leading-man parts for them, at least in major studio fare. As his career began to take off, was Mr. Pace encouraged not to be too open?
He paused for a while. “No,” he said, then reconsidered. “Look — yeah. I remember when I signed with a new agent, we worked together for a year. He took me to some coffee shop in the middle of the afternoon and I knew he wanted to talk about something. He said, ‘I heard you’re gay, is that true?’ I said, ‘Is that a problem?’ And of course he said, ‘No, fine, just felt like I needed to know.’ But within about a year, he was no longer working with me.”
Mr. Pace has the full support of his current team, he added, with whom he has been working happily for years.
The W article ended up offering an “opportunity to participate,” he said, in a way he hadn't before, even if it was one he hadn't necessarily sought or anticipated.
What changed his mind were two things. One is a new relationship, with a fashion executive he preferred not to name. (“I’ve never seen Lee so happy,” Ms. Greer said.) The other is the role of Joe Pitt, and the reflection it gave him on his own life.
Onstage, in Joe Pitt’s coming out, Mr. Pace sticks on a few particular lines: “I want to live now. Maybe for the first time ever. And I can be anything. Anything I need to be.”
“I remember after it had happened, I was able to say that,” Mr. Pace said, recognizing the thrill of freedom in it. “I can be anything. Once you say those words and the sky doesn’t fall down, or the earth doesn’t open up, a lightning bolt doesn’t zap you. You really can be anything.”
So he has embraced the opportunity. “It feels nicer,” he said, “than I ever thought it would be.”
What comes next, and how this affects his career, if it does, is yet to be seen. One person whose advice he sought as he considered his Twitter statement was his friend Matt Bomer, a fellow out actor and Mr. Pace’s friend since their high school days. “I’ve known Lee since he was shorter than I am, believe it or not,” Mr. Bomer said. (Mr. Pace is 6-foot-5.)
“My counsel to him was, basically, when you decide to make it public, it can feel like you’re operating in a void,” Mr. Bomer said. “Nothing about you has changed, but maybe certain people’s opinions about you have changed. The beautiful thing about that is out of that void come all the people who truly want to engage with you and want to embrace your most authentic self. To me that’s always been far more rewarding than whatever mass appeal you have if you chose not to.”
“That’s assuming that that even happens,” he said. “I don’t know if that happens anymore.”
When asked if he had experienced negative repercussions after his own coming out, Mr. Bomer paused.
“The shorter answer is yes,” he said. “I hate to say it, I really do. I wish the answer were a resounding no. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. What happened was, an entire world of artists who I had always dreamed of working with and who wanted to engage with me on the most authentic level all came to the forefront.”
Mr. Bomer is appearing in the Broadway production of “The Boys in the Band,” just a few blocks away from “Angels in America.”
“I don’t think he stands anything to lose,” he said. “I don’t think any of us do, really, anymore. And if they do, let it fall by the wayside.”
Mr. Pace acknowledged the uncertainty but also said he had no anxiety about his decision.
“I’m curious to know what it’s going to do to my work,” he said. “I’ve played very different characters, and I don’t think that’s going to change. I guess I’m curious to see if this influences that, and the kinds of roles that come my way. Or in people’s perception of the work that I do.”
But he is confident in the future. “The work speaks for itself,” he said, “and I trust that.”
For now, that is the grueling work of being Joe Pitt.
“The thing that gets me through the pain of doing it is knowing he’s going to be O.K. after it’s over,” Mr. Pace said. “Once he gets through it, he’s better off. I imagine him on a beach in Hawaii, renting surfboards. ‘How did you end up with this life?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, actually, I was married. I used to be a Mormon.’ Now he’s got a great boyfriend in my imagination.”
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