New stage for an out actor: Christopher Sieber comes to It’s All Relative from a long career in Broadway musicals. Now he’s singing a new tune: that of an openly gay TV star – coming out ’03 – Interview
Christopher Sieber has scrambled a lot of gaydars. A big blond Minnesota boy who could be Robert Gant’s brother, Sieber possesses a singing voice strong enough to peel paint, and the combination has made him one of Broadway’s busiest heteromastic leading men. Sieber tooted his own horn as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, letched around the stage as a lustful prince in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, foiled white slavers in Thoroughly Modern Millie, and, more heroic than all that, matched crescendos with Betty Buckley in “Triumph of Love.
The actor’s good-guy looks have shaped his TV work as well. Sieber played dad to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in the sitcom Two of a Kind, which ran for less than a season in 1998-99. Back then, he followed suggestions from the show’s executive producers that his being gay would be a big deal to the public only if he talked about it in public. So he didn’t.
But It’s All Relative is a different bowl of chowder. Now that he’s playing a dad who’s also a happily partnered gay man, Sieber figures it is a big deal to come out. The actor, who’s happily partnered in real life with fellow actor Kevin Burrows, spoke with The Advocate in his dressing room the day after the show’s first, taping in front of an audience.
Why is it important to you to do this interview now?
If you’re a gay man playing a gay character on television, I think it’s important to set an example. When I was growing up, I didn’t have any role models. I think I had Snagglepuss. [Mimics the cartoon character’s, lispy voice] “Exit, stage left!” And Richard Simmons. I knew I was gay, but if I had to be like Snagglepuss, I was terrified. When I finally admitted to myself that, yes, I was gay–and realized that I don’t have to be [that way]–I was fine. I was comfortable.
People sense that, don’t you find?
In the whole journey since I’ve admitted it to myself, I find more people, younger people, coming out to me. It’s happened about six times. People in their teens have come to me and said, “Hey, can talk to you about something?” And then, boom, there it is, They’re coming out to me, and I’m like, “OK, whoa, whoa, whoa.” And in the back of my mind, it’s like, Chris, please don’t screw their lives up!
How do you respond?
I say, “Are you sure?” and “if you are, great, and if you’re not, it’s OK. It’s fine.” So getting back to the “important for me to do this”: It is important to become a role model. And it’s fine. I’ll put myself out there if I can help someone. I don’t want it to be a huge issue about “Christopher Sieber’s gay.” It’s really a nonissue. I’m comfortable, and it’s OK.
So many of us want it to be a nonissue. But first it has to come to the surface.
We were doing the taping last night, and it’s the first five minutes of the show in the first episode. It’s a moment between a gay couple that when you say goodbye to your partner, you kiss him on the lips. Well, it was an audience full of marines. We get our audiences from all over Hollywood–they went to Camp Pendleton or something and got a bunch of marines. So we did that little peck, and they went, “Whoa!” It wasn’t like, “Let’s go get them”–it was like, “Wow, we really didn’t expect that.” Coming from theater, you forget; in New York no one cares. So it was scary but extremely exciting. It was that first taste of Wow, here we go.
Were they not on your side after that?
They were fine after that I don’t think we’re going to be shoving it into anybody’s face by any means; I think it’s just the fact that it did happen.
When some people say, “I don’t want you to shove it in my face,” they mean “I never want to see any evidence that you have a sexual life whatsoever.”
Right. Most people go to the sexual part. I think what scares more people than anything is gay sex–butt sex. That’s immediately what everyone thinks of: They’re going to get me in the butt. [Laughs] To put it bluntly. They don’t think of love between two people. That’s what we’re trying to show here on the show. We’re a monogamous, committed couple, maybe the first on TV. And we’re showing the love of a family, no matter whether they’re gay, straight, or whatever.
I really feel the days are gone when you could be in the closet and play gay on television–in effect, make your living off us and not be honest about it. But does coming out feel like the right move for your career?
I don’t have fear about that. Everything happens for a reason. I want to show people out there that it’s all right. Nothing bad is going to happen to you as an actor.
What repercussions do actors fear?
It’s the pigeonholing of an actor, like “You’re that gay guy on TV, and you’re never going to go in for a romantic lead that’s not gay ever again.” Or the [fear that you’ll no longer] draw women because you’re not going to be romancing them, you’re going to be romancing a man.
Do you really believe women won’t be attracted to a gay actor?
It shouldn’t matter whether you’re gay or straight. If you’re a good enough actor, people are going to buy it anyway. That’s why we go to theater; that’s why we watch TV–to escape reality.
Your TV husband, John Benjamin Hickey, is one theater star who has always been out. I saw him in Love! Valour! Compassion! on Broadway.
He’s a stunning actor. Not only that, he’s really funny and he’s so nice. I love hint dearly. It’s an amazing pleasure to actually be working with someone that you’ve admired for so long–and there they are, and you’re partners in a TV show.
Did you have to audition for chemistry?
[The executive producers] flew me out to test–and I had been through the test thing before, so I would call myself blase. But that’s my defense mechanism, actually: That’s just so I can get through it without throwing up. [Laughs] But with John, when I knew that I was going to be reading with him, I immediately felt more comfortable anyway. It was just great. Our chemistry was [snaps his fingers] immediate, and that’s why we’re working together.
You’re playing the parent of this beautiful, accomplished young woman. How did the couple on the show come to have this daughter?
Philip and Simon, our characters–I’m Simon–were best friends with this girl in college, and she went to Europe one summer and came back pregnant with a daughter, Liz. When Liz was around 5 or 6, her mom passed away. We took her in and ended up adopting her. Thank goodness, because John and xxx I are much too young to have a daughter that age. [Anne laughs]
Does having kids interest you?
I wouldn’t do that to a kid [chuckles], because I don’t think I’d be a very good father. This is my opinion–maybe you’ll get hate mail–but I like having kids around for about two hours, and then I can’t wait for them to leave. [Laughs]
When you were in your Snagglepuss phase [Sieber laughs], did it worry you when you realized that not only were you gay, you also were born to do musicals?
I was afraid, I grew up in a very small town in Minnesota. I knew I was different, and I was scared. I tried to change. I dated girls–nothing ever happened, but I dated girls. [Sighs] I had to get away. I was drawn to New York first of all because I wanted to learn theater. I wanted to be an actor on Broadway. But with that came the discovery of who I was, and it was OK. I remember in New York when I first saw some friends of mine, two men kissing. Just like I was saying with John last night, that was like, Whoa.
Like the marines in your audience.
Yes. It took me a while to get comfortable with that. So believe me, I can understand where they’re coming from.
You were very successful on the New York stage before you took this role on. Tell me what it’s like to make that transition. Did you always want to be on television?
Yes, I had set goals for myself early on. When I moved to New York, I wanted to get an off-Broadway show and then I wanted to get a Broadway show and then I wanted to get a TV series. And that’s how it progressed, and I set my goals. I’d always done that all my life. The Broadway shows happened, and I was very lucky. I still consider myself one of the luckiest people on earth. I consider myself being at the right place at the right time most of the time. My dad always says, “Life always happens for people who show up.” So I always show up.
You weren’t publicly out in your first go-round with TV, were you?
My first television show was the Two of a Kind show with Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, and I played their dad. It was an odd experience, because I had come from theater, where no one cares at all; it’s not a big deal. And you come here, and it’s a whole new world for me. I didn’t know what to do. I asked my executive producers, Bob Boyett and Tom Miller, “What do I do here? I’m a gay man playing the father of the Olsen twins–what do I do?” And they said, “Don’t make it a big deal.” I said OK, because they said, “If you do make it a big deal, it will become a big deal. If yon don’t, no one will care.” And that’s indeed what happened. We never talked about it … well, within the show we talked about it, but it was not an issue. It was never a problem,
Was there a time when you thought, I’ll play the part of Simon, a gay dad, but I don’t want to talk about the fact that I am gay?
I’ve kind of always been out. It wasn’t like, “I’m gonna sing it proud,” I was just, “I’m a regular guy who happens to be gay who’s an OK actor,” I did a couple of gay plays: Boys” in the Band, the revival I think back in … ’95? [It was ’96] Then I did a play called Avow. I played a gay Catholic who wanted to get married to his partner in the Catholic Church.
What’s different now?
I’ve played gay characters before, but I’m a gay actor playing a gay character on national television. And it was like, Well, I’ve got the greatest executive producers in the world who are gay–Craig [Zadan] and Nell [Meron] and Chuck Ranberg, who are so supportive. Plus John Hickey, who comes from theater, Then Harriet Sansom Harris [who plays the mother of Bobby O’Neil, Liz’s fiance], whom I was doing Thoroughly Modern Millie with–a dream come true. So this transition, coming back to television, was a lot easier than the first time because we could be OK. We could be comfortable. It was all right to be out and be fine.
What’s it like for your family? This part, this role, knowing that you’re doing this interview, knowing you’re in this phase of your life?
It’s OK It wasn’t easy. it took my mom and (tad and my brothers a couple of years to relax and be all right with it. But I’ve never been one to apologize for who I am, and my partner, Kevin, came home with me to my parents’ home just a month or two ago. We did what we do in Minnesota, which is sit around a card table and play cards and drink wine. I think the game was Screw Your Neighbor or something like that. [Chuckles] So Kevin and my mom are screwing each other’s neighbor. It was so much fun, and Kevin had a great time. It was a dream come true, because it was like we were totally part of the family. Which is well-earned, I think.
Would you tell us a bit more about your relationship?
Yes. My partner, Kevin Burrows, is an actor as well. We’ve been together almost three years now, and he is the love of my life. He was in The Full Monty on Broadway and on the national tour, and he was also in Beauty and the Beast. That’s where we actually became friends. But we had this thing about working together and dating. Then he got The Full Monty, we started dating, and the rest is history. He’s really good for me. He’s always there for me. He’s wonderful.
Do you guys share a place in New York?
We have a place in New York, and we also have a house in the middle of a lake in New Jersey. It’s fantastic.
Any apprehensions about the long-distance relationship?
No, because we’re flying back and forth so often on our hiatus weeks. We call each other twice, three times a day anyway.
The TV audience has no idea what a great musical performer you are. Will you get to sing in this show?
I don’t know! We have that grand piano on the set–we’ve got to invite Michael Feinstein or Stephen Schwartz or somebody fun to come over. We’ll do Cabaret Night at our party and we’ll invite the O’Neils.
Yeah, and then you’ll get to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”…
Yeah, exactly. And Mace [O’Neil, Bobby’s crusty bar-owner dad] will have a couple too many drinks and he’ll sing “I Will Survive.”
[laughs] So, have I forgotten to ask you anything?
I don’t think so. If anything, just to say that I’m just a regular guy who’s an OK actor who happens to be gay.
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