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June 08, 2018 at 10:30 AM EDT

To read more on Queer as Folk, pick up the special LGBTQ issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday, or buy it here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Watch the full episode of Entertainment Weekly Cast Reunions: Queer as Folk, streaming now on PeopleTV.com or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.

It’s hard to imagine anyone turning down the chance to be part of Showtime’s hit, barrier-breaking series Queer as Folk, but many actors were told to steer clear from the then-controversial project — including eventual star Hal Sparks.

“I was filming Dude, Where’s My Car? and my agent and manager at the time presented this script to me like they were wearing hazmat suits,” the actor, 48, says in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly. “‘It’s a hit in England. I don’t know. We don’t recommend it, but you get mad if we don’t let you read stuff.'”

And, of course, Sparks ignored their concerns and auditioned, eventually scoring the role of comic book geek Michael.

But Sparks’ experience wasn’t an isolated incident. Executive producers Daniel Lipman and Ron Cowen say they didn’t really have any talent from the major talent agencies audition for their show.

“Our casting director would call us in and say, ‘We only have, like, three or four people today,'” says Lipman. “We’d see the casting list, there are, like, 35 people all ‘not available.'”

“They didn’t come in because their agents told them not to come in,” explains Cowen. “Back then, you couldn’t get married. There was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the Army. In 14 states, there were still sodomy laws on the books. It was a very hostile atmosphere.”

PHOTOS: The ageless Queer as Folk cast reunites

But other actors were jumping at the chance to audition for the show, which is based on a hit U.K. series of the same name.

“I’d actually seen a good bit of the original on VHS, and I thought it was great,” Gale Harold, 48, says of first seeing Game of Thrones actor Aidan Gillen play Brian, the role Harold would eventually play in the U.S. version. “But my first reaction was, ‘There’s no way they’re going to do this in the United States.'”

Showtime

“I just wanted to be a part of gay representation on television,” shares Randy Harrison, 40, who played high school student Justin. “I was hungry, as a teenager coming to terms with my own sexuality, for media that reflected my experience.”

Peter Paige, who was ultimately cast as flamboyant Emmett, was originally brought in to read for the more reserved Ted (a role that ended up going to Scott Lowell, 53).

“I was brought in to read for Ted and the casting director said, ‘Great, I’m gonna give you a callback,'” recalls Paige, 48. “I said, ‘Can I read Emmett for you?’ She was like, ‘Did you not hear me? I’m giving you a callback.’ I said, ‘I know. It’s just a gut feeling. Let me read for you.’ I read, and she said, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, but which role do you wanna come back for?'”

But there was no question what role TV legend Sharon Gless (Cagney & Lacey) would play.

“It’s the first time I’d ever read a script where I knew, ‘I’d be really good in this role,'” Gless, 75, says of wanting to play Michael’s outlandish mom, Debbie. “I felt so confident that I picked up the phone and called [then Showtime programming president] Jerry Offsay. I said, ‘I’d like to do the mother.’ He said, ‘You know, I like the idea, Sharon. I think you’ll bring a little class to the project.’ I said, ‘Jerry, class is not what I had in mind.'”

With their season 1 cast set — including Thea Gill, 48, as Brian’s college friend Lindsay and Michelle Clunie, 48, as Lindsay’s girlfriend Melanie — production began in the summer of 1999 and the show launched in December of the next year. But in season 2, there was a new role to cast: Michael’s new love interest, Ben.

Sami Drasin for EW

“I felt so connected to the importance of this show. It had been one of those things where, as an actor, I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m not a part of this,'” Robert Gant, who played Ben, says of watching the first season as a fan.

“The audition process was excruciatingly long because there had been some challenges, I think, in the previous dynamic, and they were transitioning Hal’s love interest,” says Gant, 49. “They wanted to make sure they got it right. After a month of auditioning, I did something I had never done before: I wrote a letter to Ron and Dan and told them what it meant to me.”

Though getting together for their EW reunion photo shoot was the first time the entire cast was back together since they filmed their series finale in 2005, they all say they have remained close because of their shared experience of shooting the drama in Toronto all those years.

“We’re family,” says Clunie. “And we always will be.”

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