Out actor Michael J. Willett is proud to be everyone’s new ‘G.B.F.’
LAWRENCE FERBER | Contributing Writer
“My face has Permanent Embryo Syndrome,” Michael J. Willett says half-jokingly, “so I’ll probably be playing high school roles for another 10 years or so.”
Don’t believe his lament truly bothers him. The youthful, openly gay actor has become a go-to for openly gay high school characters since his breakout supporting turn on The United States of Tara. 2014 sees starring roles in MTV’s upcoming Faking It series, and G.B.F., the recent snappy film (newly on DVD) from Jawbreaker director Darren Stein.
G.B.F. imagines a world where Sex and the City’s popularizing of a gay best friend (the meaning of the title initials) as the sassy girl’s must-have accessory has trickled down to high school. Three school queen bees — Caprice, Fawcett and ‘Shley — compete for a G.B.F. to earn street (and hallway) cred. Willett plays Tanner, a comic book reading, closeted introvert who inadvertently comes out even before his flamboyant best friend Brent (fellow openly gay actor, Paul Iacono, channeling Pretty In Pink’s Duckie). Courted by the popular girls and styled into a bow-tied millennial queer, Tanner quickly finds his values and most important relationships in danger.
Like a latter-day Clueless/Mean Girls crossed with Another Gay Movie, G.B.F. satirizes pop and queer culture (one girl uses a Grindr-style app to track down stealth gays), high school life and Mormons, and is chock full of first-time screenwriter George Northy’s quotable quips (“You’re gayer than a very special episode of Glee”), fantastic songs (Tegan & Sara, French Horn Rebellion, Dragonette) and supporting turns by gay faves Natasha Lyonne, Rebecca Gayheart and Megan Mullally.
“I relate to Tanner a lot,” admits Willett. “When I was in high school, I felt more introverted and shy, and moved from clique to clique. I was an outsider and private and an artist. I definitely think a lot of Tanner was me, and how I felt about keeping to myself and my own feelings.”
Unlike Tanner, however, Willett was never objectified as a gay male “mascot” or accessory (“there weren’t a lot of out gay kids at the time” he notes). That said, he feels that things have changed today and that millennial teen girls definitely appreciate a bit of homo male action in their lives.
“A lot of girls are obsessed with One Direction, partly because some of the members might be hooking up [with each other],” he laughs. “I was hanging out with some fangirls and they were going off about how they wanted the boys to hook up! I felt it was really cool, because my film is relevant and important and speaking to today’s kids. That was both shocking and totally cool because it’s just what we need for the film to do well!”
Mullally, erstwhile star of Will & Grace, that other zeitgeist-changing TV show about a woman and her G.B.F., appears as Brent’s outrageously pro-queer mother, whose efforts to bond with her child —calling him “gurl,” etc. — are deliciously cringe-worthy. Willett says that his own mother isn’t quite so OTT, but certainly just as accepting. In fact, she outed him at age 13.
“She could see that I was gay, and she approached me to see if I was able to talk about it at the time,” he recalls. “She was asking me how it was to be gay, and I didn’t know!
Honestly. I ended up buying her a book called Is it a Choice? and said, ‘Read this.’ Maybe kids today have an advantage of being more accepted.”
Willett first blipped on our radar a few years back while co-starring on Showtime’s United States of Tara as Lionel Trane, the assured bleach-blonde boyfriend of Tara’s gay son.
Lionel was originally scheduled to appear in just two episodes, but the character and Willett’s performance went over so well they continued his storyline. Sadly, Lionel perished off-screen, in a car accident, during the show’s third and final season, sparking emotional, heartbroken responses from fans.
“It was sad, but it felt good,” Willett reflects. “I had made my character important enough to care about after he was gone. It was a big deal. There was a funeral and everyone talked about it, and it allowed me to move on to other projects as well.”
One such project is MTV’s new 8-episode scripted high school series, Faking It. Willett plays one of the school’s hottest, most popular boys, who also happens to be gay. He also just wrapped a gender-bending turn in the fantastical, green-screen shot Paragon School For Girls.
When not playing teenagers, the California-bred actor, who got his start in commercials and appearances on shows like Cougar Town and Blue Mountain State, releases music under the single moniker, Willett. Three singles including the Scissor Sisters-esque electropop track “Burning Desire,” which will soon see a provocative music video, are available on iTunes and Amazon, while his YouTube channel features an awesome mash-up cover performance of Lana Del Ray’s “Summertime Sadness” and Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.”
Currently dating (but withholding details to preserve some mystery), Willett admits that he’s heartened by the almost weekly coming out announcements from fellow actors, singers, and high-profile personalities lately. In fact, he wouldn’t mind playing one of those: Recently out U.K. swimmer Tom Daley.
“Hopefully I could get a really nice body,” he laughs. “They could train me and I could be superfit. It would be nice.”
Available Feb. 11 on DVD.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 7, 2014.