Most performers are lucky to land one defining role of a lifetime. Anthony Rapp has at least two.
Growing up in Illinois, Rapp began acting at a young age, appearing in notable films including Adventures in Babysitting and Dazed and Confused. His big breakout came in 1994 when he created the role of Mark in the original production of the musical Rent. The show would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize and achieve legendary status. Rapp followed up on stage leading a revival of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown in 1999, and would have a hit again in the musical If/Then opposite Rent co-star Idina Menzel.
When not on stage, Rapp landed roles in front of the camera, including the films A Beautiful Mind and Road Trip, as well as the film version of Rent. In 2017, he landed yet another career-defining role, that of Paul Stamets on the series Star Trek: Discovery. The role would see Rapp play the first openly queer on-screen character in Trek canon, opposite his longtime friend Wilson Cruz, who plays Paul’s love interest, Hugh. That same year, Rapp became one of the first male leaders of the #MeToo movement. Rapp leveled allegations of sexual assault against actor Kevin Spacey, whom Rapp accused of trying to rape him at age 14.
Star Trek: Discovery returned for a third season October 15, and took a major risk in doing so. The new season finds the crew of the Discovery catapulted more than 1,000 into the future, with no hope of returning to their own time. Worse, in the future, the Federation–once the hope of the galaxy–has fallen into chaos following a mysterious event known as The Burn which wiped out most space travel and communications technology, along with billions of lives. Facing this bleak future, the crew of Discovery sets out to discover the cause of The Burn, and restore the Federation’s place in the universe.
After three years of trying, we finally snagged some time to chat with Rapp about his career, the new season of Discovery, and speaking out against sexual harassment. Star Trek: Discovery releases new episodes every Thursday on CBS All Access.
So season 3 opens by taking a ridiculous risk, the kind of which I’m loath to think of in the history of Star Trek. It begins with the Federation in ruins. What was your personal reaction to the direction of the show?
It’s exciting for all of us. We’re no longer constrained by having to slot ourselves into what is already known. Jumping that far into the future, we’re still building on what has come before but we can make our own history of life in the Star Trek universe. It’s been liberating for our writers and producers and directors, and we have a great basis of characterization and plot to build off of in our characters’ personal storylines. The rest of it, as our co-showrunner Michelle Paradise likes to call it, is “fresh snow.” I love that.
That is pretty great. It’s so satisfying to see a gay couple, Hugh & Paul, become the emotional center of the show in so many ways. Do you see that as a risk also—that somehow, their relationship will become boring to viewers?
No, I mean, we’ve had plenty of upheaval in the first two seasons to cause some dramatic storylines. It’s nice that if we can become a kind of emblem of the family nature of the crew, that’s a really great mantle for us to hold. It’s certainly satisfying. And one of the nice things about this season is that we still have story together, but we also have individual stories. Hugh, especially, is getting a lot more rounding out of his storyline.
I have to ask—Did you know Hugh was going to be killed off? When he was killed, did you know he’d return?
I didn’t know the exact [story]. Early on, when I was having meetings about what was coming, I knew there was going to be something that cost us. We were the main relationship on the show, and for the sake of peril and stakes, something intense had to happen. I didn’t know though that Hugh was going to die, or that he was going to come back.
I don’t like to know too much of what’s coming. Staments doesn’t know what’s coming, so I generally don’t ask for details. Unless there’s something I need to know, I’d rather be surprised.
That makes perfect sense. Star Trek is such an iconic property, and Paul is the first canonically gay character in the series of the franchise. Yes, I know, people said Sulu was gay (though George Takei objected) because he hugged someone in Star Trek Beyond. Nuts to that. Sorry, it is not good enough.
So it’s you guys: Paul and Hugh, you and Wilson. When you are given a task of “a first” like that, what’s the responsibility of that for you as a queer man, and as an artist?
I think of it less as a responsibility and more as an opportunity. It’s sort of how I’ve viewed being an out actor all these years. I think queer people in the public eye have a certain responsibility, but it’s no good if people don’t choose it for themselves. So it’s more of an opportunity to make a difference; representation does matter. So the responsibility is to do good work and speak truth. I don’t even have to worry about that because the writing is so interesting. Paul is well-rounded and human and interesting. One thing Wilson speaks so eloquently about when we do panels is both of our characters are also really good at their jobs. They respect each other, they work together, they live together. It’s just a nice—and in some ways, mundane—portrait of two human beings. It’s also a really nice example that we get to set. We don’t take that lightly.
Plus the embrace of the queer community—and so many straight allies who have expressed to us how much Hugh & Paul’s relationship means to them. That’s really gratifying too.
And of course, this season you have Blu Del Barrio and Ian Alexander joining the show as the first trans and non-binary characters in Trek. Ian isn’t very old and already has a long resume. This is the first time Blu has acted professionally.
Because they are so young, and because they’re going through something similar to what you went through, do you find yourself protective of them? What kind of advice do you give them about landing such a high-profile gig?
I feel protective in a little way. They are precious jewels. Ian, especially, having been in the public eye has so much poise and wherewithal as a burgeoning public figure. I don’t know if that’s just the generation Ian & Blu are growing up in, but they’re just so far ahead of where younger people would have been 10-20 years ago knowing the role they can play in the public eye. And they’re embracing it fully and being incredibly open and vulnerable, and yet taking care of themselves. So I do feel protective, but they are very, very strong and capable and so talented.
One of the great things about working on Season 3 before it debuted was that I felt like I had this secret knowledge of how great they are. I crossed my fingers that they would be embraced in a way I thought they deserved to be. And so far the response has been incredible. It fills me with joy.
It helps, like you say, that both of them are very talented. I would never know this is Blu’s first professional gig. They’re very compelling.
And it only gets more and more interesting as we go. We’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg. I was there the very first day Blu came on the set—their first professional anything. Jonathan Frakes was directing that episode, and he and I have become good friends, so I was hanging out with him next to the monitor. We both just turned to each other like where is this coming from? This kid is so good already with zero experience in front of a camera. And I think Blu would say they were a little nervous and intimidated on a certain level. But none of that got in the way of them doing incredible work.
Not at all. And Blu is getting a lot of screentime. I should add I’ve seen the first six episodes, and I keep asking where are they going with this? It’s so cool.
Michelle Paradise talks about how they looked far and wide to cast Adira. It was one of those things, as soon as the team watched Blu’s tape, it was immediate. I’ve directed a bit myself—some theatre projects—and it’s really magical when that happens. You see people you really like, that you lean into and think that could work. Then, suddenly, someone comes in and it’s like oh. It’s over. There’s no one else.
You have a very long resume, of course, acting from the time you were a teen in movies and on stage. I would be remiss not to mention a little musical called Rent here. Your performance as Mark is so iconic, and it will follow you for the rest of your life. Kinda like Star Trek. What does it mean to be so associated with something so important and popular?
I should be so lucky. It’s ridiculous in a way. I never would have predicted it for myself. I just wanted to do decent work and be part of something that might last, might affect people. So to be part of these different universes—it’s not just that people like these pieces of art. It’s that they help shape their lives. People use the phrases “Rent changed my life” or “Star Trek changed my life” all the time. That’s not a phrase people use lightly. I’m incredibly honored and grateful to be so fortunate as to be in the right place at the right time. I don’t take it for granted in any way. I feel like Rent prepared me for Star Trek.
Well, it’s partly the way people relate to it. It’s so personal. It helps shape their world view, and how they approach making choices in their lives. I do not take that lightly. And they both have transformed my life in the most amazing way. I don’t take that lightly either.
Does that association help or hurt you to have that association when you’re in an audition room, or when you’re sending a tape to casting directors? Is it ever encumbering?
There have been times, certainly longer ago, closer to when Rent happened. There was one project I know for sure the writers wanted me to be a part of something, but the director didn’t cast me. The director thought the Rent association might muddy the waters. And it was unfortunate; it was a project I wanted to do. But I’m not going to trade Rent for that. I don’t think there’s negativity to it. And if I’m ever “typecast” again, I should be so lucky to be typecast in something as meaningful and indelible as these works are.
I have to ask you too, and this is serious, so forgive me. You are one of the first men to speak out as part of the #MeToo movement. Does the negativity, the disbelief surrounding the idea that yes, men, including queer men, can be sexually harassed and assaulted, surprise you? And how can we combat that?
I actually expected more negativity than I personally received. There was some, certainly, but it was far more positive than negative by a huge magnitude. But there is stigma. The case that has surprised me the most out of everything to come forward publicly is the lack of industry-based outcry around the Bryan Singer article. Everyone knew some version of it was coming. It took a long time to come out; it was killed at the first publication where it was going to be published.
I don’t know if that is because the young men interviewed in that article were kind of under the radar, or if people were just intimidated by taking on Bryan Singer. But it was total crickets in the wake of it. I do think Bryan Singer’s not going to work again, but I was astonished that these young men who took this huge risk were not more supported by the community. That made me sad. That’s not to say they received a lot of negativity, but just the silence they received is a form of negativity to me.
Why can people not believe that men can be sexually harassed or assaulted?
There’s a weird notion that because you’re a man, you’re more physically strong, that you can fight someone off. I think maybe that’s part of it. Not long after I came forward, a friend of mine who’s in good shape was working as a server in a restaurant. And a friend of a friend came in and got really drunk and grabbed his crotch. And my friend was still like did I do something? He somehow couldn’t even name it himself that he’d been assaulted. I think, in the gay community sometimes, because of so much suppression and oppression for so many years, that sexual expression is seen as a piece of liberation. So some of these norms were fuzzy, but I think there has been a reckoning in the gay community too that is assault. Consent is vital for everyone. So to be grabbed in a non-consenting way is assault. And it needs to be named, called out, and accounted for.
New episodes of Star Trek: Discovery release every Thursday on CBS All Access.