T.R. Knight is already planning his Irish goodbye.
It’s been an exhausting day of press in support of Genius: Picasso, the former Grey’s Anatomy star’s most recent project. A day that began at an exhibit of original Picassos at Sotheby’s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is scheduled to end with a premiere party in Tribeca. Yet for all the reasons to toast the buzzed-about National Geographic series, there’s another event Knight is more eager to celebrate. It’s the eighth anniversary of meeting his now-husband, ballet dancer and writer Patrick Leahy, whom he married in October 2013.
The milestone comes up in our conversation about another anniversary of Knight’s life, albeit one that he hadn’t been aware was coming.
It’s been an entire decade since Knight saw himself thrust from journeyman actor to tabloid staple when, in the midst of his hot-and-bright run as Dr. George O’Malley on Grey’s Anatomy, he was forced to publicly come out of the closet. A behind-the-scenes incident in which co-star Isaiah Washington allegedly called Knight a “faggot” leaked to the media, culminating in Knight candidly discussing his sexuality, his discomfort with the environment on set, and ultimately his early departure from his $14 million Grey’s contract.
Knight’s eyes practically projectile from his head when we mention that it’s been 10 years since all of that happened; “Isaiahgate” took place in early 2007, and Knight left the show in 2009. “It’s weird that it’s 10 years,” he says, shaking his head as we talk in the lobby of the Dominick Hotel, where he’s staying in Tribeca. “I guess that’s the math.”
That’s when he brings up his eight years with Leahy, and maybe perhaps the lesson of it all. “It’s so interesting because that’s the anniversary I’m celebrating tomorrow,” he says, uttering what will end up being a refrain of our conversation as we discuss the Grey’s incident and his career since: “Beautiful things come from ugly times.”
Knight’s role on Genius: Picasso, by sheer happenstance, provides a natural occasion to reflect on that part of his career, both the feelings he had at the time and how far he’s moved past it. On the time-jumping look at the complicated life and legacy of Pablo Picasso, Knight plays French poet Max Jacob. Jacob was one of the most complex of Picasso’s salon of artist friends for many reasons, including the fact that, in Paris in the early 1900s, he was gay.
Knight depicts his agonized confession beautifully in his debut as Jacob in Tuesday’s episode, in a storyline that sparks one of the most emotional on-screen performances the actor has delivered since trading in his Grey’s scrubs nine years ago.
“He’s one of the people that I benefit from, who you benefit from, who we do,” Knight says. “He’s one of the people who paved the way. Maybe it wasn’t as loud and as boisterous, but he matters. He matters in many different ways, and in many different worlds, but definitely for being someone who did live as a gay man, as tortured as he was by it.”
Knight begins to get self-conscious that he’s not making his point, stuttering and starting and stopping—a tick you can imagine if you’ve seen him stammer as George on Grey’s. He’s been talking all day about the show, he says, and is nervous that he’s just spewing out “word salad.”
“It’s hard to put my words behind the emotion I feel about him and about his experience,” he says. “Because it is something that I think we all feel or have felt, and it’s more than a shame—it’s horrific—that our society causes people to feel like that. That it ever caused people to feel like that, but that they still do. That I don’t see an end to, unfortunately, in my lifetime.”
The first thing you’ll want to do after watching Knight in Genius: Picasso is to Google Max Jacob. We see him as a young addict, lover, and poet and then aged almost four decades (Knight sat in the makeup chair for nearly seven hours for the transformation) when he’s living in a monastery all in the course of one episode. What happens in between?
Each new detail you learn about Jacob’s life is more fascinating, and often more tragic, than the one before it.
He was born to a Jewish family in Brittany, France, before meeting Picasso in Paris in the summer of 1901, a time defined by creativity and indulgence: in alcohol, in ether, in opioids, and in love. Several years later, when Jacob was 33, he claimed to have a vision of Christ, triggering him to convert to Catholicism and confine himself to a monastery as self-punishment for his perceived sins, homosexuality among them.
Then in 1944, near the end of his life, he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned. His brother, sister, and brother-in-law had all been previously arrested and died in concentration camps. Jacob was in a prison infirmary on the way to Auschwitz when he died of pneumonia at age 67.
“There are so many extremes in his life,” Knight says. “He talks about how he looked at himself from every angle and he only sees helplessness and foolishness, sin. He didn’t think he was deserving of great happiness because he’d filched so many moments of lesser happiness throughout his life. I think it was very much a punishment for his perceived sins.”
Tuesday’s episode of Genius poignantly dramatizes Jacob’s intoxication with Picasso, which morphs into an infatuation the artist forces him to painfully admit. “I am disgusting,” Jacob tells Picasso after confessing his love. He says people will call him a pervert. “I just have to hold it all in. Just once, couldn’t someone love me back?” He starts weeping, realizing that Picasso will probably abandon him now. “You say [we’ll be friends], but that’s never how it ends.”
We venture that there are aspects of that monologue and Jacob’s experience that are impossible to wrap our heads around—being gay at that time in the world—but there are elements of it that resonate deeply to any gay person today: the self-loathing, the fear that you will never be loved, and the fear of losing someone once they find out who you really are. What must that have been like for Knight to reckon with given his own experience?
While he certainly didn’t script the monologue and can’t claim that it channels any of his own feelings, he says he related to its sentiments. “In the very, very best of circumstances, it’s still difficult,” he says. “Because it’s something that most of the world doesn’t have to do, make some sort of proclamation about a part of their lives.”
As the conversation centers more and more on coming out and Knight’s experience as a gay actor, we interrupt to gauge how comfortable he is discussing all of this. It’s been a decade since “Isaiahgate,” and we’ve certainly talked to enough actors who, while publicly out as gay, are hesitant to talk about it, for fear of it defining them.
Knight moves like a jack-in-the-box, uncoiling with reassurance that he doesn’t mind it all. Not only is the conversation relevant given the character he’s playing in Genius, he says, but it’s still important.
“I think that’s part of the problem, isn’t it, if one is not wanting to discuss it?” he asks. “It’s the ignorant who will make that a defining characteristic. We all see that. That frustration, save it for another time. If that’s the lens through which you see me and that’s the only lens, I can’t do much about that. It may be frustrating and it may be maddening at times, but it really is ultimately not my problem.”
Here’s a refresher of what happened on the set of Grey’s Anatomy, should you need it. In 2007, Shonda Rhimes’s medical drama was easily the hottest show on TV, riding a miraculous wave of blockbuster ratings, critical buzz, and awards attention. Behinds-the-scenes drama began appearing in the tabloids when a fight between Isaiah Washington and Patrick Dempsey leaked, in which Washington reportedly told Dempsey, “I’m not your little faggot like T.R.”
The incident spurred Knight to release a statement to People magazine saying, “I guess there have been a few questions about my sexuality, and I’d like to keep quiet any unnecessary rumors about sexuality. While I prefer to keep my personal life private, I hope the fact that I’m gay isn’t the most interesting part of me.”
That January in the press room at the Golden Globes, Washington reignited the controversy by repeating the slur, and a war of words waged between various members of the cast—Knight’s best friend and co-star Katherine Heigl publicly rebuked Washington—and Rhimes herself, who was trying to assuage the controversy.
Knight then went on Ellen to discuss the dust-up, how it felt to be called a “faggot,” and why he used the experience as an opportunity to publicly come out. He then made the decision to make his fifth season on the series his last, owing to a lack of screen time following the fallout and a “breakdown in communication” with Rhimes, who among other things, he says, discouraged him from coming out. (She denied this.)
It’s all exhausting to recount, and Knight’s almost physical reaction to the news that it happened so long ago speaks volumes. In the time since, his life has become considerably less volatile.
He’s happily married, for one. He met his husband soon after leaving Grey’s at a dinner party in New York thrown by mutual friends. Three months later, he was cast in a Broadway play, the David Mamet two-hander A Life in the Theatre alongside Patrick Stewart—a perfect professional excuse to move to New York City for his personal life.
His “freelance career,” which is what he now likens working as an actor to, has been perceptibly steady since. On screen, he’s had roles in the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, CBS’s The Good Wife, Hulu’s JFK assassination drama 11.22.63, and as J. Edgar Hoover in the first Albert Einstein-focused season of Genius.
He’s also worked regularly on- and off-Broadway, including co-starring with Nathan Lane in 2015’s It’s Only a Play. He took a weekend off during his off-Broadway run as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet to marry Leahy in upstate New York. Heigl and his fellow Grey’s co-star Kate Walsh attended the small ceremony.
Another former Grey’s co-star, Chandra Wilson, “used to always joke about choosing to live in denial,” he says when we ask what he thinks about all the tumult of that Grey’s time now. “I think there was a lot of truth in the jest. How do you make sense of people all of a sudden watching this show to a bunch of a theater people who your biggest audience is a Broadway house of 1,000 people? My mind couldn’t do the math.”
He was never closeted on the Grey’s set, as Washington’s slurs certainly confirm. But making the decision to come out publicly while in the midst of acting out a romantic storyline on TV’s hottest show can’t have been an easy one. Because of that, we tell him, his decision was more meaningful than he might realize for young fans of the show dealing with their own sexuality, not to mention young LGBTQ actors wondering how their identities might affect their careers.
He says he knew that the decision would color the ways people might cast him going forward. “But I think a great way to look at it is: I don’t want to work with those people. Life is too short. I want somebody who appreciates what I can bring to a role regardless of that. My experience so far, and it’s 10 years, there are some really talented people who I really admire who don’t look through that lens.”
“Once you go through all the process of publicly coming out, I look to the people who did it before me,” he adds. “They looked to the people who did it before them. That number gets smaller and smaller as you look back in history. But luckily when you look the other way, the number is getting bigger and bigger. That makes me happy.”
There’s a clear-minded, almost peaceful way that Knight speaks about what we can only characterize as an experience that grew out of ugliness, which played out in the media in an even uglier way. He didn’t get to control the situation. There was no, “Yep, I’m Gay” cover. There was no narrative, or timing, that he was in charge of.
He laughs, admitting that he hopes he doesn’t “sound Pollyanna” about the whole thing, because that’s not how he feels about it at all. It all boils down to being aware of what you can and can’t control, and learning to be at peace with that—the idea that beauty can come out of the ugly.
“The only thing you can control is how you manage it, how you embrace it, how you understand it, how you grow from it,” he says. “To me that’s where the beauty comes in. So when you look back on it, and say you look back after 10 years, you don’t see something ugly. That’s not the image that is left in my brain. And I don’t think it’s because I’m not connected to reality. You understand that you just see the outcome in your life from it. And it’s only good. That makes me happy. That’s how I’m able to look back at it.”