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Charlie Barnett on 'Tales of the City,' Representation, and the Difficult Questions Stories Ask Us

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 03: Charlie Barnett attends Netflix's "Tales of the City" New York Premiere at The Metrograph on June 03, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for NETFLIX)
Monica Schipper

It’s been nearly 26 years since the fan-favorite Tales of the City miniseries first premiered on the UK's Channel 4, and though much has changed in that time, one constant remains: We all want a place where we belong—no matter who you identify as. Thanks to Netflix, San Francisco’s 28 Barbary Lane is being revisited, with some of its original stars, such as Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney, and Marcus D'Amico, returning. We spoke with actor Charlie Barnett on the phone about the new show—based on Armistead Maupin’s beloved book series—his upcoming role on You, and what we can take out of complicated stories.

The new 10-episode series Tales of the City premieres on Netflix on June 7.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Floor8: Were you a fan of the books or the miniseries before hearing about this project?

Barnett: A huge fan of both. Armistead [Maupin]’s writing—I keep reiterating this everywhere that I go and speak about him—it’s just so f**king beautiful. He has such a grasp on being non-judgemental with the characters. You see them from every angle and that exposes them in his writing. He has this ability to make it flow so easily and seamlessly. Everything is laid out in this peaceful, grandiose way. And then he has this beautiful thriller element. It’s so much based on the LBGTQ+ experience, but it all falls to the wayside in a beautiful way when you’re reading.

The show itself, I’m a huge fan of it. [The new version] is trying to bring the story into a younger fold, marrying it to the people who have built it up, and in a funny way it relates [to the show]. What we’re dealing with on the show is the old meets the new, and how you find balance and respect in what built the abilities that we have, and also move forward. The [original] show’s cinematography is so baller, so it’s worth a watch just for that.

Floor8: How would you describe your character?

Barnett: I play Ben Marshall. So much of Ben’s experience is related to the audience through his relationship—it was definitely a jumping-off point for developing the character. His relationship to Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (played by Murray Bartlett) is so important, and I think it was what I imagined the audience could connect to on a humanity level. So you get to see him really balance between making his voice heard within this really strong community and his presence in the family. But also as Mary Ann (played by Laura Linney) comes back, you get to see a relationship between a loved one that maybe, you don’t really love. It’s a lot of maneuvering between relationships for Ben.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 03: Cast poses for a photo as they attend Netflix's "Tales of the City" New York Premiere at The Metrograph on June 03, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for NETFLIX)
Netflix's "Tales of the City" New York Premiere | Monica Schipper

"I’m always fascinated when I meet people who can find balance in their own world between being generous, open, loving, friendly, kind, but have this strength, courage, power, and ability to shut motherf**kers down when they need to."

Charlie Barnett

Floor8: You’re playing a leading role in this with amazing actors such as Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, and Ellen Page, just to name a few. Did you look up to any of these people before beginning filming?

Barnett: I mean, all of them are incredible. But Ellen [Page] just shines in such a, really beautiful way. Just watching her last night [at the New York City premiere], I was reminded of how damn talented all of these women are. Of course I looked up to them. I have to say personally I had more time with Ellen and with Laura [Linney], and they are just...I’m always fascinated when I meet people who can find balance in their own world between being generous, open, loving, friendly, kind, but have this strength, courage, power, and ability to shut motherf**kers down when they need to—and know when they need to be sweet and coddling. These women as leaders of this family, have been [that]. I can’t even begin to put it into words. There’s no value.

And on a personal front, just seeing Ellen and her ability to find a balance of being herself and having a voice—a persona that she can share and expose to the world—it makes her so vulnerable. I really love what she’s doing outside of her career. Gaycation, a fantastic f**king documentary that her and a friend of hers (Ian Daniel) made, is unbelievably beneficial to the LBGTQ+ community. She’s a baller and half.

Floor8: Did any of your cast members surprise you in any way after you met them, or were you kind of just in awe?

Barnett: Laura [Linney]’s ability to like...that woman does not live in a bubble. You always expect to meet famous people and they have a security blanket of guard up, and as much as I’m sure she’s smart about protecting herself, she is an open book. And is willing and available to help, share, and love. As excited as I was to have that experience, I was really surprised. She doesn’t have to do that. And a lot of people in her position don’t. It was an honor, and a lesson. Olympia [Dukakis] was a lot funnier than I ever expected. Just hilarious.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 30: Charlie Barnett attends the Netflix FYSEE Scene Stealer Panel at Raleigh Studios on May 30, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Netflix)
Netflix FYSEE Scene Stealer Panel | Emma McIntyre

"If you think you’re going to grasp it in one show, you’re lying to yourself."

Charlie Barnett

Floor8: Do you think this story, about love and friendships in the LGBTQ+ community—is it more important to get people to go and see stories like this today than it was in the ‘90s when the original series came out? Or is it the same?

Barnett: To almost put a limit on what’s more or less is, you know, what’s the point? I feel like it’s always important and it should continue to be important. We’ve been talking about, in interviews, the LBGTQ+ community being marginalized, and how much it’s stifled as a community. As much as it’s bulls**t and it shouldn’t be, I’m glad that it’s put us in the position of having to fight for something better—because I think it’s made us as a community stronger in certain rights and a lot more tactful in life. It’s about finding the goodness.

God knows, even on our show, as courageous it is, there’s still a lot of work to be done. I know for myself in particular, I’m getting frustrated with people telling me, “Oh, you’re the black, gay representation.” And I’m like, if I’m the representation then you need to get out into the f**king world, because I do not represent a large amount of the African American community. We need, even on this show, to see more dark-skinned brothers, sisters. Luckily we have a great Asian American influence, and Garcia (who plays Jake Rodriguez), who is hispanic, as well, but like, it’s a huge community. If you think you’re going to grasp it in one show, you’re lying to yourself.

Floor8: So you’re a total Netflix guy now. Not only did you appear on Orange is the New Black, you also had a significant role in Russian Doll earlier this year, now you've got Tales of the City, and next, you’re going to be in the second season of You. Can you tell me anything about your role in that?

Barnett: I have a really, really, really fun part in that and I’m really excited. When I first read it—I don’t know if you know the play called Angels of America. There’s a character in there named Belize, he’s an African American man living in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis. He’s just like an ethereal gay god. He’s just one of those beautiful, euphoric, no s**ts given [person], but in a weirdly loving way. And that’s what hooked me into the [You] role. I was like, I’m going to play Belize in my own way, from a different realm. I’m the best friend of the love interest of murderous Penn Badgley.

On a personal front, that cast is so g*ddamn incredible, too. I’ve been really blessed working with really good people, and never had, for lack of a better word, d**k actors. They’re such hard workers and invested and caring. The ability they put into it just blows me away. I’m really honored to be a part of it.

Floor8: How do you feel about the way that so many fans somehow rooted for Penn Badgley’s character Joe, who is not only a stalker but a murderer as well? Do you think it’s normal to fall into that pattern, since we’re seeing his actions from the first person and are able to sympathize with him in the beginning? Badgley even had to go on social media to tell people to stop.

Barnett: You know, it’s a complicated thing. It’s like Dexter. I remember when everyone loved Dexter and it was like wait, what the f**k? It’s the point of storytelling to push those questions, and there isn’t a right answer. I’m a person who believes, forgiveness is a hard use to use in this circumstance, but, I’m an actor and I have to understand why people do the things they do and try not to judge. I will say, I think that’s the point of the show and I think they’re trying to ask those questions. I think they do it in a really good way. But no, y’all, don’t f**king like murderers, what’s wrong with you?

I am excited and I encourage those stories being told, but I don’t know if they’re there to give you a resolve in loving a murderer. In a really tongue-in-cheek way—I grew up in an era where all the love stories of our teenage youth was a guy basically stalking some chick or like, hanging outside of her window playing music, or creeping into her bedroom—I kind of entered into [You] being a response to that, or like a, “This is not what you want to do, because you’ll end up with crazy motherf**kers like this.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - APRIL 10: Charlie Barnett attends the premiere of "Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City" at the Castro Theatre on April 10, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images)
2019 San Francisco International Film Festival Opening Night Premiere Of "Armistead Maupin's Tales | Kimberly White

"It sounds cliché as f**k, but I really hope people can relate."

Charlie Barnett

Floor8: One last two-parter question. What are you most proud of with Tales of the City, and what is one thing you want viewers to get out of it?

Barnett: I want to say the cast. Meeting the cast and crew has been so unbelievably incredible and beneficial, in a personal and tactful career way. I’m most proud of being able to share more parts of my own identity through it, to feel more comfortable and honor that. It sounds cliché as f**k, but I really hope people can relate. I hope anyone can watch it and get past all the labels, the labels that I honor and cherish, [to] get past that kind of stuff and see the kinds of relationships we all share, and the common ground. And continue to share it with other people and feel vulnerable from it.