I have made a lot of decisions that have not been supported by many people,' says Thomas Dekker without laughter or remorse. At 23, he has already played gay twice, done his first full-frontal nude scene, and passed up two major movies to act opposite Mink Stole, Elvira, and Natasha Lyonne in a film directed by drag queen Peaches Christ. 'But it's always personally paid off,' he says with a wry smile. And though there may be one or two juvenile arrests on file with the Las Vegas police department, the former child actor avoided the well-trod road to ruin taken by so many before him.
After landing a commercial gig at the age of 5, Dekker worked steadily in film and on TV shows like the Disney Channel's Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and 7th Heaven before securing roles on Heroes and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. At 17, though, he nearly chucked it all for a job at Amoeba Music, the independent Hollywood record store. 'I was like, 'I'm done. I'm out. I'm bored and I'm just going to have a normal life and write music.' Then I met my current manager who said, 'I want to send you out for a Funny Games remake with Michael Haneke,' who was my favorite working director. I was like, 'Holy shit, I can go out for something I care about?' ' Dekker didn't get the role, but the possibility of getting cast in projects he wanted to do was a defining moment.
He may be young, but Dekker speaks like someone with a lot more years under his belt and half-seriously bemoans that he's getting old. 'I can't do this whole thing, which is these kids coming out of nowhere'they've never worked before, they've never proven themselves, they've got crazy abs -- and they land the lead in a multibazillion dollar movie. Then their first movie tanks, and they've done five already now because everybody freaked out before they saw the results, and their career disappears,' he says before acknowledging that he has, in fact, just signed on to star in the latest CW pilot from Kevin Williamson (Dawson's Creek, The Vampire Diaries), proof that he's able to have a sense of humor about himself and his career.
It was network television, however, that introduced Dekker to his first Internet scandal. He was working on NBC's Heroes, when he was cast opposite the show's heroine, Hayden Panettiere, with little more direction than, 'artsy, gawky kid with a burning crush on [Panettiere's character].' After shooting a dozen episodes playing straight, he was given a new script -- in which his character matter-of-factly admits he's gay -- just hours before filming their prom scene.
'I went through the fucking roof!' Dekker says. 'If you're going to have a gay character on your show come out and be a pioneer for kids, I would've liked to play that from the get-go from my perspective. I went to set and said to the writers, 'I really wish that it wouldn't have been five hours before I come into work that I get this news that [the character] I'd been playing for the last 12 episodes knows and is comfortable with the fact that he is gay. Because I would've played this very differently.' But I said I'd do it, and then a couple hours later the creator, Tim Kring, showed up and said, 'No, no, no. We're going to change it [back to him being straight].' '
But word had leaked already to several blogs that Dekker's character would be coming out on the episode, so when it aired, 'the story became, 'Thomas Dekker is a homophobe' or 'Thomas Dekker is gay and uncomfortable playing it,' ' he remembers. 'I was like 'How do people know this was supposed to be my coming-out episode when I didn't even know it was?' Then I found an interview the producers had given to a London paper while they were shooting the first episode, in which they said that my character was going to be gay. So they knew all along.' The network and the show's production didn't refute false claims about Dekker's refusal to play gay, and he stayed on for his remaining four episodes before taking on the role of John Connor on the Terminator-based series.
This month he stars opposite Diane Lane in the Emmy bait that is HBO's Cinema Verite, a behind-the-scenes look at PBS's groundbreaking 1973 reality series, An American Family, the first to bring cameras inside an otherwise private home to film what life was like. Both the HBO film and the original series follow the marital woes and parental struggles of the Louds, an upper-middle class family living in Santa Barbara. Dekker plays eldest son Lance, the family's emotional and social center and the breakout star of the original series.Loud, who was gay, would go on to found the punk band the Mumps and become a writer for The Advocate, Details, and Interview until his death in 2001.
'When I got the script, I'd never heard of the show,' Dekker says. 'I'd never heard of Lance. And when I just read the words on the page, I wasn't that interested. I heard he was the first gay icon on TV, but I was thinking, There's not much I can do with this, particularly. But then I watched clips of him on YouTube, and I became obsessed. I mean he was bonkers'the directors described him as a cross between a crackhead and Judy Garland, and I feel like he grew up watching actresses like Joan Crawford and Garland and Bette Davis, which influenced what he thought was 'star quality,' and that's partly why he comes off so flamboyant in a very noncontemporary way.'
When the series originally aired, what surprised and hurt the Loud family most was the American public's reaction to Lance. 'One of the most fascinating things is that everybody thinks he came out on the show,' says Dekker. 'He never came out officially. That blows me away. He never said the words 'I am gay' or 'I am homosexual.' The most he said about it publicly was to Dick Cavett, who says to him, 'You may attempt to hide the fact that you are homosexual,' and Lance says, 'I didn't know that was that much of a big deal. I thought homosexuality was nothing more than giving kisses to boys on the sly.' The whole big controversy of the show was that he did not give a shit that he was gay, and yet it wasn't like he yelled it to the world. He was just being him.'
Sexuality doesn't seem to bother Dekker much either. Unlike most young actors who have rumors about their sexuality dogging them, when he speaks of himself in a way that isn't particularly conclusive it comes off as neither pandering nor evasive. 'I've only really had relationships with women, but I'm certainly not closed to it. If there are possibilities of being able to do anything in life, why would you say you would never take any up? In the later chunk of my teen years I was so all over the place with sex. It was terrible. I never really had a real relationship at all. During puberty, it's all about sex, and it's all about figuring yourself out. I think I overdid it when I was younger.'
This position may sound familiar to fans of screenwriter and director Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin) who cast Dekker in his latest film Kaboom, in which Dekker plays a bisexual college kid navigating all manner of uncertainty, from who his father is to whom he prefers sleeping with. The actor had dreamed of working on an Araki film since he was 15 and lobbied hard for the role. 'The character fascinated me -- this guy who you believe likes boys who also likes girls yet he doesn't come off that straight. I feel like there are so many people in this world who are searching or don't know or make a decision of what their life is and then someone comes in and breaks it. I never see that in movies, where it's not the sad gay kid whose parents didn't love him or the fabulous partier or the butch football player. Because how many people like that do you really meet on a regular basis? Some people decide from the get-go and some people decide later on.'
Though he will soon be relocating to Vancouver to begin filming his CW show, Secret Circle, and his film Angels Crest, in which he plays a young father, premieres this month at the Tribeca Film Festival, he's also set to begin directing a movie he wrote based on the lives of teenage hustlers and prostitutes in Los Angeles. Dekker spent three years researching for the project (which is being produced by indie-film fairy godmother Christine Vachon), interviewing under-21 sex trade workers in Los Angeles and New York City.
'Love is so complicated, and sex is so complicated, especially when you're young. But there's such a blurred line of what both those things are and how they manifest themselves, especially in harsh circumstances like these. So that's really what the film's about,' he says.
What, then, is the guiding principle of a man jumping between a starring role in a CW teen drama and the director's chair on an indie hustler film? 'I'm trying to make my father proud. He passed away last year, and I think he'd be proud with this trajectory. From the beginning he said, 'If you want to keep doing this, we'll keep doing it,' and I'm still kind of pinching myself now that I'm still doing it 18 years later!'
And how accomplished does he feel at the wise old age of 23? 'Up until about 22, I catastrophically hated birthdays,' he says. 'I've gotten a bit more Zen about it, but I hate -- and it sounds so stupid -- that I'm already this old. I have an addiction to feeling like I'm never wasting time. I have to take everything to the ultimate degree, and I have such a drive to succeed that nothing negative has ever taken over my life -- whether it's too much food, too much anger, too much drinking, too much whatever. It always sort of reaches a breaking point, and then I come back down.'