From a Little Debbie commercial to a number of roles on the small screen, Michael J. Willett, who many may remember as "Lionel Trane," on the Diablo Cody Showtime series United States of Tara, has added a new title to his ambitious resume.
The 24-year-old actor and singer stars in the breakout hit “G.B.F.” The story follows Tanner (Willett), who's longing for the spotlight and is convinced coming out will make him instantly popular. Begrudgingly outed, he becomes the hottest, new, must-have accessory — the "gay best friend" — sky rocketing him to the top of the social food chain.
Much to the chagrin of spurned friends,"mean girls" battle for Tanner's attention, all while he grapples with being defined by his sexuality. Directed by Darren Stein, best known for the 1999 cult hit “Jawbreaker,” the film features an all-star cavalcade of LGBT favorites, including Natasha Lyonne (“But I'm a Cheerleader”), Megan Mullally (“Will & Grace”), Sasha Pieterse (“Pretty Little Liars”)and Andrea Bowen (“Desperate Housewives”).
Audiences of all persuasions have embraced this heartfelt timely adaptation of the high school movie, which opened in limited theatres nationwide Jan. 17.
Amidst a busy press schedule and filming a new series for MTV, Willett made time to talk with SFGN about coming out, his fierce co-stars and his first album.
What wasyour high school coming out experience like?
I didn't really "come out." I like to say that, in the words of Rufus Wainwright, "I was born in the living room." I was always a creative kid and everyone sort of knew. So, my coming out was kind of like an evolution. In high-school, I was a lot like "Tanner" in that I was just that creative kid that stayed under the radar. I didn't have a lot of friends. I didn't know who the popular kids were. It was pretty normal. I got bullied but no more than any other kid. I was not popular — except in my own head. [Laughs]
How much, if at all, do you relate to the character "Tanner"?
I was much more of a shut-in in high-school. I always hung out with the anti-punk kids and the artists.
How did you land this role?
While doing “United States of Tara,” George Northy [the writer of G.B.F] saw me playing “Lionel” and thought I could potentially play the character. He showed me the script and I loved it. I had been offered different scripts for other things but this one, I felt, was so acceptable and relevant, fun, not tragic. It didn’t feel like it was trying too hard, like a lot of the scripts I had been reading. Once I read it, I felt like it was mine. So, I did several readings — including one at L.A. Outfest – and I got to know Darren Stein and the character so well that I developed a strong, personal relationship to this project. I fought for it.
The flurry of attention this film has received (even before its nationwide release) has been amazing and all positive. Were you expecting that?
I think that everyone knew, once they read the script, how relevant, fun and relatable it was. As much as it’s poppy, it’s also heartfelt and meaningful, which I think surprised people. So, it doesn’t surprise me that it’s popular, even though it’s sweet and sugary. It’s timely in that even the name itself is an acronym, which is a product of the next generation.
What was your favorite part of this project?
It was great to go to prom and have it be way better than any real prom. [Laughs] There was way less craziness. It was way more organized. It was so much fun coming to set every day and seeing what everyone was going to be wearing. That was a big deal. Though the budget wasn’t massive for the costume department, they really made it look like a big budget.
What do you hope viewers take away from the film?
The biggest thing I hope is that everyone watching the movie has a really great time. [I want viewers to] realize that these issues that were previously considered taboo or uncomfortable are not a big deal. We addressed these topics in a lighthearted way. [We’re trying to show] that we’re all just people. Everyone feels like they’re stereotyped at one point or another and don’t want to be.
You're surrounded by some pretty fierce ladies in the movie, like Sasha Pieterse, Megan Mullally and Natasha Lyonne. What was it like being surrounded by so much fabulousness?
[Laughs] Everyone was so amazing. I feel like everyone got along. As much as there were these beautiful divas on set, there were no “divas.” No one was egotistical, self-centered; everyone was happy to be there and hilarious. We had a lot of fun.
While more and more leading actors are stepping into LGBT roles, were you concerned about playing another gay character and/or being type-cast?
No. That’s not even my reality. I want to play all different kinds of people; gay or straight. For example, when you go in to play a serial killer, you don’t question if it meets your physical or moral standards. You disregard that and play the character. I didn’t question it. I want to play all different kinds of characters and hope to continue to do so.
On your Twitter account, you identify as a musician first, actor second. Which do you have more of a passion for?
I definitely have always done music alongside acting. I started singing first but that led to acting. The first gig I ever booked was a Little Debbie commercial where I was singing to a girl outside her window. I’ve actually recently been working on album, which should come out this year. It’s called “Diapason” and it’s my way of expressing myself whereas acting is a way to, kind of, express other people.
Can you tell me more about the album?
I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. I had this collection of songs that is inspired by a lot of classic rock. It’s super modern and will feature some rock legends, like Brian May from Queen, Culture Club and Rick Springfield. It felt really good to have the support from legends. I’m really excited. I’m also coming out with a music video for the song “Burning Desire,” which will be combine fashion and art. It’s going to be insane! It’s going to blow minds. [Laughs]
I saw that you're filming a new MTV series, “Faking It.” Can you tell me more about the series and your character?
I play “Shane.” He’s the hot, popular kid in school that sets the trends; tells people what causes to support, what’s cool. He’s got wicked style – and he’s openly gay. What’s cool about it is that [the concept] flips the high-school scenario on its head. It’s completely un-stereotypical. [Part of the story involves] these two girls who are trying to figure out how to become more popular. They get outted as lesbians but they might just be “faking it.”
Who: Michael J. Willett
When: Jan. 17, 2014 (limited release)