‘I saw the first season when I first came to San Francisco. I was obsessed. My friend had it on VHS… that’s how old I am!’ Murray Bartlett – who you may remember as Dom from HBO’s Looking, and who, at 48, literally couldn’t be more handsome – is reminiscing about 1993 TV show Tales of the City. It, like Looking, featured an array of colourful LGBTI characters.
Adapted from gay writer Armistead Maupin’s preceding novels, it starred Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton and Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal, the trans landlady of 28 Barbury Lane, the majestic San Fran house Mary Ann moves into.
The overall story’s a sort of extended queer love letter San Fran; after returning in 1998 and 2001, Netflix this month revives it for its tentpole, 10-episode LGBTI 2019 offering.
‘Last summer I moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts,’ explains Murray, himself a gay man. ‘As soon as I got there, I found out I’d be working on Tales. I had a fantastic month reading all the books. I was super excited.’
Laura and Olympia are back, while Murray takes the role of lovable Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver [above, right], a HIV positive gay man previously played by Marcus D’Amico/Paul Hopkins. Ellen Page also joins the cast as achingly cool girl-who’s-into-girls, Shawna.
Tales admirably seeks to capture San Fran’s rich LGBTI history – for instance, revisiting the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, an attack on trans people in the Tenderloin that predated Stonewall, and considered by many a starting gun for trans equality.
‘We were shooting in the beautiful Dolores Park at the top of the Mission and the Castro that looks down over the city,’ remembers Murray. ‘A very emotional scene at night, looking at the fog rolling in, feeling the echoes… and the ghosts. Of the AIDS epidemic, of the civil rights stuff that’s gone on here… The sense of family in the air. It was very powerful.’
Another thing Tales portrays excellently is intergenerational queer relationships – whether romantic, sexual or platonic.
The observation prompts an anecdote from Murray, which also illustrates the power of TV. He says he once ‘connected with a group of young, oppressed gay men in Egypt – I was going there a lot for five years. My partner at the time as Egyptian.
‘Social gatherings happen in homes, we’d go – these guys were hungry for stories of a freer life. I’ve kept some contact with those guys. When Looking came out, they really responded to it. It gave them a sense of what’s possible.’
Speaking of Looking, I can’t help but ask, does Murray think Dom and Michael would be friends in real life?
‘That’s a really interesting question!’ laughs Murray. ‘Yeeeaaah…. I have a feeling they wouldn’t be close friends. They’d be acquaintances!
‘I love Dom – he was a good person who thought deeply and was heading to bigger things. But I feel he spent a chunk of his life living superficially. Michael thought he was going to die through the AIDS epidemic, lost people… The depth of experience Michael has – even though he has a boyish spirit, is a bit of a man-child – he has wisdom. He might think Dom had lead a frivolous life!’
Another obvious similarity between Dom, Michael and Murray is their incredible physiques. Michael appears nude within the first 11 minutes of the new Tales, and there are some incredible sex scenes later on. Does this sort of thing get any easier with experience, I wonder?
‘It’s always odd,’ Murray admits. ‘You’re about to get naked, or semi-naked with pretty much a bunch of strangers. It’s pretty much what you imagine that would feel like. It’s an unnatural situation. But it’s great when you’re with people you like, you trust. I have a really wonderful rapport with Charlie who plays my boyfriend. It’s easy with him.’
A piece of Ben’s dialogue suggests Michael goes to the gym ‘for two hours a day, six days a week.’ What was Murray’s response to that?
‘Well, I assumed he was exaggerating – I’m not going to be doing that!’ he laughs. ‘I’m fit and in good shape, but that’s overkill! But Michael’s definitely vain and wants to look good.’
As our interview coincides with actor about pressure on male actors to stay in shape, I bring that up.
‘My first response is women have had that for years, so it’s about time!’ laughs Murray. ‘My real response is, it would be great if none of us had to deal with that. But to a certain extent, if it’s to do with the character, I feel like it’s part of my job.
‘If there’s a pressure to do it when in the real world the character wouldn’t be crazy fit, I’d feel if you don’t want to do that, you shouldn’t be forced to. What I love about TV and film from the UK is it’s very different. Something like Broadchurch – beautiful-looking people who also look like ordinary human beings!’
Fittingly, Murray names Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar’s ‘angst-ridden, raw and honest’ Law of Desire from 1987 as a crucial LGBTI work of art that shaped his identity – as the new Tales surely will for the millions of new eyes and ears it’s about to reach. ‘It was very sexually free and the affection was passionate and unfiltered. I remember really responding to that.’
Tales of the City drops on Netflix on 7 June