Netflix’s Tales of the City star Murray Bartlett on the power of LGBTI stories on TV


‘I saw the first season when I first came to San Francisco. I was obsessed. My friend had it on VHS… that’s how old I am!’ Murray Bartlett – who you may remember as Dom from HBO’s Looking, and who, at 48, literally couldn’t be more handsome – is reminiscing about 1993 TV show Tales of the City. It, like Looking, featured an array of colourful LGBTI characters.

Adapted from gay writer Armistead Maupin’s preceding novels, it starred Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton and Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal, the trans landlady of 28 Barbury Lane, the majestic San Fran house Mary Ann moves into.

Murray as Michael [right] and on-screen boyfriend Charlie Barnett as Ben | Photos: Netflix

The overall story’s a sort of extended queer love letter San Fran; after returning in 1998 and 2001, Netflix this month revives it for its tentpole, 10-episode LGBTI 2019 offering.

‘You come to San Francisco and find a community you feel you belong to by default’

‘Last summer I moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts,’ explains Murray, himself a gay man. ‘As soon as I got there, I found out I’d be working on Tales. I had a fantastic month reading all the books. I was super excited.’

Laura and Olympia are back, while Murray takes the role of lovable Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver [above, right], a HIV positive gay man previously played by Marcus D’Amico/Paul Hopkins. Ellen Page also joins the cast as achingly cool girl-who’s-into-girls, Shawna.

Murray pictured with Looking costars Jonathan Groff, center and Frankie J. Alvarez | Photo: HBO

While much of the new season was filmed on set in New York, some was filmed in the City By the Bay. For Murray – a ‘New York-based Australian’ – it’s a spiritual second home, as for many LGBTIs.

‘We were here for three/four months a year for three consecutive years on Looking,’ he says. ‘It’s interesting, the Tales tagline: “Home is a feeling.” What sticks is “home”. That’s what it feels like when you come here, find a community you feel you belong to by default. It was also one of the major centers for LGBTQ rights. You just feel that.’

The cast of Tales at last night’s NYC premier| Photo: Monica Schipper / Getty for Netflix

Tales admirably seeks to capture San Fran’s rich LGBTI history – for instance, revisiting the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, an attack on trans people in the Tenderloin that predated Stonewall, and considered by many a starting gun for trans equality.

‘The sense of family is in the air – it’s very powerful’

‘We were shooting in the beautiful Dolores Park at the top of the Mission and the Castro that looks down over the city,’ remembers Murray. ‘A very emotional scene at night, looking at the fog rolling in, feeling the echoes… and the ghosts. Of the AIDS epidemic, of the civil rights stuff that’s gone on here… The sense of family in the air. It was very powerful.’

An evening view of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge | Photo: Pixabay

Another thing Tales portrays excellently is intergenerational queer relationships – whether romantic, sexual or platonic.

The observation prompts an anecdote from Murray, which also illustrates the power of TV. He says he once ‘connected with a group of young, oppressed gay men in Egypt – I was going there a lot for five years. My partner at the time was Egyptian.

‘Social gatherings happen in homes, we’d go – these guys were hungry for stories of a freer life. I’ve kept some contact with those guys. When Looking came out, they really responded to it. It gave them a sense of what’s possible.’

Ellen Paige as Shawna and Zosia Mamet as Ellen’s on-screen love interest Claire | Photo: Netflix

Speaking of Looking, I can’t help but ask, does Murray think Dom and Michael would be friends in real life?

‘Michael might think Dom had led a frivolous life!’ says Murray

‘That’s a really interesting question!’ laughs Murray. ‘Yeeeaaah…. I have a feeling they wouldn’t be close friends. They’d be acquaintances!

‘I love Dom – he was a good person who thought deeply and was heading to bigger things. But I feel he spent a chunk of his life living superficially. Michael thought he was going to die through the AIDS epidemic, lost people… The depth of experience Michael has – even though he has a boyish spirit, is a bit of a man-child – he has wisdom. He might think Dom had led a frivolous life!’

Murray as Dom in looking | Photo: HBO

‘It’s always odd getting naked with pretty much a bunch of strangers!’

Another obvious similarity between Dom, Michael and Murray is their incredible physiques. Michael appears nude within the first 11 minutes of the new Tales, and there are some incredible sex scenes later on. Does this sort of thing get any easier with experience, I wonder?

‘It’s always odd,’ Murray admits. ‘You’re about to get naked, or semi-naked with pretty much a bunch of strangers. It’s pretty much what you imagine that would feel like. It’s an unnatural situation. But it’s great when you’re with people you like, you trust. I have a really wonderful rapport with Charlie who plays my boyfriend. It’s easy with him.’

A piece of Ben’s dialogue suggests Michael goes to the gym ‘for two hours a day, six days a week.’ What was Murray’s response to that?

‘Well, I assumed he was exaggerating – I’m not going to be doing that!’ he laughs. ‘I’m fit and in good shape, but that’s overkill! But Michael’s definitely vain and wants to look good.’

‘Beautiful-looking people who also look like ordinary human beings’

As our interview coincides with actor Richard Madden’s comments about pressure on male actors to stay in shape, I bring that up.

‘My first response is women have had that for years, so it’s about time!’ laughs Murray. ‘My real response is, it would be great if none of us had to deal with that. But to a certain extent, if it’s to do with the character, I feel like it’s part of my job.

‘If there’s a pressure to do it when in the real world the character wouldn’t be crazy fit, I’d feel if you don’t want to do that, you shouldn’t be forced to. What I love about TV and film from the UK is it’s very different. Something like Broadchurch – beautiful-looking people who also look like ordinary human beings!’

Fittingly, Murray names Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s ‘angst-ridden, raw and honest’ Law of Desire from 1987 as a crucial LGBTI work of art that shaped his identity – as the new Tales surely will for the millions of new eyes and ears it’s about to reach.

‘It was very sexually free and the affection was passionate and unfiltered. I remember really responding to that.’

Tales of the City drops on Netflix on 7 June

See also

Tales Of The City is back to focus on this trans character’s past

This is your first look at Netflix LGBTI series Tales of the City

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