Scandal may have ended, but Tony Goldwyn is still the president of our united hearts.
After appearing in Network last year opposite Tatiana Maslany, Goldwyn is back on Broadway in The Inheritance. Stepping in during John Benjamin Hickey’s four-month leave of absence, the 59-year-old Ghost star plays Republican real estate developer Henry Wilcox in Matthew Lopez’s lauded two-part epic, which follows the struggles of three generations of gay men in the shadow of AIDS.
Goldwyn talks to NewNowNext about being a friend of the LGBTQ community since his groundbreaking Designing Women episode—and that one crazy summer in San Francisco.
The Inheritance/Matthew Murphy
What drew you to Henry in The Inheritance? You’ve played villains before, but a gay Republican is pretty scary.
Right? Serial killers are one thing, but… [Laughs] Joking aside, I don’t see Henry as a villain. He’s just a man we haven’t really seen much on stage, so it’s been fun and challenging to explore this character.
Is it a challenge to understand and defend his political beliefs?
No, because he’s written in a very eloquent way. When it comes to his politics, he’s very persuasive in his points of view, which is refreshing. He’s a Republican, yes, but not a diehard Trumper. He views politics in a more transactional, Libertarian way. His bigger failing is his go-it-alone approach to life, his isolation, which comes at a tremendous cost.
One might expect a gay man who survived the AIDS crisis to be embracing love, living each day to the fullest.
I recently spoke to someone who was an ACT UP activist in the ’80s, and he said he knew many men like Henry who made the choice to emotionally check out of life for their survival. But the play is about how, whatever the cost, the only way to heal is to reengage, to reconnect, to open one’s heart again in the face of inevitable human suffering. Henry thinks he’s building walls to protect himself and those he loves, but that strategy undermines him.
As a complex and polarizing gay character, he’s not unlike Scandal’s Cyrus Beene.
That’s true. But Henry’s much more self-aware than Cyrus—and, you know, not as evil.
The Inheritance/Matthew Murphy
Did John Benjamin Hickey offer you any insight into Henry?
We’re old friends, and I got to see John’s beautiful performance, but actors are weird; developing a character is a very internal, personal thing, and we have different approaches to Henry. He did talk to me about some challenges of the role, because there are these very intense scenes and then big gaps spent offstage.
We don’t see many new plays tackling AIDS anymore. What does The Inheritance add to the conversation?
It’s looking at the AIDS crisis through the lens of a generation where AIDS still exists but is no longer an imminent threat. The play is exploring the legacy of AIDS, and that hasn’t really been done. These younger gay men are figuring out what they have to learn, what their responsibilities are. That’s important because we can get very focused on ourselves, forgetting about the world that came before us and the people who paid a tremendous price for us to have the lives we have.
You played the first gay character with AIDS on primetime TV in the 1987 Designing Women episode “Killing All the Right People.” What do you recall about that experience?
I played a young guy who hires the women to design his funeral. It was a really great part for a guest star, and I was just getting started as an actor, so I was excited. [Designing Women creator] Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who wrote the episode, had lost her mother to AIDS from a blood transfusion, so it felt special and important and necessary. I knew it was groundbreaking, and I felt privileged to play the part. But I was so young, so I don’t think I was really aware of the impact that it would have for people.
I remember how it felt to see a young gay man on TV, before I even had the language for it. Did you hear from many gay men about the episode?
Yes, but not really until years later. It surprised me. I did a show on Broadway about 10 years ago, and one of the dressers, a middle-aged guy, said, “Tony, I have to thank you for that episode of Designing Women you did. You have no idea what that meant to our community.” All I did was my job, so I didn’t feel like I deserved any accolades, but I was very moved.
Did you have hesitations about taking a gay role so early in your career?
Well, there was so much homophobia in Hollywood at the time. As a straight actor playing a gay character, I had people telling me there would be a stigma attached to it, and I remember thinking how absurd and offensive that was.
My management was supportive of it, actually. But there were other people around me discussing that it was an issue, worrying that it was a risk. My dear father was worried about it. I was shocked that it was such a concern, but that was the world we lived in.
Those people didn’t get inside your head?
Not so much with Designing Women because I was so grateful to have a job. But then in 1990 I did a play in New York, The Sum of Us, and I dealt with people saying, “Are you sure you want to play another gay character?” I was 29, my movie career was taking off, Ghost was in movie theaters, so it was something I had to confront. I was militant about it, like, Screw it! If I’m going to take a hit because of this, I’ll take it. I felt that if I avoided risks for that kind of fear, what business did I have calling myself an artist?
The Sum of Us was a hit off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre. What was it like to be in a gay play in Greenwich Village at the height of the AIDS crisis?
It was insane. It was a rare, magical experience. It’s hard to describe. As with The Inheritance, I could feel the audience identifying so intensely with what they were seeing, weeping audibly. The audience for The Sum of Us was much gayer than for The Inheritance, which is quite mixed. I knew it meant so much to people in ways that I couldn’t possibly understand.
The Sum of Us/Playbill
Has The Inheritance helped put it into context?
Yeah, looking back, I can appreciate what that play meant for people. But something else I’ve confronted doing The Inheritance is that I lived through the ’80s and ’90s as a straight guy. I lost many close friends and colleagues, and it was very sad, but I know it was not the same as being a gay man living through that holocaust. I think now about how I existed with that happening all around me, yet I was still able to live a normal life because I was straight—I got married, I focused on my career, and I didn’t live in fear. I’ve been reminded of how we can tune out suffering if it’s too difficult to deal with.
You’re not the only straight actor in The Inheritance. What’s your take on the push to cast queer actors in queer roles?
I feel mixed about it. I don’t want to take opportunities away from LGBTQ actors—particularly with trans characters, because there are severely limited opportunities for trans actors—and I know I can’t understand the LGBTQ experience the way someone in that community can. However, as an actor, I want to represent all different kinds of people. My job is to get into the skin of someone who is very different from me. So there’s the politics of it and there’s the art of it, and I can appreciate and respect both sides of the argument.
You can also consider the issue as a director and producer.
Right. If I put my producer’s hat on, would I have a responsibility to cast a gay actor over a straight actor in the role of Henry Wilcox? I don’t know. I don’t think I’m allowed to ask about an actor’s sexuality in an audition, am I?
Yeah, so it’s tricky. My producing partner, Richard LaGravenese, and I are really interested in exploring racial dynamics, so we find ourselves asking, “Do we have the right, as white men, to be exploring racial tension? Should we be telling this story? How could it be wrong to explore this?” It’s an important conversation to be having.
You were on The L Word in 2005 as closeted action star Burr Connor, who says his career would be over if fans found out he was “a card-carrying member of the cocksucker club.”[Laughs] That line was an ad-lib, by the way.
Was Burr inspired by anybody?
I wouldn’t say I based him on anyone in particular, but I was not unfamiliar with his situation. I’ve worked with a number of big stars who were gay and terrified of exposure. Nowadays it’s not such a big thing. At that time, for a big star like Burr Connor, there was no other option but to stay in the closet.
As a scion of Hollywood royalty, what was your introduction to the LGBTQ community?
My parents were liberal but also old-fashioned. A lot of their colleagues were gay, and it was accepted, but it wasn’t really out in the open. We had gay family members but it wasn’t discussed; I have a gay cousin who gravitated to us because his family rejected him, and we loved him, but nobody talked about it. My first real indoctrination into the LGBTQ community was the summer I turned 18, when I did a summer theater program at the American Conservatory Theater, so I was in San Francisco for 10 weeks in 1978. That was eye-opening. [Laughs] I got to see the gay community in all its glory. I was like, Wow! This is what all the fuss is about!
Speaking of eye-openers, I was 12 when I saw Ghost, and your shirtless scene was part of my gay sexual awakening.[Laughs] You are not the first guy to tell me that. And I’m glad I could help.
The Inheritance is now playing at the Barrymore Theatre in New York.