The Outsider

5.14.2014

By Shana Naomi Krochmal

Director Bryan Singer on not really coming out, the queer allegories of superheroes, and the power of Ellen Page

In his editor’s bay, Singer reveals a few sneak peeks of the new film. He’s wearing his usual uniform of black-rimmed glasses, sneakers, jeans, and a white T-shirt under a checkered button-down. On the cusp of his third decade in the business, he’s feeling both contemplative and candid. A longer, more personal interview like this is a new challenge for him and a departure from the wash-rinse-anecdote cycle of junkets and sci-fi conventions.

Singer never really came out, not officially. “On Usual Suspects, I had a boyfriend on set, and it didn’t even occur to me to not have him be affectionate,” he says. “I remember Gabriel Byrne said, ‘I really admire how comfortable and open you are,’ and I thought, Really?” He was surprised anyone cared at all.

Somewhere along the way, he became “openly gay director Bryan Singer.” The first time he saw that in print, Singer says, “I was like, Oh, OK. That was easy.” He shrugs. “I came out by osmosis.” So he skipped being asked or having to make a statement, which is probably a sign of progress. Asked now whether life is any different in Hollywood for a “gay director,” he’s ready to give a more complicated answer. “I’m quite bisexual,” he says. “In the last five years, I’ve had two girlfriends — one for two years, one for eight months.” He laughs, a little more the shy, Clark Kent type than the self-assured superdirector he’s been all day. “Talking about human sexuality is like talking about the second World War,” he says, wryly. (If Singer has an enduring film fixation other than gay allegories, it’s with WWII.)

“If you look at the Kinsey Report, human sexuality is so complex. And the reason I’ve never talked about it to the press — until now — is because sexuality is so complex. To have a real conversation about it, you really want to have the person you’re talking to in front of you.” He doesn’t mean a reporter; he means the audience. The fans. Whoever might, for some reason, care about this thing that has been no big deal to him for so long. He wants it to be a dialogue, not an edict.

But at a certain point, it seems silly to avoid talking about it altogether. “In the end, it’s probably going to be a guy,” he says. “I emotionally lean towards male relationships, so I’m happy to say I’m gay, too, if it’s a one-syllable, easy answer.”

On the six-point, self-assessed Kinsey scale, Singer says, without hesitation, “I’d definitely be a four.” His first serious relationship, at 23, was with actress Michelle Clunie, best known for playing a lesbian on Showtime’s Queer as Folk. The women he dates are not threatened by guys, he says; with boyfriends, the prospect of him being with girls is more of a novelty. “I don’t think it’s on the radar.” He shrugs. This seems like a conversation he’s had often, if not to any conclusive end. “They think it’s interesting?” he guesses. “Some think it’s gross — but they would be a six on the Kinsey scale.”

His biggest impediment to getting serious is the oldest story in the book: He’s too busy and spends months on end shooting, usually out of the country. “It’s very hard to maintain something, and when I do really want to be with somebody, I get very insecure.” Regardless of which answer Singer gives about his sexual orientation, he exhibits the same bold confidence he must have shown his shrink as a teen. He is who he is, and he’s been out long enough now that he’s sometimes consulted by queer actors in Hollywood who aren’t sure if they want to come out. “I say do whatever feels comfortable,” he advises. “If it’s hurting you inside, if it’s limiting your enjoyment of life, then by all means, be open about it. If you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you’re under no obligation to the public. I like to believe celebrities have an obligation to at least be nice to fans, but they don’t have to explain their sex lives — unless they really want to.”

He’s seen firsthand how someone who finally reaches that threshold can feel immediately lighter for it. The day after Ellen Page — who joined the X-Men for 2006’s The Last Stand and has a major role in the new film — spoke about being gay for the first time at a Human Rights Campaign Foundation conference and the video immediately went viral, she met Singer in Montreal for reshoots. “She just seemed so much happier and relaxed and talkative,” Singer says, “to the point where we all said, ‘Ellen, you seem to be kind of glowing.’ ”

Her powerful speech, he says, should be read in schools, “especially with all this ridiculous shit that’s happening in other parts of this country.”

If the X-Men comics universe has leapfrogged forward, keeping pace with rapid-fire social change — in 2012, the cover of one issue featured the wedding of the gay mutant Northstar to his longtime boyfriend; later that year, two men recreated the image at a convention — there’s still never been an out-and-proud comic book character on the big screen. And the real world still, at times eerily, resembles the fear and loathing of Singer’s first X-Men film. “The American people deserve the right to decide if they want their children to be in school with mutants!” shouts an angry senator in that movie. “We must know who they are, and, above all, what they can do!”

On the day Singer and I talk, a federal judge throws out the ban on same-sex marriage in Texas — pending another appeal, of course — and a proposed Arizona law permitting businesses to discriminate against anyone who offends their religious sensibilities is vetoed at the 11th hour by the governor.

“The central theme of the X-Men universe is living in a world that hates and fears you,” Singer says. “They all had to deal with isolation and being outcasts, and they all found each other.” And just because they’re metaphorically gay doesn’t mean they’re all good guys. “Sometimes they follow the right path, sometimes the wrong path.”

Though China and Russia are a superhero movie’s major international markets — First Class made more than $200 million overseas — this time Singer has no intention of traveling with his cast to the film’s Moscow premiere. “I see Russia as such a powerful, enlightened country,” he says. “But any law that invites discrimination invites assholes to be able to harm the person being discriminated by the law, because they feel empowered. That’s how a beautiful, enlightened, intelligent country like Germany became a terrible, monstrous place for a period of history.”

He wants Russian fans to see the film, and wishes he had the courage of his friend Dustin Lance Black, who brought Milk to St. Petersburg for screenings. Singer is used to the occasional homophobic diatribe about the X-Men movies (or him), if still baffled by them.

“How is a fan of the X-Men saying incredibly intolerant things? They just like the claws and the cool shit? Don’t they get what these comic books are about? They’re about tolerance. That’s the whole theme. Who knows? Maybe they’re just assholes.”

Tags: Movies, x-men
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