The Middle Eastern Origin of Murray Bartlett's Appeal

After stealing the show in HBO’s acclaimed 'Looking,’ Murray Bartlett explains its secret.

The thick moustache that helped Murray Bartlett steal the show in “Looking” – the gay television comedy that just finished airing on HBO – actually originated in the Middle East. “I was travelling in Egypt two years ago, just after the revolution,” says Bartlett. “I was trying to look like the local people I met on the street, and when I came back I had the auditions for ‘Looking.’ The casting agents were pretty excited about it and asked me to keep it for the series. It’s funny, because a lot of people don’t recognize me without it anymore.”

Bartlett will be returning to the region in June, this time as a judge at the TLVFest (for LGBT films), to be held at the Cinematheque, Tel Aviv. “I was in Israel 15 years ago and really would love to go back,” he says.

The Sydney-born actor – 43 on March 20 – plays Dom, the mature member of the show. The first episodes received mixed reviews and relatively low ratings for the U.S. TV network. The disappointment also aroused discussion as to why a series about gay characters is necessary nowadays, when gay culture and representatives can easily integrate into the mainstream.

Slowly but surely, though, the series improved, as did the ratings and reviews. For Bartlett, who lives in New York and previously appeared in the long-running Australian TV soaps “Neighbors” and “Home and Away,” musicals and guest starred in series such as “Sex and the City,” “Looking” was his major breakthrough. Now he’s awaiting filming of the second season, set to start this summer in San Francisco.

It took some time for the series to catch on. What do you think the problem was?

“I think the idea of the creators, Andrew Haigh and Michael Lannan, was that the series would be constructed a bit like a film and would develop slowly. They both come from the film industry, and [Andrew] made the movie ‘Weekend’ before, so it makes sense in a way. I think the first episodes are just trying to get you into the characters’ lives, rather than giving you 30 catchy minutes that are just very funny or dramatic, as in many American series. It’s also less preoccupied with stereotypes and issues of gay life, unlike other series before it. They appear, but as part of the life of the characters, and in a much more personal way. So this is something that takes time to get used to.”

“Looking” was frequently compared to “Girls” initially. To what extent do you think those expectations harmed the series?

“I love ‘Girls,’ but they are very different shows. There are some similarities – to ‘Sex and the City,’ too – because they both capture the experience of young people in the city and they are very personal, but the similarity ends there. I think people got used to this format, and it took a while to realize that ‘Looking’ is something else. I’m glad we got a second season because that gives us an opportunity to develop all the characters, and I think it will run much faster.”

To what extent did you connect to your character and his crisis on reaching 40?

“I think Dom is very dissatisfied with his life, so he had a hard time with the age issue. He felt that he wasn’t going anywhere with his career, and was spending time chasing young men and distractions. I’m much more satisfied with my life than he is, but I did feel sympathy for him. Especially in the sense of stopping and asking the big questions at this age – like, what exactly do you do with your life and what you focus on. This is something that many [people] go through at that age.”

Dom’s turning point in the series comes when he meets Lynn, played by Scott Bakula, who is remembered for the television series “Quantum Leap.” It was quite a surprising casting choice. What was it like working with him?

“I think Bakula was a great choice for this role. He is very relaxed and friendly, and it was great having the chance to act with him. He feels good about himself and his age, and I think it projects to the character he plays. This is an important message: That mature and older gay guys can live fulfilling and enjoyable lives. You don’t see a lot of it on TV.”

It also seems like it’s difficult for Dom to think of Lynn in a romantic sense. How much do gay men suffer from ageism?

“I feel comfortable with my age, but there are clearly elements of ageism in the gay community, which really glorifies the young and handsome, and somehow doesn’t know what to do with the adults in it. It’s a bit similar to the discrimination against older women in Hollywood, actually. The relationship between Lynn and Dom shows that there is life for gay men after 40, and they can still look good and fall in love.”

But Dom is still deterred by Lynn at first, so maybe he also suffers from ageism a little? Maybe he prefers chasing young waiters, like in the first episodes of the series?

“Well, I think it was a very smart choice of the writers to handle it and put Dom through this process. I think it will evolve more in the second season, and it will be interesting to see how Dom reacts to this relationship. I think the character of Lynn is making him leave the Peter Pan complex he suffered from and grow up a bit.”

John P. Johnson/HBO
John P. Johnson/HBO