‘Hollywood’s’ Most Heartbreaking Performance: How Joe Mantello Went from Broadway Legend to Ryan Murphy’s Muse
Arguably Broadway’s most successful director (heard of “Wicked”?), Joe Mantello wasn’t looking to act when Ryan Murphy reached out. Now he’s making everyone watching Netflix cry.
Ryan Murphy, the King Midas of all that is buzzy and trailblazing in entertainment, had zeroed in on his next big project. As in, perhaps, his biggest project: an audacious revisionist history of Hollywood’s Golden Age, one in which walls to inclusion and diversity crumbled 70 years before progress actually was made—Rock Hudson, out and proud? It was headed to Netflix, with all its Netflix money, Netflix star power, Netflix audience, and all other erstwhile Netflix dazzle.
Murphy had written one of the series’ most complex and heartbreaking roles with a certain performer in mind: actor and Broadway director—as in the Broadway director—Joe Mantello. His reaction: “Oh, you know, I honestly think you can find someone better...”
Mantello says Murphy first approached him about Hollywood, which premiered on Netflix Friday—Mantello on board—while the two of them were working on Netflix’s film adaptation of The Boys in the Band, the prickly 1968 gay period piece he directed to a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play last year. He reprised helming duties for the streaming service, reuniting the production’s historic, star-studded original cast of all out gay actors, including Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, and Andrew Rannells.
Murphy sent the first few scripts of Hollywood to Mantello, who had only acted sporadically since winning a Tony for his 1993 Broadway debut as Louis Ironson, the neurotic gay antihero who abandons a lover battling AIDS, in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. He only appeared twice more on Broadway, and in roles that were personally meaningful to him: as Ned Weeks, the barn-burning AIDS activist in 2011’s The Normal Heart, and as Tom Wingfield, the tortured dreamer whose wings are clipped in the 2017 revival of The Glass Menagerie.
For Hollywood, Murphy was eyeing him for the role of Dick Samuels, a hard-line studio executive with a white-knuckle grip on the company’s purse strings. In the series’ second episode, a wide-eyed new director (Darren Criss’ Raymond Ainsley) pitches a star vehicle for Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong (Laura Krusiec), which Dick squashes on the spot. No movie headlined by an actor of color would ever make money at the box office. Nobody wants to see it.
“I was like, I wouldn't have thought of me in a million years for this,” Mantello laughs, remembering what he told Murphy: “‘Can you help me see what you see?’”
What Murphy saw was where the character was going.
As those around Dick risk everything to change the system, the tide washes over him, too, and he begins to question and recognize things about himself that he never accessed or considered. At 57-years-old, he realizes he is gay. Not only that, he doesn’t want to live in a world, let alone work at a studio, where that has to stay hidden or be the source of shame. His studio position affords him power, and he was going to use it—and this is no corny bit of hyperbole—to change how people see the world.
“Ryan said be patient, and I trusted him,” Mantello says.
Asked if he likes acting, Mantello starts mumbling to himself, “Interesting… Do I like it… Hmm..” landing on an appreciation of the camaraderie as his answer. “It was also about taking on the challenge of something that scared me.”
When Mantello half-joked to Murphy that he could probably find someone better for the part, what he didn’t mention is that he probably could have also provided him a list of contenders, too. He’s worked with them all.
There are probably several metrics someone could use to quantify what constitutes a successful theater director. Mantello likely satisfies all of them, with superlatives.
It wasn’t the most pleasant creative experience of his career. “There were complicated personalities involved, and I was younger and I was trying to assert myself,” he once said. Nonetheless, it made $1 billion faster than any musical in Broadway history. It’s not his only hit to defy gravity. He helmed Julia Roberts’ blockbuster Broadway debut and the sold-out Matthew Broderick-Nathan Lane The Odd Couple reunion. Boys in the Band was a wild hit when it ran last year.
If critical accolades is the metric, the two Tony Awards he has for directing (2003’s Take Me Out and 2004’s Assassins) speak to that. But trophies are one thing. The hosannahs that were sung for The Humans, Other Desert Cities, Glengarry Glen Ross, I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers, The Other Place, November, and The Ritz are another. The 2018 revival of Three Tall Women he directed was considered a religious pilgrimage for culturally minded New Yorkers.
Or what about prolificity? Mantello has mounted 31 productions on Broadway since getting directorial feet wet with 1994’s short-lived What’s Wrong With This Picture? It was the stepping stone to the project that would define his early career as a director, and make a profound impact on his life: Terence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, about eight gay men who gather once a summer during the AIDS plague.
McNally died in March of complications due to the coronavirus. Like everything these days, the pandemic and the ensuing global shutdown laid an uneasy backdrop to our conversation. It’s why we were also glad for a reason to be laughing.
Like all gay men on that particular Monday, pleasantries came in the form of gossip over the previous night’s 90th birthday tribute concert to Stephen Sondheim, a nearly three-hour joy slog of performances from the likes of Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and Meryl Streep that started an hour late, following a fireworks show of technical snafus. “It was pretty amazing,” he laughs, “once it finally started…”
He’s calling from the Hamptons, where he retreated with his boyfriend after Broadway shut its doors indefinitely. At the time, he had done nine previews of a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that he was directing starring Laurie Metcalf. The production was the first to announce an official COVID-induced closure. Metcalf was contracted to return to filming ABC’s Roseanne spin-off The Conners in the fall, assuming production is allowed to resume, and it didn’t make financial sense to delay the limited run indefinitely.
Mantello says her Martha is the best performance she’s ever given, making it all the more gutting that it never officially opened.
It’s high praise from the the man who directed Metcalf to her second Tony Award in 2018 (Three Tall Women), helped her hone a revelatory Hillary Cliton last year (Hillary and Clinton), and was at the helm for two more of her greatest stage roles (2008’s November and 2013’s The Other Place). Oh, and he’s on record in the paper of record crowning her 1984 performance in Balm in Gilead “the best stage acting he’s ever seen.” Her turn in Who’s Afraid… was that good.
“It might come back in another form for a brief run somewhere,” he says. “Who knows? Obviously it’s very disappointing, but in the scheme of things, you know, it’s not the worst thing going on in the world at the time.”
It is roughly two-thirds of the way through the season when Hollywood’s best scene takes place. It plays in contrast to the rest of the series, which moves at an invigorating place as the troops rally to enact change and put on the proverbial show. The action slows. The army of extras and jaw-dropping sets take a few minutes off.
The camera turns to Mantello’s Dick and Holland Taylor’s Ellen Kincaid, a casting executive and his best friend, acting a two-hander in her living room. They’ve shared a profound love for each other for decades, attached at the hip as they ascended the studio ranks. She makes a pass at the bachelor. They’re both getting older. Maybe it’s time they try to be something more?
He rebuffs her advance, heartbroken that he may have embarrassed her, just as she is that she may have ruined their friendship. She asks him if he’s gay. He doesn’t know how to answer. “I just can’t be with anyone.” He rushes out, exiting what might be the most heartbreaking, best acted scene in the series.
“I know people like this who have made a series of compromises in their lives,” Mantello says. “I never really even thought of him as being closeted as much as he just shut down that part of his heart. It was all about work, and it was all about a kind of a bottom line mentality of what's best for the studio. ‘I'm just gonna shut down that part of my personal life.’”
Mantello’s own coming-out process came with its own struggles, of course. But it also came much earlier in life.
He grew up in Rockford, Illinois, the oldest of three brothers in a Catholic family. There were times then that he would rattle cages about the church’s attitudes towards things like homosexuality, not sure where it came from or if he was even aware of his own identity yet.
“For some reason, I was deeply ashamed of the theater early on,” he recalled in a 2013 interview. “I think it had to do with this growing sense I was gay, although I couldn’t have put a word to it back then. Where I grew up, boys played sports. When Mrs. Windsor wrote in my yearbook, ‘Have you ever considered a career in the theater?’ it was literally like she wrote the word ‘faggot.’”
He attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he estimates it took about a week to go from straight to “maybe I’m bisexual” to identifying as gay. He arrived in New York in 1984, and volunteered for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ “buddy system,” visiting and caring for HIV/AIDs patients who were disowned or abandoned by family and friends.
“I feel very fortunate in the sense that I never felt held back because of my sexuality,” he says. “To have done Angels in America when I was—oh god how old was I—thirtysomething. It was never a question. It wasn't something I struggled with.”
Collaborating these last few years with Ryan Murphy, he’s been fascinated with the ways in which the creator’s career and journey through Hollywood was impacted by his sexuality. Arriving at a place of power, he’s held the door open for others to follow, something that Mantello says impresses and touches him.
“As it says in the Hollywood script, sometimes you just gotta get in the room. And for a long time, people didn't have access to the room. Coming from the theater, I never felt shut out of the room because of my sexuality, certainly.”
“For lots of other reasons that are fairly typical…” He laughs. “But not because of my sexuality.”
Any time an out gay person achieves a certain level of power and opportunity in Hollywood, their sexuality tends to dominate conversation as a point of fascination—a certain “how did they do it?” marveling at overcoming the odds. But it’s a particular topic of interest with Mantello, in a reversal of norm, because of his professional output more than his private life.
Having starred in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America plays, directed Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, starred in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, and directed Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, he’s in the singular position of having played a pivotal role in bringing to life what are largely considered the four seminal gay plays of theater.
It’s an indelible mark to leave on the community and on culture—and a distinction that Mantello is too humble to engage with too seriously, outside of praising the bravery and contribution of the playwrights for which he “became just a vessel.”
But working on Hollywood and The Boys in the Band back-to-back did provoke certain things. The Boys in the Band has, since its first mounting in 1968, evolved into a lightning-rod work, with some balking at its characters’ naked self-loathing about their sexuality. Hollywood is set twenty years prior, dredging up cultural attitudes about homosexuality then. Digging through history excavates ideas about what gay shame and self-hatred means today.
“I always think it's interesting to understand in a kind of an archeological way, our history and what we emerged from, because in some way I feel that we have inherited some of that shame,” he says. “It doesn't mean that it's there and it's present in our daily lives. But it is built into the fabric of the world in some way.”
“It is changing and it will continue to change, and the world will move forward, but it is still there. So, you know working on something like Boys in the Band, I thought, well, the specifics are very different, but the dynamics didn't seem all that different to me.”
Boys in the Band is done filming and was aiming for a fall award-season release, though Mantello admits that nobody knows what’s going to happen now that a giant question mark has been tattooed over the entertainment industry. (Though he has been asking.) He does say that he thinks the movie is very, very good, with the starry cast delivering even better performances than they did on stage.
It’s interesting to consider, in the context of a conversation timed to Hollywood, that Boys in the Band marks only the second feature film that the celebrated theater director has helmed. If the person that Mantello is most often compared to is Mike Nichols, where they diverge is the latter’s journey from the boards to the big screen, to much fanfare and celebrity attention—fanfare that Mantello notoriously eschews.
“I think people always seem mystified that when you reach a point in theater, they think of it as a stepping stone to what is ultimately the prize, which is directing a movie,” he says. “I just never felt that.”
His only previous go at it, directing the 1997 adaptation of Love! Valour! Compassion! soured him on the industry. The budget was minuscule. They shot outside Montreal and had only 21 days to do it, during 18 of which it rained. The studio offered little support.
When he and Murphy brought Boys in the Band to Broadway, Murphy hinted that the goal was to do a movie version after, which Mantello brushed off to concentrate on the task at hand. When it became a reality, however, he loved the experience. It’s good to be in the orbit of Ryan Murphy, it turns out.
“I would love to do it again. We will see,” he laughs, suddenly remembering the circumstances under which we’re talking. “Now I might have to, what with Broadway closed…”