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"Everybody is looking for something": Looking's Murray Bartlett on his series' universal appeal

Murray Bartlett in Looking.
Murray Bartlett in Looking.
(HBO)

HBO's Looking has matured in its second season. The show has upped its storytelling and character development, earning higher marks from critics. Brian Moylan, though not without his criticisms of the show, said Looking's second season is "groaning toward greatness."

Part of this is thanks to the show's great characters, one of whom is Dom Basaluzzo, a career waiter, played by Australian Murray Bartlett. Right off the bat, what jumps out about Dom is his age. In the first season, he turns 40 — and, as the show makes clear, milestone birthdays can sometimes be a swift kick in the gut for the aging. Dom is not where he wants to be, professionally and at times personally, and he, like his friends in the series, is looking for more — for what's next, for who's next.

Bartlett's big break came in 2002, almost accidentally, when he landed a memorable spot on one of TV's most successful shows: Sex and the City as Carrie's gay Australian best friend. After that, he went on to soap fame (Cyrus Foley on Guiding Light) and toured Australia opposite Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz.

Bartlett says that Looking is a reflection of where gay culture currently is headed. The characters aren't stereotypes, as gay characters have often been on television (think Will & Grace's Jack McFarland), and the dialogue and plots seem very aware of what life is like for many gay men in 2015.

I recently caught up with Bartlett to discuss Looking with him, and to find out whether he and Dom share similar thoughts about aging.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Brandon Ambrosino: So how does an Australian wind up on Looking?

Murray Bartlett: Gosh. [laughs] Well, I studied and worked as an actor for years in Sydney, and then I basically came to New York because I was restless. I fell in love with the city, so I stayed longer. And I booked a job — Sex and the City. It was kind of amazing to have that as my first job! Out of that, I got an agent, and then it took a number of years to get a visa. For the first couple of years, I went back and forth [between the US and Australia]. Guiding Light was helpful in getting my green card.

I met Michael Lannan socially, very briefly, a few years before [Looking] came up. I also met Andrew [Haigh] at a couple of festivals. I liked them both. I was a huge fan of [Haigh's critically acclaimed film] Weekend. So when Looking came up, I was incredibly excited. It's such a dream job working with these great people and great scripts. I really like the show, and I like being in the company of people committed to the show.

BA: What drew you to your character?

MB: I knew Michael and Andrew would be taking this show into a certain tone — one of the ideas was to bring some of the tone and sensibility that Andrew had in Weekend. So: a very real, naturalistic, unfiltered style. I love that. I knew I was taking on a character with clear connections that I could understand at this time of life. The way the character is written ... it's very interesting to see a gay man in his forties on TV. I didn't feel like I'd seen [a character like Dominic] written in this way, on TV.

BA: Dom's age is sometimes a big deal in the series. How was it turning 40 for you? Do you and Dom share similar thoughts about it?

MB: I like to think I don't think about it much. I just feel like myself. Fortunately, I'm in good health. But turning 40 is a big deal! And I wasn't expecting it to be one of those ... benchmarks? Maybe that's not the right word. It's one of those times of your life when you go, "Whoa, I'm 40! Am I the person I wanna be?" You measure yourself up against people, against expectations. You're faced with all the associations you have with "your forties" — whatever that means. It's a time of reflection. For me, it was a really great thing because it made me think, "I wanna make sure I'm doing what I want to be doing." It was a good sort of refocusing for me. I'm halfway through my life — so I better be doing what I want to be doing.

Dom is going through a similar sort of reflection, realizing he's not where he wants to be. You know, I thought I could have done this, or I could be better at this, but in general I've had a great life. I'm happy for the things that have happened. Dom is sort of toward the other end of the spectrum: Fuck, what am I doing? On one level, I totally relate to where he's at, but we have had different experiences.

Dom sex

Murray Bartlett and Andrew Keenan-Bolger. (HBO)

BA: So sex is dealt with in a really nice way in this series. What is it like filming those scenes?

MB: Obviously, when you're doing an intimate scene, you have some kind of, "Oh my god, I've got to get naked" about it. I try and approach it like any other scene. Fortunately in our scripts, sex has a function in terms of forwarding the story. It doesn't feel gratuitous. And we have an amazing crew. Everybody's very close, so you feel safe, and you can focus on what you're doing. It's like any other scene: you look at what the scene is about, and try to do that.

It's hard at times — it is an odd situation to be in. Oftentimes you're doing these scenes with someone you've just met, or have never met. There's a closed set when we do these scenes, which means there's a very small group of people. You can be nervous in the beginning, but once you start, once the first take is done — well, here we are in our cock socks, it's a relief, and you get on with it.

BA: I imagine it's weird having the makeup applied, like the bruise they gave you on your butt this season.

MB: It is bizarre. You're standing in a van naked with one of the makeup people, talking about what you're doing on the weekend. I think they sprayed something on the bruise so it wouldn't come off in the shower.

BA: How long does it take to film a typical sex scene?

MB: The actual filming [of Dom's sex scene with Alex] — I guess we must have done about three or four takes? Well, maybe four or five. So, I guess that was 40 minutes, or something like that. You do one take, then sit around naked for a while [as the crew prepares for the next take].

Dom in jacket

Murray Bartlett. (HBO)

BA: How is this show different from other gay shows?

MB: Looking is a reflection of where we are now, in terms of, not the entire gay community, but these characters in the gay community. Hopefully, it's a real reflection of what's happening to these types of characters. I feel like the show is also a reflection of something more unfiltered, more real. For the most part, shows come along and reflect where we're at in terms of a community as a whole, and what we're ready for, and hopefully it pushes boundaries a bit. I think Looking does that. I feel like, hopefully, film and TV with gay content are going more and more toward the real, and away from stereotypes. That's one of our hopes with this show.

BA: What do you think about the title "Looking?" Every episode is something about looking. "Looking for Uncut," "Looking for Now," "Looking for the Promised Land." What's the significance of that word in gay male communities?

MB: A few things. First, it refers to hookup sites: looking for now — so it's a specifically gay reference. I think what I like about it, though, is that it refers to what everybody does. Looking is a universal thing: everybody is looking for something. We're all going through life constantly looking for something: habit, relationships, peace of mind, meaning. It's an umbrella term for all human beings.

BA: OK, musical-theater-nerd question. You played Peter Allen's boyfriend, Greg Connell, in The Boy From Oz. Where can I find footage of you performing "I Honestly Love You"?

MB: [laughs] I don't think there's any video of the show. But believe me, if there's anyone you should ask about it, it's [fellow musical theater nerd and Looking cast member] Jonathan Groff! I think he's actually spent some time trying to find it.