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'My So-Called Life' revisited

Wilson Cruz looks back at the seminal coming-of-age TV show and how his character Rickie’s relationships with friends, family, and sexuality mirrored his own

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Oh my, has it already been more than a decade since ABC’s My So-Called Life warmed our crusty hearts with some of the most moving, thrilling depictions of beflannelled teen angst? The nuanced, casually paced MSCL practically pioneered the mingling of adolescent doldrums with such weightier topics as substance abuse and sexuality on modern TV, all without ever meandering into hokey after-school special territory. Since its debut in 1994, the show’s 19 episodes have left a mark on everything from Party of Five to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The O.C. Claire Danes took the lead, starring as the awkward Angela Chase — a 15-year-old forever crushing on Jared Leto’s taciturn hottie Jordan Catalano — who was buoyed by a remarkable cast of misfits, among them tortured gay teen Rickie Vasquez, played by Wilson Cruz. To mark the DVD release of My So-Called Life: The Complete Series (see the EW review), EW spoke with a wistful Cruz, now 33, about how Rickie’s coming out touched on his own life, his ”gay child,” and how he feels all these years later about the show’s abrupt cancellation.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your character’s coming out had a lot of resonance in your personal life.

WILSON CRUZ: Yeah, you know, when I look back on that experience, it was really fortunate: Not only was I able to play that amazing part, but I got to relive all of those horrible experiences. [Laughs] And then walk away from them. It was really cathartic.

Were you out prior to the show?

I had to come out prior to the show, because I knew the question was going to come up playing [a gay] character. I didn’t tell my parents until after we got picked up as a series. The whole point of that character was he was on this journey of self-acceptance, and if I wasn’t on that journey as well, then I would be sending out the wrong message. I came out to my dad in Christmas of ’94. It did not go well, and he kicked me out of the house. I ended up living in my car and some friends’ couches…. I would call [my mom] during those few months, and tell her I was okay. But I never told her where I was. There was really very little she could do.

What did your dad say?

Uh, ”Get out.” He couldn’t deal with it. He didn’t want to deal with it. And was disgusted with the whole thing. But it was actually because of [MSCL] that we reconciled. He ended up watching it and calling me. Which was about…exactly a year later. By the time he knew that what he did was wrong, I was already doing my own thing — and I wasn’t ready to talk to him. [Laughs] I am my father’s son, after all.

On the show, Rickie was also kicked out of his house. Was this inspired by your experience?

[Creator Winnie Holzman] and I recently talked about this. We can’t remember if I told her first, or if she wrote it and then I told her that it happened to me. A lot of stuff happened like that on that show. It’s bizarre. The school-dance episode could’ve been taken out of my life as well.

You mean that scene at the dance when Rickie totally cut a flamboyant rug?

The thing about me and school was that as much as I felt that I didn’t belong, as long as I was on a stage or dancing, that’s where I excelled the most, felt worthy. So that episode, where he takes off [dancing] and just doesn’t give a damn about anything was a celebration. Completely liberating. For a brief moment, I’m just throwing caution into the wind.

Did you also have straight girls awkwardly crushing on you in high school?

[Laughs] Yeah, but you know what? I was still figuring it out. I had crushes on straight girls, too!

That was such a sweet crush on the show.

That moment at the very end of the series, when I tell [the character Delia] that I’m gay, and say it for the first time out loud, is so perfect. And she says, you know, that she knew. And it says a lot about what those relationships are like with straight girls and gay men. There’s a bond there.

Do you have a favorite scene?

I do love the last scene when I finally say out loud that I’m gay. And I love the little scene with Jared in the Christmas episode. I run into him at the grocery store, and he asks me if I need to go somewhere. We have this scene in the car where he tells me his father hit him once, and we have this moment. Here is Rickie at his darkest moment, and here’s someone else telling him about his darkest moment.

Yes, what made the show so great were the hot-button topics. Rickie was abused, he was gay, he was also Latino.

It’s still pretty rare.

I guess you’ve got Grey’s Anatomy

And then there’s Ugly Betty — which, by the way, is in the same time slot that we were in. And when I see that little boy on that show…

Gay Justin!

I think he’s my gay child. Or Rickie’s gay child. Although they haven’t even said he’s gay yet.

That’s interesting. My So-Called Life depicted a tragic gay teen, but now we’re seeing an adolescent who’s sort of celebrated for being presumably gay.

Yes! In the very first episode, there’s a shot of him with his hand on his hip, and we see him from behind watching the football game, like, ”What is this?” I fell on the floor laughing so hard. He’s a brilliant character, and I think [Mark Indelicato] is doing the most amazing job.

NEXT PAGE: ” I think people come home, and they turn on the TV and don’t necessarily want a mirror in their face. They want to escape.”

{C}

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: My So-Called Life never got the ratings, but why do you think pop-culture-wise it’s still relevant?

WILSON CRUZ: It definitely took place in the ’90s — we can watch that and know that — but the issues that we were dealing with, the emotions, were very universal…. When you were a teenager, everything’s kind of drawn in primary colors; everything’s big, and everything’s life or death…. We could’ve placed that [series] in the ’70s, and it would’ve been the same show. I also love the way Winnie incorporated the adults into the show. You also saw that even though these teenagers were dealing with these issues, when you grow up you’re still going to be dealing with them.

Like Angela’s mom.

Right. Having Angela’s mom be insecure about the way she looks around the same time that Angela was insecure about her looks — I loved that. We all think that we grow out of these teen emotions, but we don’t. We just deal with the same issues all over again, in different ways, as adults.

Then why didn’t people watch the show?

It was too honest. I think people come home, and they turn on the TV and don’t necessarily want a mirror in their face. They want to escape.

Where do you see the impact in TV shows today?

I see definite hints of it in Friday Night Lights, which I love.

Where?

In the writing. In nuance. In the performances. First season, they were so subtle. And [My So-Called Life alum] Jason Katims is writing on that show. It just feels like the Texas cousin to My So-Called Life. The way it’s shot. Just the angst of it all.

A lot of your cast was starting out career-wise. Was it a little like deer-in-the-headlights on set?

It was very easy to shoot. It was probably the most efficient set I think we’d ever been on. And it’s because we knew how good it was and wanted to live up to the material. Everyone was taking it seriously, but it was still fun.

Were you friends?

Oh, absolutely. We’d have sleepovers at Claire’s. And Devon Odessa [who played Sharon] and I would always hang out; she was my buddy. We’d always end up at A.J. Langer’s [Rayanne] house and her mom would cook for us. It was like being in high school.

Do you keep in touch with anyone?

We all run into each other. I ran into Jared Leto at restaurants around town. Claire and I ran into each other at an awards ceremony. It’s like running into old war buddies. ‘Cause there’s only six other kids in the world who would understand what it was like to be on the show.

There was all that talk of Claire not wanting to renew her contract. How did that feel when it was going down?

The thing is, the producers kept all that from us. We didn’t know if that was true or not. We just kinda knew that the ratings weren’t great. I actually didn’t find out that was true until an article, I think, in your magazine. Up until that point it was all speculation.

But even as speculation, didn’t it bum you out?

Absolutely. I was angry, I was disappointed. But, you know…she was 15. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a 15-year-old girl. And everyone was telling her she was going to be a movie star. What would any of us do?

You mentioned in EW’s MSCL oral history that they’d pulled the plug so many times that when it actually happened you were prepared.

We weren’t sure. We really weren’t. Then there was a rumor that MTV might’ve picked it up. We talked to Winnie periodically. I think Devon and I had lunch with her and she let us know [when] it was definitely over, [that] we had to walk away and move on to other things.

Yeah, like nerd Brian Krakow becoming a rapist on Felicity!

Right. That’s it! Now it’s done!

One thing that still bugs me and many fans is that we never fully got closure from that last episode.

No?

At the very end, when Angela takes off with Jordan, even though Brian secretly wrote that love note to her.

Oh, Nisha, you got closure.

But Brian wrote that letter! Not Jordan!

And Angela knows it. In that last moment when we see her looking out the window of Jordan Catalano’s car, she’s not looking at Jordan, she’s looking at Brian.

And she still drove off with Jordan.

Mm-hmm. But that’s the best part.

 

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