Back hair on a man is usually used as a sight gag, comedic shorthand for a slobbery mess that’s a sure bet for an easy laugh. So to see a sexy man on television with a bit of upper back tuft felt radical. Much has been written and analyzed about the overall representation of gay men so far on HBO’s Looking, but it’s the little details that are shown and seep into one’s consciousness that make an impact as well. Like back hair.
When I noticed bearded actor Matthew Risch in the shower scene with Murray Bartlett after a rugby match on the third episode of Season 2, I was surprised. Then in the fourth, there he is in the hot tub with Scott Bakula and Bartlett, and his bare back (with hair) is on full display again.
I wanted to ask him about it. He obviously made that decision for his character, as an actor, as a gay man — that back hair mattered. People scoffed: “It’s just a little bit of hair. Who cares?”
But it felt radical to me. It was a tacit statement that this is what a man’s body could look like. No shame. Most of the men I've known over the past few decades would shave, zap, or wax any hair that might sprout in the wrong spot. Now it seems, not only have men decided to grow bushy beards, they’ve let themselves have more natural patches of body hair.
“The back hair was a conscious decision,” Risch admits, by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “When I was on an ABC Family show [Switched at Birth] and had a ‘sex scene' with Lea Thompson, I shaved it. I played a Republican senator, so I thought, Let’s sanitize this. But in my actual life, I don’t touch hair on my body. So for Looking, I thought, Fuck yeah, let’s just do this. Hair on my back felt justified.”
According to Risch, body hair can still be radical in Hollywood. “I normally have facial hair, too,” Risch adds. “Actually, at the protest of my agents, I always have it. When I go in for auditions, everyone is clean-shaven, so the beard, I think it always places me in these bad boy roles. So in Looking, it’s nice to be somewhat of a nice guy who has a beard.”
Some may be familiar with Risch’s work from last year’s indie film Test, in which he played a modern dancer in 1985 San Francisco. He says it’s always been important for him to be open about being gay while working to get the roles that he wanted. “I consider myself to be masculine and feminine. I was born in Boston and had straight, butch brothers. I was in theater and had girlfriends," Risch explains. "My goal as a kid was to be one of the first out gay actors to be cast and given straight roles. Well Neil Patrick Harris got there first.”
It turns out that Risch auditioned for the role of Dom, the role that went to Bartlett (who has a mustache and hairy chest but not a full beard or signs of back hair). “I originally went in for Agustín,” Risch explains. “But they realized they wanted someone traditionally Hispanic for the role. Then they kept reading me for Dom, when they thought they might go younger. But Michael [Lannan] and Andrew [Haigh] were so generous and kind, they said they wanted to bring me back and they had a small part for me."
As fans may recall, Risch appeared in the final episode of Season 1 as Bakula’s date to Dom’s pop-up restaurant opening. Unsure if he’d be a part of the second season, Risch says he was flattered when he was told he'd be brought back once again in the second season.
“This has been really fun. I’ve usually played darker roles in New York theater and on TV,” Risch says. “This is kind of more close to myself — easygoing and charming. I thought showing off my body would be horrifying for me, but that has been fun. Plus, I’m this device for those two characters. Lynn and Dom are one of the most interesting couples on the show — especially for Dom, being a gay man of a certain age and wanting more than what he’s getting.”
By the way, Risch is happy to share more details about that shower scene with Bartlett. He says there was a mix of rugby players and other actors, who showed full frontal to the camera. But he and Bartlett wore cock socks. “I eventually took mine off because it was a nuisance,” he says, “But Murray kept his on, he was very professional. He’s great, such a masculine presence.”
Risch knows that plenty of people have criticized the show from the sidelines, complaining that it doesn’t represent their personal experiences (“Then fucking write your own show,” he suggests, only half jokingly), but he feels strongly attached to it — as both an actor and a fan. “I certainly relate, and it’s nice to have a real representation and something that isn’t overly dramatized,” he says. “I’m so happy as a gay man to be a part of it. It’s a huge step forward.”
Although Risch says we won’t be seeing much more of him this season, be ready for him in a new episode of Modern Family airing Feb. 18. “I joined that gay Modern Family clan, with Nathan Lane and the rest,” he says, laughing. “Don’t worry: I’ll have the beard.”