Greg Berlanti, 'Dawson's Creek' And 'Brothers & Sisters' Executive Producer, Talks TV Gay Characters

10/15/2013 09:35 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
Barbara Nitke/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

You may not be familiar with his name, but you definitely know Greg Berlanti's work.

A pioneer in gay television, Berlanti oversaw many of TV's biggest gay story lines and characters from the past 15 years when he served as executive producer for shows such as "Dawson's Creek" and "Brothers and Sisters" and as the creator of WB classics like "Everwood" and "Jack and Bobby."

Now his latest series "The Tomorrow People," which premiered last week on The CW, focuses on the lives of a group of teenagers who discover they have special powers and are being hunted down before they become the next phase in human evolution, much like another group of mutants, the X-Men.

Calling from L.A., Berlanti spoke with The Huffington Post about his career in television, the behind-the-scenes struggle to bring realistic gay characters to the screen and how he feels about the representation of gay people on television today.

The Huffington Post: Teenagers coming out as mutants in the “X-Men” universe have always drawn comparisons to young people coming out of the closet. Since “The Tomorrow People” also deals with kids realizing they have special powers and learning to hide their true selves from the world, do you feel the same comparison applies?
Greg Berlanti: Definitely. I get the comparison a lot. I was a fan of this show ["The Tomorrow People"] as a young kid, in its first incarnation. It was made in the '70s and replayed in the '80s on Nickelodeon. The show was about kids who felt different and yet they were the next phase of evolution so it wasn’t a bad thing to be different -- it was actually pretty cool, and I liked that message -- it resonated with me at the time. I’m not sure if I was totally aware at the time that I was gay but I sensed somewhere that I was different, so the message of the show appealed to me.

When you got into television, were you intent on telling all of these coming out stories? Was [the character] Jack McPhee going to be gay before you began working on “Dawson’s creek?”
No, It was Kevin Williamson’s idea to bring Jack’s character out of the closet. He had created the character with that in mind and so I was present the second year in the series and I obviously had to tell the actor, “Hey, we’re thinking of making your character gay, how do you feel about that?” Kerr [Smith] was wonderful about it -- totally cool about it -- and at the time it was a rarity, it wasn’t very common on television. Then Kevin [Williamson] asked me to participate in writing those episodes with him. It was my first year writing TV. I really honestly was so grateful to have the job and opportunity and I wanted to do my part to make sure it was truthful. It was in subsequent years after Kevin had left the show -- in year three -- that I decided we wanted to have Jack have a kiss. That also had never occurred among adult characters at the time and we let it play out for romantic reasons and not as a joke or something. At the time the network was asking me to start running the show and one of my only requests was that I was able to do that for the character and they said, “Well, if you get the ratings up, we’ll let you do it.” So we got the ratings up and they let me do it. Once I had the opportunity, I thought, as a lot of gay men and women did at the time, Wow, this is our chance to put some gay characters on TV that are like us and hopefully good entertaining characters and good examples for kids. Let them realize that there were other people like them out there.

"Dawson's Creek" and "Everwood" both have great coming out episodes. Did you pull from your own coming out experience for those episodes?
I think with a lot of character driven shows you are always drawing on your own emotional experiences even if its not strictly autobiographical, whether it’s the isolation or the pain the characters are experiencing, sometimes that’s similar, but there was nothing exactly that was autobiographical.

Did you get any pushback from the network?
On the Jack coming out episodes they were great. The kiss was a lot more of a battle because that hadn’t occurred on television. By the time I got to ABC they were the ones telling us, “Well, if a man and a woman would kiss there then the gay guys should kiss there. You shouldn’t hold back.” It had changed a lot, and that was just over seven or eight years.

The “Jack and Bobby” episode that focused on gay teen suicide aired years before it was making headlines…
Exactly. We posted The Trevor Project hotline afterwards and that was a really meaningful episode for all of us because by the point we constructed that episode the show had already opened and we knew that it probably wasn't going to make it. So we wanted to -- with every episode that we could -- do something that was really important to us and that was one that was obviously very important to me.

Let’s talk about “Brothers & Sisters” for a second. Did that show go the way you wanted it to go?
Obviously Jon Robin Baitz, who created it, created the [gay] character of Kevin and I think it was equally important and really rewarding for all of us and took things a few steps further than we had on, let’s say "Dawson’s." Before everything with gay marriage heated up to the degree that it ultimately did, we obviously had Kevin and Scotty have a union at the end of the second year that was a first [of its kind]. I don’t think there had been that representation on television [before]. And we were cognizant of that and wanted to dramatize that and it was very rewarding and a great episode of TV to be a part of.

You also directed the gay romantic comedy "Broken Hearts Club." Did you direct that while working on “Dawson’s Creek?”
That was during season three of “Dawson’s.” It was only a 13 or 14-day shoot, so I actually wasn’t gone that long. It was very low budget -- great actors, incredible crew. It's always nice when people come up to me who are fans of that movie and we chat about what it meant to them at the time because it was sort of a snapshot of what it was like to be gay in Los Angeles at that moment.

Did you ever think about revisiting any of those characters?
I’m not sure I would ever revisit those characters per se but I like to write the most when I feel I have something to say and I’m not just doing it to do it. Obviously being a gay man is an important element in my life and I hope to be able to write about it many times more. It would be nice to write something that had all gay characters in it and hopefully be able to work with as many great actors as I was able to back then.

Were you out from the very beginning of your career?
It's interesting you ask that because with “Broken Hearts Club,” I came out and then wrote that script and though it wasn’t the very first script I was paid to write, it was the first script that got me jobs and work. So I said it many times through the years that if I had not come out and dealt with those things in my life, I’m definitely certain my writing wouldn't have gotten to the place where I would’ve gotten employed nor would I have written something that was as specific as it was and ultimately got me a lot of my first jobs. So I encourage people all the time to deal with their life as much as possible through their work. I think people can feel that in the audience and whether they’re reading a piece of material or seeing something it feels truthful and honest, at least it was honest for me.

Do you feel that being out hurt or helped your career in any way?
I would say it helped only as being an artist. I would imagine it would be a lot more challenging to succeed at certain things. I don’t think it gave me any leg up. I think most writers, directors or actors who learn to challenge themselves and live truthfully and honestly can be who they are, that’s how you get better with your art. In that way it helped me.

When you did "Political Animals" you made one of the sons, TJ, gay but he was also a drug addict and an alcoholic. Did you get any backlash from the gay community? Were you hesitant about that move?
No, I was never hesitant because there were a lot of elements of TJ that were admirable in terms of how honest he was with his family or what a good soul he was. But I have seen a black sheep of a family done so many times and I wanted to see a gay black sheep -- and not only that but we had him sleeping with men, we had him sleeping with women, there was a lot about him that was discovering himself. My goal there was to do an honest portrayal and not necessarily worry so much about how he was perceived. With each of those characters, how were they frail? How had their lives growing up in that environment for the kids -- living in DC -- how had that benefited but also how had it tortured them? I think what we got was a lot of young women and young men who really responded to the character in that he was just a fuck up first and the fact that he was gay was very secondary. There’s always something very alluring in watching those characters because they’re so unpredictable.

Did you have plans for him if the show had been given a second season?
My long term plan for that character, ironically -- it’s very sort of stolen from the Henry V's of the world -- but he would be the one in the next generation, ultimately, who runs for and gets elected to office. You see that a lot of times in those political families. It's not the one you expect. So at this moment in his life, he was lost, but ultimately, long term, he would’ve found himself and hopefully it would’ve been surprising and rewarding for him and the audience.

You said in the past you had plans to introduce a gay character on “Arrow.” Do you still have plans for that?
We do. Yes, that’s our hope. Again, for me, it's about the character and what is interesting about the character and then sexuality being secondary, and not making that the primary concern. But, also simultaneously when I do it, I want to do it in a way that the character is somewhat integral to the show, so they’re not someone who vanishes after an episode.

How about gay characters on “The Tomorrow People?”
Definitely in the next year or so. I have a specific plan right now that I’d rather not say, but it's definitely my hope this season to do it on one of these shows and we have a pretty good idea on how to do it.

You’ve been a driving force for gay characters on television, how do you feel gay people’s representations in media are today? Do you think we’ve come a long way or still have a long way to go?
I always feel there’s room for improvement, but again it has to be organic, it can be an overused term, but it certainly feels that younger generations care less and less about those things and so - again that the character is gay is secondary to all the other things that makes the character interesting - and so the next generation, what will hopefully happen is that there will be a lot of characters that just happen to be gay - just like there’s lots of people who happen to be gay -and their sexuality will be important when it's important - and not important when its not important - and it will reflect the world more - and people like you wont have to ask the question. Until we’re at that moment we aren’t where we should be.

Greg Berlanti's current shows, "Arrow" and "The Tomorrow People" air Wednesday nights on The CW.

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