This past Sunday night saw the premiere of USA’s latest miniseries, Political Animals, from out creator Greg Berlanti. The show follows Secretary of State (and former first lady) Elaine Barrish, played by Sigourney Weaver, as she navigates the tricky political waters of DC and a complicated family life with her ex-husband, mother, and two grown sons. One of those sons became famous for being the first openly gay teenager in the White House, but now struggles with the scars that being outed on the national stage can leave behind.
Berlanti has long included LGBT characters in the shows he’s worked on, including the WB drama Dawson’s Creek and the ABC series Brothers & Sisters and Dirty Sexy Money. He was also the writer/director of the classic gay romantic comedy The Broken Hearts Club. GLAAD recently had the opportunity to ask Berlanti about what led him to create Political Animals, as well as what he hoped to achieve through the show’s gay and lesbian characters.
What first inspired you to tell this story?
I really just wanted to check in with my voice as a writer and write a spec -- my first solo spec since Everwood. I wanted to write something in the political world since I'm kind of a political junkie -- I've always been fascinated about the personal lives of politicians and the sacrifies they make and what affects their judgment. I also knew I wanted strong female characters at the center of it. And talking about the idea with my friend Larry Mark, it all kind of came together.
From shows like Brothers & Sisters and Dirty Sexy Money, you’ve helped create some of the most memorable LGBT characters on television, but on the surface, Political Animals’ Thomas Hammond is a very different character from say, B&S’ Kevin Walker. How did you conceive of Thomas’ character, and what made you want to depict someone who’s struggling with issues like addiction?
I wanted to show how being in the White House has affected this family. T.J. and Douglas are twins, they both grew up in the White House, but I wanted to explore how their upbringing shaped them in such different ways. Douglas goes on to work for his mother, while T.J., who was forced out of the closet at a young age, has had a much more difficult time dealing with his family's way of life. And, yes, T.J. struggles with drug addition, something I think a lot of people in the public eye, as well as young gay people, can relate to. But, really, all of our characters have one kind of addiction or another--whether it be power, sex, alcohol--they just take on different forms. As for T.J.'s battle with drugs, we're at the beginning of his story. And my hope for him is his character grows, as I hope each of our characters do.
T.J.’s relationship with his family, and his mother in particular, looks like it will be a significant part of his storyline. What informed the way you wrote those relationships, and how do they compare with other relationships between LGBT people and their families that you’ve created before?
I think being forced out of the closet at a young age has in many ways robbed T.J. of his own coming out process, and has affected his ability to cope with being a public figure. Elaine is very sensitive to people taking advantage of him because of that history. But, also, because Elaine is so ambitious and driven and devoted to her job, many of the decisions she has to make are in the best interests of the country, which might not necessarily line up with best interests of her family.
We’re also very much looking forward to Vanessa Redgrave’s guest appearance as a lesbian Supreme Court Justice on an upcoming episode. What was the inspiration for her character, and her relationship with Sigourney Weaver’s Secretary of State Elaine Barrish?
Vanessa's character is a kind of trail blazer, a strong woman who breaks through barriers. And, as a trail blazer in today's world, being the first openly gay Supreme Court Justice just kind of made sense. Bud had appointed her during his presidency, which I think says a lot about what kind of President Bud was -- even though Elaine was the one who really pushed for her nomination. She was Elaine's professor in law school and has remained a strong mentor to her ever since, but they kind of find themselves at odds with each other here for the first time.
You’ve included LGBT characters in many of the projects you’ve created or worked on, going all the way back to your film The Broken Hearts Club. What drives you to tell their stories, and why do you think it’s important to represent the LGBT community in the media?
I think the goal for a writer is to write characters that feel true and real, and writing gay characters allows me to really kind of explore myself through them. And I think the more we can tell their stories, the more people will hear them, and hopefully be able to explore a little bit of themselves, too.
The second episode of Political Animals airs Sunday night at 10/9c on USA, and you can watch the first episode online here.