Hands Full Bay Windows

Thursday Feb 19, 2009
by Scott Kearnan
Arts Editor

Sporks: They’re not just for cafeterias anymore.

“It’s a fun little movie that I’ve been wanting to get to for a while,” says Chad Allen about Spork, an upcoming film for which the out actor and activist will once again don his producer’s hat. Described as an “irreverent, hilarious, MTV-style film,” Spork is the story of a 14-year-old hermaphrodite so named because “she has both parts,” says Allen.

“It’s a surefire festival entry!” he adds with a chuckle.

Allen sure is busy. Speaking by phone, he has just returned home after wrapping the West Palm Beach, Fla., engagement of Looped, a play about original celebrity bad girl and perennial gay icon Tallulah Bankhead (Valerie Harper). The show picks up again in May for a run in Washington, D.C., and Allen says there’s chatter it may be Broadway-bound, too. But he’s also excited about the continuing evolution of Donald Strachey, the gay private investigator he has originated in a series of films for the here! network. The third Strachey flick, On the Other Hand, Death, finally hits DVD on Feb. 24, and costars the legendary Margot Kidder as one half of an older, lesbian couple being hassled by their neighbors (or are they?) in a quiet rural town: lies, deceit, double-crossing, and shady real estate investments ensue.

Allen chatted with Bay Windows about the development of the series, where it goes next, and his other, more personal career as an LGBT activist.

It feels like just yesterday we met this character, but this is now the third Donald Strachey mystery on DVD.

Is it the third? We’ve made four so far, but I’m not sure if the fourth one [Ice Blues] is on DVD yet. I should probably know that! [Laughs] But truth be told, we shot On the Other Hand, Deathand Ice Blues simultaneously so we kept mixing the movies together. Even on a given day of production, the director and I would get so confused about which one we were making. Once we were convinced we put the wrong car in the wrong film, and were about to reshoot an entire sequence using a different car. Luckily the script supervisor caught it. But especially in a detective film, there are so many little details: “Wait, what clue are we on now? What do I know at this point?”

Too funny. And the films have certainly evolved, haven’t they?

Absolutely. In the first film, we weren’t as sure about what we were going to make. Stylistically it was very outlandish, the characters were very bizarre, and Donald is the “straight man” in the middle of this very bizarre world. … But we [discovered] we really wanted to make a noir, reality based detective series that was fun to watch but dense in terms of the mystery. I’m really proud of On the Other Hand, Death. … And Donald, personally, continues to be the character I wanted to create. He’s a guy who’s good at what he does. He’s not always great! But he’s absolutely determined to do the right thing.

Even if it’s not always smooth sailing for him.

Right. This is not James Bond! He drives a crappy car, he’s messy, he doesn’t think twice about grabbing someone around the neck. He’s not always appropriate but he loves what he does and he’s intent on doing the right thing.

He’s certainly not James Bond! In fact, it would have been easy to write Strachey as bedding a new guy in every film, but instead he’s in a long-term relationship with Timothy. How important was that sense of monogamy to his character, for you?

Hugely important. We created this grounded relationship because I knew that was something I could sink my teeth in, something we hadn’t seen, something important to bring to young gay people, and something personally important to me because that’s my own experience. When people tell me they love the movies, over and over they tell me they love the development of that relationship.

Well, Timothy seems like he’s an important, stabilizing balance to Donald’s chaotic P.I. life.

I love you put it that way. When I first saw the scripts, I saw that if Donald didn’t have Timothy he probably couldn’t get out the door. … I don’t know if he could get through life. And I can understand that! I sometimes feel my partner is so perfectly attuned to helping me with certain aspects of life, like attention to detail or the simple fact that I can’t go anywhere without leaving my computer or my backpack behind. [Laughs] I’m always so interested in the people I’m with and what we’re going to do next, it doesn’t occur to me to put a coin in the parking meter, pay the bill, pick up my computer case. My partner is great at that stuff. He reminds me of birthdays, and that I should probably call my mom. He gets me through life.

What was it like to work with Margot Kidder on this film?

It was rad. When they first said Margot Kidder was coming to do this show, I was like, “Okay, what’s she going to be like?” But she’s an amazing human being. I think she’s a beautiful actress and does terrific work, but just who she is as a person… I mean, Margot Kidder, brings Margot Kidder to work every day. We would drive to work together every morning, and we would spend the entire time hashing out liberal politics and talking. She would tell me about what it was like to be in Hollywood in earlier days of the civil rights movement and women’s rights. It was just an amazing perspective. She just owns who she is in such a beautiful way. I was so grateful to work with her and I would do it again in a second! She delivered a hell of a performance in the film!

Her character in the film is a guidance counselor who becomes targeted for speaking out on behalf of gay teens. As someone so visible and vocal in the LGBT community, have you ever felt an intimidating backlash?

When I was producing Corpus Christi [the Terrence McNally play featuring 12 gay men with the names of Jesus’ apostles], people were saying, “You can’t do that!” There were so many death threats and upset people. I had my life threatened both in that production and End of the Spear[a film in which Allen played a famous Christian missionary]. I’ve received lots of angry letters, been hijacked on the radio by people claiming they wanted to do interviews, only to find out they were religious bigots who wanted to have me on to try to make a fool out of me. I’ve had more people wanting to “save” me than I can even recall. I had plenty of people – even well meaning people – tell me when I was starting to come out that it would end my career.

Has it ever been too much?

There have certainly been plenty of times when I thought, “Maybe it’s time I turned this fight over to someone else, because I’ve done my, quote unquote, fair share.” There have been times when I thought, “Boy, I would really like to go back to being just an actor, and not have to constantly be having these conversations about what it all means in the grand scheme of things.” I’d be lying if I said there still aren’t times when I say, “Boy, that would be nice.” But ultimately this is the path I chose … ultimately, whether or not I make the kind of money I once made doing series television is irrelevant. It’s no matter how famous or not famous I wind up in the end, or the money. I love my life.

There’s a debate in the film about whether progress in the LGBT community best happens by revolution or by small, incremental steps towards equality. Donald Strachey has his opinion; what’s Chad Allen’s?

Well, I don’t remember exactly what Donald said in the movie [Laughs], but I’m pretty sure we have the same feeling. I believe in both. If you look at the civil rights movement, it’s both gradual evolution coupled with sudden bursts of creative energy. It takes both marches and riots and jumping up and down and screaming … and it takes slow growth. On a personal level, it takes my willingness to stand up and scream at a podium and confront bigotry when I see it … and it takes my willingness to sit on an airplane next to my partner and hold his hand there in public.

Since you shot the last two films simultaneously, does that mean we can expect a longer break before the next installment?

I think so, unfortunately. Not the least of which is because I’m super busy and here! has a lot on their plate. The movies are based on six books, and two books remain. … I just had a meeting about things, and it just so happens the last two books are also the toughest to translate [to film]. They make for a tough script. But we want to do them and we’re continuing to work on that. I believe we’ll get them shot this year, but I can’t tell you exactly when. It’s a goal of mine.

Any other goals for Chad Allen? Thoughts on where you’d like to take yourself next?

I haven’t said this in a long time, but I think I’d really like to work back on network television. I’ve been having a lot of fun the last few years creating characters that probably couldn’t be on networks. For years, there weren’t any gay characters that I wanted to play [on network television] and now that I’ve been away for a while I’m starting to think it would be exciting to be on a large medium again to reach the kind of audience you get to reach. … TV has never been the most exciting for me because it isn’t the most artistic, but in terms of the size of the audience and the comfort level I now have with who I am, it would be interesting to reach that kind of audience.