Several years ago, while appearing on various Disney Channel and Nickelodeon shows, adorable actor Matthew Smith was still playing it straight. Now he's making up for lost time in the closet as writer, director, and star of Out in the Open, a star-studded documentary tackling antigay bullying and what it really means to be gay today. Smith speaks to Gay.net about his perfect boyfriend, the responsibility of kids networks to represent the LGBT community, and how his new film was inspired by a boring pizza date with Constance McMillen and Blake Skjellerup.
Gay.net: Tell me about your decision to come out professionally. What were the catalysts there?
Matthew Smith: Coming out at 15 to friends and family was such a positive experience, so it was odd to jump back into the proverbial closet upon moving to Los Angeles. After having amazing parts in some really great TV shows and movies, I knew I should be happy, but inside I felt disconnected, mainly from people I was working with. I couldn't develop true friendships for fear of being outed. The biggest catalyst for me coming out professionally came in 2009. I wanted a break from Hollywood, so I went on a road trip by myself that ended up lasting almost nine months. It such a positive, spiritual experience — getting to travel and be outside of the Hollywood bubble. I was 21 and felt like this giant weight I didn't even know I had was lifted from my shoulders. So when I got back to Hollywood and began working again, I just simply stopped lying about who I was… and now I have the life I always dreamed of.
Did you ever consider bucking the system and coming out while auditioning and appearing on shows like Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place and Nick’s Drake & Josh and Zoey 101?
Disney and Nickelodeon were always so good to me. Trust me, I thought about coming out to the world a few times. But I didn't, and the reason has nothing to do with the networks or corporations; it had more to do with the fans. I had so many little girls and boys looking up to me; on one hand, I didn't want to break their hearts, but on the other, I wasn't mature enough to come out on such a huge platform like I am today. I read an article recently with one of the Disney vice presidents saying that they already have gay characters on Disney, it's just not explicitly stated. I think they can do better. We all can do better — and it's time. All of these teen and kids networks have a responsibility to showcase the fact that there are LGBT kids who watch these shows, and they do feel unrepresented.
What inspired you to make Out in the Open?
Out In the Open was initially conceived in a hotel room with two lesbians and three gay guys at L.A. Pride in June 2010. I know that sounds kinky, but it's not — and that's the whole point. My friends Constance McMillen and Olympian Blake Skjellerup, along with myself and a few others, were the young Pride ambassadors that year. On the first night we were all hanging out in our hotel room eating take-out from Z Pizza and watching HGTV. I'll never forget looking around the room and having this light bulb in my head go off. “We are so boring!" I yelled. "Look at us... just being normal 20-somethings, and we’re about as much fun as a cardboard box under a bed!" Everyone laughed, but that was it. I knew someone needed to show the world that not all gay people are marching down Main St. naked with rainbows — not that there's anything wrong with that. The world needed to know that we are like everyone else, and we aren't anomalies to be exhibited in a zoo or something.
Out in the Open features interviews with celebrities such as Eric Roberts, Carson Kressley, Greg Louganis, and Josh Strickland. Which qualities and experiences were you looking for when choosing people to appear in the documentary?
My producing team and I at Real Stream Productions were fortunate enough to work with Matt Kane over at GLAAD on this project. He helped us reach out to a lot of these celebrities and arrange interviews. We were very specific when choosing candidates that we wanted them to stick to the simple concept of the film: We are all normal. It sounds easy, but really it's huge — and possibly one of the most controversial statements our community can say at this point: We are just like you.
How does your handsome boyfriend, Solly Hemus, feel about being thrust into the spotlight with the documentary?
He is handsome, isn't he? He has such an interesting story too: His uncle — who he’s named after — is one of the most successful baseball players in major league baseball history, and his dad's one of the top classic car restorers in the world. But here is this humble guy from a small San Francisco suburb, and within a week of meeting he has a massive team and camera crew following him around. He took it all in stride. My life is like a giant, fun circus, so he just went with it. Everyone at my company loves him, as do my family and friends. The funniest moment for both of us was when the film poster came back and it's a giant picture of him. He’s just such a grateful, humble, amazing guy, and he shares the same goal with me for Out In The Open: To get it into the hands of every teacher, parent, straight person, and LGBTQ kid in this country, because it's going to save some lives. That's always the goal.
Out in the Open is available Jan. 29 on DVD.
Photos: Xareni Penichet