Wilson Cruz on how his groundbreaking ‘My So-Called Life’ character ‘forced you to notice him’

·9 min read

In 1994, Wilson Cruz became the first openly gay actor to play an openly gay teen on primetime TV, as Rickie Vasquez on “My So-Called Life.” Nearly three decades later, Cruz says it’s the response to the groundbreaking character that means the most to him.

“I have great pride in being that person, but the freedom and the relief and the strength that people were able to garner, just from seeing him, and the feeling of validation they received by his existence — his very existence of being on a national television show about teenagers, that people like him felt seen, and included and were a part of the story,” Cruz told TODAY for our 2021 LGBTQ Pride Month series.

“I mean, up until that point, we were the sidekicks, and the people that were always thought of after the fact, but Rickie Vasquez forced you to notice him,” he continued. “That's why he dressed the way he did. It's why he was the way he was. He was somebody who was demanding to be seen. And he was doing that for everybody who saw themselves in him.”

MY SO CALLED LIFE (Mark Seliger / Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
MY SO CALLED LIFE (Mark Seliger / Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

Rickie, who sported eyeliner and a colorful wardrobe, brought a powerful authenticity to the critically acclaimed teen drama, which aired for just one season.

Cruz recalled Rickie’s description during the audition as “15, half Black, half Puerto Rican, androgynous, like Jodie Foster in ‘Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.’”

“I understood that this was somebody who lived in the in-between worlds, like he wasn't fully Black, he wasn't fully Puerto Rican, he considered himself bisexual,” Cruz said. “He didn't hang out in the boys’ room; he hung out in the girls’ room, because that's where he was comfortable, but he didn't consider himself trans. So, this was somebody who was truly figuring themselves out, and his arc in those 19 episodes, we get to see him from beginning this journey to actually realizing and being able to communicate the fact that he was gay.”

Cruz, 47, says the most satisfying part of the role has been hearing from people who say, “You gave me permission to be free; you let me see who I was.”

“To me, that's revolutionary,” he added. “That's the reason why I do what I do. You know, the fame and all of that is lovely, but the freedom that I gave permission for people to have, now that will live on way after I’ve moved on.”

He was somebody who was demanding to be seen. And he was doing that for everybody who saw themselves in him.”

Cruz said it wasn’t until about four or five years after “My So-Called Life” ended that he fully understood the character’s impact on young viewers.

“I didn't get a lot of fan mail, because I think a lot of the young people who were affected by Rickie Vasquez in the moment didn't have the capacity to really put it into words,” he said. “But I did receive a couple of letters and one of them, I remember quite vividly, was written in pen and you could see where the teardrops had fallen onto the page and smeared the ink, where he described to me how miserable his life was, and how seeing this character helped him understand that he just had to hold on a little longer, so that he could be around people who would someday understand. And so to me, that was fuel for an entire career — not just finishing that show, but I understood the power and responsibility of what I did.”

MY SO CALLED LIFE (Mark Seliger / Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
MY SO CALLED LIFE (Mark Seliger / Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

Cruz, who was 20 when the show premiered on ABC, reflected on what a character like Rickie would have meant to him when he was in high school.

“He would have made me feel less alone,” he said. “I actually know what he would have meant to me because playing him gave me all of those things. He freed me. He gave me strength. He made me believe that I could do this. Up until I played Rickie Vasquez, my idea of being an actor, of being a professional actor and being paid and being allowed to do this was just that, was just an idea. And it wasn't until (‘My So-Called Life’ creator) Winnie Holzman plucked me out of nowhere and said ‘Yes, you can do this and here it is.’ It was in that moment that it all became real, that my life was in Technicolor in that moment, from black and white.”

“My So-Called Life” began streaming on Hulu in March, and Cruz is looking forward to the show resonating with a new generation of teens.

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“I hope what I hoped back then, which is that they see themselves as whole and complete and perfect, just as they are made,” Cruz said. “You know what I love about Rickie is that he even resonates to trans kids today, to kids who are nonbinary, who find themselves feeling fluid, about not only their sexuality but their gender identity. And I hope that they gain strength from knowing that we have always been here. LGBTQ students have been in existence forever and we will be here forever, and Rickie Vasquez was just the first person to say, ‘I deserve to be loved too,’ and I hope that they walk away from the show feeling that.”

Courtesy Wilson Cruz
Courtesy Wilson Cruz

Last year, Cruz executive-produced the Apple TV+ docuseries “Visible: Out on Television,” which chronicled the history of LGBTQ representation on TV.

“I wanted to show viewers that this didn't just happen, that the ubiquity of LGBTQ people on television was something that took concerted effort on the part of some really brave people — actors and writers, activists, journalists, who really made it a mission to help educate the American public,” he said. “And that we did it by revealing ourselves, by showing our lives and the way that we love and who we are. We did it by being vulnerable in that way. And we did it by coming into people's homes.”

Cruz currently stars as Dr. Hugh Culber on “Star Trek: Discovery,” which won a GLAAD Media Award For outstanding drama series in April. He also praised “Pose,” which won the award the previous two years, as “transformational for television.”

Rickie Vasquez was just the first person to say, ‘I deserve to be loved too,’ and I hope that they walk away from the show feeling that.

“I love where we are now, where when we turn on a television show and we see ourselves, we see more and more of who we actually are as, as a culture, as a society, on TV, that it's starting to reflect more and more our actual experience,” he said.

Another show on Cruz's must-watch list is the Peabody-nominated Netflix series “Gentefied,” which he says showed “the full spectrum of the Latino experience in East LA, and that included LGBTQ people.”

“I thought HBO Max’s ‘Veneno’ was revolutionary this year,” he added. “I think the invitation that that show gave us into a world that so many of us would have never been able to understand, you know, is really important.”

The actor has been a longtime supporter of LGBTQ organizations, has served as national spokesperson for GLAAD and is passionate about his work on the board of GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which works to make schools safe spaces for LGBTQ students.

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“Wilson Cruz is the definition of a LGBTQ trailblazer,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis told TODAY via email. “He has spent his career not only entertaining audiences with his acting talents, but knocking down doors in the industry for LGBTQ people and all diverse communities. He has an unending passion for creating a better and more equal world, and is so often on the front-lines with advocates brainstorming ways to make real change.

"His performance on ‘Star Trek: Discovery,’ as well as performances in the films, TV shows, and animated programs that he has appeared on are not only powerful storytelling, but examples of inclusion that pave the way for more LGBTQ talent in Hollywood.”

To top it all off, Cruz is this year’s grand marshal of the virtual New York City Pride March.

“I think Pride now for me is really about how I help invite more and more people into this community, really expressing that sense of community to the greater culture, but also to the entire LGBTQ community, to remind people that we have each other's backs.” he said. “And this year especially, with all of the heinous laws that we're seeing about trans students in sports, that this year really is about how we support our trans siblings and young people at a time in which they are under attack.”

The 32nd Annual GLAAD Media Awards (Getty Images)
The 32nd Annual GLAAD Media Awards (Getty Images)

Cruz says he’s taking his cue from young activists these days.

“I think I've said a lot in 25 years,” he said. “ And as a 47-year-old person now, I think it's time for me to listen, right? When I was 19, 20, 21 years old, I was shouting at the top of my lungs that people should be listening to us. And I think right now, I need to do a lot more listening than talking. And I'm being led by young people. I'm being led on this show (‘Star Trek: Discovery’) by Ian Alexander and Blu del Barrio, and their generation is truly educating me.”

Cruz, whose own support system in the ‘90s included a small group of openly gay actors such as Alec Mapa, Darryl Stevens and Anthony Rapp, said he tries to make himself available to any young actor who’s just come out.

“I reach out and I try to let them know that if they need somebody to bounce some of this stuff off, that I am a resource for them,” he said.

Cruz, who virtually reunited with the “My So-Called Life” cast in 2020 and talks to Holzman “all the time,” says he’d be up for a reboot, but only “if everyone did it.”

“What's great about the show to me is that If you replace the clothes and you stick some phones in their hands, the way they talk and the way they interact with each other is very much in line with the way that teenagers are today,” he said. “You take away those phones and you put them in poodle skirts and you can place them in 1950 and it'll still work. Because growing up hasn't changed, and those issues haven't changed, and the fact is, Ricky Vasquezes have been in high school as long as high school has existed. It's just that in ‘My So-Called Life,’ we finally got to see him.”

This LGBTQ Pride Month 2021, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves. By examining their experiences individually, we see how all of their stories are tied to one another in a timeline of queer history that takes us from where we were to where we stand today.

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