Greek, ABC Family's funny drama about a geeky boy who rushes a fraternity at the college where his older sister is queen bee sorority girl, feels more like a prime-time show on its big sister network than the typical heavy-handed Disney fare of its other corporate cousin.
Signs of maturity include a conspicuous lack of cheap condemnation for underage drinking, realistic but sympathetic repercussions for casual hook-ups between college students, and, oh yeah, Calvin -- a fully developed, three-dimensional gay character played by Paul James. The sweet, surprisingly sharp show isn't shooting for record-breaking firsts (though it's not as if the airwaves are drowning in black, gay college students), but the storylines are refreshingly devoid of the same tried-and-true plot points we've seen on other teen dramas. Greek could easily fit in a slot before Ugly Betty but more than holds its own on the cable channel, where it airs Mondays at 8pm.
As Calvin's storyline slowly heats up -- he's getting a new boyfriend, Veronica Mars and Betty alum Max Greenfield -- Out spoke to James about the show's gay creator, real-life experience in a fraternity, and his own guys-who-play-gay mafia of actor friends.
Out: What kind of a reaction have you gotten to this role?
Paul James: My friends think it's cool. I haven't gotten anything negative. To be honest, there's been a lot more reaction from people enjoying the show than anything about my character.
What is a show this cool doing on ABC Family?
ABC Family is really trying to rebrand itself, trying to fill the niche that the CW has left. There is a lot more programming coming on in the next year, trying to get an older demographic. At the same time they're trying to keep the family aspect, which I think is really alive on our show -- the brotherhood and the sisterhood and the support you get from fraternities or sororities. And the creator of the show [Patrick Sean Smith] is gay, and I think he wanted to put something on that responds to who he was as a kid. There weren't very many positive portrayals on TV when he was growing up. And If one out of every 10 people are homosexual, then you've got to think that there are a lot of people in fraternities or sororities that are closeted.
What was your experience in a fraternity like?
I made some great friends. I had a really great time, for the most part. There's a lot of stupid stuff that goes on. I studied drama, and that took so much of my time that I wasn't around much.
Did you have gay brothers in the house?
There was a guy in my fraternity who came out when he left school. I'm still in contact with him. We had a kid rush who was in drama with me, who was gay. It was sort of an awkward conversation when we were discussing whether to give him a bid -- some of what you saw in the first episode of this season really happened.
How much do you and the creator collaborate on the character?
Television is a writer's medium, and it's Sean's show. Everyone's fraternity experience is so different. There was one episode last season with my father, and in the first draft, the father wasn't supportive. From an acting standpoint, that gave me a lot more to do.
But in the version that aired, we learn that his dad is accepting and just doesn't understand why Calvin won't come out to his fraternity. I thought that was so striking -- I'd never seen that story on TV before.
That was Sean's whole thing. He said, "We've already seen the father who doesn't approve of the son. That's been done. It's cliche. Let's do something different." It was the right way to go, and it was better. Calvin can't just be like everyone else. He has to be representative of some ideals and some things that need to happen for gay characters on television. From an actor's standpoint, sometimes that can be frustrating. But ultimately it's more important that it's good for the show.
What have been your favorite scenes to do so far?
In "Friday Night Frights," which is not the best episode -- it's a Halloween episode -- I got to hang out with Evan, and it felt more fun. From Calvin's perspective, it was a breath of fresh air -- a normal interaction. And this season, the third episode ["Highway to the Discomfort Zone"] with Dale's character [trying to "convert" Calvin to be straight]. I love Clark [Duke, who plays Dale], because we have so much fun doing it. Whenever Calvin gets to be a prankster, for me it's the most fun.
There's a nice twist at the end of the conversion therapy episode, where you point out Dale's Confederate flag and warn him that's the next discussion you two need to have. Will we see that?
I don't think it's a show about race. It's such an uncomfortable topic, and it's something that's so hard to understand. I'm not sure that that's something that they're going to do. The Confederate flag was something that was so glaring it needed to be addressed. From my perspective, it should have been addressed a lot earlier. I don't even know how they would do it -- we have a lot of different viewpoints in the writer's room, but everyone's white. I don't really know how it works in homosexual relationships -- the interracial thing, maybe it's not such a big deal. But that to me would be something that could be explored, my interactions with whoever I date. It's kind of hard in the confines of the show. Fraternities and sororities are not as ethnically diverse as they're showing them. That's not reality. It was awkward for me to be in a white fraternity some of the time. Maybe it's better to say, this might not be how it really is -- but this is how it should be.
I think you could same something similar about how Evan shuts down homophobic members. We'd love to see that be how all fraternity presidents act, but I'm not sure it is.
Right. I think it gives Evan's character a redeeming quality -- he seems like such a douchebag in his interactions with Casey. It gives him a good duality, I think.
Calvin is going to be dating Max Greenfield, right?
Yes, and Max is actually a friend of mine. I've known him for like three years. That should be fun. I don't know any of the story -- the last episode we filmed was the first time he was on the show.
You didn't get any kisses last season.
No, we didn't have any! I hear that they're going to work up to it. It's funny -- the guy from As the World Turns, Jake Silbermann, is a friend of mine too. I went to college with him. I know they're getting a lot of flak for [the gay characters not kissing]. It's definitely a different situation over here. It's not a network thing, and it's not a creator thing. Sean is just making sure that it's not this event, like a marketing campaign, like, "First gay kiss!" That's cheap. He wants it to be something that happens naturally for the character.
When Max was getting cast, did you talk with him about it?
I didn't know he was getting cast until he showed up at the table read. I was like, "Max, what are you doing here?" And he said, "I'm playing your boyfriend!"
Are you close? Are you going to be cool if you end up making out?
Oh, yeah, yeah. I hope he has the proper mouth etiquette and I'll do the same. He's easy to work with.
Do you have good chemistry?
I think so -- since we're friends, I hope so. Our first scene is kind of awkward in general. His character is more flamboyant than mine, and it deals with my character having reservations about him being so quote-unquote gay. We haven't really seen ourselves get comfortable yet. We have four more episodes to do to finish the season, and I don't know what's going on for any of them.