Local Legend: Winter Park’s Amanda Bearse was an LGBT groundbreaker. She returns home to celebrate Fright Night at Spooky Empire

By : Tom Dyer
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Amanda Bearse was the cover girl on the very first issue of Watermark back in August 1994. But the actress, famous for her role as ditzy Marcy D’Arcy on the hit television series Married… with Children (1987-1997), played a far more significant role in LGBT history. A year before that she became the first actor on a primetime network show to come out. The Advocate cover story was big news and broke ground for Ellen, Rosie and a cavalcade of entertainers.

Bearse is also hometown hero. At Winter Park High School, legendary theater teacher Ann Derflinger encouraged her acting talent. In 1981,Bearse went to New York and landed a role on the soap opera All My Children that lasted for three years.

In 1985, director Tom Holland cast Bearse in his horror classic Fright Night. As Amy Peterson, Bearse transitioned from girl-next-door to bloodsucker and joined Kirsten Dunst (Interview With the Vampire) as one of the most memorable female vampires in film history. Bearse will join fellow cast members and other horror stars (Neve Campbell, Malcolm McDowell, Burt Reynolds, BarryBostwick) at Spooky Empire’s Ultimate Halloween Weekend at the Hyatt Regency Orlando from Oct. 30-Nov. 1.

Bearse directed more than 30 episodes of Married… with Children. She’s spent the bulk of her career since behind the camera, directing episodes of Reba, Mad TV, The Jamie Foxx Show, Dharma & Greg and Veronica’s Closet. In 2006 she teamed with Rosie O’Donnell to direct The Big Gay Sketch Show on Logo.

I spoke with Bearse by telephone from her home on Vashon Island, Washington, a picturesque island in the middle of Puget Sound where she lives with her wife, Carrie Schenken. “We were living in Seattle and when I discovered Vashon I was like, ‘Why are we not living here?’ she said. “You have to take a ferry to get here, but we’re making it work.” Bearse has a daughter, Zoe, now 21 and in college, and two children with Schenken.

WATERMARK: You have a special place in my heart, Amanda. You were on our first cover 21 years ago, and I have that issue framed in my office. I look at it – and you – several times a day.
AMANDA BEARSE: I know, Tom. Congratulations. I spent some time on your website before I called. It’s fantastic.

To me you’ll always be our first cover girl. But I forget sometimes that back in 1994, you were the only actor on a primetime television series that had come out. Did you get recognition from your peers back then? Are you acknowledged by them today?
In a word, no. Nor would I expect them to. I’m acquaintances with Ellen and Rosie. I shot a show called The Big Gay Sketch Show for three years under Rosie’s banner, and we worked together to launch the LOGO television network in a more expansive direction—a valiant effort. But no. It was just my time. It was my journey to make that choice back in 1993. It was around the birth of my daughter, Zoe, and wanting to hold that event sacred and not have it bastardized in the press.

You’re sweet to remember and acknowledge me. There are people that I meet—often at conventions like Spooky Empire in Orlando—who come up to me and say really wonderful words about how my coming out impacted their lives. It means a great deal to me.

It was a big deal, Amanda. You were on a hit TV show. And you were the first! It was an Advocate cover, wasn’t it?
Yes, I was on the cover of The Advocate twice: first when I came out, and then when Zoe was around a year old for a story about gay adoption and gay parenting. I’m very proud of those.

In a way, I think I stepped off the activism wave when Ellen decided to come out. I continued to do some work for HRC—I was actually their poster child for National Coming Out Day. I have fond memories and I’m proud of the work that I did. But once Ellen stepped out on the cover of Time, it became much easier to garner press around LGBT issues. So I sort of purposefully took a backseat. I just went and, you know, raised my family and lived my life. Believe it or not, I’m not one to seek the limelight. I’ve had a much longer career behind the camera than I ever did in front of it.

But you were a pretty outspoken activist in the 90s, back when it wasn’t easy to get celebrities and elected officials to ride in our parades. You spoke at rallies, at a Stonewall commemoration, at the Gay Games. You helped raise the profile of Orlando’s Headdress Ball when you attended back in 1996. It’s like you carried the baton for a while and then handed it off.
Well, exactly. With HRC’s National Coming Out Day campaign, I posed for a poster with Mitchell Anderson, Dan Butler and Chastity, now Chaz, Bono. We were pretty much it back then.

You’re right. I take great pride in being part of that history. I love that I got to be a part of it, and I love how people have taken that and run with it. We just celebrated National Coming Out Day. I think it’s still an important day to recognize. A lot of people are still in the closet, especially globally, but in our nation as well. Many with good reason, and that’s unfortunate.

It was an incredible day when the Supreme Court announced its decision on marriage equality. Did you take a moment and say to yourself, “I played a part in this.” I hope you did.
Well, I appreciate your framing it that way, Tom. I’m gay. We all played a part. I was already married when the Supreme Court made their decision. My wife and I were married in Vermont in 2010, before it was legal in our home state of Washington or across the country. So the battle for marriage equality is part of my personal history as well as our nation’s history. I’m proud of that.

When you came out in 1993, did you think we’d be able to marry in a couple decades? I know I didn’t.
I don’t recall making predictions, but I’m not surprised. As a species, we’re evolving. There was a lot of fear and hatred surrounding homosexuality back then. Year by year, little by little, state by state, face to face, that’s falling away. People still have disagreements, but it’s no longer okay to spread that kind of hatred. There are many more watchdogs, gay and straight. Most importantly, people are living out and proud, and because of that the fear and hatred are falling away.

When we started Watermark back in 1994, lots of people wouldn’t talk to us or advertise with us or even pick up the paper [laughs]—even with you on the cover. Our mission back then was clear. But now our priorities and our sense of identity are more complex. Do you ever think about what it will mean being gay in the future?
That’s really quite a question.

Like it or not, for a long time we were defined by our oppression. Do you think we’ll always feel different?
I think it’s become more of a global issue, Tom. We still have issues in the United States. There is still anti-discrimination legislation that needs to be enacted, including protection for our transgender brothers and sisters. And there’s work to do in smaller and rural communities, and cities between the coasts. Honestly, even today, I feel more comfortable being gay in certain cities than I do in others. When I walk down the street with my arm around my wife, the energy is different from place to place. So I think there is still work to do here. But the discrimination that takes place around the globe is far more pressing. Fortunately, because of social media, there’s far more awareness.

When it comes right down to it, Tom, we all are one—and as human beings more and more of us are beginning to see that clearly. No matter what country you’re living in, no matter what your economic or educational opportunities, we are one in terms of being part of the human race. And it’s about looking at homophobia and addressing it on that level.

My buddy Stuart Milk is passionate about battling homophobia in places like Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, where people can be executed for being gay. The United States is unique. We’re so big, with so many regional and ethnic differences.
Yes, but I think that will make it easier to carry our message of equality to the global community.

Let’s talk about show business. On one episode of Married… with Children you played Marcy’s gay cousin, Mandy. What a riot. What, if anything,did you do internally to differentiate between those two characters?
[Laughs] I was probably a little more relaxed when I was playing Mandy, just as kind of me. Marcy was pretty uptight. I loved Marcy, of course. I have great affection for that character. But playing involved a different sort of communication with my body—smaller steps, a more staccato way of speaking. Mandy was more relaxed.

I threw the idea out to the writers that it would be fun to do, and I was tickled that I got to do it. Unfortunately, it was at the end when the series was kind of imploding. It was sort of an homage to the Samantha/Serena characters on Bewitched. It was fun, but it was not fun being on the series by that time. We’d cancelled the studio audience, so it didn’t have the same life as earlier episodes. That last season was tumultuous.

We’ve met several times. You’re not like Marcy at all.
There are some qualities… I can raise my voice just like her. But she was an archetypal heterosexual, and I’m not.

You’re also so articulate, self-assured and have a very different energy. It’s a tribute to your skills as an actress.
Thank you. But actually, of the characters on the show—not the actors, but the characters—Marcy was written a little more articulately I think.

With your character in Fright Night, you were recognized for creating one of the best female vampires in film history. There’s that whole idea that vampires are a useful metaphor for exploring misconceptions about the gay experience: that we have evil impulses that must be resisted; that we prey on innocent victims; that we’re forced to live in the shadows… all that stuff. Did that ever come up on the set of Fright Night?
You know, Tom… I don’t know that I knew that. If I did, I haven’t thought about it in a long time. But I’m flattered that people responded to my portrayal of Amy in Fright Night.

What I like about vampires, as opposed to other monsters, is that they have such humanity. Growing up, vampires were the only monsters I was afraid of because they seemed so real—not like Frankenstein or the Mummy. Tom Holland, who wrote and directed Fright Night, has such affection for the genre. I think that infused this little movie, and it’s why Fright Night still finds an audience today.

It’s a little like Rocky Horror.
It is. It’s very cult. I’m so fortunate that the two things I’m most known for as an actor – Married… with Children and Fright Night – have become classics with large cult followings. Because I essentially left acting after Married… with Children. But I still get trotted out for these conventions. I get to meet Fright Night fans that span into several generations. It’s a hoot.

Speaking of cult followings, Roddy McDowall was in Fright Night with you. Were you and he friends?
We did not get well-acquainted, but he was lovely to me. I remember being on the set, standing on our marks and waiting for lighting to be set before the cameras rolled. He was a walking film industry archive, and he regaled us with the most amazing stories about people like Elizabeth Taylor – never in an arrogant or pretentious way. But she was one of his oldest and dearest friends. It was remarkable to be around somebody who had been part of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

He was a gay actor from a different generation than you. He never came out, which makes me a little sad. What was your sense of that?
Fright Night was made in 1985, and I was still very much in the closet professionally. It was never discussed. I never really thought about it, but you’re right. It would have been wonderful to connect with him on that level.

I wonder if someone from his generation could’ve done that. I guess it’s all ridiculously hypothetical…
I didn’t know Roddy on a personal level. He was not out professionally, but he may have been very integrated in his personal life. I hope so. I know that the character he created in Fright Night was very close to him: The humility, the vulnerability, the pathos were very real to him. His character gave an unexpected depth and resonance to this little vampire movie. It was a magical time making that film, so it’s kind of wondrous that we get to experience that together again and again when we attend these conventions together. And Spooky Empire means I get to come back to my hometown.

What: Spooky Empire’s Ultimate Halloween Weekend
Where: Hyatt Regency Orlando, 9801 International Dr.
When: Oct. 30-Nov. 1
How: www.spookyempire.com

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