Glee has broken the television mold in more ways than one. Its portrayal of what at first appeared to be a homophobic father (named Burt) rejecting his musical-loving gay son (yep, named Kurt) ultimately painted a picture of unconditional parental love. On the cusp of the September 21 second season premiere, we caught up with Mike O'Malley, the Emmy-nominated actor who plays the anything-but-stereotypical father tugging at our heart.
Out: What inspired you when you were creating this character. Do you know men like Burt?
Mike O'Malley: I grew up in New Hampshire, which is a very American place to grow up in the sense that people raise families and they go to their jobs and participate in their community. It wasn't foreign to transport my experience in New England to Ohio. Burt went to McKinley High -- actually, I don't know if that's established in the script anywhere'
But it's true for you at least.
Yes. He's a guy that stuck around the town. Life has handed him a fair amount of sadness. He's been affected by the loss of his wife, and he wishes that she were there to witness the ups and the downs that Kurt is going through. It's hard to talk about things that happen off-screen, but in my imagination I think he just loves his son and loves him despite knowing that a lot of what his son is interested in, he's not interested in. On top of the things every teen deals with, Kurt has an unfolding identity that Burt knows closed-minded people are going to ridicule him for. That's hard. It's hard to see your kids go out and get beat up by the world. Just loving your kid is the first thing. Parents love their children in a way that no one else does. Some have a harder time explaining that than others. I think that he begins to surprise himself because his son really needs him to be there in a way that no one else can be there.
We love your TV son, too. What's Chris Colfer like?
Chris Colfer is just a great guy. He's hilarious, he's interested in people, he's thoughtful. He's his own guy. He doesn't need any lessons from anybody about how to act. When you're in scenes with him, it's really quite remarkable because his emotional life is so available to him. You'd have to be an uncompassionate person to not respond to the behavior he's giving to you.
So how do you feel about being one of the first actors portraying a parent on TV who, even if he doesn't understand his gay son, is at least trying?
As an actor, you just want to get good material. When I began to read the first 20 pages of the first episode, I thought, I don't want to play they guy who's like, 'No son of mine is going to be gay.' And, by the way, that's not because it's not an authentic reaction that I'm sure many people have had, you know what I mean?
Oh, I do.
What I do think is important is that we're portraying a relationship that even if one person in the audience has had, it then becomes easier for people to understand. One of the great things about scripted TV is that characters have experiences that you can see the pros and cons of. We've seen this character act somewhat opposite of the way we thought the stereotype of this guy would be.
Even if you didn't take home the statue, congrats on the Emmy nomination. From a gay audience's perspective, it's nice to see that this role in particular is being recognized.
As an actor, you realize that it's all in the writing. What you're always looking for is a role where you can display your skills. To be on a show where people are watching and it's popular and you're being recognized for your contribution to that show, it's as awesome and wonderful as you'd think. It's better than being told you suck.
What was your reaction when you first read Kurt's coming out scene?
My first reaction when he came out was, 'Awesome!' I didn't think that's where the story was going, and that's why it surprised the audience. You think, here's a guy who played football and he watches Deadliest Catch and he thinks, Look at my gay son who's such a disappointment. But in fact he says, 'I've known for a long time and I just wanted you to tell me the truth.' I think that's really important for gay teens. You don't want people's parents out there saying, 'You're gay!' because then they don't own their own identity. Let somebody tell you who they are whether or not it's obvious. It's a classic scene of a kid thinking he's doing a good job at lying and a parent seeing right through it. I don't know if it's stated explicitly in the script but Chris's character is just 15 years old. You're just beginning to enter into an adolescent life where he's going to have a sexual identity. It's one thing if my kid wants to watch The Sound of Music over and over and over when I want to watch the football game. Now he wants to kiss boys. That's a whole new conversation.
Do you have any speculation for Kurt's much-anticipated love interest this season?
I don't know how they're going to write it but that's a whole new frontier. It'll be interesting. Sex education in this country is about prevention of STDs and prevention of pregnancy. Any parent or educator that says it's about anything different is not telling the truth. If people really wanted kids to have sex, they'd give them a manual on how to do it well.
Yeah. Can you imagine if part of a class was like, 'We're so glad you kids are having sex now. It's a beautiful, wonderful thing. So, we're going to show you a couple diagrams, a few videos, maybe focus on these areas'' But they don't. It's messy to people. They don't want to think about their kids as sexual beings, so I'm sure it's going to come up this season. It's rich material.
Were there any Kurts in your high school?
Was there anybody out in my high school? No. I went to an all-boys Catholic high school. There were a couple of brothers who were out.
Brothers? Oh, you mean'
No, there weren't. I'm joking. I went to high school from `80 to `84 so we were just turning the corner on even being aware.
Finally, if Burt and Kurt did a father-son duet, what would it be?
It would be great it we found out that Burt was in a barbershop quartet. My father's been in a barbershop quartet since the early `70s. There's a whole underbelly of Americana that is barbershop quartet. It needs to be exposed.
And you think Glee should tackle that?
Why shouldn't it? One of the things that I think has been awesome about Glee is that it also shows to a lot of teens that their parents are fully human with their own struggles and emotions. Getting people to get along -- parents and children, people in communities -- getting people to understand one another and become more tolerant, it does have an impact.
The premiere of the second season of Glee airs September 21 at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.