Over two, 10-episode seasons, Looking presented the stories of a group of gay men living in San Francisco, grappling with love, sex and intimacy, often in ways that had never been seen on a major television show before. With a new finale making festival rounds before airing on HBO July 23, 2016, Daily Xtra spoke with cast members Murray Bartlett, who played would-be restaurateur Dom, and Frankie J Alvarez, who played the artist Agustín, to chat about gay stories, dealing with haters and the legacy of Looking in this edited and condensed interview.
Daily Xtra: It’s rare to see not only a show about gay people and telling gay stories, but with a cast and creative team that is largely gay as well. What was it like working with that kind of team? Did it make any difference to you?
Murray Bartlett: We were pretty split in terms of the mix of sexual orientations on the show, but that’s a healthy environment to have. It’s always helpful, for those actors who weren’t gay, to have some other gay people on hand particularly when it came to the nuts and bolts of some scenes.
Frankie J Alvarez: Pun intended.
Bartlett: I think it’s really important to have representation in the show that you’re doing of the people that the show’s about otherwise it would seem weird.
Alvarez: As a straight guy, I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to the community. I have gay family, I have very close gay friends. I wanted to show this guy in the most complex three-dimensional light, and it was good to have members of the LGBT community working not only on the creative team, but in the cast and in the crew to reflect on these choices and to help navigate stuff and check our impulses to make sure that we’re on the same track.
Are shows like Looking still necessary in an era of more and greater presence of LGBT characters on mainstream television shows, including in leading roles?
Alvarez: Absolutely. It’s a shame that the show is over, but I really hope that we’ve flung the door open more than a nudge for the next show that features a diverse crew of LGBT characters. I think the next wave should be about marketing these shows not just for the LGBT community but for the greater community as a whole. These shows shouldn’t be considered niche.
One of the most satisfying things for me was touching base with some conservative friends I have from my hometown of Miami, Florida, who experienced some reticence with watching the pilot and having them check in and say “I can’t believe Kevin did that to Patrick.” I think that was a testament to the writing that they were able to open their minds and hearts.
Bartlett: I think it can be problematic sometimes if you say, ”I want to do a show about this community.” It can sometimes tend to feel general if you go at it that way. One of the things I loved about Looking is there are some things that are specifically gay and it does a great job of representation of the gay community, but the focus was always on telling these great stories of these interesting characters, and really bringing out the universal qualities of love and friendship and intimacy that we can all relate to. Then the wider community can feel a sort of connection. I’m really proud of the way the show did that.
How does it feel to have this finale coming out now, screening in festivals and in a very different way than the original show was consumed?
Alvarez: I think that’s going to be really satisfying for the fans who would watch an episode and were just clamouring for the next episode and had to wait a whole week for it. Here you get to check in with these three guys and spend a whole weekend with them together.
Bartlett: I think also [director] Andrew Haigh is a filmmaker and so he’s structured this as a film. It differs slightly from the seasons I think in that I feel like if you hadn’t watched the show you could still relate to and enjoy the film. It feels quite like it can be a sort of standalone. I think it would be really satisfying for the fans of the show, because it ties up the stories in a great way while keeping them complex as they’ve been. It will probably be inspiring to go back and watch the season.
This is a show that seemed to really divide audiences and critics alike. So many people and critics absolutely loved it, and while others found parts of it problematic for all sorts of different reasons. Do you take in those criticisms? How do you respond to them?
Bartlett: You can’t please everybody. Sometimes it’s hurtful, and sometimes it’s best not to read those things, and sometimes you can take some good things away from it, and make you rethink what you’re doing or let it affect what you’re doing. Particularly when you’re looking at a specific community, you want to try to be representative of everybody, but in many ways I think it would be a mistake to do that, because then the show doesn’t become as specific as it needs to be if you want to make these characters to be real. You go in and you focus on the moment to moment of what’s happening between them.
Alvarez: We trusted the creative team. We loved these scripts and we were invested in these characters. We were making this series for people who loved the series. If you don’t like the series, well, go watch something else. I feel like there so many other TV series out there, and so many other things where you can find what you want out there. If you didn’t like Looking, that’s your prerogative. But for us it really was a labour of love. Hopefully the film is a reflection of that. For those who loved the series hopefully they’ll love the movie, and if not then don’t watch it.
What can audiences expect from the finale?
Bartlett: It takes place a little less than a year down the track from when the second season finished, and all the characters have kind of moved on from their lives and like everything on the show nothing is simple and it’s always a bit complicated. You see these characters kind of maturing a little bit. It’s a celebration of love and friendship and intimacy.
Alvarez: I’m still ruminating on that question about the criticism. I think this show took risks. When you take risks you’re going to divide people, and I think it’s better to take risks and upset the norm and create something new. Hopefully there’s a sense of revisionist history where people will look back and will realize how ground-breaking this show was and maybe it will convince some of those critics who didn’t see it right the first go around.