It took 16 years for actor Randy Harrison to transition from the “gay young ingenue” of TV’s Queer As Folk to the jaded Emcee of Cabaret.
“I’m a character actor. My soul is a character actor,” says Harrison, 38, who stars Tuesday through Sunday in the classic John Kander-Fred Ebb musical at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami.
Harrison had just graduated with a musical theater degree from Cincinnati Conservatory of Music when he debuted in 2000 as teenager Justin Taylor in Showtime’s American version of the British hit, Queer As Folk.
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From episode one, Harrison became an instant gay icon when his character, nicknamed “Sunshine,” lost his virginity and fell in love with older bad boy Brian Kinney, played by Gale Harold.
“Honestly, it was a bit hard for me,” says Harrison, who was also out in real life. “I couldn't be anonymous anymore. I was associated as being the character, which I wasn’t. It was hard to represent something as opposed to just being who I was.”
Harrison says it took “time for me — and distance” to move on personally and professionally after the smash Queer As Folk folded in 2005.
“At the same time, I was so happy to do it,” he says. “I grew up pre-Queer As Folk, obviously, and I came out early. ... I came out in high school. But I was starved for representation and I knew what that felt like. And I knew how important it was to see gay characters on TV. I wanted to be a part of that and to be that for people who needed it.”
Harrison says that from the very beginning of Queer As Folk, LGBT people instantly knew him. “Socially it was weird and I’m a relatively shy person, so being recognized in that was something that took me a long time to figure out how to negotiate.”
Dating wasn’t easy and Harrison, who lives in Brooklyn, declines to discuss his personal life.
“In my public life, I try to always make sure people ... see me for who I am and not representing the character, and try to be down to earth and talk about my own experiences,” he says. “I still try to do that.”
Harrison found himself typecast. “Looking so much younger than I actually was — being blond and playing that character iconically represents something very specific and very narrow to many, many people — it was limiting in some ways, but it also made me find the best avenues for myself.
“It’s because of all that, that no interesting, challenging, other TV opportunity opened up for me, but I knew I wanted to do theater, anyway,” Harrison says. “Because of that, I was able to do all these amazing theater roles.
He appeared in productions including Waiting for Godot, Endgame, The Glass Menagerie The Who’s Tommy.
“I was able to focus on developing my craft, working on the kind of literate material that I always grew up wanting to actually be challenged by. I don’t know if a lot of things opened up for me that were financially impossible to turn down, I would have had the chance to develop that way.”
Since January, he has been touring as the Emcee in Cabaret, a role created by Joel Grey in the original 1966 Broadway production. Grey won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Bob Fosse’s 1972 movie version. Alan Cumming won a Tony playing the part in a 1998 Broadway revival, which is the basis for this touring production.
The Emcee primarily interacts with the audience, not the other Cabaret actors. “Even the girls behind me, I hardly see them, except when I introduce them,” Harrison says. “The audience is my No. 1 scene partner.”
Harrison says he’s committed to staying with the tour through early summer. “Regionally, going from Chicago to South Carolina, there are massive differences in the way people view, especially the politics, the sexuality, the drug use. Everything is skewed differently based on the region and the makeup of the region. It’s just like a really fascinating challenge, and interesting way to get to know America more.”
If you go
▪ What: Roundabout Theatre Company’s ‘Cabaret’
▪ When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday
▪ Where: Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd.
▪ Tickets: $29 to $125 each. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.arshtcenter.org