In an age where no one bats an eye at watching a man with mascara on network family hour, or showing off their flamboyantly great fashion style for reality television, it’s hard to remember when homosexuals were barely shown (and swishily condescended to when they were) on America’s sets. Don’t even ask what you mostly got on the big screen.
Leave it to Lance Loud to make his sexuality heard loud and clear for millions of Americans when PBS cameras became part of his clan’s lives for their groundbreaking series AN AMERICAN FAMILY. Beyond showing that “real” people were just as fascinating as any made up person, while turning them into characters in the process, AN AMERICAN FAMILY signaled that men were physically, if not vocally open, to declaring their sexual orientation like Lance Loud. Though he’d go on to front The Mumps, write for friend Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, and turn his own passing into a TV event, AN AMERICAN FAMILY would remain Loud’s true moment in the reality headlights – even if Loud himself never expected that glare would end up turning on him as he tried to play the show to his own instant fame-seeking ends.
Though Thomas Dekker makes a big impression as Lance in HBO’s CINEMA VERITE (airing Saturday night) this certainly won’t be the first, and last time this charismatic young actor will be in the spotlight. Starting from the age of six, Dekker’s grew from parts in SEINFELD and TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL to cartoon voices for LAND BEFORE TIME and AMERICAN TAIL spin-offs, then turned in notable teen performances in BOSTON PUBLIC, CSI and HOUSE M.D.
Dekker then gained a true cult following on the shows HEROES and TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES before entering film and TV adulthood with magnetism to burn in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, MY SISTER’S KEEPER and KABOOM. Usually playing young men desperate to find themselves in one way or another (even if it’s discovering they were fated to save the Earth), Dekker has made it a point to remain just as busy as a recording artist, and an aspiring writer-director, with one movie about a fame-seeking WHORE-dom of teen Hollywood already. Now the CW coven of SECRET CIRCLE awaits Dekker’s brooding magic.
Yet it’s the part of Lance Loud that’s turned into a real eye-opener for Dekker. It’s a role that’s allowed him to connect his own hard-worked aspirations to that of a young man who thought it would all come easy at first, only to find, along with his family, that television cameras and a seemingly understanding producer can just as easily destroy what they create. And in the process, Loud’s unabashed homosexuality, and heart would be outted in millions of American living rooms over twelve episodes in 1973, even if he never mentioned an orientation that’s now an easily dispensed household word.
ASSIGNMENT X: PBS’ AN AMERICAN FAMILY was essentially the first reality television program to achieve mass popularity. Viewers certainly had never seen a gay “character” on TV revealed with this kind of honesty.
THOMAS DEKKER: One of the key things that fascinated me the most about Lance and the entire situation was that he never officially came out. There was never really an episode where he declared he was gay. The first and only “open” mentioning of that was on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW, where you could see he’d been so obviously scarred in the public for his homosexuality. To me, that really spoke of this young man who was so completely self-aware, so open, and so fearless in just presenting what he was. And he did it in a showy way that he thought would garner attention and a lot of success. It brought a lot of the opposite to him at the time, which I’m sure was very painful and overwhelming. Now we’re in a culture where you can garner so much fame and notoriety by declaring you are gay. So I think it’s interesting that there was a young man who was just himself, and a unique person. He became a hot topic of conversation.
AX: How important was it for you to not go into the swishy and effeminate stereotype with Lance? That’s basically how homosexuals were depicted in Hollywood at the time.
DEKKER: My chief concern was that I never played Lance as a flamboyant stereotype. I’ll be honest that I’d never heard of AN AMERICAN FAMILY or Lance Loud when I got the script. When I got off the pages was a flamboyant gay guy. Yet everything changed when I saw his footage on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW. I became obsessed with playing Lance. And I never entered into it mentally like “How can I be flamboyant. How can I be clearly gay?” It was to just be him, because I’d never met anybody like Lance, I studied every piece of footage I could get of him. His voice alone reminded me a lot of Judy Garland, and the kind of classic, early actresses like her.
I don’t know if Lance idolized these women as he was growing up, or if they became his portal as to what he deemed would sound like a “celebrity.” Not to be cliché, but to sound fabulous. I never tried to swish around and do a lisp thing or any of that. That wasn’t Lance at all. My fear is that people who see the film won’t understand what I’m doing, because they’re not particularly familiar with Lance, but if they are, they’ll see how I put in every effort I could to study the way he moved his head and hands, the pitch of his voice and the way he spoke. All those things took precedence over me playing the first publicly gay person in media history. That really wasn’t my key point of interest. It was to capture this very specific man that I was watching.
AX: I don’t think many people would be familiar with AN AMERICAN FAMILY as the series hasn’t been released on video.
DEKKER: I assume that’s because of licensing from PBS. I know it was a major battle just to get the clips from the show into the film. This is my first project with HBO and I have to give them so much credit for everything from the meticulous production design to getting the entire cast the entire 12 hour series, and the entire two hour Dick Cavett interview. I got to work so closely with the creative guys from everything to my wig and clothes to the styling. You very rarely get this kind of support.
AX: More than any other Loud, Lance really played up to the camera.
DEKKER: I’d say yes, and no. I think Lance was really attracted to the fact that there was a camera on him, especially because he had a huge interest in Andy Warhol and The Factory. That was the one area I really had in connection with Lance, because I’ve been fascinated by that period of time of New York, and all those Warhol figures when I was a kid. The Factory’s viewpoint was to be famous for doing nothing. AN AMERICAN FAMILY was Lance’s perfect opportunity to do just that. Of course he ended up applying himself to all these incredible things later in life. So I think that when the show started, Lance really took it as his opportunity to be as controversial as possible. He definitely played it up to the camera because it was his shot to propel himself to what he wanted to be. There are all these kinds of things he says in the series.
One of my favorites is when says that he had no friends back in Santa Barbra, just enemies, but he much preferred his enemies to friends. All these sort of surprising, very specific mindsets of thinking. However, as the show progressed, Lance wasn’t as aware, unlike his mother, of how negatively all of these things could be perceived- like taking his mother to see this show at La Mama, Lance probably thought, “Oh, this will get me noticed.” I don’t think he realized it would for all the wrong reasons. Yet, I don’t think he would have really cared in any case. That was the sort of great thing about Lance. He really didn’t seem to be afraid of very much anything. But I still think he must have been hurt that so much poison shot all over his life when the show came out.
AX: Lance basically steals CINEMA VERITE whenever he’s in it. Do you wish you had an even bigger part in the film because of that?
DEKKER: I’d love to have been able to do more of course, but I think this movie is about the whole family and their show. That’s a lot to cram into one film, especially with so many interesting characters. We shot a lot that we couldn’t fit. I’m just very happy to be part of the project and to have had the opportunity to play this guy. Like I said, it was a very scary proposition when I got the part, because I basically had two options. Do I do my own interpretation of Lance, or do I really try to become Lance? And I went with the latter, which is rather risky. I’m a bit nervous to see how people respond to it.
AX: Since Lance, do you think reality television has made gay people more acceptable to the masses? Or do you think it’s made them go backwards?
DEKKER: I think it’s sort of ended up somewhere right in the middle. Because of reality television, the influx of gay information has definitely entered society in a way that hasn’t made them a subculture any more. Everyone from five year old kids to ninety year olds know what a drag queen is, and has probably seen an episode of QUEER EYE FOR THE STRAIGHT GUY. I do think there’s a flip side as well, because reality makes so many people into extroverts of the gay culture and the gay lifestyle. That’s put up quite a bit of segregation that maybe wasn’t as strong before. It’s made a wall that shouldn’t be there.
It’s great that we can have a show like RuPAUL’S DRAG RACE on television, but I do think that for non-gay cultures and young people, it’s drawn a divide that makes the gay lifestyle into a very different culture. My parents were both in the arts and both in theater. I grew up knowing of gay people and straight people and lesbian or otherwise as just being people. Now, obviously I’ve learned the historical importance of it all.
Special thanks to Peter Hackman for his interview transcription
Cinema Verite premieres on HBO Saturday, April 23 at 9 PM
CLICK HERE for PART 2 of AX’s Exclusive Interview with THOMAS DEKKER