Leonardo Nam is living the dream. After significant roles in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Fast and the Furious franchise, and HBO’s Westworld, the Argentine-born, Australian-raised actor is now on-screen in Maggie, Hulu’s buzzy sitcom about a psychic. He’s also set to enter the Marvel universe, playing a monster hunter in October’s Werewolf by Night with Gael Garcia Bernal. It’s not just work where Nam — one of very few high-profile actors of Asian descent — is hitting his stride; he found love with husband, Michael Dodge, and joy as a parent to their twins. None of this success came easy, though. Nam spoke to us about his circuitous route to Hollywood and his very complicated path to parenthood. Nam’s journey was littered with setbacks and ignorance, but as he tells us, he has worked hard to transform negatives into positives — for himself, his family, and the world around him.
Tell us about your journey to Hollywood.
I was in Argentina and then my family moved to Australia and I was there all through high school and studied architecture. I knew there was something inside of me saying this isn’t what I needed to do.
The best decision of my life was to own my own story and my own passion. I’ve been very lucky and fortunate to have strong women who mentored me. I’ve really gravitated towards women; maybe it’s because I’m gay, who knows. Early on, I connected with a lady named Annie Swan in Australia and she pointed me in the direction of New York. She was someone who really helped me take the craft of acting seriously, and have the balls to own my own life. In New York, that’s really where I found my awakening. Not only work wise, but sexuality-wise and confidence-wise.
Tell us about your mindset about making such a big move; literally across the world.
I think about it now, and I’m like, Wow, that was crazy! But sometimes you have to do something crazy to be seen. I definitely thought , Are there any other actors who look like me or stories I could be part of? And there really weren’t. I always believed in myself and if you’re going to bet, you got to bet on yourself. It’s also being so young and saying yes to everything. I moved to New York with $200 in my back pocket and a phone number of a friend’s boyfriend. I just kind of figured out, and that was part of the joy of it.
I remember once, pretty early on in my drama school, I had a 10 a.m. Shakespeare class. I had gone out the night before and I’m laying on a sleeping bag in a studio apartment and I thought, Man, I’m not going to go. Then I thought, Leo, you’ve come all this way. You’ve left your family and friends. If I can’t get off my ass and go to a Shakespeare class, just spend one month in New York and party and go home. That was it. I got up, got on my rollerblades and zoomed on over to class and haven’t looked back since.
I didn’t really know what my life was going to be after school. I decided that I had to figure out what I was going to do. Early on, they said at school, everyone has been in this position. You need to be the lead of a studio film or you need to show us box office receipts from your home country in Australia [to stay in the U.S.]. They said, you’re Asian too, that’s not super common. I said, ‘F it, I’m going to do it.’ I focused for those three years and I did it. I was so gung-ho about it and it happened. I was supposed to be in Shakespeare in the Park, and I got in. I thought, this was my final thing and I’ll say goodbye to the U.S. and go back to Australia. Then I got the call that I was cast in a film, The Perfect Score, with Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans. I thought, Oh my god, I’m in my destiny!
As you were ascending your career ladder, how concerned with you about being known as an out actor?
I am on a show for Hulu/Disney/20th Century Fox, a series regular on a show called Maggie. And Disney came to me and said we’re doing something for Pride month, will you speak? And I thought, is this really happening? Disney, a major studio, wants to put one of their stars front and center, talking about the gay community and their experiences in that community. I thought, I have to. This is an opportunity, where I can own my own story. Twenty years ago? No way. There were very brave actors back then who had come out and I’m so thankful to them and there are remnants of shame for not being able to stand up then and say I’m an actor and I’m gay. I struggled, I struggled hard.
I do look back at the time on The Perfect Score and how come I wasn’t so close or open. I had a great relationship with the actors and crew but deep down I knew I couldn’t open up fully to them. I had a boyfriend in New York and it was a big part of my life, but I was never able to share about that. It was only after wrapping that I was able to talk about my life. I couldn’t talk about it before, because I was advised not to. It was a very male, heterosexual world back then and on that set. It was awful for my soul.
When did you get married?
In 2016. We chose to do it in Hawaii.
Did you always want kids?
It’s a magical thing when you meet someone you have a connection with. When I met my husband, I had seen him around but had never really connected. I was dating someone else or he was. Finally, eventually, we found our way to each other. That first time he invited me over — he was having a party on Memorial Day — I remember sitting on the dishwasher at his house and having the most beautiful, profound conversation that I ever had. I found myself talking about kids. I didn’t know having kids was something many people thought about. I never thought, Oh, I’m going to have kids. I was so into my own world, of my career, of going out and friends.
My husband was very clear that he wanted to have kids and had chose to go the road of surrogacy, and looked into it. I thought that was so sexy. To have the foresight to look into that and the heart to want to have his family and extend his life to include children, I thought it was magical. We refer to that conversation quite often.
I came from a broken home so it was important for me to go through certain steps first. I had to heal first and realize the way something was meant wasn’t how it was going to be. So, I went into therapy. I didn’t have examples of other parents, especially other gay parents. I was encouraged by the therapist to connect with kids and see what that experience was like. In our community, when you’re young, you’re trying to figure yourself out. If you’re brave enough to do that, there’s such a joy in being able to share that with another being.
Tell us about your journey to parenthood.
It was a rollercoaster. Every family has their own journey and ours was through surrogacy. There were so many ups and downs. First off, finding our egg donor and then realizing certain things you thought were important aren’t that important. We chose to do surrogacy internationally, in Mexico. Part of the reason for doing that was partially economic, but it was also a health issue. We knew we wanted twins by design. We had two surrogates; singletons. A single child in each surrogate.
About the time we had surrogacy, Zika was happening and we were freaking out. After we got through that hurdle, around the time we were going to be with the surrogates as the babies were born, the original state we were going to have our children in, Tabasco, had very good laws for intended parents like us. The governor there had a child by surrogacy, as well. So it was a hub of surrogacy. Then the governorship changed in that month. We should have been grandfathered in, but this new governor thought rich Americans were coming down to have babies for slaves. I was like, ‘What?’ He turned all the surrogacy laws upside down and said we’d have to fight him in court. All the surrogate parents were freaking out. Now they weren’t able to issue a birth certificate [in Tabasco]; they’ll give you a hospital report and you’ll need to go to the embassy to get to the birth certificate. The embassy is in Mexico City. So we had to travel with the the surrogates to Mexico City and have them part of the agreement that they are not the intended parents and then they’ll issue a birth certificate. There was an article in The New York Times about the situation, and it reported that one parent was arrested and his child was taken away from him for about six weeks. Luckily, my husband didn’t show me that article until we got to Mexico City.
Once we were there, they advised us that we couldn’t leave Mexico via air or via sea, only land. They had an anti-abduction law that came into play. So then we have to fly to Tijuana and walk our kids over the border. Just as we were about to leave Mexico City, which by the way, it felt like it was Miss Saigon, holding my kids outside the embassy. Dramatic gay man’s moment. We were warned that there is an anti-abduction law and now with this governor, this is something law enforcement is on alert about. When we were passing through the Mexico City airport, I was walking with one of my sons, holding him, and the Mexican version of TSA zeroed in on me and my husband, and my mother was there too. They pulled us aside and asked where our adoption papers were. They asked, ‘What’s going on here?’ There was a stamp the authorities wanted that we didn’t get from the embassy.
But another magical moment happened, this woman, well-dressed, in her 50s, was watching us as this was happening. So this angel of a lady comes over and she hands me a card and she was the president of the Human Rights Commission and a senator from Guadalajara, I believe. She put us in contact with a lawyer she knows. She said this is the 13th or 14th family this has happened to and it’s not right. So, the lawyer spoke to the police and after lots of back and forth, the police grabbed our files shoved them in our bag and told us we were going to miss our flight. We’re flying to Tijuana and so tense, thinking this happened here and what’s going to happen on the other end?
So, we landed in Tijuana and walked across the border. I was thinking, Oh my god, are police going to spring out and arrest us? I’ve never been so happy to see American immigration.
As a gay father myself, I feel we’re always on display and often in hostile, unsafe environments. Do you feel the same?
We don’t talk about this and we shoulder so much of it internally. Not only as a parent when you’re going through your parenting woes in your head, but this is another layer that we have to talk about and release. When I speak to another gay parent, so much of that is dissipated. I had to really check in with myself and find out how much is my own shame and homophobia about whether same-sex couples should have children. And a lot of that is old programming that doesn’t need to come back. So many times, it ultimately boils down to ignorance. People feel the need to say something and belittle you and try to smear the purity of this love, this family.
Especially at the beginning, I would be very tense with my kids around other people. Not only was I going through the growing pains of being a parent and a parent of multiple kids, but I harbored a lot of tension because you’re never quite sure what people’s intentions are. After leaving Mexico, when the governor is out against you, you have a hard time adjusting.
We lived in the safe haven of West Hollywood when my kids were born and it was a wonderful neighborhood to come into after being in a place that felt so against gay families. When we moved out to La Jolla, near San Diego, I remember we were having dinner. Just myself and my kids. The house that we lived in back then had lots of windows. I was putting my kids to bed and when I came back, someone had slipped a note under my door. It was a hand-written note, saying awful, homophobic things about my family and what my family represents. They said I should shut my blinds and don’t let anyone see us.
I was beyond enraged, shaking and furious. My husband wasn’t there at the time. I felt so unsafe; I couldn’t believe someone was watching me. They did it when I was putting my kids to bed. I took the note out and stood in the middle of the street and I burned it and I looked around. I was yelling, “I’m not scared.” It was the only way I knew how to protect my family. What was really wild about that, it really had an effect on me that after that I started to be suspicious of everyone. It got to a point that I thought, Leo you can’t do this, you cannot be living in this state of anger and fear and suspicion and paranoia; it’s not okay.
My husband came home and we talked about it and the first thing he did was buy the biggest gay flag you can buy. I love him, man. We put the biggest gay flag in front of our door. It was summertime, so droves of people were going past. It turned out to be one of the most wonderful moments that happened. It started to introduce this sense of community from where I used to feel so isolated and alone. Not only did passersby say, “I love that you have this flag out, thank you,” I started to see more gay people come to this beach. I started to see neighbors who would come out to me and want to share. “My granddaughter is gay, my cousin is gay.” It really turned into a wonderful experience. I was able to turn that [negativity] around and in doing so, my neighborhood transformed. I found wonderful friendships from that neighborhood when originally I felt so isolated.
When we share these stories, I hope it opens people’s eyes to stand with us and be brave. As gay people we know what’s it like to be bothered and we can sniff it out as it’s happening. And we can transform it.
This story is brought to you with the support of State Farm. State Farm’s promise to build safer, better educated, and stronger communities extends to all our neighborhoods. In collaboration with LGBTQ organizations, State Farm works to ensure all communities are valued and treated with respect and dignity.