Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is an openly gay playwright making his debut at the Steppenwolf Theater with Good Boys and True. From his work with Marvel Comics to writing for HBO's Big Love, Roberto is making a name from stage to screen.
Pictured: Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, whose Good Boys and True is at Steppenwolf.
Amy Matheny: Welcome to the blisteringly cold city of Chicago.
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: It seems like a dream that four weeks ago I was in shorts in Los Angeles. I mean I was on a picket line, but I was in shorts and a T-shirt.
AM: You went from Yale School of Drama to the comic book business writing for the Fantastic Four and Spiderman. How did that happen?
RAS: I was really lucky. Before I graduated from Yale in 2003, I was getting ready to go to New York to be a struggling playwright, and all playwrights are struggling playwrights. I wasn't ready to move to L.A. to be a film or television writer. So I thought I would get an office job or teaching job like 95 percent of the playwrights do. I got a random phone call from a woman at Marvel Comics whose job it was to recruit writers from different disciplines, novelists, television writers [ and ] screenwriters, who seemed to have an affinity for comic books.
This woman called a couple of theaters that had read my plays [ asking for ] playwrights who would be good for comic books. [ Somebody ] said, you should talk to this guy named Roberto. He is a comic book fan, and a bunch of his plays have comic book themes, or are about comic book characters. I spent months essentially pitching Marvel different ideas. [ Then ] they said, 'We're also thinking about doing something with the Fantastic Four.' They had just started work on the first movie, and those were among my favorite comic book characters. So I came up with a pitch, and it was basically to take these superheroes and humanize them and focus on their everyday lives, as opposed to their superhero lives …to feature them as a family, which is what the Fantastic Four are. So that was a really lucky break.
AM: What was your draw as a young gay man to comics?
RAS: There are lots of different theories about comic books and being gay. Like in the X-Men, some gay people really see the X-Men as a metaphor for being 'other,' for being gay. Like in X-Men 2 the movie, the one kid who is Iceman, he comes out to his parents as a mutant, and his mom says, 'Do you have to be a mutant? Can you not be a mutant?' For me, I don't know what it was. I've read comic books all my life. For me it was more about plugging into a fantasy world. So in terms of the secret identity or the odd homoeroticism of some comic book superheroes … ultimately, a lot of superheroes are outsiders, and ultimately they are power fantasies that I think any sort of group that is marginalized can plug into.
AM: Your play Say You Love Satan is about a gay man who falls in love with a guy who just happens to be Satan. How much does your sexuality inform your writing? And have you ever fallen in love with a guy that was just this side of Satan?
RAS: I think we've all certainly dated people we shouldn't have dated.
AM: It's a rite of gay passage.
RAS: Exactly. I am a gay man and that does inform everything that I write. I don't consciously set out to write this play and the main character is going to be gay, or write about a gay issue. It just sort of kind of happens, because I do think there's something about representation that's important. That's why a lot of my plays, even if they have gay characters, they're not usually about gay issues. There are some exceptions, but in Say You Love Satan, that guy was gay, but he could have just as easily been a woman who was dating a guy.
AM: Tell me about Good Boys and True.
RAS: It is basically set at a Boys prep school in the late 1980s, and it involves a senior at the prep school who is sort of a golden boy, top of his class, great athlete. He is implicated in a sex scandal that sweeps through the school. The play is a mystery, and it follows the mother as she tries to figure out if her son was or wasn't involved in this scandal, and if he was, why, and what that means for them and their relationship, and what [ this all ] does to his family and the school.
AM: How does the scandal start?
RAS: Boys' prep schools, they're very insular. Because it's set in the '80s, it doesn't spread as quickly or as virally as [ today's ] YouTube Generation.
AM: The '80s is the era of the Rob Lowe sex video.
RAS: Twenty years later, it feels like everyone has a sex tape. It's not quite as shocking as it would have seemed like ten years ago or twenty years ago.
AM: How is working at Steppenwolf, the great American theatre?
RAS: What's so funny is that I've been in Los Angeles doing things for TV. If I say I've had shows at some pretty big New York theaters, Manhattan Theater Club, Second Stage, people nod. Then I say I have a show at Steppenwolf, and they immediately perk up because of its national reputation. Growing up, I had an idea of a certain wish list. … I want a show on Broadway, to win a Pulitzer Prize or a Tony Award and I want to have a show at Steppenwolf. It's been slightly surreal, and Steppenwolf's reputation precedes it. It has incredible actors who will act the hell out of a play, are very smart, incredibly committed and never go for the easy choice, and that's exactly what it's been.
AM: With the writer's strike, you've been able to be here [ more ] .
RAS: Absolutely. In the back of my head I was thinking, 'Well, if there's a strike, I could go to Chicago and really spend time at Good Boys.'
AM: There is a trend of playwrights flocking to L.A., [ such as ] John Rogan [ and ] Jon Robin Baitz. Can you do both?
RAS: There are lots of different opinions about this. When I first finished graduate school, I said I'm going to be a playwright and live that gritty lifestyle. But the truth is that the economics of being a playwright are pretty scary. Not every play of mine is going to be done at a theater like Steppenwolf. Most of the time my plays are done in pretty small theaters where it really is about the work. I don't think anyone gets into theater for money—and I don't even mean a healthy living. I mean a livable wage.
There are maybe five or ten playwrights living and working consistently in the theater right now. You do need to supplement your income, and I think that's what's really attractive about Los Angeles. For me, I'm a pop culture junky. I love movies. I love TV. I am happiest when I'm working on a play, but I also think that certain stories will make great comic books, and certain stories will be better as a TV show. So my hope is that I'll be able to keep a toe in many different worlds.
When Big Love made the offer, I was like, 'I'm going to do this' because I wanted to learn what it was to be a TV writer. And I wanted to [ work ] on a show I believed in. And when I talked to the two creators, they are writing and life partners.
AM: I adore Big Love because it challenges us to look at alternative families.
RAS: Absolutely, and, truthfully, when you look at everything—Big Love, my plays, even the Fantastic Four—they're all alternative families. What is the Fantastic Four if not the ultimate alternative family? And Big Love, when we're talking about characters, and without giving too much away, one of the wives thinks about what it would be like to live a monogamous life, as opposed to a polygamous life, and we were trying to wrap our brains around it, and one of the creators said, 'Well, it's like when I would think about living a straight life. It would be so much easier, and there's all this heartache, societal heartache. Is it worth it, you know? There is something that's attractive about the mainstream 'lifestyle'.' When he said that, I was like, 'Oh, yeah.' It clicked. They seem very disparate, but they also seem like they inform each other.
AM: There should be some wife-on-wife action this year. The business partner's wives were playing cards last year and there was some footsy action going on.
RAS: I think you'll find some good stuff in season three.
AM: You're working on a show for FOX called Howl. Are they werewolves?
RAS: There are many werewolves. I've always loved werewolves, and as I was working on the pilot, and I remember vividly my dad taking me to see American Werewolf in London. It felt like I'd been getting ready to write this pilot for the last 35 years of my life. The central relationship is this woman who is 25 and lives in San Francisco, and her gay best friend and they're roommates. She gets bitten by a werewolf in the pilot, and realizes that there's a whole community of werewolves living in San Francisco, many of them passing as humans. It's sort of like I Claudius, but with werewolves. She finds out there's a whole sort of monarchy or dynasty of werewolves that she may be a part of. I'm really proud of it. I don't know what's going to happen because of the strike, but I feel really good about it.
The world premiere of Good Boys and True is at Steppenwolf through Feb. 16. For tickets and info, visit www.Steppenwolf.org . To listen to this full interview, visit www.WindyCityQueercast.com .