By Justin Ravitz
What would Bulldog say? After years of costarring with TV's favorite therapist, Frasier Crane, Dan Butler, who played the straightest-guy-ever on Frasier, gets into the shrink act himself in Fixing Frank. The dark indie presents the openly gay actor as Dr. Apsey, a radical therapist with the supposed ability to convert gay patients into heterosexuals. Apsey's chilling power over Frank, a gay reporter posing as a patient (as egged on by his psychotherapist boyfriend), fuels a complex, thought-provoking drama about love, identity, and psychology. Out.com spoke with Butler about the film, Frasier, his long-term partner'and the irresistible Karl Rove.
Hi, Dan! How've you been?
Good. I just got back from a whirlwind four-day trip a few minutes ago. Filming for this project [the indie film Karl Rove I Love You] in Colorado, Utah, Nevada. We went through about every climate: snowstorm, windstorm, rain, sunshine.
Sounds very dramatic.
Have you seen that part of the country before?
Oh, yeah, I used to hitchhike across the country' I love to see the country unfold.
Fixing Frank comes out in L.A. on May 20. What's it like shooting an indie versus, say, big-budget TV?
It was a little bit of guerrilla filmmaking. It was hot. We shot in July, but the film was set in the winter, so we were wearing wool cardigan sweaters. Our makeup person/costumer was borderline manic depressive and wasn't there a lot. So we'd be perspiring, mopping off the sweat, making each other up and' 'Action!' The place where we did most of the therapy sessions was in the house of a manic depressive/agoraphobe who hadn't cleaned the place in years. It was two inches thick with dog hair. There was a cat litter box in the kitchen. The cat had died two years ago, but it still had cat poop in it because he felt this dissuaded rats from coming in. Manic depression seems to be a theme here!
What do you know about real-life 'conversion therapy?'
My partner had a friend who had been through a conversion therapy; he stayed in a house up in San Francisco, I believe. It just seemed like stunted growth, like arrested development.
Fixing Frank will inspire many of us to remember our own years in the closet. What was your own coming-out process like?
Pretty unique. In retrospect I was always attracted to men, but I just thought that everyone felt the same way that I did. And then it became evident at one point that this wasn't the case. I didn't necessarily come off as everyone's definition of what gay is, so I didn't have to combat people who were picking on me for being effeminate. It was a slow discovery in real life. There was a production of Boys in the Band by a local theater company. That was the first time I'd seen two men in their underwear being intimate speaking with one another. They weren't exaggerated, evil, or the butt of people's jokes. They were just there. There was a deep recognition and I was really grateful for that'a big turning point.
Fixing Frank made the festival rounds in 2001 and 2002, but is more resonant than ever in 2005, given the gay marriage debate, the mainstreaming of fundamentalism, and an often homophobic vibe in the White House. How important is it for you to perform in works that further the dialogue about sexuality and gay identities and sensibilities?
It's extremely important. What I love about Fixing Frank is that it challenges the norm and how you think. There's a lot of gray matter in this. This film angers, surprises, and stimulates people. It wants you to give the answers. I've never been a part of something that glued people to their seats and had them talking outside the theater for hours. They find themselves talking back to the characters out loud.
Do you miss Frasier? How did it change your life? Do you at all resent being associated so closely with Bulldog?
Oh, no. It was a great role'what a gift to make people laugh. Around the time the show began, I also had a one-man show which was the most public forum to date of me being out. Being this rabid heterosexual on Frasier challenged people's views. It was a wonderful coming together. It's pretty magical: How did this group of actors, writers, and creators happen to be together at this point in time to create this thing? And there weren't egos getting in the way. Kelsey Grammer was firmly of the 'Let's all be great' belief. There was a strong mutual respect.
Did you say goodbye to Bulldog as you wanted to?
I was a little bit disappointed: I was doing a play in New York (Twentieth Century with Anne Heche and Alec Baldwin) when the final episode was being shot. They tried to figure out a way to fly me back to shoot it'but it just couldn't happen. I left the show as a regular after six years. The juiciest stuff came when I came back periodically. In a way I'm grateful that I wasn't able to be in the final episode'I think it's nice to just leave a character midair somewhere.
What do you think about the gay presence on TV today'both in the depiction of gay characters and themes as well as gay creative forces behind the scenes?
It's essential, and has to be done in a witty way'we're going through the Dark Ages. I find right now a very exciting time: I look back in history, and the times I love were the Depression, the Civil War' The divisiveness is just as strong now, as is the importance of the issues. People who survived the Dark Ages were the court jesters. How do you walk through this with grace and humor while still being vigilant?
You're working on a film right now called Karl Rove I Love You. Tell me more!
Well, I just fell in love with the guy. I know it doesn't make sense, but love doesn't make sense. He's committed, ruthless, and has no moral boundaries, and I like that in a man. [Laughs]
Who do you play?
I don't want to give anything away. It's a dark romantic comedy. [Laughs] It's been fun getting to know Karl better. Have you ever seen him in shorts? He surprises people in more ways than one.
Tell me more about your partner, Richard. How'd you meet?
Richard and I have been together for 11 years. We were both actors'he's a brilliant acting teacher today'and had been aware of one another. I saw him in a show and was really smitten but found out he was in a relationship for five years. A few months later, I asked my director who knew us both, 'How's Richard doing?' And he said, 'Well, his lover died.' And I said, 'Oh, so he's available!' So it's the old waiting-til-the-lover-dies story. We went out. He was in a mourning period. We didn't call them dates but 'whatevers,' and just took it slowly. I remember 'talking' to his departed ex, saying, 'I don't want to encroach on the love you have for one another, but I really care for him.' I think like anything worth anything, it takes a lot of work. People say this in relationships, but it's true: We make each other laugh, and that really helps.