Actor Alec Mapa Puts His Best Face Forward
Out actor Alec Mapa is a very recognizable face to television audiences, especially gay ones, with turns on a number of high profile series. He’s Gabrielle’s gay best friend Vern on “Desperate Housewives,” Suzuki St. Pierre, the host of “Fashion Buzz” on “Ugly Betty,” and he also played host on the groundbreaking reality dating show, “Transamerican Love Story” this past year on LOGO.
You might also remember him from the short-lived 2001 series, “Some of My Best Friends,” based upon the film Kiss Me Guido, which was written by a pre-“Desperate Housewives” Marc Cherry, and had Mapa playing another gay character named Vern opposite Jason Bateman.
And his film work has ranged from his first in 1988’s Bright Lights, Big City to his latest in this summer’s Adam Sandler vehicle, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.
I spoke with the affable Mapa about his efforts in raising gay visibility on and off the screen, his time spent on the set of “Ugly Betty,” his new one-man show, “America’s Gaysian Sweetheart,” and where his love of acting came from.
“I was a gay drama nerd in high school,” he recanted. “And I was a big, big stoner, and I think that had everything to do with I was a gay teenager, and I couldn’t deal. I took one look around me and went, ‘I’m not going to deal with this in a sober way.’ And drama class was the only thing I showed up for, it was the only thing I was completely present for, and felt like I belonged, and felt like I excelled in.
“And despite my horrible grades, I got into NYU, and I went to NYU for four years,” Mapa said. “In my class were people like Molly Shannon and Adam Sandler, and we were all the weird kids in college – none of us got cast in any shows.”
But that wouldn’t always be the case, as Mapa began carving out his niche in the entertainment field, once college was said and done, scoring his first gig in the Broadway play, M. Butterfly.
After that, Mapa switched coasts and this signaled a rather lean point in his career, but would eventually come to serve him well.
“I came out to L.A., and I didn’t work for almost three years,” he recalled. “And then I just started doing stand-up as my default. I was like, ‘if no one is going to give me a job, I’ll make one for myself.’ And doing stand up and solo shows is what got me sitcoms.”
Nowadays, Mapa is delving back into his stand up routine with “America’s Gaysian Sweetheart,” which he calls “really dirty and blue,” and showcases him in a self-deprecating light.
“I always need to be doing something, or I get depressed. The inactivity always brings out my own flaws and I go on a shame spiral,” Mapa explained jokingly.
One place the GLAAD Award-winning actor needn’t worry about any shame spirals is in his livelihood. Yet, any actor who identifies himself as out must usually field the question regarding being typecast, and if that is a worrisome prospect for their career trajectory.
“I always worried what being out would do to my career,” he said. “But the truth is I really didn’t have a career until I was out – because I think it was the first authentic thing I had to offer. I don’t like doing a comedy where the joke is on the gay person, that’s the only thing I draw the line on. If there’s a joke, I want to be telling it, the gay person should be telling it.”
In terms of winning the gay actor’s equivalent of a jackpot with his work on “Desperate Housewives” and “Ugly Betty,” Mapa must be bruised from pinching himself constantly to see if where his career is at right now, is really just a dream.
“It’s so weird, because there’s been this huge groundswell of support for me this year, ’cause I was on two very visible shows. But I have also been doing this for 20 years, I’ve been toiling away,” he stated, before going into his time on set. “It’s so much fun that it’s not work! We work really long hours, but I don’t care, and I love it when it’s like that – when you’re fortunate enough to get to do what you love for a living, it’s not work at all. So I feel extraordinarily lucky.”
He informed us that he liked hanging around on the set with the behind-the scenes crew, including the writers, who are “these hilarious people with these great big brains,” many of which he had previously worked with on “their flop shows,” as he lovingly put it. But the actor also spoke of his affinity for his acting brethren.
“On ‘Ugly Betty’ a lot of the time I’m working with a green screen,” he explained. “But I do see people in passing. When I’m in the makeup trailer, I’m usually next to Rebecca Romijn or Vanessa Williams, so I see them that way. And both of those women are so beautiful, I stare at them like they’re paintings. Because I can’t believe they’re real, it’s like, ‘Wow! What must it be to look like that?’ But the fact that they are both practical, funny gals, who happen to be smart is a big plus.
Becki Newton and Michael Urie are hilarious!” Mapa exclaimed. “And they are actually best friends in real life; so the writers get a lot of the ideas for the exchanges between Amanda and Marc on the show, just by watching Michael and Becki in real life.”
Another feather in Mapa’s career cap is his involvement as host of the LOGO dating show, “Transamerican Love Story,” and he is very proud of the tact that the show took during its television run.
“I didn’t want to do something that was creepy and Jerry Springery,” he said. “With trans people, a lot of people focus exclusively on their transitions – so the show was very self-deprecating and funny, and all of the guys wanted to date a transgender woman, so I wanted to be a part of that. And, it turned out to be an extraordinarily kind and funny, sweet show.”
Aside from being a gay actor in demand, Mapa also gave us his thoughts on what it means to be an Asian-American on television.
“Well, I think it’s changing, but it still feels like it’s kind of a big deal,” he replied. “But I think as time goes on, and as television shows are becoming more and more diverse, it’s becoming less and less of a big deal. And I think that’s great. When you think about all of the hit shows that are on right now, ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ‘Heroes,’ ‘Lost,’ ‘Ugly Betty’ and ‘Desperate Housewives,’ they all have really racially diverse casts, and they are hits.”
But if casting agents came-a-calling with one dream role, Mapa had two diverse casting choices of his own.
“It would either be Peter Pan or Martha in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ then I’d get to drink all night onstage,” Mapa quipped.
Off camera Mapa does more than his fair share to raise awareness through a number of GLBT causes for twenty years now.
“I’m busy with The Human Rights Campaign and The Matthew Shepard Foundation, and I do those things because it’s the right thing to do,” Mapa stated. “But I also feel like I’m being useful, and that’s important. This is stuff I always did; the only difference is I’m on a television show, so it gets attention.”
This interview was first published in June 2008