Photography by Kai Z Feng
Styling by Grant Woolhead
Bundled up in an army general’s coat, sitting inside his white-on-wood “industrial farm chic” office, Ryan Murphy recounts an exchange that gave the often polarizing show creator a moment of great validation. “I was at a fundraising event at Rob Reiner’s house and I was talking to the lawyers who are fighting to get Proposition 8 overturned,” Murphy says. “And I asked them why they thought public opinion on gay marriage has changed so much in the last four years.”
According to Murphy, the legal duo answered without a moment’s hesitation: “Television.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any other arena that has done more to normalize the gay experience than TV. If the creators of Will and Grace introduced middle America to their cheerful, often slapstick, gay neighbor, then Murphy’s Glee and The New Normal have brought that neighbor into the classroom, given him a seat at the dinner table, and beckoned him into our bedroom. In its own subversive way, so has American Horror Story -- with its tongue-in-cheek treatment of gore -- while simultaneously reintroducing us to the American treasure that is Jessica Lange, a bold, bawdy diva if there ever was one.
“I don’t go into a project thinking I’m a groundbreaker or a pioneer,” says Murphy. “But all my work has a gay voice and gay characters and always will. I do feel with Glee, since it skews so young, the gay characters do transmit a certain message: You are not alone. You don’t have to harm or hate yourself.” Murphy looks away, pausing, then comes back. “I wish I’d had this show growing up. I think if I had, I would be a lot less fearful and a lot braver.”
While gay plotlines have seeped into the fabric of major network shows -- think a very special episode of Roseanne -- the big tipping point in television came with shows like Modern Family and Glee. Both shows went into development at Fox Studios in 2008. When they emerged, ready for prime time with fully formed, dynamic gay characters meant to last the duration of series, Dana Walden, head of programming for Fox Studios, didn’t think much of it. Walden is credited as the network mastermind behind getting shows like Glee on air.
“I grew up in Los Angeles, and to me, having gay characters depicted in a non-sensational, non–soap box way is a no-brainer,” Walden says. “Part of what makes Ryan’s shows so wildly popular isn’t that he always pushes the envelope; it’s that he creates characters with deep, lasting relationships and he gets the audience to invest in them.” Walden recalls the moment when she realized that Glee had become a sensation. “Everyone I talked to mentioned Kurt,” she says, referencing the gay, somewhat fey, bullied-but-nervy high schooler with a sensational voice on Glee (played by Chris Colfer). “We didn’t go in thinking that Kurt would be a big breakout, but in the middle of season 1, we saw that he was the character everyone was talking about.”
Murphy’s shows depict the entire range of gay sexuality, from well-to-do suburban dads on The New Normal and quivering choirboys on Glee to persecuted mid-century lesbians on American Horror Story, with all the kissing cheerleaders, mean queens, unrepentant fetishists, closeted jocks, and bisexual serial killers in between.
“I remember being young and hearing my parents having a very derogatory conversation about Paul Lynde while they were watching him on Hollywood Squares,” Murphy recalls. “They thought every gay person was like him, and I thought, Well, I do like scarves, it’s true, but I’m not Paul Lynde,” he says dryly. “That memory stuck with me, so whenever I got any kind of ‘power’ in television, I tried to showcase different kinds of gay people and always made sure gay people were represented in my projects.”
Not that this showcasing came easily to Murphy. “When I first started working in the entertainment industry, it was out of the question to have an authentically gay character on television. Forget it! Forget it.” On his first TV show, Popular, a WB teen dramedy set in the Hobbesian world of public high school, Murphy would get notes from the network criticizing his straight characters as “too gay.” Other shows he pitched around town with gay characters, or even straight characters “with a gay sensibility,” as Murphy describes them, were turned down for being too polarizing and unfamiliar to audiences. “Now it’s like, if you don’t have a gay character, something is wrong with your show.”
And more than just sexual identity, the slippery world of sexuality is a strong theme in all of Murphy’s work. Starting with the shock bonanza Nip/Tuck and on to the pulpy psychosexual drama of American Horror Story, the showrunner is unwavering in his commitment as a sexual provocateur (he would like to get more transgender characters in his shows, an issue that has yet to thaw with mainstream audiences). “Sex is the last taboo,” Murphy declares. “The conservative groups are very, very, very nervous about sex, particularly nonmissionary-position straight-people sex, so if you try to do something other than two people fucking in a bed under a sheet, it’s very difficult.”
During his six-year tenure on Nip/Tuck, a show that featured ultra-real scenes of viscera from plastic surgery (chisels cracking facial bones, serrated butt cheeks ready for implants, a rogue liposuction pump hosing operating room attendants with gooey human fat) and plenty of violence, the only standard queries Murphy received for the show always had to do with sex. He fought, every time: “I will always fight for boundaries of sex and sexuality to be pushed because I think that sex, particularly in television, is the most revealing character trait you can investigate.”
It should be pointed out that during most of its six-year run, Nip/Tuck was the highest-rated show on basic cable. Cable, beginning with HBO, has left networks panting to catch up with their provocative and popular programming; it was on cable that Murphy was able to break real ground before doing so on the networks.
With a hit series like Nip/Tuck on its hands, FX, the show’s network, conceded most fights to Murphy. Now Murphy has filmed it all. Sex with a rubber doll? Check. Sex with “the Hope Diamond of transsexuals”? You bet.
Perhaps even more provocative are the acts Murphy has inserted into the PG-rated Glee. The characters Blaine and Kurt (played by Darren Criss and Colfer, respectively) were the first openly gay teenage couple to share a kiss on network TV. Taking it a step further, the two boys are even shown lying amorously, noses pressed together, after losing their virginities to each other.
“Ryan has gotten me to do things I never thought I’d do,” says Walden with a hearty laugh. “What I really admire about Ryan as a show creator is that he refuses to water down his vision for broad appeal. I’ve seen so many other creators do that whereas Ryan will fight, with true passion, for his vision to get to the screen untouched.” Nevertheless, Murphy’s reputation as envelope-pusher has engendered a backlash, both from conservative groups who don’t like his message and from Twitter-happy Glee fans who want him to push further.
“I get complaints on Twitter that I don’t show enough,” Murphy says, exasperated. “It’s like, What do you want me to do? I can’t show teenagers fucking on FOX!”
These days, Murphy is more interested in emotional controversy. “That’s where I think The New Normal comes from,” he says. “I want to provoke people emotionally.” The NBC comedy, about a gay couple who adopt a newborn using a gestational surrogate, is based on Murphy’s real-life experience with spouse David Miller. “Sometimes I feel a bit prudish,” Murphy admits in his deadpan way. “With Logan [their 10-week-old son] in the house now, I feel like I need to cover up every Mapplethorpe print.”
For New Normal star Andrew Rannells, Murphy’s skill is to introduce homosexuality as fact, not simply a plot device. “He is inclusive to so many people,” he says, “so many types of people, that eventually the differences fade away and what you’re left with is the story and the emotion it creates.”
As the creator of three successful shows running concurrently on network and cable, as well as his forays into movies (he directed Eat, Pray, Love, starring Julia Roberts, and is adapting Larry Kramer’s raging AIDS polemic, The Normal Heart, for HBO, to star Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer), Murphy has emerged as a new Hollywood power broker -- a David Geffen for the 21st century equipped with a husband, a newborn son, and a rubber suit.
Murphy grew up in small-town Indiana, the son of a former beauty queen and a semi-pro hockey player.At 5 o’clock every morning, Murphy’s Irish-Catholic father shook him awake to attend morning mass before dropping him off at parochial school, where Murphy would hang out after hours with the clergy members. “For me, all the nuns and priests were incredibly glamorous figures,” Murphy says. The Catholic dramaturgy, the ceremony, the iconography of saints and sinners, the authorial robes and habits of the clergy all enthralled him. The Church, along with his Dark Shadows–loving grandma, Myrtle, provided Murphy with the heightened reality and grand sense of theater he craved as a pre-pubescent boy.
“Myrtle was the best. Everything I have in my life, in terms of my imagination and my ambition and my drama -- the love of all that -- comes from her 100 precent,” Murphy says. “She put on a lot of makeup and jewelry and loved the color purple, so she wore it every day.” On afternoons, Myrtle would sit her young grandson in front of the TV to watch the paranormal soap opera Dark Shadows “just to toughen me up,” Murphy says. “I went as Barnabas Collins, like, three Halloweens in a row, and my dad was thrilled because it was the first time I wanted to be a boy; I usually wanted to be a witch or something like that.”
Murphy’s set of peculiar interests alienated his more traditional-minded father. “My dad was this big jock and here I was: this weird little gay boy who wanted things like a vacuum cleaner for his birthday.” When Murphy would shut down out of frustration with his father’s dismissiveness, Myrtle would pull her grandson aside and say things like, “It’s great that you want a vacuum. It’s OK to be weird.” Myrtle indulged her grandson in all his eccentric interests: They went to mortuaries to study flower arrangements, to the cinema to see old Vincent Price movies, and to coin-operated laundromats all over town so Murphy could pick up empty detergent cartons to play make-believe laundromat at home.
Murphy credits Myrtle’s love of the macabre and esoteric as the inspiration for American Horror Story. “She turned me on to all the tropes of horror I came to love. In a way, American Horror Story is a tribute to her,” Murphy muses, before adding, somewhat typically, “She would hate Glee. She hated musicals.”
It’s Murphy’s mother’s love of musicals that her son inherited, and which illuminates his work -- and not only Glee. In the most recent season of American Horror Story, Jessica Lange’s character, a defrocked nun interned in her own insane asylum, undergoes an excessive round of electroshock therapy that causes an extended musical hallucination: Lange and the other pajama-clad lunatics swish around the rec room in a glorious rendition of Shirley Ellis’s “The Name Game.” One might consider the ebullient explosion of song and dance inside the walls of the sadistic institution Briarcliff the epitome of camp.
“No,” Murphy scolds. “I hate that word.” He goes on: “That description could not be more wrong.” For Murphy, who prides himself on the well-thought-out tone of his shows, the term “camp,” often applied to gay showrunners like True Blood’s Alan Ball or Desperate Housewives’s Marc Cherry, is an insult.
“To me, Showgirls is camp. That’s a movie where the creators clearly thought they were making All About Eve. They took it super seriously and lost the tone along the way. I don’t think my tone ever really gets away from me -- it’s all deliberate. I just think ‘camp’ is an easy blanket term, and it’s not accurate for me or a lot of other gay people.” Murphy takes another long pause. (Since he isn’t much of a smiler, it’s very easy to think he’s mad at you when he goes into these silences.)
“I mean, I get it,” he says with a little flip. “I think there’s an outlandishness, a flamboyance, and a heightened realism to my work, but camp is an umbrella I don’t particularly like or agree with.”
I ask Murphy if he identifies as a “gay writer.”
“No,” he replies, without hesitating. “I don’t even know what that means anymore. I feel like I’m a lot of things: a gay man, a father, a man who likes to wear black. I feel like I am a gay man, so I know how important leadership is in our community, and I’m always the first to champion the rights of gay causes, and I spend a lot of time and money doing that, but I don’t think of myself that much, which I’m sure people will be shocked to hear.”
Murphy juggles his many projects through a system of delegation and “tone meetings.” Each show has a strong coproducer or showrunner who can run the day-to-day operation of the writers’ room. Then, at scheduled times throughout each working day, Murphy will meet with the show’s writing staff and issue orders on plot points he wants in an episode or listen to plot pitches, all while maintaining, as he puts it, “the proper tone.”
With Glee, for example, Murphy came into a recent meeting and declared, “I’m obsessed with ‘At the Ballet’ from A Chorus Line, and I want Sarah Jessica Parker to sing it during some kind of blackout, where the kids get back to basics.” Then it was up to the writing staff to figure out how to make that work. Sometimes Murphy’s plot instructions are a little more esoteric; he’s been known to come into a room and say things like, “I’m obsessed with the color orange right now. Figure out a way we can do a tribute to orange.”
But even with three shows and a movie in development, Murphy gets home in time for dinner with his new family every night. “I’ve always been obsessed with babies, ever since I was young, so I’m happy to finally have an actual one in our house,” he says. Other current obsessions for Murphy: skulls, barns “for livestock or entertaining,” birds, and the birdcages Martha Stewart made for her canaries. “I don’t know, I guess I’m nesting,” Murphy says, cracking his first smile of the day.