If you don’t know Colton Haynes by name — and he’d be the first person to bashfully tell you, you probably don’t — you at least know the 27-year-old actor by his familiar Hollywood fable: farm boy turned New York model turned aspiring Los Angeles actor, a paragon of the digital age of the Instagrammable hunk, a slab of innocent Kansas marble sculpted by MTV and polished by The CW.
He’s a teen heartthrob and a fast-rising one at that, thanks to two major roles: His life-changing debut in 2011 as slithering jock Jackson Whittemore on MTV’s runaway hit Teen Wolf, and his series regular gig on The CW’s Arrow as hooded vigilante Arsenal. Both roles made him digital teen royalty, bolstered by Haynes’ decided effort to embrace and interact with fans and his eccentric social media savviness (somewhere to the tune of some 4-million Instagram followers).
So why, then, would a rising prince of teen genre walk away from two red-hot TV gigs — arguably at their own peaks, and on the cusp of his own — and all but abdicate the throne?
“I asked to step away because I cared more about my mental and physical health than my career at the time,” the actor tells EW, opening up about his personal and professional life for the first time in quite some time. “I’ve had terminal anxiety my entire life. Physically ill, fainting. I’m 27 years old, and I have an ulcer. I had to step back.” Clinical anxiety and public pressure are a potent mix, but their effects may be worse for someone like Haynes — a gentle spirit in a threatening (or so he’s been told by many a casting director) build, someone who lost control of his own personal narrative somewhere along the way between Kansas and California.
Social media afforded a temporary way to maintain his public voice after his departure from Arrow in 2015, and Haynes frequently made minor news over the year for his off-kilter Instagram posts (like his photo shoots with photographer Tyler Shields or his now-famous Halloween costumes). He laughs about the strange themes of his social media decisions. “People think there’s this working machine behind it all, but the machine is my weird personality,” he chuckles. “I think I have a good outlook on life, and I like to share that. There’s no filter. I mean, a couple of Instagram filters, but not an actual communication filter.”
But while social media has helped his career, it’s also gotten him into some trouble. Case in point: A Tumblr post in January sparked an Internet firestorm after a fan commented on Haynes’ “secret gay past,”regarding racy modeling photos Haynes took while underage. Without giving it much thought, Haynes offered a coy reply: “Was it a secret?” The comment was picked up by bloggers as his coming out — but it wasn’t. Not yet.
“It was a complete shock. I wasn’t ready to be back in the headlines,” says Haynes, who is in fact gay but has never publicly addressed his sexuality (and, like many others on his path, took advice early in his career to subdue it). “I should have made a comment or a statement, but I just wasn’t ready. I didn’t feel like I owed anyone anything. I think in due time, everyone has to make those decisions when they’re ready, and I wasn’t yet. But I felt like I was letting people down by not coming forward with the rest of what I should have said.” The headlines about Haynes turned vitriolic in the absence of an announcement, but he was in no place to make one: He had checked into rehab for anxiety and would be frequently back in the hospital over the next three months.
“People want you to be that GQ image that you put out, but people don’t realize what it’s like to act 24 hours a day. I’d go home and I was still acting,” he says gently. “People who are so judgmental about those who are gay or different don’t realize that acting 24 hours a day is the most exhausting thing in the world.” The truth is, Haynes has been out for most of his life — in high school, to his family and friends, to his cast members, to his Hollywood bosses (like Arrow creator Greg Berlanti, now one of his closest mentors). But as a green transplant in Hollywood in 2006, he wasn’t any more immune to the town’s well-chronicled discomfort with LGBT identity.
Now, however, there’s a palpable energy around him, a positivity that gushes from a 27-year-old eager to start not just a new chapter, but perhaps a new book. He’s setting his eye on movies, on comedy, on theater and photography and music — all passions he’s keen to explore as a version nothing less than himself. He’s even returning to his fashion roots and starting his first clothing line for men and women. (And sure, he’s also up for a return to Arrow, should the show bring his character out of hiding: “Working for Greg was the greatest experience of my life, and when he offered me Arrow, it was a new beginning for me. I would love to do more. They know I love them. I’d go back in a second.”)
If his cyber clash with his own identity earlier this year forced him to take stock of his life, its after-effects are now on the positive upswing. “It took me so long to get to this point, but I’m doing so good,” says Haynes. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and healthier than I’ve ever been, and that’s what I care about.”