EXCLUSIVE: Anthony Rapp on Portraying Prominent Gay Rights Activist Harry Hay in ‘Equal’

Credit: HBO Max

The very talented Anthony Rapp is one of many A-list talents who are part of the upcoming HBO MAX docuseries Equal which premieres on October 22.

Equal highlights queer rights pioneers, activists and political figures from the turn of the century all the way to the 1970’s. The star-studded cast features famed LGBTQ talent including Cheyenne JacksonHailie SaharIsis KingJamie ClaytonKeiynan LonsdaleSamira WileySara Gilbert and Shannon Purser.

Anthony takes on the role of prominent gay rights activist Harry Hay who stuck his foot out for our community nearly twenty years before The Stonewall Riots occurred. 

The series covers historic events and organizations including the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots, Stonewall and the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Some of these are unknown to the younger generations which makes it all that much more important for them and anyone with a vested interest to tune into Equal when it begins next week.

Anthony talked with Instinct EXCLUSIVELY about being involved in his project, what he hopes viewers get out of it and what could be happening next year when Rent has its 25th anniversary. 

What attracted you to this project? And there’s so many legendary characters shown throughout the four-episode series. Was Harry the one you always set your sights on portraying?

I was offered this particular role. So I was happy to be of any part of it. I didn’t even know what was happening. I just got a really nice email from my team saying that I was being asked to do it. And I was like, “absolutely.” I believe so strongly in telling the stories of our history and what we can learn from the pioneers that came before us. So it was really, really meaningful.

The man you’re portraying, Harry Hay, had a lot of names attached to him.  He was called a “masked revolutionary” back in the early 50s and a lot of people consider him to be a prominent, gay rights activist all this time later. Was there anything else that you really knew about him prior to taking on this role?

Yeah, I was aware of his name and I was aware of the Mattachine Society but I didn’t know a lot of details about it. I’ve done a lot of reading up and watching things over the years around LGBTQ history, but one of the things that I really didn’t know that much about was what’s called “The Lavender Scare”. You know when LGBTQ employees of federal workers were purged in a major campaign. I think I vaguely heard that term, but I just didn’t know how wide and mainstream it was and how much it was reported on.

I didn’t know much about Harry either but after watching your episode and doing some research on him I was surprised to find out some interesting tidbits about his life.  For instance at one time he was married to a woman with two kids which eventually led to their divorce after he shared his manifesto with her about the homosexual movement. Was there a particular fact about him that was most interesting to you?

Well, it’s just to be willing to, at that time, to be making that kind of play for the future, was revolutionary. I mean, I was aware of some degree, but I didn’t know about the manifesto per se and that’s just always fascinated me when people are willing to stick their necks out to such a degree when it is dangerous to do so. Especially when they’re living with a wife and children, I mean, that was much more common then.

I think that it still happens to some degree today, but it was much more common then that people lived such closeted lives, that they created families, that they were not necessarily expecting themselves to live as they really were. But just to be willing to do that at that time was incredibly courageous and revolutionary.

And I know that there’s a lot more to come in Equal as viewers will get to see even more LGBTQ pioneers portrayed by the leading talents of today. What are you hoping that viewers get the most out of this when they watch the entire series?

I think it’s so important to recognize pioneers who came before us. I think it’s incredible how much progress has been made.

I’m working with a couple of young actors right now in Star Trek: Discovery, one is trans and one is non-binary. The way that they speak about their experiences and how free they are to express themselves is incredible to behold. And it’s so inspiring to be around them and I think it’s important for them and to all other young people to learn this history and to see how far we have come. I hope that it can serve as a lightning rod for the younger generation to continue to fight for future change.

And on a kind of a similar note. I’m a big fan of Rent. The 25th anniversary is coming up next year as you know. Did you guys have anything special planned if COVID never happened?

We just came together last year for Rent: Live and that was such a special experience. So we haven’t really begun discussing what we might do for the 25th anniversary. I think ideally it’d be great to market it some way. And we can still do that even with COVID happening.

We could do something special like a virtual event. Because these virtual events turned out to be quite resonant for musical people and they could be really effective fundraisers and so if we were to do something, I think we’d want to do one that could raise a lot of money and awareness for some cause.

I think I would have to talk to my fellow cast members to get an idea of what we’d want to concentrate on, but I think there’s a good chance we can do something.

And in conclusion. I’m sure you’ve read that Broadway is down until late next year. What words of hope would you give to your fellow actors and actresses who are going through probably the most difficult time in their professional lives right now?

I do believe that at some point it will be safe once again to gather. For instance New Zealand is able to do it. So we will get to another side of it. I don’t know when, but I truly believe in my heart of hearts that when that happens, there will be such a hunger and such a need that we will all have.

I think it will just be so incredible to be in these buildings & sharing these experiences and for actors and audiences to come together once again. So we don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s something to look forward to on the other side of all this.

Learn more about Equal by clicking here.