Randy Harrison: Beyond QAF
Randy Harrison had just moved to New York in the summer of 2000 when he was offered a plum part in what promised to be a controversial new series: 17-year old Justin Taylor in Showtime’s American version of “Queer as Folk.” In a matter of weeks he was filming the series in Toronto (the stand-in for Pittsburgh where the series was set,) and within the year in the media spotlight as the high school student who finds himself involved with that city’s leading hunk, advertising guru Brian Kinney (Gale Harold.) Their incendiary sex scene on the opening episode certainly pushed the envelope even for cable, and help set a pattern that made the series a break-out hit for the cable network long second banana to HBO.
Today the hit show, which has become a gay cultural icon over the past 5 years, is in its final weeks; and Harrison is returning to the stage -- his first love -- this summer as one of the leads in “Equus,” Peter Shaffer’s 1974 play that’s being given a production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival through July 23. The blonde, 28 year old actor may still be thought of as Justin, who evolved from a naďve teen in the thrall of the sexually-charged Brian to a gay-smart, independent young adult over the length of the series; but he now hopes to put the series behind him with fresh projects, such as the role of the seemingly adjusted stable boy named Alan Strang who blinds a half-dozen horses for no apparent reason and is sent to be cared for by a psychiatrist, Dr Martin Dysart in a mental hospital.
It was a part he has wanted to play since he first came across the play while attending college a decade ago in Cincinnati, and was able to secure an audition just as “Queer as Folk” was winding down production. What attracted him to it are Alan’s psychological complexities.
“First of all the role is enormously challenging,” he explained last week. “We just had a run through today and I’m about ready to collapse. It’s thoroughly exhausting and challenging in every way -- emotionally, intellectually, and physically. And it’s a great play -- it’s one of the great plays of the past 30 years. Its themes are so relevant and substantial and universal; when the opportunity came around, I jumped at it.”
A hit in London and New York (where it ran for more than 1200 performances,) “Equus” is based on a real event, which sparked the imagination of Shaffer who conceived of it as psychological thriller in which the doctor must breakthrough into the boy’s psyche to understand what drove him to commit such a hideous crime.
“In the play the magistrate talks to the doctor telling him that Alan needs to see him because otherwise he’d be demonized by the community and no one would want to help him. He had committed the kind of hideous crime that no one wants to think about with any complexity -- they simply want to label him and put him away.
“But as the play develops the doctor is in a dilemma in that if he cures me he feels he’s taking away my individuality by putting me in a different set of shackles. So the question at the center of the play is he helping me to achieve my greatest potential, or simply making me what society thinks as normal? It’s a struggle for him, but in the end he decides to help me because he sees that Alan wants to be helped. But he never really acknowledges if this is the better choice.”
How does Harrison respond to a character who commits such a reprehensible act?
“He’s a difficult guy to relate to, but I personally have to like him. When I prepare for the role, I learn to empathize with him -- putting my self where he is. So I do like him. But I wonder if I encountered him on the street in a certain situation without the knowledge of him I have now that I would. He’s a fascinating character to play, and exhausting. I’m so exhausted after a full day of rehearsal that I can’t do anything else. I’m just not functioning on such a high level at the end of the day because it is so draining. But I don’t bring home any of the baggage from the show because it is just so draining to carry around.”
As he was in virtually every episode of “Queer as Folk,” Harrison will be nude in the play. The difference, though, is that he won’t be doing on film (where, he admits, the highly-charged sex scenes were more technical than erotic, with lots of stopping and starting,) but this time on stage in a love scene with a young woman in the stables.
“I’m very comfortable with it (the on-stage nudity.) I’ve done it before, before “Queer as Folk,” and it doesn’t bother me in the least.”
Nor does being one of the few openly gay actors to emerge from the series (along with Peter Paige and Robert Gant.)
“I came out when I was 16 and didn’t think of ever as being an issue. When the show came about I never really thought about it, and I don’t have any regrets about it. Right now I’m looking forward to becoming a working actor again and putting Justin behind me. I love the theater. It’s definitely going to be what I’m focusing on for now. Last summer I did ‘Wicked,’ which was a lot of fun; but I don’t want to focus on musicals. I get much more satisfaction from a role such as Alan.”
Harrison came to maturity with Justin, but he recalls having very little input into his character with whom he didn’t personally identify with. He’s never been a club kid, and when he got the part had to do research on the role by going to such clubs as Splash in New York where he lives.
“Sometimes I would say Justin wouldn’t do that, but more often we would have to buckle down and figure out a way to pull it off because the head writers were also the executive producers, so there wasn’t as much give-and-take in certain situations. It was their show, it was their creation. They wanted it the way they wanted, and it was our job to make it happen.
“And I was very happy to have played the part. Absolutely. I’m glad I’ve been able to help closeted gay teens see that there are not alone in the world.”
As for the future, he’s hasn’t anything planned after “Equus,” but looks forward to returning to New York where he lives and pursuing what may come next.
At the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Main St, Stockbridge through July 23. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8 p.m.; Thursday and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are priced from $43 -- $63, and are available by calling| 413.298.5576.