"The notion that gay men are just swinging their dicks around all 'Come one, come all' is ridiculous," says Kevin Zegers, sitting at a coffee shop in Beachwood Canyon in Los Angeles. It's a fair and bluntly accurate statement, of course, but also a slightly ironic one given that the Canadian actor's most talked-about performance to date saw him playing a 17-year-old bisexual hustler-turned-porn star.
Zegers was barely out of his teens when he was cast in the 2005 indie Transamerica, an ahead-of-the-curve road-trip drama about a pre-op MTF (Felicity Huffman, who won a Golden Globe for the role) and her prostitute son, Toby (Zegers, who took home the 2006 Cannes Film Festival Chopard Award for promising young actor). Now 28, he admits he had no idea what he was getting himself into when signing on for the film. "I was so young and green and had never worked on anything like that," says Zegers, a native of Woodstock, Ontario -- a conservative community of "Catholic white people who farm and play hockey and drink beers." Still, his interpretation of Toby ran deep. "I never judged him for getting high or blowing truckers or trying to sleep with his mom," Zegers says, "because it all came from the same place, which is that he just wanted to know love. It's the one movie I've done where people came up to me and said, 'That really shifted my perception about things.' "
Eight years later, Zegers has the chance to shift perceptions again, this time in the adventure drama The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, based on Cassandra Clare's best-selling novels. Zegers plays tattooed gay hero Alec Lightwood opposite Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower, marking the first time audiences will see a character openly struggling with his sexuality in a big-screen young-adult fantasy franchise. The film's PG-13 rating guarantees that Alec's sexuality, unlike Toby's, will be light on the sex, but for Zegers that's beside the point. "What we didn't want was to make him this stereotypically one-sided guy," he says. "For his sexuality to be at the forefront would have been a mistake. I wanted it to be just one of the aspects of him we explored."
The supernatural saga, which Zegers describes as "Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games," follows Alec and two other half-angel warriors, known as Shadowhunters, who take Clary (Collins) under their wings to help rescue her mother (Game of Thrones's Lena Headey) from the secret New York City demon underworld they fight to contain. Meanwhile, Alec is crushing on Magnus, the High Warlock of Brooklyn. Their flirtation develops into one of the central romances in the book series, one that has inspired a fair share of fan-produced slash fiction. Zegers isn't at all surprised by the popularity of the couple's storyline. "For my generation and the generation really interested in these books, something like this isn't as big a deal as it used to be," he says. "If we'd made this a few years ago, it would've been a different story."
While many of Zegers's roles have fallen in line with his pretty-boy looks (e.g., a multi-episode arc as a drug-dealing son of a Belgian ambassador in Gossip Girl), he finds himself less attracted to the predictable projects he's consistently handed. It's his own sense of "otherness" that draws him to characters like Alec and Toby. "It's tricky because I read a lot of scripts, and the ones they say I'm perfect for I hate," he says. "I don't want to seem ungrateful, but I've always had this instinct to do something people don't necessarily want me to do. I have a much easier time shooting something like Transamerica than I would a romantic comedy." Case in point: his upcoming role as a sociopath in the Cape Fear-esque The Curse of Downers Grove, an indie teen thriller with a screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis, due out next year. "I'd rather swing for the fences and fall flat on my face," Zegers says. "I'd rather people watch and say, 'What the fuck was he doing?' than say, 'He was pretty good.' In a lot of ways, no one has any idea what I'm about, and I kind of like that."