Catching Up With Scott Bakula
By Jerry Portwood
Scott Bakula and Murray Bartlett in a scene from 'Looking'
The Looking phenomenon, if you can call it that yet, was slow to take off for many armchair critics. As we approach this weekend's finale, the last of the eight 30-minute episodes, it seems that those gay men (and quite a few women)—who cried that the show was "racist" with not enough characters of color, "stereotypical" with its portrayal of men looking for love and sex, or downright "boring"—have come around to follow the exploits of the three main characters, Patrick, Augustin, and Dom.
But it's been the strong secondary characters—Kevin (Russell Tovey), Doris (Lauren Weedman), and Lynn (Scott Bakula)—that should also be credited for winning over much of the fan fervor. In particular, Scott Bakula's character Lynn, who is both a mentor and potential lover to Dom, represents the older generation of gay men in San Francisco who have weathered the AIDS epidemic and are credited for many of the hard-won civil rights, such as marriage equality, that the younger generation featured in the series are now enjoying—and struggling with.
We caught up with Scott Bakula after he landed in New Orleans after his flight from L.A. where he was preparing to begin taping a new pilot, NCIS: New Orleans, at dawn the next day to ask him about his recent gay roles on both Behind the Candelabra and being a "daddy" on Looking. "Men like Lynn have paved the way for a lot of young men who live there now," Bakula says. "They lived for something and lost a lot of friends. And it gives perspective for what it’s about for young men who live there today."
We also talked about bathhouses, wearing dresses on Quantum Leap, the fan fervor of Star Trek, and, since Lynn is a florist, if Bakula himself has a favorite flower.
Out: So, with the backdoor pilot you're shooting, can you tell us anything? Or is it all top secret?
It's a spinoff of the series, and we are solving this very intricate murder case that involves the folks in D.C. and in New Orleans. It’s a nice crossover, an effort to introduce a whole new cast, in two episodes, during the regular show. I’m in DC for part of it and New Orleans.
So since you're spending time in New Orleans to film, have you been watching HBO's True Detective?
My son is watching it religiously. But, no, I haven’t see it yet, just bits and pieces of four or five episodes. I’m going to hit up HBO and have them send it to me so I can catch up. How about you? Have you been watching?
So tell me when did Looking come into your life.
It came into my life last August. My manager told me, "There’s no script for you to look at, but I’d love for you to meet Andrew [Haigh]. But you're not in first two episodes, so we want you to look at his film Weekend. My manager was very excited about Andrew, although Michael [Lannan] wrote the pilot, and Andrew directed it. But they said the tone was in the Weekend vibe. I thought that it was fantastic; it's a beautiful little indie piece, really, really well done. So I had a two-hour breakfast with Andrew, and he talked me into it with nothing to read. He's a great salesman.
So you had already finished Behind the Candelabra, was your manager like, 'Hey, Scott’s up to doing older gay roles, everyone'?
Yeah, we had done Candelabra over a year-and-a-half ago now. This was three or four months after that. But I did say, "I just want to make sure, I’ve never worked for HBO my entire career, and now am I going to be their go-to guy for older gay guy?
Some would say you're the perfect gay daddy.
[Laughs] Well, everyone kind of laughs about it. But those roles are so completely different and unique. And this is an opportunity to be a part of this world up in San Francisco. I worked with Murray basically exclusively. I never spent any screentime with Jonathan or Frankie or any of the others. But they are such a great bunch, and they are so committed in a selfless kind of way. They're a great bunch to be around. And Andrew made good with what he told me the part was going to be about, and it was a great experience for me.
The first time we see you, you’re in a sauna in a bathhouse with Murray. It’s Lynn and Dom in towels. Were you surprised or concerned about that sort of sexy scene?
What do you mean surprised?
Well, I remember when I first saw you in Quantum Leap, you’ve never had any inhibitions about wearing a dress, showing your chest, showing some skin. You did the Playgirl issue even, so we’ve seen that. But was this scene with a guy in a steam room different in any way?
It was funny. I thought the scene was great, a great introduction of my character. You know, we as actors are always looking for great ways to show off on camera, and it was a great scene. This was as close as I’d ever gotten to a real bathhouse. Just hearing about it in my old days in New York in the mid-‘70s, you know that was a huge deal. That’s where Bette Midler started and that whole scene! My gay friends would be off to Sunday Tea, and then roll in at 9 the next morning after the bathhouse. But that was about as close as I ever got. But I thought this was a great scene, a great way to introduce the character. I love what that scene was about. But no, I wasn’t shocked. In terms of having my clothes off, I do that a lot.
Let’s talk about Lynn. Your character is sort of the wise person, the heart of the series with perspective and advice for the younger generation. Do you feel any sort of responsibility in that way, being a more seasoned person when you have younger actors and younger characters to educate?
What I loved about it was being someone who has been part of the movement, part of the crisis, part of that area and era. He’s invested in all aspects of the community. Regardless, I know you’re a talented guy, but as you get older, you recognize the fact that there’s so much going on in the world today, that history isn’t always at the forefront of somebody’s mind. So much information gets overlooked because we’re so busy living. I like being the reflective person who’s saying, “Put the cell phone down. Let’s talk; let’s see what we’re all doing and get our head out of the computers.” He’s a great contrast to the world that Jonathan [Groff's Patrick] is living in with computerized games and going to websites to meet people. That stuff they do a lot of on the show. It gives a little bit of weight; it’s a balance.
You know, we interviewed and photographed Cheyenne Jackson last year for our Out100 issue, and when we talked to him, he mentioned that he realized he was gay when he first saw Quantum Leap and developed a crush on you. I have to say, I was a young guy at the time too, and I had a similar response. Do you get that a lot? That you have gay men who have admired you for many different reasons over the years and now that you have played these gay characters after all these years?
You know, I have all kinds of fans. I’ve certainly had a lot of gay fans over the years. I welcome that, and I’m grateful for the kind of career I’ve had that I’ve been able to do a lot of different things and reach a lot of different communities. As actors, that’s our great hope, that we’re universal and that we can move freely and easily and be accepted. It doesn’t work that way for everyone, and I’m appreciative of that. Certainly because of Candelabra and because of Looking, there’s a more honest acknowledgement from the gay community now. When young men pass me on the street now, they’ll say, “Hey, I really like you in Looking.” Whereas, they might not have said that in the past. By saying it, they are acknowledging, I’m a young gay man and I appreciate the work you’re doing. I think that’s great, there’s an honesty and openness there that they feel comfortable to share that with me.
Well, you’ve seen how the industry has changed and the parts being offered over the years, but do you think that you would have accepted or been offered the same kind of roles 10 or 20 years ago?
It’s hard to know. I know that 20 years ago, I played a gay cadet in Quantum, and that was controversial at the time. I think actors spend less time thinking about this sort of thing. We’re more concerned about the role and what we can represent and if we get the part. That’s how I did it anyway. I don’t have an image of, I have to be a cowboy or some tough guy who can never cry. That’s not who I’ve been, and that’s who I am as a person, so I have access to these kinds of roles. I don’t think there’s been people saying, why didn’t they give this to a gay actor? I’m an actor, and we all share the landscape. And we do the work that comes our way if we’re lucky to get it.
And you’ve already experienced, and suffered through, being a Star Trek character so you’ve already learned how to maneuver through all those difficult hoops that come with that.
Oh yeah. I’ve been doing this for a long time. And it’s always kind of an interesting challenge. But we really are, at the end of the day, we’re nothing without fans. Nobody wants to make a movie that no one can see. No one wants to play on a basketball team that nobody comes to watch. No politician gets into office if nobody votes for them. Nobody. We all need support and people to embrace us and endorse us, basically. I’ve been really, really fortunate to have all these opportunities and these loyal fan pieces that I’ve done. This is expanding on that area. Certainly Quantum Leap has been a great crossover piece—for gay community and all communities. And Star Trek is all over the planet. We go to India, there are fans there. Wherever we go, it’s embraced. It’s groundbreaking and breaks those kind of barriers.
In episode 7, the last episode that audiences saw, there was the attempted kiss between you and Dom. We’ll see the finale this weekend, and you don’t know what’s going to happen beyond that, and you probably don’t know what to expect in the next season, but do you have any hopes of what will happen with Lynn?
Well, A: I hope I’m asked back. That’s A. And if I do, I think we’re going to explore this relationship. I don’t know if Lynn is going to change, but it’s about Dom, Murray’s character. That’s what’s interesting to me: to see how he’s faced with making some adult choices possibility. Will he self-destruct? Will he keep moving toward—whether it’s a relationship with me or not—how he will grow and move through his life? I think that’s the most interesting aspect of it.
Do you have any insight into that? I think a lot of people think, Oh by the time you’re 40, you should have it all figured out. But I know that’s not always the case. Here we have Dom, who is an adult by his physical age, but maybe he’s not always making adult decisions. Do you think that’s specifically a gay male issue, or is it something that you could relate to in your own life?
I think it’s universal. I know friends who are 60 who haven’t figured it out.
So that’s a good thing?
Yeah, but in an ideal situation, we never settle. We just keep growing and learning and always evolving. You may think you have it all figured out by the time you’re 30, but by the time you’re 40, it could all fall apart and you have to pick up the pieces. The world is moving so fast now and people are changing so rapidly it... You know, my dad worked for the same company his whole entire life. He never lost his job; he never had to move. He just kept working. That just doesn’t happen anymore. There are all kinds of life experiences that we’re bombarded with now. If you look at the last 10 years on the planet, or since 2001, it’s been one huge event after another. It’s hard for anyone to know who they are now.
I feel for the younger boys who are coming out now. I have a young boy who is 14. I have kids who are 18, 23, and my daughter is 30. There are so many possibilities that it can be overwhelming.
You know I had a chance to spend some quality time with Steven Soderbergh and his brother Charlie last year to talk about Behind the Candelabra.
I know once you get involved in his world, are in his orbit, that you often get a call. Have you talked about plans for anything else?
Well, I’ve been very fortunate since I was invited to The Informant and then, out of the blue, Candelabra dropped into my lap. You know Steven, he’s a real maverick, and goes whichever way the wind is blowing and is creative, about whatever is interesting and exciting to him. He’s very hard to predict! And if I’m lucky, I’ll get to work with him again. I get a complete euphoric experience; they have it down so smartly and cleverly. We have a good time and everyone works hard. He always picks interesting projects, but we don’t have anything in the works or plan to come. I’m just happy to be included and invited to the ball.
And hopefully he doesn’t say you have to get stripped down and sit naked in a towel or do something silly?
No, but I’ll be serious. I’ve followed your work for years and, before people would have said your’e doing something “brave,” but you don’t seem to think it’s that’s necessarily the case.
Well Andrew said to me, "Look we’re trying to get away from the stereotypical gay part you see on television and be more real and not be over the top." And I wanted to do that because it sounded like that’s a great place to start a series. There are some wonderful wonderful moments and surprises and brave work everyone is doing. You know, you have to put it out in the world. And we need to say: Let’s start treating these sort of events, like, "Oh my gosh, they’re not groundbreaking anymore, but this is an interesting character study of a place and what people and a place are like." HBO is renowned for that, and they push it if they can; that’s their mission. As Michael Lombardo [president of HBO programming] said, "It’s about time we had a series like this on TV." We hope it’s embraced by everyone, not just the gay community, but that it expands to a wider audience. I’m so glad they got a second season. That’s a big, big deal. It gives more opportunity to push out and get exposure to a wider audience.
Now, I know this is a superficial question, but your character is a florist and so I wanted to know, do you have a favorite flower?
Yeah, I do. We’re big rose people at our house.
Kind of a peach thing. But there’s another flower I really love. Not the lily. What am I trying to say, the flowers that live on…
Orchids! Yeah, orchids. I’m fascinated by the simple beauty of the orchid. Very graphic, very sexy and they last for a long time.
Well, thanks, Scott. I know you have to go to bed and get up at dawn to figure out New Orleans. But we think you’re sexy and will last a long time, too.