“Hey look who’s here, if it isn’t Albany’s most famous gay dick,” says a smart aleck cop half-way through the new movie, “Shock to the System,” which premieres this week on Here!TV and also at the Tribeca Film Center.
If you think that sounds like a homophobic slur, you’re only half-right, because he’s referring to Donald Strachey, the intrepid private dick, as it were, who cracks cases in upstate New York. And yeah, Strachey’s got a serious boyfriend. So what?
Based on the popular series of novels by Richard Stevenson from the 1980s, “Shock to the System” is the follow-up to last year’s “Third Man Out.” This is strictly made-for-cable TV fare, where dudes cavort naked, full frontal, in the locker room, and Strachey tenderly kisses his boyfriend and delivers lines like, “I only beat up people who need it.” TV vixen Morgan Fairchild makes a dazzling appearance, as well.
And who better to play the dashing, tattooed detective than Chad Allen, who’s reprising his role in the second Strachey film. Nearly five years ago Allen, best known for his role on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” landed on the cover of The Advocate—which is plugged shamelessly in the movie—for admitting that he’s gay. He’s been their cover boy twice since then.
Defying predictions that the revelation was a death knell for his blossoming career, it proved to be a kind of wake-up call. After a dark period of personal turmoil, where alcohol and drugs almost did him in, he’s now busier than ever. Besides steady acting gigs, Allen launched a production company with Robert Gant (Ben from “Queer as Folk”) called Mythgarden that’s dedicated to portraying gays and lesbians on film in an innovative, honest way.
Allen took time out from the set of another film to discuss—in his laid-back surfer drawl—playing America’s queerest PI, and playing the game in Hollywood by his own rules.
David Kennerley: How does it feel to play the first serialized queer detective on film?
Chad Allen: I’m lovin’ it. The gay community is finally in a place to tell fun stories that aren’t necessarily coming out stories. It’s a traditional hardcore detective story that happens to have gay characters. The [openly gay] director Ron Oliver and I create the concepts together and have a blast. It’s like our big gay set and all the straight guys have to do what we say.
DK: What attracted you to the role?
CA: More than anything, it’s the loving, monogamous relationship between Strachey and his life partner, Tim. They’ve been together for a good long time and complement each other in exactly the right way. Strachey would fall apart without him. It’s not perfect by any means—whose is?—but it works. We need to see more examples of healthy gay relationships out there.
DK: How does “Shock to the System” compare to “Third Man Out?”
CA: We shifted the style a bit. “Third Man Out” was goofy, quirky, a little out there. We made a conscious decision to ground the sequel in reality and focus more on the chemistry between Strachey and Tim, and make the mystery more sophisticated. At the end of the day, it’s an thrilling potboiler, like Columbo, which I remember watching with my father as a kid.
I want Strachey to be a top-notch detective. I want him to be a hero despite his faults. He’s tough, he gets what he wants by grabbin’ people by the throat—I love that.
DK: The film is light but tackles some heavy issues, like ex-gays and reparative therapy. Isn’t that tactic outmoded?
CA: This practice has become the weapon of choice of the Christian right. It’s like, “We no longer hate you, but maybe we can fix you.” Do we need to be fixed or are we better off embracing and loving ourselves completely? It’s amazing how few people know about this effort, and I’m happy to expose it.
DK: The film also asks, “What if we were able to choose not to be gay?” Hasn’t that issue already been done to death?
CA: While Strachey never embraces the idea of trying to go straight, he does pause to wonder if his life would be different if he wasn’t gay. Some gay people get upset by that. I don’t know any gay person who hasn’t contemplated the question at some point, no matter how proud we are of who we are. I didn’t want to shy away from that.
DK: The film also touches on the subject of depression and suicide, and you have battled your own demons. Is it just a coincidence?
CA: I’ve had my fair share of depression, alcohol and drug addiction. I appeared on Larry King, and also did a tour with Greg Louganis to address the problem in the gay community, which has an 18 percent increased incidence of chronic depression than the general population. It comes down to core self esteem issues that we as group are just starting to deal with. I felt it was important to talk about in the movie.
DK: Now that it’s been nearly five years since you officially came out, do you think Hollywood has changed its stance toward gays?
CA: Without question—everything is different from five years ago. I don’t know any up-and-coming actor who’d think twice about playing a good gay character. We just won the Oscar—well, at least the director did—for a gay love story. We’ve made tremendous progress on many fronts, though we’re not there yet.
DK: What about gay actors refusing to come out?
CA: There are still a lot of guys—I know them personally—some very famous who are even known to be gay or play gay characters, and yet they won’t come out. I just don’t get it. I know the journey can be tough. If you’re not in that place of feeling proud about who you are, then fucking stay in the closet!
DK: What was all that brouhaha over your last film, “End of the Spear” where you played a Christian missionary?
CA: The big hubbub was that a gay actor was playing a straight character. The exact opposite of the big fear that everybody had for so long, of a straight guy playing gay. That’s the next step. We should no longer worry about our careers because of who we are. I’m not gonna only play gay roles just because I’m openly gay.
DK: You also were in an episode of “Cold Case,” another detective TV show. How did you fit in on that set?
CA: I run with the assumption that everybody knows I’m gay—it seems like I spend half my time talking about it. But in reality, that’s not always so. It’s odd to work on a show like “Cold Case” where most people have no idea. Chances are it never comes up unless someone asks if I’m married or something. And then I’m, like, huh? I have to come out all over again.