More Than a Label: Michael J. Willett Talks ‘G.B.F.’

What’s the hottest item for a popular teenage girl? In the film G.B.F., it’s a gay best friend.

In the vein of Mean GirlsG.B.F. tells one teen’s story as he becomes a prize for his school’s most popular girls.

G.B.F. comes from director Darren Stein (Jawbreaker) and first-time screenwriter George Northy, and cast members include Megan Mullally, Natasha Lyonne and Horatio Sanz. At the center of the film is Tanner, played by Michael J. Willett, best known for his role as Lionel on United States of Tara. Anyone familiar with Lionel shouldn’t expect a repeat of that character here, though.

I spoke with Willett about the film, playing characters who happen to be gay instead of gay characters, and the film’s controversial rating.

David Atlanta: How did you get involved with G.B.F.?

Michael J. Willett: Well, George Northy saw me on United States of Tara as Lionel, and as much as my character was different on United States of Tara, he thought that I could potentially play the role of Tanner in his script. They asked me to do several readings of it with Darren Stein, and after reading it and really living in the character, I just felt like I had to play this role. Tanner was almost a friend that I knew in high school. He was very close to me. I ended up really fighting for the role. I’d been approached with lots of different scripts, and I turned a lot of them down for different reasons. But this one, I felt like it was so good, because it was funny and it just seemed more real than a lot of scripts I had read. It was perfect.

DA: As you mentioned, you’re known for your role on United States of Tara. Did you have any concerns about playing another gay character?

MJW: I had no apprehensions about it. Like I said, I’ve been approached with scripts for other roles, specifically gay roles, and I didn’t like either the way the character was represented, or I didn’t feel like the storyline was important. But Tanner was different. He’s just a kid, and he doesn’t have a problem with his sexuality. It’s everyone else who’s making it an issue. And Lionel was very different, because Lionel was much more confident. They’re just very different. I didn’t really look at them as “gay,” or whatever. I just looked at them as people. And that’s all I want in my career: variety. I want the opportunity to play different kinds of people.

DA: Did you relate in any way to Tanner’s story in the film?

MJW: Tanner is a lot like me in high school. I was much more introverted. I was a creative person who didn’t really know who the popular kids were. In my own head, I was popular. But no, I wasn’t exactly like Tanner’s story. There are parts of it that I relate to, like his relationships with the girls and stuff, but not really. I never had a fashion makeover montage. That’s why it’s awesome to have it in the film, because everyone wants that secretly. (Laughs) But I think there are elements to the story that are totally real and real to life.

DA: Are you anyone’s GBF?

MJW: Certainly! Especially after this film; it seems like I’m everyone’s GBF, which I’m totally okay with. But if you’ve seen the film, you know that it’s not about that. It’s not about putting someone in a box about their religion or the color of their skin, or whatever. Nobody feels comfortable being a stereotype.

DA: The film’s rating generated some controversy. Were you surprised at all by the rating?

MJW: Oh, I was totally surprised, because we never intended for the film to be rated R. We made a teen comedy. So if anything, I was disheartened to hear it was rated R, because that’s not what we intended to do. It’s not sought out to do. And I don’t think in the long run, it’ll do any damage, but it’s for kids. It’s for this new generation of young people.

DA: The relationship between Tanner and Paul [Tanner’s best friend, also gay, in the film] was surprising, in that it didn’t end up where it might have in a more traditional film. Were you surprised by that when reading the script?

MJW: No. I think it’s important and necessary to have different kinds of gay characters in films, especially when in the past, a lot of times when the gay character has been the lead, it’s a tragic story, and it’s depressing and sad. And I feel like our film is dealing with these somewhat taboo issues in a very light and humorous way.

DA: You only share a couple of scenes with her, but I have to ask: what was it like working with Megan Mullally?

MJW: Oh, we love Megan. She’s super down-to-earth and totally witty, and hilarious. She’s actually in a band, and I get notifications for when their band is playing. She’s just an awesome person. It only makes sense that she would be every young gay boy’s dream mom.

DA: What’s next for you, career-wise?

MJW: I’m currently working on a new MTV series called Faking It. It’s a teen romantic comedy about two girls who are trying to be popular at a school where the more different you are, the cooler you are. So they get outed as lesbians, but they’re not – they’re just faking it. I play a hot, popular kid who happens to be gay, and I run the school, telling people what’s cool and what causes they should be fighting for and supporting. But it should be an interesting show that’s not stereotypical in the least.

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G.B.F. opens Jan. 17 at the Plaza Theatre. It’s rated R for sexual references.

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