When Haaz Sleiman recently came out, his name could be found on the pages of every LGBT blog in the world, including ours. So after being connected to him via the director of a film he appeared in, we phoned the 41-year-old actor to get the download on his newly out status. What came up during the course of our hour-long Haaz Sleiman interview was much more than we anticipated, including talk of Hollywood homophobia, a spat with a queer journalist, why he’s not dating Anderson Cooper and his problem with tops.
“Well, the best way I can put it — I have always wanted to come out,” Sleiman begins our conversation. “Something has been brewing in my mind … all my life. I knew I was gay when I was 7 years old. I know I was born that way. I spent my whole life hiding. I’m a Lebanese Muslim, growing up in an Arab country. It was not easy for me. I had a very tough childhood.”
“Let’s just say the tone of my life was very dark and very gray,” he says. “It took life to beat the hell out of me to make me want to come out. I finally realized I am going to either live and thrive or disappear and die.”
These days Sleiman is taking his experience as a closeted gay man growing up in the Middle East and putting it on the silver screen.
“I am writing a film,” he says. “I’m going to shoot in Lebanon a very special movie that is going to empower gay communities across the globe. That is how important it’s going to be. The story is very precious to me. I suffered in my life enough to get it. I am going to make people around the world who may not be gay cry and care about LGBT people with my movie. That is my goal.”
Sleiman has appeared in films including The Visitor and Those People as well as the Showtime series Nurse Jackie alongside Edie Falco. He’s gotten rave reviews for his work on the screen, and he believes his ability to tell stories this way will do more good for people who desperately need these unspoken narratives put in front of them.
“I have the ability to move them, and I am going to use that to empower myself and the gay community,” Sleiman says. “It’s going to be a struggle to shoot in Lebanon, because the film is so honest, in your face, no apologies. It is going to create a lot of dialogue.”
The way Sleiman came out was also very in-your-face.
The actor proclaimed during a one-minute video on Facebook that not only is he gay, but he’s also a bottom — a total bottom.
“Part of me wanted to [come out] this way to create dialogue. Wake up!” he says. “Let’s talk about this for a second. This film. This is my power. That’s where I am powerful. You better believe I am going all the way with this.”
I ask him if saying he’s a bottom on-camera was planned or spur-of-the-moment.
“Nothing I do is spur of the moment,” he says. “Everything I do is planned with the clear intentions of what I have. This is not accidental. Everything I express is never accidental. I have experienced a lot in my life. This moment is the culmination of my life.”
Sleiman received quite a lot of backlash for the way he came out, and (maybe not so surprisingly) a lot of it came from the gay community, he says.
“What saddens me is how people attacked me. Some gay men were like, ‘You’re just trying to find tops.’ I can find men. I prefer to be in relationships. I’m personally not into one night stands,” he says, before adding, “But tops are idiots.”
“Not just globally but within the community, bottoms are looked down upon,” Sleiman says. “They are considered less than. There are so many bottoms, and it’s so disrespectful how they are treated. My reasoning is to say the world, ‘Just because I’m a bottom doesn’t mean you can fuck with me.’”
Sleiman feels men who identify as bottoms are taken advantage of in the gay community via the same misogynistic and sexist ideals that take advantage of women in the straight community.
“Bottom shaming is no different than sexism,” he says. “We don’t take bottoms as seriously. We say, ‘Tops are better.’ And then we eyeroll when we hear that someone is a bottom. We hear that men are more worthy than women, and men are the center of the world. It is the same when it comes to the dynamic between bottoms and tops. It is OK if he is fucking another man but it’s not if he is being fucked by another man.”
But Sleiman says he’s happy to rustle people’s feathers by being so outspoken about his own sexual identity.
“I am making people uncomfortable on purpose,” he says. “I don’t accept this. This is not the world I want to live in. I was not always confident [being] a total bottom. It took time to get me to this place. When I finally allowed myself to be gay and connect with this and be intimate, I had trouble being a bottom.”
Sleiman still struggles with certain behaviors seemingly inherent in gay relationships, including situations where tops are dismissive and cold-hearted after sex.
“I am struggling with when you hookup with a top,” he says. “After he cums, he showers and he leaves. I don’t like that. That is a problem for me. You don’t like when a man gets his fix and he leaves. It’s very common with straight men, too.”
News that Sleiman lied to a reporter a few years ago about his sexuality has also made the rounds recently.
In a 2009 interview with Brandon Voss, writing for The Advocate — about the gay Muslim character Mohamad “Mo-Mo” De La Cruz he portrayed on Nurse Jackie — Sleiman said he was straight.
The actor saw our article reporting just that and responded with the below:
The Advocate wanted to interview me. I told Showtime only on one condition: no personal questions. The Advocate agreed. At the end of the half-hour interview over the phone, the idiot interviewer, whom I think was gay (?), asked me if was gay or straight (no personal questions). … I was so shocked. I froze. My body started shaking. And then I lied and said I was straight. Shame on gay people who are not kind to other gay people. He did that on purpose.
When reporting for NewNowNext, Voss shared his own side of the story and apologized for the mix-up, saying he hadn’t been informed that Sleiman wanted to avoid personal questions, a request he would have honored.
“Had Sleiman replied with ‘I prefer to keep my private life private’ or ‘It’s more fun to keep people guessing,’ I would not have pressed the issue,” Voss said. “Had he or his representatives later reached out to request that I edit out the offending exchange, I would have done so without question.”
Voss closed his piece by expressing hope that Sleiman would accept his apology for making the actor feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
After reading that statement to Sleiman, we asked for his response. He thanked Voss “for actually speaking out,” before saying, “I respect people who don’t run away. I respect people who accept responsibility for their actions. The fact that he apologized is wonderful.”
“I am not interested in bringing Brandon Voss or The Advocate down,” he continues. “I want to empower The Advocate. I want to empower that journalist. We have to do better in life. It is The Advocate’s responsibility to have management communicate these things. That it is relayed to the person. I don’t think it’s complicated — The Advocate’s responsibility is to make sure it doesn’t happen moving on.”
Sleiman feels there are quite a few gay people in the industry who aren’t kind to other gay people, especially to other gay people in the closet.
“There are two people right now in power who were so horrible to me,” he says, then relays the stories behind two encounters he had with gay men in Hollywood, both of whom treated him poorly for being closeted.
“One of them — a producer — told me they wouldn’t hire a closeted gay actor,” he says. “‘I never hire gay guys who are in the closet, but if you come out, I will not be able to cast you in a lot of roles.’ Another huge iconic gay figure saw me at a party and he came up to me. He pursued me because he was a fan of my work.”
After Sleiman outed himself, he could tell this ‘iconic Hollywood gay’ was disappointed.
“I got excited to share with him that I was gay, and he was like, ‘Oh? Thank you for telling me.’ But his tone changed,” Sleiman says. “He thought I was straight before. Once he found out I was gay and in the closet, he wasn’t interested anymore. A lot of people in the gay community still have an issue when someone else is in the closet. If you’re straight and play gay, that’s awesome! If you’re too gay, you can’t play that straight role.”
Sleiman cites “wonderful actor” Matt Bomer, who was initially considered to play Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey. According to Sleiman, Bomer was passed over because he’s out.
“I opened up my heart and pleaded with him and begged him to help me,” Sleiman says about the mystery ‘Hollywood gay,’ who he describes as “someone that everybody respects.”
“I went down on my knees in this text message asking him for help and guidance,” he says. “I wrote, ‘I know you may be frustrated with me because I’m not out, but I need your help.’ Not one time did he reply. He completely ignored me.”
When asked if the ‘Hollywood gay’ in question might be Anderson Cooper, Sleiman insists it’s not, though he adds that he did date Cooper for a time. “We hooked up a few times,” he says. “Let’s just say I was not for him, he was not for me.”
Speaking to his personal experience as a gay man, Sleiman tells us he first came out to an aunt, who then outed him to his mother behind his back.
But, the actor tells us, he was actually relieved, telling his aunt, “I’m so happy you did, because I probably never would have.”
Unaware his mother had known about his sexuality for eight months, Sleiman next brought it up with her. Her response: “Let me start by saying I know you were born this way, and I love you, and I know you have my back, and I will always have yours.”
Sleiman told his father a few years later when they came to Los Angeles to attend the premiere of Nurse Jackie. On their way to Disneyland, his mother said, “Your son wants to tell you something.”
But speaking in Arabic, Sleiman had trouble finding the words. “What the fuck do I say? I’m not gonna say this word because it’s like ‘faggot’ in our language. I couldn’t find the word for it. So I just said ‘gay’ in English,” he says. “My father started sobbing like a child. The first thing he said was, ‘Well, aren’t you worried about us? About our reputation and what people will think of us?’”
While saddened by his father’s reaction, the two were hugging by the time they walked through the gates of Disneyland.
Sleiman’s parents continue to struggle with total acceptance to this day. But the actor says he refuses to give them a choice in the matter.
“Especially coming from where I come from, you have to be strong, confident and powerful,” he says. “Then they understand they can’t mess with you. I am also being civilized, intelligent and cultured in my approach. But we have to let the world know they will not fuck with us.”
Sleiman doesn’t think he’ll be able to return to the village of his family, Bednayel in the Bekaa Valley.
“The shit they are saying about me is crazy,” he says. “But I am more concerned about my parents.”
But Sleiman’s hope is that his being out empowers gay people across the world. “Specifically gay people who come from a type of gay culture where it is even more unaccepted and taboo,” he says. “Whether it’s Islam or Christianity or Judaism, I hope people feel they are not alone and they are very powerful. And they are so powerful that they don’t allow anyone to hurt them.”
“I want people who aren’t gay to have more respect for us,” he continues. “We won’t allow any other way. Maybe that’s a bit ambitious on my end. I guess everything starts with a dream.”
“That will be my movie.”