Tugging Strings

Andy Mientus on starring in an old fashioned queer love story in ‘Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings’

Andy Mientus

We can’t shake the image of Andy Mientus in a bolo tie.

We first met the actor on the red carpet for the premiere of Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, the new heart-warming series of films based on Parton’s work. It comes to Netflix this November 22. Mientus, conscious of his Appaliacian surroundings, dressed for the occasion: bolo tie and a black & white cowboy-style suit.

Audiences will know the Pensylvania native from his tenure on The Flash where he played the role of Harley Rathaway/The Pied Piper, an out-gay supervillain. He’s also appeared on series like Gone, Chasing Life, and Smash, as well as won attention for stage performances in musicals like Spring Awakening. Never one to hide his queerness, Mientus got pubilicly engaged to his boyfriend Michael Arlen in 2014. The pair tied the knot two years later.

Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings marks Mientus’ latest project on the screen. His episode pairs him with Dolly herself, as well as opposite Oscar-winner Melissa Leo (of The Fighter). Titled “2 Doors Down” (yes, from the Dolly Parton song), the story focuses on a young musician named Tyler who reunites with his family–including his overbearing mother (played by Leo)–for his sister’s wedding. Little does Tyler’s mother know, but he’s actually living a happy life as a gay man in a major city. Tyler has also landed a handsome boyfriend named Cole (Michael J. Willett)…who also happens to be the wedding planner.

Queerty found some time to chat with Mientus about the show, Ms. Parton and life as a queer performer. Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings arrives on Netflix November 22.

So how do you go from being the Pied Piper to Heartstrings? How did the job come to you?

It’s degrees of confidence. The thing I loved about Hartley [Pied Piper], and the thing I love about him still, is that he actually, in his backstory, has a tough time coming out and gets kicked out of his house for being gay. You don’t get to see that in his story, but I always imagined based on the way he his and the humor he has that he [was disowned by his family]. He has a lot more agency than that; he’s confident in who he is and what he believes in. He becomes a supervillain because he’s standing up to Harrison Wells [the head of STAR Labs] and tries to prevent the explosion that creates all these superheroes. He stands up for what he believes in.

Awesome. So what about Ty, your Heartstrings character?

Tyler doesn’t want to rock the boat. I don’t think he’s ashamed of who he is, but he’s lived another life away from home, moving to a city. He is completely out and proud there, but doesn’t want to rock the boat back home. The weekend is supposed to be about his sister’s wedding. He wants to keep the peace.

Sure.

So it’s the same queerness. It’s the same identity, but a different belief in how one should put that out into the world. Hartley is take it or leave it. Tyler is just like I’ll see what comes up.

Mientus with Melissa Leo in “2 Doors Down”

That’s really interesting the way you contrast and compare them. I’ve seen your Heartstings episode “2 Doors Down” twice now.

I haven’t seen it once yet!

Really?

I still haven’t seen it.

Well it’s very, very sweet and sentimental by design. Those aren’t bad things; it’s intended as such. But, when you approach a story like this, a kind of a story made for a conservative audience that doesn’t know much about queer culture or life were you at all worried about how frankly the relationship would be portrayed?

No. First of all, I was just so thrilled that Dolly chose to include this story in a season of only eight episodes. It would be very easy to just not go there. So the fact that she’s choosing one to include this, I was already on board. However we get into it, however deep we go, it’s already a step for that fanbase. But then, in scene three, we have Tyler finally getting a moment alone with his boyfriend, and they have a kiss right on camera, so I was like we’re good.

And yes, you do see it presented with respect and tenderness.

It’s not that the show is scared of telling this story, it’s that the character is scared of coming out to his family. That’s a totally real thing, and I would imagine, so many of my queer friends from Southern or Appalachian areas that grew up on Dolly: this was their experience. A lot of people from the Bible Belt very much have the experience that Tyler has. It seemed like the way the relationship would be portrayed was very realistic to friends I have from these areas.

Well let’s talk about that. Tyler, your character, comes into conflict with his mom who seems to like gay people, but thinks of us like magical little style elves.

That’s absolutely right.

[Laughter]

I like to think our powers are much greater than that. But her attitude was quite pervasive at one point—we’re ok as long as we’re not part of the family or wanting equal rights. In your experience what’s that about?

I mean, who can say what the actual psychology is. I had a dinner once with a bunch of queer media people. Somebody who had worked toward getting marriage equality after Prop. 8 said something that fascinated me. The whole idea of “Love is Love” was a phrase that was decided upon by very smart people. The message became “We’re just like you with one little difference.” Letting people come to the idea of accepting queerness in that way was a very deliberate choice. That blew my mind.

Related: Broadway actor Andy Mientus strikes back at biphobic Instagram troll

Yeah.

I’m thinking about the first iteration of Queer Eye, where it was these funny, sassy, very…um…

Mientus with Michael J. Willett

Flamboyant?

Yeah. These characters on TV making straight people’s lives more fun. That was how a lot of people saw queerness for the first time. They weren’t watching documentaries about Stonewall or the Upstairs Lounge. They were watching Will & Grace. That’s the way I think a lot of marginalized communities win people over—entertaining them. It’s obviously a bit reductive and doesn’t begin to encapsulate all the different personalities within our community.

Of course.

But it’s a tactic that works. Entertainment, taste and culture tend to be undeniable and the first things to go beyond the borders of a marginalized community. Disarming people with entertainment is a way of easing them into something broader. It’s something Dolly does in her podcast.

Dolly Parton’s America? Yes.

She shies away from baldly political questions so as not to offend anybody. But in her life, she wrote 9 to 5, which is a pretty political tune when you break down what she’s saying. But it’s entertaining, and that gets people comfortable with the idea of women in the workplace standing up for themselves.

You played the first out gay supervillain, the Pied Piper on The Flash. You’ve played a number of other queer characters as well. When you play a role like that, do you worry about being associated too closely with it? Do you worry about typecasting, or how that will affect your career?

To me, that’s not something that scares me. I’m very vocal, and I always have been, about who I am. I enjoy being part of the community. I can’t imagine not being able to wear something vivacious or being afraid of my femininity or not hold my husband’s hand in public. It’s not how I want to live my life.

Sure.

The idea of trying to not play queerness doesn’t interest me. If playing queer characters means I’ll always play queer characters, then great. That’s one less thing I have to worry about when I build a character.

Oh really?

When I don’t have to worry about dropping my voice and controlling my mannerisms, and I can just sort of be myself and then think about all the other things that I think about when building a character, it just takes a step out of the process. When I’m worried about butching it up on camera, it’s a character on top of a character. I, the actor, Andy is trying to play a character that’s trying to play a character. So it doesn’t scare me.

Mientus with Katie Stevens

Right on.

I’m also a particular type of actor. I’m not super-duper straight passing. I’ve played straight people, and I hope to [in the future] but it’s not like I’m going to be an action hero kissing Megan Fox and I’ll f*ck that up by playing a lot of gay people. I’ve also been straddling stage and screen. I’ve been a working actor for 10 years now. I’m not in the place where I’m going to say no to something because it’s queer. As long as those roles are more layered than just “the gay guy…” I mean, that’s when I pass. I don’t want to be the butt of a joke. I don’t want to be making fun of something that’s part of who I am.

What’s the reception been within the business? Were you ever told, “Tone it down?”

Luckily no. That’s a combination of the time that I’ve come up in the world. I’m fortunate to be working when I’m working. If I had started even five years before I came on the scene, it would have been quite different. But luckily, I’m here now. Also, what I said before: I’m not fooling anybody. I have a sensibility that announces my identity to the world. So it’s just a natural fit. My reps are just interested in me working. Everyone has been really supportive.

You’ve also been a strong advocate for bisexual recognition: that being bi doesn’t mean you have something to hide. In the couple of years since you really made a rallying cry, have you noticed a change?

Yeah. We’re definitely improving. There’s more representation. In the last GLADD report, bisexual representation was up something like 30%. Which is amazing. I always talk about how I was confused for a long time. Not that I was afraid of feelings I was having, but I didn’t have the language to put to what I was experiencing. The first time I ever heard the term “bisexual” was on an episode of Friends where Phoebe is singing a song…

I remember. This episode. Good lord.

She makes a joke about it, that they’re kidding themselves. That was the first time. My little, 10-year-old brain just filed that away as a thing you can do that’s a joke. The stereotype does come from real experience. For so many people it is a step along the way to a different identity. Everyone’s identity is a step along the way to another identity. My husband was an actor for many years. That led to being a director. You can only live one life at a time. Then you figure out who you are.

Right.

I do find it really curious and worth noting [that the stereotype] tends to be that bi men haven’t accepted that they’re gay, and that a woman is doing it for attention and she just hasn’t found the right man. It’s always about men and this patriarchal idea. It’s hilarious.

Melissa Leo in “2 Doors Down”

Seriously.

We’re having so many conversations now culturally about identity and shades of identity as they relate to gender. I think the bisexual questions come along with that. It’s funny, in your wording of the question you said something about being outspoken.

Yes?

And I’m like…am I? To me, it doesn’t feel political to talk about myself. It’s funny that it’s still rare enough that it’s worth noting. That alone tells me that we’re not “there” yet.

You worked with your husband, Michael Arden, directing you in Spring Awakening. How does working with someone that you’re emotionally involved with challenge you as an actor? Does it challenge your relationship?

I’m sure it is different for any relationship I have, if I was working with my best friend, or whatever. Fortunately, with Michael, I think we really see the world in the same way. We see art in the same way. We have similar tastes. We worked together on [Spring Awakening] and then we recently worked together again on a music video. And we’re about to work together again. I’m going to be associate director of a show he’s directing in Atlanta.

Oh wow.

So I’ve been an actor on stage for him, an actor on camera for him and now I’m working as his associate in a directorial position. In all these cases we sort of turn off our relationship and just look at whatever we’re making objectively. It’s actually a really fun exercise. We’re never tactile in the room. We’re never affectionate. Whenever we’re on a business call, he introduces me as his associate. We’re in that mode. It’s really fun.

Andy Mientus and Michael J. Willett

Are the two of you competitive together?

When we first got together there were a couple of months where we auditioning for the same thing. Now we’re very different types, and he doesn’t want to act. He doesn’t go on auditions, he’s kind of put it behind him. So no, it’s better now because if I don’t get a part that I really wanted, he’s now a voice of reason from a directorial standpoint. He’ll be like it’s not about you. He has this wisdom from another side of the business.

That’s interesting.

And I can remind him of the play involved. Directing can be quite technical. But I feel like I can remind him of the play of it all, so we’re symbiotic in that way.

Anything else you want to add?

I love Dolly Parton!

Don’t we all?

Dolly Parton’s Hearstrings arrives on Netflix November 22.