Trigger warning:Masterpiece Theatre has downloaded Grindr and it's "looking." We're sharing this so that you don't fall out of your armchair when Man in an Orange Shirt -- a two-parter airing June 17 on PBS's Masterpiece anthology series -- suddenly shifts gears from the tragic story of a closeted World War II veteran to a present-day scene of a London man in a bomber jacket transfixed by a glowing grid of torsos.
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"If you compare the two periods, you basically have two men who want sex," says British actor Julian Morris, who plays Adam, the app-obsessed lead of the film's second half. We soon discover that the pair are connected: Adam's grandfather is Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a soldier who discreetly comes on to fellow countryman Thomas (James McArdle) on the battlefield. "Grandpa is cruising," says Morris. "He's trying to get something so human and natural, but it's also unpleasant because he's being forced to hide."
Homosexuality in the U.K. wouldn't be decriminalized until 1967, so it's bittersweet when the two servicemen deepen their relationship by spending their first postwar breaths of freedom together, briefly living secretly as a couple before Michael returns home to his fiancee and a lifetime of all-consuming regret.
Adam, on the other hand, is an otter-ish, mostly out veterinarian involved in a stop-and-start romance with self-assured architect Steve (David Gyasi). He seems doomed to a more modern dilemma: balancing intimacy, sex, and love in the era of the hookup app (or "Gruff" as it's called in the miniseries). "In Adam's case, he grows up with a deep-rooted sense of familial shame about his sexuality," Morris says. "Of course he yearns for physical contact, yet when love is offered, he rejects it because he's rejecting himself."
You need only to have seen one of many mainstream TV shows over the past decade to catch the boyish, 35-year-old Morris onscreen. He's played a heartthrob doctor on Pretty Little Liars; a heartthrob teacher on New Girl; a special-agent heartthrob on six episodes of 24; and another heartthrob doctor on seven episodes of ER. Becoming Adam for Man in an Orange Shirt was trickier -- it meant not only acting out a number of steamy, semianonymous Gruff trysts, but also thinking more deeply about the peculiar moment many thirtysomething gay men are living in: acknowledged by a culture that's increasingly sex-positive, yet carrying the emotional scars of growing up in the closet.
"Does Adam have a sex addiction?" Morris ponders. "I think he's unable to have a relationship. Then again, should gay men lead lives that mimic heterosexual lives?"
Adam's sexual orientation is also complicated by his repressed grandmother Flora, who raised him and suffered silently for years in the knowledge of her husband Michael's secret. The character is played to the hilt by Vanessa Redgrave. "We got on incredibly well," Morris says of working with a living legend. "She's fiercely intelligent, strong, and formidable, and then she has this silliness to her, which is so wonderful and contagious. I felt like I could talk to her about anything... and I did."
Morris recalls going over the script with Redgrave, whose father and husband were both bisexual. "For her, it's like, 'Hey, what's the big deal? My husband came out to me,' " he says. "And I remember the director being like, 'Yeah, but it's not familiar for everyone else. This doesn't just happen.' And she was like, 'Does it not?' "
Whether you identify with Flora, Adam, or Michael doesn't really concern Morris, who cites Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name, and God's Own Country when discussing the recent spate of affecting, more nuanced portraits of the LGBTQ experience. "I like that Man in an Orange Shirt doesn't say 'This is right' or 'This is wrong,' " he says. "It observes contemporary society truthfully."
For now, the actor is excited for a new phase of his career, which includes roles in meatier projects like this May's Masterpiece adaptation of Little Women (starring Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, and another living legend, Angela Lansbury) and YouTube Red's Vulture Club (with Susan Sarandon and Edie Falco).
"I'm searching for characters that challenge me," he says. "I want to be scared. I want to be provoked." He pauses and chuckles. "My current motto is 'Do good shit.' "
Photography by Karl Simone
Styling by: Alvin Stillwell @ Celestine Agency
Grooming: Mira Chai Hyde at The Wall Group
Using Caudal skincare
Shirt by Vilebrequin
Trousers by COS