You know what’s so fetch? A gay character who isn’t merely a fashion-crazy, Broadway-worshipping sass master. A gay character who is more than simply an accessory. A true-to-life “Gay Best Friend.”
So, when Tanner Daniels (Michael Willett), a mousy-turned-fabulous high schooler, was introduced as the affable lead when “G.B.F.” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of last year, audiences weren’t just charmed – they were pleasantly surprised.
Like the queerer cousin to “Clueless” and “Mean Girls,” the critically acclaimed indie (from Darren Stein, director of “Jawbreaker”) satirizes age-old gay stereotypes, riffs on the cultural zeitgeist with zingy quotables and ushers in a bright, young new star: 24-year-old Michael Willett.
Following a screening of “G.B.F.” at 9:30 p.m. July 16 at Emagine Royal Oak, Willett will hang with local fans … and maybe make a few G.B.F.s of his own.
You’ve talked previously about how difficult it is to find a gay character that you’re interested in playing. Can you talk about your experience looking at scripts with gay characters, and why you’ve turned some of them down?
After (playing gay on) “United States of Tara” I was getting a lot of scripts for roles of characters that are gay, but I found the storylines to be relatively two-dimensional, or even just sort of not necessary. When I look at a good piece of art, I’m like, has this been done before? Is this necessary for society? Does this need to be made? And I don’t know – a lot of them, I didn’t feel that way about until I read “G.B.F.” I was genuinely intrigued by this character and by the whole storyline, because it was like a teen film that I would’ve wanted to watch in high school, except the camera was turned on the gay character, or the outsider, rather. So, I think that this film was definitely necessary and needed to be made.
And your character, Tanner, isn’t just a walking stereotype – he’s a complete person who just happens to be gay.
Actually, that’s something I’ve talked a lot about with various writers and directors who are either gay or are advocates of the LGBTQ community. We’ve all felt this way: where a lot of times these TV shows and films, even if they do include gay characters, it’s through the eyes of the straight people. It’s “How do these gay characters affect the lives of the straight characters?” But it’s a new era, and we have different stories to tell.
I understand “G.B.F.” screenwriter George Northy scoped you out after seeing you on “United States of Tara.” What do you think he saw in your role as Lionel on “Tara” that made him think you were right for Tanner?
That’s a really great question. I don’t really know, but I can imagine that it’s because Lionel had soft, tender moments. Originally they had only written Lionel for two episodes – he was just the bad guy, the antagonist for Marshall’s storyline – but I think they realized they could do a lot with my character and it could really be entertaining, to say the least. And I wanted to show that he was multi-dimensional, that he wasn’t just mean – that he came from a real person. That’s what I try to do with all my characters, which is also why I probably don’t get – oh, maybe I shouldn’t say that – but a lot of guest star roles. They just want you to come in, say your line and leave so you don’t interrupt the main storyline. But that’s what I think is so cool about “Faking It” and “G.B.F.” – it’s not like that at all (Willett plays Shane on MTV’s “Faking It”). It’s completely the opposite. Their storylines are integral to the whole plot.
Was your high school experience similar to Tanner’s?
Yes and no. I mean, in some ways I really relate to Tanner. In other ways, I don’t. I feel like Tanner was how I was internally when I was younger – much more introverted. I felt very comfortable with who I was; it was everyone else making it a thing, wanting to talk about it. So in that way I did really relate to Tanner. I didn’t have those same situations that Tanner did. It’s still a fantasy, and it’s still larger than life.
Did you want to be a Tanner when you were in school?
I think in some ways that’s why I did the film, because yeah, this is my retribution. I got to relive my high school experience, be popular and have a makeover montage. (Laughs)
At what point in your life did you transition from introvert to extrovert?
It was a conscious decision. I am constantly pushing myself to be more extroverted and more open because I think that with most things in life, if you’re afraid of something you should probably do it. There’s probably a lesson to be learned there.
I used to be terrified of fame, which is why for a long time I didn’t want to have the exposure, you know? I wanted to remain under the radar as much as possible, but I realized there was a part of me that was still unhappy, and it was because I was feeling like I was hiding. Not necessarily my sexuality, but just me in general. Just hanging out in the open for all eyes to see – that’s very scary. So, I think it’s natural to be more private and reserved, to sit back and take the world in. That’s where I learned to act – just from watching people.
What was it about fame that terrified you?
I was always raised to not look at it as something desirable, so that kind of messed with my head a little bit. Yeah, you can do the things that you love to do – and, yes, they are in front of a lot of people – but it’s no better or more important than any of my siblings’ jobs. That helped me keep my head on straight.
Because “G.B.F.” mocks gay stereotypes, tell me this: What gay stereotypes are you guilty of?
Well, recently, I’ve really liked Kylie Minogue, aaaand … I secretly want to make bracelets that say, “What would Gwen do?” – as in Gwen Stefani. Because, you know, we’re on a first-name basis. (Laughs) In my mind we have this island where we have our own community of people that all dress in black and white stripes.
Oh, you’ve really thought about this.
Trust that this is all well thought out. (Laughs) But yeah, there are plenty of (gay stereotypes I’m guilty of) – I think that’s sort of the point. I don’t know if we can talk about this in this interview, but I actually do get more pressure – not more, but some – from the gay community about either not being gay enough or being too gay. It’s this constant line. It’s really not even something I think about anymore because it’s basically impossible to please everyone – and it’s irrelevant! It doesn’t matter.
Who in the gay community is putting this pressure on you?
Oh, plenty of people. Fans. I mean, lots of people – gay and straight.
How about the industry?
Yeah, I had an interview, and I don’t want to put them on blast, but they questioned me on whether I feel pigeonholed by playing gay characters. They even insinuated that all the characters are the same. I blatantly said, “Just because they’re gay doesn’t make them the same person.” I don’t think you would ever ask a straight actor, “Do you think you’re pigeonholed because you’re playing all these straight guys all the time?” I don’t even think it’s a question. They would never be asked that.
Because of this pressure, are you self-conscious about how gay you act?
In my real life? No. I just try to address each character as honest as they need to be. I don’t look at it like, make it gayer or make it less gay; it lies in their interest and in the way they think about the world and the way they think about themselves.
From your own experience, why is this a good time to be a gay actor?
There are more gay roles right now, and that’s something to look at as groundbreaking. We keep saying there’s so many cliched storylines and it’s time for something else. There was a time when they weren’t even around, at least they weren’t acknowledged as gay, but I think that it’s an opportunity to tell more stories.
Has there been any talk of a “G.B.F.” sequel?
Yes, I’ve heard rumors about it, but I don’t know if it’s happening.
Would you be up for it?
Yeah, why not?
You sing, you act – had you ever considered “Glee”?
Yeah, it was something I auditioned for several times and to no avail. I probably just wasn’t the right fit, but now I’m on music television! I feel pretty at home.
And you feel vindicated?
What can you tell me about the upcoming season of “Faking It”? Do you know anything yet?
Mwahahaha. I do! But I can’t tell you anything! All I’m gonna say is it’s hot and steamy.
At the very least, please tell me the matador costume makes its return.
(Laughs) I know! I was thanking them for that. I was like, “Thank you for reading my mind. I’ve always wanted to dress like a matador!”
Did you at least get to keep that costume?
No, no. But they definitely bedazzled it exclusively for Shane. I mean, what boy doesn’t want that?
As part of the LGBT Summer Film Series, “G.B.F.” will screen at 4, 7 and 9:30 p.m. July 16 at Emagine Royal Oak, 200 N. Main St. For tickets, visit http://www.neptix.com.