The hardest part about watching a reality competition show is learning all the contestants' faces. But for the 14th season of "The Amazing Race," which starts Feb. 15, savvy viewers will have a leg up. One of the competitors is Mike White, the actor-screenwriter best known for "School of Rock." His partner is his father, Mel, the gay-rights activist who, before coming out, was an evangelical minister who ghostwrote books for Billy Graham and Pat Robertson. (Mike is bisexual.) They spoke to NEWSWEEK's Joshua Alston.
Did any of your rivals recognize you?
Mike White: A couple did, but it didn't necessarily endear me to anyone.
That's what I figured—there would be people thinking, what's he doing here? Shouldn't he be writing a movie or something?
Mike: Yeah, it does slightly put a target on your back because there are moments where people are like "You don't need the money—go home!" But the coolest part about being on the race is that when you see the show, you think everyone is this or that "type," but they are all real people with different dimensions, and I think they realized that about me and my dad just as much as I did about them.
Whose idea was it to do the show?
Mel White:Definitely Michael's.
Mike: I had been a fan for a while, and it just seems like the funnest thing you can do. It was last year during the writers' strike when I decided to apply. I first applied with another screenwriter, and we were going to be the neurotic screenwriters who never left their houses. But then he turned out to be so neurotic he couldn't handle it.
Did you guys fight a lot?
Mel: My son said from the beginning, "Dad, don't go aggro on me," knowing that I can get excited about things. But I think we succeeded; we had fun. I don't think there was much fighting between us.
Mike: The situations were stressful, and there are bound to be moments when one of us wants to go left and the other wants to go right, and we'll have our little issues. But when you look around at some of the other teams, we weren't at each other's throats nearly as much. There's drama, but not really between us.
Mel: You know, I'm 68 going on 90. So we would be running through an airport and I'd be the last one. But Michael was always patient, and would tell me to just limp along.
Mike, if you had to do the race with another celebrity, who would it be?
Mike: Reese Witherspoon. She's a friend of mine, and she was on Leno talking about how she wanted to go on the show because she found out that I was going on. Reese is an incredibly competitive, type-A, get-it-done kind of person. We would have kicked ass.
What about you and Jack Black?
Mike: Jack is pretty athletic, but there are some things he wouldn't want to do. He's, like, a closet neurotic. Although we did bungee-jump in New Zealand together, so some of the things he'd be up for. I think the biggest problem with Jack would be waking him up. We'd have to be up every day at 6, and I don't think he could do that.
Mike, you're a vegan. I'm sure that presented some challenges.
Mike: Yeah, it was pretty brutal because during the race usually the only place you can eat is on planes, and so you don't get a wide selection. After a while on the race my body was eating itself.
Reality shows tend to boil people down to their most unflattering moments. Does that concern you at all?
Mike: As someone who has created TV and knows the pitfalls of participating, I felt like the important thing was having the experience. We didn't really think about the consequences of participating, or whether or not it would be flattering.
Mel: If our appearance on the show is boiled down to us being gay, I'm hoping that this myth that gay people can't parent will be burned up in some way. I think it's really sad that so many people are still worried about gay people adopting or having kids. So if we have to be a model of something, I hope we can model that gay parents can be great parents.
Were both or either of you involved in the No on Proposition 8 campaign?
Mel: Oh, yes, my partner and I got married on June 18, the day after it became legal, and when Proposition 8 came around it was heartbreaking, and we had to fight it from here in Lynchburg, Va. We didn't donate money, but we were part of the crowd-gathering that was used to show the state this was a bad mistake.
Mike, how did your experience growing up with your dad shape your faith?
Mike: I definitely got a lot out of the ministry growing up, and we had a lot of theological discussions around the dinner table and stuff, and all that stuff certainly had a huge impact on the way I see things, and in a positive way. I don't really consider myself a Christian. It's complicated, like everything, but I think what my dad is doing as far as reaching out to the conservative Christian community for inclusion is a really courageous thing.
Mel: It's ironic because given the state of what it means to be a Christian these days, I'm not a Christian either. I'm a mediocre follower of a first-century Jewish teacher. And being a Christian brings up all those stereotypes that are so destructive to the gay spirit. So when Michael says he's not a Christian, I completely understand and feel the same way. I hope that one day we can reclaim that word, but as it stands now, it's embarrassing to be a Christian.