As an actor, such opportunities are rare as the portrayal of gay men on screen hasn’t evolved as much as we may think. With few exceptions, gay men are shown as super successful but undersexed, constantly struggling but promiscuous or super funny, sassy, supportive, lonely, bitter and lovelorn.
In reality, most gay men fall somewhere in between. Of course, that’s not being reflected onscreen because it doesn’t fall in line with what audiences are used to seeing or what unimaginative casting agents and writers, even the gay ones, think will be palatable to those audiences.
“I went on an audition and they kept wanting me to ‘gay’ it up,” Michael recalls. “They finally just said to be more of a queen – to walk into the room and take control and just tell it like it is. I knew what he wanted but I wasn’t going to do it. He just said thank you. I didn’t care.”
Access to great roles in film and television is even more limited on account of bottom-lining studio executives who favor marquee names, pretty faces and hot bodies over talent. They’re more willing to throw millions of dollars behind remakes, reboots and reality shows than anything creative or daring. Fortunately for those creative types, the web is emerging as the next great medium for such expression.
Enter Vaccaro’s upcoming web series Child of the 70s, which launches October 24 with a Studio 54-themed premiere party at 8pm at Micky’s in West Hollywood. Child of the 70s is inspired in part by his all-time favorite television series Rhoda that starred Valerie Harper and aired from 1974-1978 as evidenced by this Child of the 70s promo video, a take on the iconic Rhoda opening.
“I always wanted to play a gay Rhoda,” Michael explains. “I grew up in New York City surrounded by Italians and Jews. She was the epitome of the people I grew up with.”
Michael developed the idea from there. Whereas Rhoda moved from Minneapolis (on parent series The Mary Tyler Moore Show) to a new life in New York for the spinoff, Michael’s Carlo Perdente would move from New York to a new life Los Angeles. The world of web is much different than on television, so this transition takes place over the course of the first season as opposed to a thirty-minute pilot.
Michael created a loose outline and then reached out to a local writer for help with the scripts. Over the course of five weeks, the two of them got together and wrote five episodes.
In this first season, Carlo’s life in New York is far from fabulous. He works a crappy survival job, lives in a rundown apartment and has to put up with a typically overbearing family. But through an eventually fortuitous series of events, he meets one of his idols -- the dynamic star of one of his favorite 1970s sitcom who just happens to be looking for a personal assistant in Los Angeles.
Vaccaro had attempted to initiate talks with Harper to appear as an altered version of herself in the series, but those talks fell through. And while Harper would have been great, her unavailability proved to be more creatively fruitful as it allowed the writers to make up their own 1970s sitcom and play around with the portrayal of the 1970s icon Carlo would wind up working for.
Enter Ann Walker, widely known for the Sordid Lives TV series, to play the fictitious 1970s icon Kiki Lawrence who turns out to be more of a nightmare than Carlo could have ever imagined. Rounding out the main cast are Donna Pescow as Carlo's mother, Natalie Toro as Carlo’s sister Brenda, Duane Boutte as Carlo’s best friend Lionel, Greg Lucey as Carlo’s father and Carole Ita White as Carlo’s Aunt Connie.
Season One also features Steven Wishnoff, Andrew Makay, Terry Ray, Chuck Saculla, Sebastian LaCause, Laura Harden, Mary-Suzanne Peters, Debra Leigh Moore Lejeune and Keith Stanisiewski.
Enthusiasm for the project has been high and plans for the second season are already underway where Carlo will settle into life in Los Angeles, meet the man of his dreams (to be played by Leo Forte) and endure a visit from his family. Comedian and frequent Oscar writer Bruce Vilanch will join the cast as Kiki’s husband, Geri Jewell will appear as herself and Charlene Tilden of Dallas fame and Geri Reischl (the second Jan Brady) will also appear.
Child of the 70s launches on October 24 with a Studio 54-themed premiere party at 8pm at Micky’s in West Hollywood. New episodes will post every week. In the meantime, you can preview the first episode below.
Michael Vaccaro himself is no stranger to the Enterprise, having previously been profiled in December of 2011. Below is a truncated version of that original profile.
When, where and how did you decide to become an actor?
I feel like I came out of the womb knowing that I was gay and knowing that I wanted to be an actor. It was very clear. There was never any question about it; there were never any thoughts about doing anything else. It just always was.
What was your first role -- professional or otherwise?
I was in theatre camp. When I was 6 or 8 I played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. When I was in elementary school, my best friend (who is now a Broadway actress named Natalie Toro) and I formed a group together. There were about five or six of us and we performed shows for the school.
My first professional job was with Columbia Records. I got a contract with them when I was kid. They wanted a kid singer -- a Donny Osmond type. I then recorded a song on the soundtrack of a film. That’s how I got into SAG.
How do you approach a role?
It always depends on the role. I sorta work from the outside in. I tend to go for a look first. A wig will help me find a character. An outfit will help me find a character. An accent, some sort of way of speech or speaking helps me. I like to do all of that stuff first and then work on the emotional stuff once I have a look or way of speaking. It just helps put me in that place. It helps put me in that mindset.
It does depend on what it is. For instance, I do a lot of Shakespeare. With Shakespeare generally I would start with the words -- basically figuring out what you’re saying and what the character is saying. And the Iambic Pentameter.
Everybody has a different outside. Inside, everybody’s the same. If you have a good play, then whatever your particular situation or circumstance happens to be, the emotions and the feelings are universal.
I feel like I’m always playing myself, but I’m playing myself in this situation or in that situation. I don’t think you can really play other people. It also comes back to that same thing about things being universal. I can only bring my own experience to something. It doesn’t mean that I can’t play things outside my experience. I have never been a murderer but I could play a murderer. I would just bring my feelings about that to it.
What do you draw upon to find your character?
My life experience. I feel like it’s impossible to draw upon anyone else’s life experience. There are certain things, certain memories, certain events that happened in my life that are the epitome of a certain feeling or emotion. If I need to pull that particular feeling or emotion out, I tend to go to certain things, to certain benchmarks in my life.
How do you describe your style of acting?
My favorite actors are all what I consider to be very natural and it goes back to what I was saying earlier about feeling like I’m playing myself in different situations in each role. It’s just me. I have to bring myself. I have to bring my body. I have to bring my mind.
All the people who I tend to like and one of the things I try to have in myself is vulnerability. I think that the most important thing for an actor to have is vulnerability.
What role has been your favorite to play and why?
I’m going to have to give you a few and for different reasons.
For many years I made a living as “Baby John” in different productions of West Side Story. I loved that so much purely because of the fact that it was so joyous dancing that Jerome Robbins choreography. I never, ever got tired of it. It was so exhilarating.
I did an Off-Broadway play a few years ago called Competing Narratives. I loved the role in that play because it was a brand new play. We were the first ones to do it and creating a role was very exciting. Sitting there with the author in rehearsals everyday creating this role was really exciting for me.
I fell in love with Shakespeare later in life. Growing up as an actor, Shakespeare always scared the shit out of me. I always thought I was too stupid to figure it out. Then I decided to change that. I went and studied and it ended up being what I did for many years.
Doing Shakespeare is like a whole different thing. I got to play the role of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. It’s such a great role. It’s so interesting. I could have done that role for years and still would have found something different about the character in every performance. It was an amazing journey that never ended. It’s so rich and so deep. That was an amazing experience.
Have you ever felt pigeonholed into a particular type of role? If so, how did you combat the typecasting?
When my agents or management finds out I’m gay they only send me out for gay roles because they can’t imagine me playing a straight person. This is a huge problem in our industry in general.
Having said that, if I only played gay roles for the rest of my life, I’d be okay with that. It’s important for me nowadays to play gay characters. I’m gay and I’m out. It’s time for an out gay actor who begins his career out and becomes successful as opposed to having a career then come out when they have nothing to lose. That’s what I want to do.
I can play straight people. I’d like to play straight characters, but only playing gay characters doesn't make me feel pigeonholed.
What was your struggle in pursuing acting full-time?
It’s such an interesting thing. You look at other countries – Europe, Germany and England. When people are actors, that’s what they do for a living. The government helps these people live when they’re not working or they’re pursuing employment. Our government does not do that so it’s always difficult for actors to survive.
I just got to a point in my life where I realized that generally you wouldn’t ask people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. If a plumber couldn’t find work, you wouldn’t say to him “you should go be a banker”. You’re just a plumber going out looking for plumbing work and no one would say anything about it.
But actors are expected to give up what it is they want just because it’s not easy to get. Nobody is supportive of it. Even your families with their best intentions are not supportive. They don’t get it.
So then I decided at some point in my life that I was going to need to be supportive of me. I just needed to make a decision that this was my life, this is what I was going to be and this is what I was going to pursue. I’m not a waiter. I’m not taxi cab driver. I’m not an office temp. All of those things are fine but that is not what I want to do. So I’m not doing them anymore. If that means I have to make less money, that’s fine. If that means I can’t go out to dinner, that’s also fine.
Making that decision on a deep level actually changed my career. It enabled me to have a career.
Life is all about risk and most people don’t take risks and that’s fine. But risk-taking to people who don’t take risk versus people who do take risks is threatening. We’re trained to accept less and I just won’t do it anymore.
What keeps you from giving up?
The fact that I’m not skilled at anything else. When I've had other jobs, survival jobs, I get so miserable. It’s hard for me to go through everyday being miserable. I've done it.
For more information on Michael Vaccaro, check out his website www.michaelvaccaro.com.
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