my so called life

Enrique "Rickie" Vasquez (Cruz) and Angela Chase (Claire Danes) in a scene from ABC's My So-Called Life

wilson cruz

Wilson Cruz

Gene Reed
star trek discovery

Cruz as Dr. Hugh Culber in Star Trek: Discovery

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Fill 1
June 11, 2024
Online Originals

My So-Called Life at 30: Wilson Cruz on Working With Jared Leto and Making TV History

The actor reflects on playing network TV's first openly gay character as a series regular.

If he's being perfectly honest, Wilson Cruz can't remember the last time he sat down and watched an episode of My So-Called Life.

"It's been a while," he tells the Television Academy in an exclusive interview. "I don't need to be reminded about how old I am now!" But don't worry, fans: Nearly 30 years after the premiere of the Emmy-nominated ABC teen drama, Cruz still remembers everything about his experience playing sensitive romantic Enrique "Rickie" Vasquez. The rounds of auditions. Getting to know his young co-stars Claire Danes and Jared Leto. The iconic school dance where the repressed teen finally expressed himself. All those scenes in the girls' bathroom doling out advice and applying eyeliner.

And, perhaps most seminal of all, he's fully aware of the impact of Episode 19 — "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" — when Ricky confirms to his friend Delia (Senta Moses), "Yeah, I'm gay." With those words, the New York native became the first openly gay actor to play a queer character in network TV history. "We all knew [Rickie] was on this journey of self-acceptance and self-discovery," Cruz says, adding that he improvised his frustrated pencil flick in the scene. "That was his arc. So each episode was a piece of the puzzle that led to that scene. We talked about him having a boyfriend in season two, maybe. But I was still really grateful that we had the opportunity to see him come out."

Alas, that episode turned out to be the series' last. Though My So-Called Life was widely hailed as a stunningly realistic portrayal of high-school highs and lows — and re-introduced the word "angst" into the cultural zeitgeist — the Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick-produced show languished on Thursday nights opposite Mad About You and Friends. It was officially canceled in May 1995 and should have disappeared into TV oblivion ... until MTV started airing wall-to-wall reruns in the '90s. A young generation soon got caught up in the relatable melodrama, and Danes (an Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy nominee) and Leto ascended to movie stardom.

Cruz, meanwhile, has continued to act steadily in the likes of ER, Grey's Anatomy, Party of Five, Monk, The West Wing, Noah's Arc and 13 Reasons Why. "I didn't go to Juilliard, and I was working by the time I was 18, so this is how I honed my craft," he says. "I've always considered myself a journeyman actor." He also just wrapped five seasons — "the longest job I've ever had!" — as Hugh Culber, a doctor wed to Anthony Rapp's Lt. Commander Paul Stamets on Star Trek: Discovery. Off-screen he's a longtime advocate in the LGBTQ community who joined the staff of GLAAD in 2012 as its National Spokesperson and Strategic Giving Officer.

The actor knows none of the above would be possible without those 19 chapters of Rickie. In celebration of My So-Called Life's 30th anniversary on August 30, Cruz takes us behind the scenes of working on this landmark show. 

Television Academy: Where were you in your career when My So-Called Life came into your life?

Wilson Cruz: I had done three episodes of Tobey Maguire's first series [in 1992], which was called Great Scott! It was on Fox. It was very odd; I played one of three choir boys who were like a Greek chorus and sang all their lines. That's how I got my SAG card. Then I did my first pilot season, and I didn't realize it at the time, but it changed my life.

When reading the pilot script, did you connect immediately with Rickie?

I felt literally like someone had followed me around. He was more shy than I was, but I knew this kid on a personal level. But I still had to audition more than The the other actors, because I barely had a résumé. We also made the pilot in 1993, but ABC didn't pick us up until the fall season of 1994. Claire was only 13 at the time — she caught up to Angela's age when we started filming.

Did you think it would be a hit?

I did think it would succeed. I just thought these were from the guys who made Thirtysomething. And the pilot was written so well, and the cinematography was beautiful. Showrunners talked to me about that pilot all the time. We had high hopes.

How much input did you have into the character?

I had a lot of input in terms of his look. Patrick Norris, our costume designer, created these closets for each character, because he wanted everyone to look like a real high-school student. So we'd go in and pull out these colorful clothes combinations. [Creator] Winnie Holzman also went out of her way to know us and our backgrounds. There was a spooky parallel to my life when Rickie was thrown out of his house. [Cruz's father threw him out of his house after he came out.]

Perhaps Rickie's most beloved scene is his dancing in the episode "Life of Brian." What are your memories of filming it?

We had two or three rehearsals, and it was really hot in the space. They had to bring in these big ol' things blowing in air. And I remember the song [Haddaway's "What Is Love"] coming in and out all day so we could dance to it. I think the dance is really fascinating in the way it was choreographed, because we see a new side of Rickie. He's allowed to be joyful and feel good about his body and be free. Fans have been posting that scene a lot online lately — I think queer people recognize and resonate with it because it's like "Okay, I'm done fighting this feeling and lying to myself and everyone else." It's such a release.

Gotta ask: Do you have a good Jared Leto anecdote?

He was the coolest person on set. You know, I was kind of bullied — not bullied, but gossiped about — by some of the background actors on the show. They were being teenagers and saying homophobic things. He overheard some of it, and I remember him making a concerted effort to put his arm around me to show them all how cool he thought I was. In a way, he was rubbing off some of his ... glitter onto me. I don't even know that he knows that. I also remember shooting a scene in the Christmas episode, when we're in the car together. I tell him that I'm going to light a candle for him, and he says, "Do you really think that works?" He's really good in that scene. I remember thinking, "Oh, he's so much more than a pretty face. He's going to be huge."

Were you surprised by the cancellation?

No, because we had already said goodbye to each other maybe three or four times. First after the pilot, because we didn't get picked up until the following season. Then we got a short order of nine episodes. And then a short order of five. And then maybe three after that? Bess Armstrong [who played Danes' mom] kept us real. She was like, "You know, they're not really promoting our show." It really didn't take off until MTV picked it up, because they knew how to market it. Of course, if you look at the numbers now, we'd be number one!

After the series wrapped, did you feel a sense of responsibility within the gay community? Weren't you the first openly gay actor playing a gay teen?

It's crazier than that — I was the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay character as a series regular on network TV.

I executive-produced a documentary series called Visible: Out on Television [on Apple TV+ in 2020], and our researchers found that out. But yeah, I would be lying if I said I didn't feel that responsibility. It did play a role in what I chose to do and chose not to do, because even then I realized this was a powerful medium. There were some lean years, because I was only being offered a stereotypical gay role or stereotypical Latino role. I didn't want to be a part of perpetuating those myths.

Can you trace a clear path from Rickie to Dr. Culber on Star Trek: Discovery?

I do think the Star Trek producers wanted openly gay actors to play those roles, and Anthony and I had known each other for 25 years at that point. But I think Rickie was a catalyst for a lot of things, and it's still so amazing to me, because the character was a powerful representation of queer people of color. He was complex yet empathetic, and a lovely human being. It's afforded me a lot of work and goodwill throughout my career. I'm not blind to that in any way.

But queer representation on TV has come so far in the past 30 years, no?

Absolutely. I mean, for so long the majority of those roles in movies and TV were gay white men. We had The L Word over here and Ellen over there. So, when I worked at GLAAD, my job was to meet with networks and studios and have conversations about why they needed to diversify. We did not get here by accident. This was a concerted effort by a lot of people who worked behind the scenes and advocated for change. This benefits all of us, because we're going to have richer storytelling when there's a better and wider landscape.

So, what are your plans for the big anniversary?

I haven't heard anything yet! But, you know, we're still in contact. I talk to Claire, I talk to Devon Odessa [Sharon]. Devon Gummersall and I are friends on Instagram, and I know he spends a lot of time in Costa Rica. If they want to do something, I am game! I'd love for us to all come back together for a reunion, too.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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