Fearing a box office backlash, a lot of young heterosexual actors would steer clear of gay roles — especially if they were being dogged by rumors that they were, in fact, hiding in the closet. But not teen heartthrob Jonathan Taylor Thomas, who played a gay hustler in last year’s indie ”Speedway Junky” and stars as a high school gay-bashing victim in the new TV movie ”Common Ground” (Saturday, Showtime, 8 p.m.). ”I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to play these great roles merely because of rumors,” Thomas tells EW Online.
The controversy dates back to 1998, when the website CyberSleaze said that the then 16-year-old was about to pull an ”Ellen” and announce his homosexuality. (It also dubbed his holiday film ”I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” ”I’ll Be Homo For Christmas.”) The rumors spread widely, even reaching his 95-year-old grandmother in Pennsylvania. But Thomas didn’t bother to respond. No Richard Gere-like newspaper ad touting his heterosexuality for him. ”I was busy working at the time, and it wasn’t really a huge priority of mine,” he explains.
Thomas says he signed to do ”Ground” because the film sensitively chronicles the struggles faced by gays and lesbians in a small town from the ’50s through the ’90s. ”Over the generations we’ve become more accepting [of homosexuality],” he says, ”but that doesn’t mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that we should get comfortable or settle into some false pretense that everything is okay.”
Now that ”Ground” has wrapped, though, the high school senior is back to focusing on school, which is why he left his long-running sitcom ”Home Improvement” in ’98. But even after he enters college in the fall (he’s still waiting to hear from schools), he says he’ll consider the occasional acting job during vacations. And there’s one particular costar who could easily lure him back to work: the perfect older woman, Cameron Diaz. ”She’s pretty spectacular,” Thomas says, not even minding her grungy ”Being John Malkovich” look. ”The fact that she’s willing to take a risk like that and play someone who’s not beautiful makes her even more attractive.”