Newcomer Murray Bartlett and veteran Laura Linney take up residency (again) on Barbary Lane

A recent internet meme featured Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling bemoaning the difficulty of killing off so many characters, while Game of Thrones series author George R.R. Martin calling her “adorable” in response.

Gay writer Armistead Maupin has a lot in common with both Rowling and Martin. All are authors of popular book series with many twists and turns (in Maupin’s case, it’s the beloved queer Tales of The City, which he began in 1978 and concluded in 2014). They populate their books with a wide assortment of characters, some loveable and some despicable… and many killed-off characters. And all three have made the leap from the page to the screen.

In that regard, Maupin’s journey is more circuitous. Unlike the efficiency of the Potter and Thrones sagas, Tales of the City launched in 1993 on PBS, got revived for two stints on Showtime in 1998 and 2001, and finally hit series No. 4 this month with the latest Tales. All three have starred Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal, the legendary trans landlord of 28 Barbary Lane, and Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton, the naïve young woman from Ohio who was forever changed when she relocated to San Francisco. New to this incarnation is handsome, out Australian actor Murray Bartlett as Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, the third actor to assume the role. We spoke to Linney and Bartlett about their difference experiences on the show, and what Tales has meant to them as participant and viewer.      

— Chris Azzopardi and Gregg Shapiro 

Dallas Voice: Laura, when did you first become aware that, with Tales, you were part of something that was so deeply affecting to members of the LGBTQ community?

Laura Linney: Well, I’m glad I didn’t know when the project first came to me. I’m really glad I didn’t understand how broad the reach and how deep the reach was of Armistead’s work. I’m sure it would’ve completely intimidated me — and I’m sure I wouldn’t have handled it terribly well — so I’m glad that I was somewhat ignorant when I first started to make the series. But it became very clear to me shortly after we finished just how loved these stories are, and the more I got to understand and know Armistead, the more I understood that phenomenon. He’s truly a great man.

How did you know that the show had this weight?

Linney: I just noticed that everyone was very happy to see me all of a sudden! Honestly, I would walk down the street and people would just be very happy and it was really wonderful. It’s been a real joy.

Did it feel daring to you at the time?

Not to me! I think it was daring to other people, but not to me. To me it just felt like family and home.

It sounds like you had exposure to the community at a very young age, even before Tales.

I did, through the kind, wonderful people I grew up around. I think just people who I loved and loved me, and I never even realized that there was a discriminatory land out there until I realized that there really was.

Tales of the City has made you a bit of a gay icon, hasn’t it?

Linney: I wouldn’t say full-blown icon. Like, mini. I’m sort of like a mini icon.

A half Cher?

Linney: A quarter Cher, maybe. Not even. A fifth Cher. Cher is a big deal! But it’s something I’m so proud of, and it’s really just a tremendous gift.

Murray, what was it about the character of Mouse that made you want to portray him?  Murray Bartlett: I love the Tales of the City books. I have a huge affection for all of the characters, including Michael, from the ’90s. I guess what I love about him, particularly now, is that he has been through a lot. He went through the AIDS crisis and thought he was going to die and lost a lot of the people that he loved. He faced his own mortality. He went through a hugely challenging and transformative time and he’s managed to keep this beautiful kind of buoyant spirit that he has, this boyish spirit. I really love that about him. It’s difficult to do that. I think a lot of people become cynical and jaded. He’s definitely come through a little damaged [laughs] and he’s definitely got some baggage but that buoyant spirit is still intact, and I really love that.

What were the challenges and rewards of stepping into the role played by two other actors in previous iterations of the series?

I didn’t really think about that too much. Before we started, I went back and read all of the books. I tried to let Mouse jump off the page. Let Armistead give me Mouse through the books. I think maybe one of the reasons I didn’t give it much thought is that two decades have gone in between. A lot has happened. Mouse still has the same spirit, he’s still essentially the same guy, but he’s transformed in terms of all the stuff he’s gone through. I felt like, as happens after a couple of decades, you are a kind of reformed character in a lot of ways. I felt like I didn’t have to be too concerned about what had come before and just go back to the books and get the essence of him and run with it.

What does being part of such a beloved series, including both the previous TV productions on PBS and Showtime, mean to you?  Bartlett: It’s been beloved to me [laughs]. I have such a personal connection to it. I think for many of us that saw it in the beginning, or came to the books in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and beyond, is that they really struck a chord that wasn’t being struck. These LGBTQ characters finding family and living a wonderful, joyful life, with all the trials and tribulations of their everyday lives. Fully fleshed out, real characters that were experiencing joy and pain. A trans character, like Anna Madrigal, that was not a tragic figure. She’s a wise, benevolent, compassionate, wonderful inspiring woman. I think it was groundbreaking at the time, and I think it’s still groundbreaking in that we’re still kind of at the beginning of LGBTQ representation on television and on film. Being part of that wave and being part of this beautiful world that Armistead created that is so compassionate and human and full of love; I feel like we need more of that in the world always, and especially now. It feels like such a privilege to be part of that.

When you drive up to 28 Barbary Lane again during the revival’s premiere episode, you enter it almost like Dorothy enters Oz. During that shoot what were you feeling?

Linney: Oh, you know, it was just great fun and you’re thrown back to 25 years ago. You realize how much is the same and how much is different, how much you were the same and how much you’ve changed.

What’s your best behind-the-scenes story from the revival?

Linney: You know, it’s just people. It’s about being able to do this work with people who I have such a long connection with. It’s being able to giggle with Armistead looking at the monitor and watching it come back to life again. It’s about being with Olympia, who is 88 years old and remarkable. And then it’s about Paul Gross [portraying Brian Hawkins, Mary Ann’s ex] and Barbara Garrick [WASP socialite DeDe Halcyon Day], and it’s also about this wonderful younger generation of people for whom the series is really for now. You know, there’s this sense of passing the baton onto a younger, and in some ways very much more evolved, group of LGBTQ people and a community that has expanded in a way that did not exist when we did the first series.

Murray, as a newcomer, what was it like to work with Laura Linney and Olympia
  Bartlett: Just, you know, magical. Complete joy and very surreal. Especially initially, because, I think I’d seen Olympia in things before, particularly Moonstruck. But I don’t think I’d seen Laura before I watched Tales of the City. I have a strong association with those women and those characters in Tales of the City, so it was very surreal being onset the first few times with them. They are those characters to me. I was a little
nervous because I admire them so much and they’re such fantastic actors. You want to bring your best. So, there’s a little bit of nerves that come with that. But they’re so gracious and so lovely. There was something about the fact that they are those characters to me, and because they are such great actresses, the scene starts and you just go for the ride. They’re so wonderful to work with and those strong associations of those characters just kicked in for me.

Laura, what has it been like for you be part of a show that has existed at various points in LGBTQ history?

Linney: It’s a remarkable, amazing experience. And it intersects with my own life at different periods of time as well. I mean, with Mary Ann, very rarely does anyone get to do something that spans over 25 years of their life. And it’s amazing to see how our culture has changed, how our identity has changed, how our relationships and understanding of each other has changed, in some ways for the better and maybe in some ways for the worse. And it’s also amazing to see a generational shift. What it was to be LGBTQ in 1990 is very different than 2019, and what it means to be either gay or trans or non-binary or queer. It’s amazing to see things evolve.

Beyond informing mainstream audiences, I think LGBTQ people of various generations and experiences can learn a lot about each other by watching this show.

Linney: I hope so. That’s really what we wanted. The entire writers’ room was LGBTQ, our directors are all LGBTQ, and there is a sense of, “What can the generations learn from each other?”

In the new version, your character Michael is in a relationship with Ben (Charlie Barnett), a man much younger than he is. This aspect of their relationship comes up repeatedly, but never more than during the scene at the dinner party thrown by Michael’s ex Harrison (Matthew Risch), where Ben is given a gay history lesson. As a gay man yourself, how did that scene make you feel?

I haven’t seen the show yet, but I love that episode. I think it’s so beautifully written, mostly because it doesn’t a present a good and bad. It throws out the two perspectives of the older and younger generation, and it does such a beautiful job of not letting you take sides. You agree and disagree with both. I think that that is a beautiful way to approach a fiery issue and conversation. To show both perspectives and let people make up their own minds. It also shows how complex it is. I feel like I understand where the older generation comes from, but I also understand where the younger generation comes from. They both have really good points and they both need to listen to each other because they have a lot to learn from each other. All the stuff that the older generation went through was epic. It’s very important for younger queer people to understand what has come before. The older perspective comes from a place that is worth understanding. Likewise, the younger generation. We’re moving forward in terms of gender identity and second gender identity and sexual identity and how we can express ourselves. Riding a wave into, hopefully, more openness. That has enormous value. We’re at a very delicate stage of navigating through that and we need to be very sensitive. The older generation, at least in that episode, can tend to gloss over that a little bit. I love the way the writer and our team did such a beautiful job of straddling those two perspectives, allowing you to see both of them without telling you what to think about it.

This is a limited series, but is there a possibility that Tales could take us back to 28 Barbary Lane in the future?

Linney: Yeah, sure. We’ll see. One hopes, but we’ll see what happens. It certainly seems to have a life of its own, so that bodes well.