Inside Girls’ Big Gay Twist

The first seconds of Sunday night's episode of Girls began with a shocker: One of the fans’ most beloved characters came out as gay. Here’s how the storyline came about. [Warning: Spoilers]

“I feel there’s something that I want to share with you…I’ve been thinking lately that I’m…that I’m gay.”

It was a matter of time before Girls, our gritty mirror to everything that is wonderful and despicable about millennials (and, long since that “voice of a generation” pilot discovered, all of us), had a coming out story.

“And not lately, actually. For a while.”

After bulldozing every TV taboo when it comes to the way modern society, specifically that of twentysomething New Yorkers, is portrayed—from their sexuality to their ambition to their opinions on abortion, race, and covers of Kanye West songs—fully exploring what it’s like to come out of the closet in 2015 is a natural fit for Lena Dunham’s ever-nuanced and surprising series.

The biggest surprise of it all, however, is that the juicy arc wasn’t given to one of the show’s sexually free quartet of female leads, or a contemporary of Andrew Rannells’s fabulously gay scene-stealer Elijah. Instead, the character that came out in the first seconds of “Tad & Loreen & Avi & Shanaz” is Hannah’s nearly 60-year-old dad, Tad, played by veteran actor Peter Scolari.

“You could’ve knocked me over with a feather,” Scolari tells me, when I ask what his reaction was to learning that the character he had been playing as the loving husband to Becky Ann Baker’s Loreen (and perhaps the only stable element in his daughter Hannah’s life) would be revealing that he’s been gay all along.

If you’ve seen Sunday night’s episode, you already know the admirable respect (not to mention screen time) the Girls writers have given Tad’s arc. It’s not a flippant, throwaway plot device used to shit-disturb things for one episode before being cast aside with the superficial laughs it may have earned. Tad’s journey is played out in beats that reverberate throughout the rest of the season, with the way it affects Loreen, Hannah, and even her gay BFF Elijah all explored, and explored deeply.

“This was an executive decision at Girls to forgo the glib way this story might have been told and tell it how we are telling it,” Scolari says.

A true Girls fan may have argued that Tad’s coming out was foretold from the first season, when Elijah, steam coming out of his ears after an argument with Hannah, who he hadn’t seen in years, burns her with a vicious goodbye: “Nice to see you, your dad is gay.”

Scolari laughs at the reference point, and laughs harder at its origin: He had absent-mindedly left a stud earring in his ear when filming a scene. Rannells found the earring hilarious, so he eventually ad-libbed that “your dad is gay” line.

While that may have planted the “is Tad gay?” seed in the writers’ heads, Scolari says the actual inspiration for the arc is far more personal, from something that one of the show’s most celebrated directors went through with his own dad.

So as Girls fans gather themselves from their own versions of the feather that knocked Scolari over after watching Sunday night’s episode, we chat with Scolari—already a TV legend for his work with Tom Hanks on Bosom Buddies and Bob Newhart on, duh, Newhart—about Tad’s coming out and how it fits in with his arc on Girls.

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From going gay to going nude (you didn’t think we wouldn’t ask about that scene, right?) Scolari bares all.

How did you find out that this arc was happening?

This was a first-episode event. We were filming the first episode of the fourth season. We’re back with Hannah in the same restaurant at the same hotel where we were in the pilot, the Warwick Hotel here in New York. We were celebrating Hannah’s advancements into the upper echelons of the academic life, getting into the MFA program at Iowa. At one point, the fantastic first assistant director called us over to the video village, where they gather with high-tech monitors and look at every take as it’s being filmed. When you’re invited over to the video village, you can safely assume there’s something that needs to be discussed. So we got a kick out of it. “Oh, we’re in trouble!”

But you weren’t in trouble, I assume?

Jenni Konner [Girls’ co-showrunner], in a nearly solemn fashion, said, “I have to ask you guys if you’ll look ahead into your future and into your schedule for this year because we have big plans for your characters and we don’t want to go ahead in the writers’ room and develop this pending storyline unless you can tell us you can commit.” And then we were told about the storyline in a somewhat tantalizing kind of way. Jenni took it in a few stages, like when you have to tell the nephew that grandma has died.

How did she break it to you?

First, that the marriage was going to come to an abrupt halt, which was shocking to us. Then, that Tad was going to go through changes. So I thought maybe I was having an affair, or I was going to go through a life-threatening illness and didn’t want anybody around me. In Season Three, there was an allusion to a surgery I had. Interestingly, a line had been cut about it. There was something about a mole being removed. That line was deleted. A line about having a small surgical procedure remained. A small, nuanced thing, but I thought maybe they didn’t want to specify too much about it in Season Three so that now they could move ahead, but of course I was wrong. It wasn’t that at all. Then they said Tad comes to this place after all these years where you finally feel like you have to seize the moment and make the determination about how you’re going to live your life. You’re going to come out.

How did you react?

You could’ve knocked me over with a feather. There were no feathers on hand, so I was allowed to remain standing and went back to continue to film for the day.

Do you think that after having more time to process the news that it made sense for the character for this to happen, that maybe it was less surprising?

There was a shallow drift about it that we joked about. In the story, you may recall if you’re a true Girls nerd that Andrew Rannells…

He told Hannah he thought her dad was gay in the first season!

That’s right. That was based on an accident in filming. A tiny little thing where I left my own personal, occasionally pretentious stud earring in my left ear while we were filming. I never intended to do that and it made the air. And that was that, and I was glad I didn’t get in trouble for it. But Andrew caught it when he was a fan of the show, before he guest-starred for the first time. It went into his file, this brilliant mind of his, and he used it as a weapon to argue with Hannah in what was otherwise an improvised exchange. My wife, Tracy, and I just howled when we saw it. I said, “Oh, shit, I’ve been found out.” I later talked to Jesse Peretz, who is a frequent director and producer on the show, about it—there’s a meaning about Jesse’s personal history that plays into this as well. He said, “I think it put a flea in our ear about what might be possible.”

Even with the history of that one line, the news was really surprising, because we’ve gotten to see over the years a really vivacious relationship with Tad and Loreen. There’s been sex and nudity and real love between you two that we’ve seen.

They’ve been incredibly successful as partners. There’s a paradox. Ultimately, as the consequences of his self-determination begin to form, there’s a program of suffering that’s unavoidable. Not because he was living a lie, but because he lived something that was very true. It’s something that’s horrible to live because it’s worse than another kind of failed romance, where people say, “OK, I get it.” It’s one thing for a wife or husband to find that their partner has got to move on. The readily available scenarios are a younger woman or a younger man, the lifetime of making something work that was never just right, for sexual reasons, or you just grow apart. But for the wife to be rejected because she’s not the right gender—it’s a biological insult. A psychological divorce. It’s unfathomable.

I feel like it’s remarkable, and I mean this with great respect, that as a man of almost 60, you’re on a show called Girls in a role as rich as this one is. Nude scene. Sex scene. A coming out arc. What’s it been like to be on a show targeted at millennials, ostensibly, but to be allowed to do all of this as a member of the generation before that?

I’m even a member of the generation before the generation. You’re being generous. It’s been an honor. Girls has affected certain changes in the way I’m seen, the way I’m considered and cast. I have a backstory and a history of early success in situation comedy, and in an era when the palate, not just of colors, but intent and tone was different in the way comedy was achieved, in Bosom Buddies and through Newhart and work later after that, I feel in some ways that being cast in Girls was a turning point that would steer me down an avenue of such better opportunities. This past year I was cast entirely against type on a show called Gotham. I play someone that is 180 degrees the polar opposite to Tad. And these things run concurrently now!

Filming a nude scene must certainly change how people look at you.

When they wrote a nude scene, I thought that this would be potentially the most mortifying experience of my career. And flying in the face of that assessment and the clear calculation of what that meant, which is do not do it, I therefore did it. Because what they had written was something for the character of my daughter, who needed to experience to real mortification at her father’s nudity. I said, “I will take this hit for the team and do it.” Because the only reason I had for not doing went to shame: shame in the male body. And god knows my female counterparts, my brethren and sistren, have historically had to overcome shame and perhaps even suffer exploitation. It sounds pretty grand now that I hear out loud, but this was my thought process at the time: “I’m not going to give into the shame that attaches to a perception of the male body in nudity. I’m doing it.”

Do you regret doing the nude scene?

I don’t regret it. I have a quirky pride about all of it. I probably would not do it again.

There was a positive reaction, I think. People thought it was progressive for you and Becky Ann to do that scene at that age. Beyond that, though, was that we’re used to seeing women’s bodies portrayed nude with such frankness. It was a big moment to see the male body portrayed in the same way. I feel like you got credit for that.

I hope so. Somebody posted something that hurt my feelings so deeply, that I thought, wow.

What did they say?

I glimpsed it so briefly that I atypically cannot quote it verbatim. This was just mean and condescending and alluded to, “Was this really necessary?” or, “I didn’t need to see that.” What it connected me with, in that moment, was the very shame that I had sought to play in defiance of. And so on the one hand, as I say, I was immediately hurt and embarrassed and mortified and all those things shame is intended to make you feel. And yet in that same moment I said, “Well, fuck you, universe.” You know, those clouds in the universe that rain on that kind of decision making. And I took a small and additional amount of pride that I had done the scene anyway.

You mentioned earlier that there’s a connection between Tad’s coming out storyline and Jesse Peretz. Could you elaborate on that?

Jesse’s father—and I don’t think he’d mind me sharing it with you, nor would his dad—is a highly celebrated, if not revered academic, who was the publisher or editor-in-chief of The New Republic. He is a gigantic conservative intellect and academic of tremendous accomplishment, who came out in his 60s. Everyone I had spoken to on the show conceded that this, not the story I shared about the stud being in my ear, was a more real-life inspiration for the story.

Did you talk with Jesse about it?

Jesse, who is one of my favorite directors in the world, directed the fourth episode of the season where Tad surprise-visits Hannah in Iowa. And in the filming of that episode, Jesse and I had a lot of conversations about his dad. Jesse insisted that he didn’t think that his father plugged in and connected with what we were doing in any way, shape, or form. I think maybe he was being sensitive, or protective, but for the actor, for me, it meant the world to me. Not that his father’s story was something that I was playing, but that Jesse’s sensitivity connected to something that I was playing. His feeling about what he had experienced connected with me, and made me feel like his father is probably very proud of him.

That’s something to certainly take with you.

That’s the handbook that I have as we move forward with this story in Season Five. It’s something that will irresistibly continue to be part of Tad: his decency, his kindness, and his compassion. I hope we get to laugh with him again, because this has been hard. This was an executive decision at Girls to forgo the glib way this story might have been told and tell it how we are telling it.

This interview was edited for length.