Murray Bartlett

Interview by
Zac Bayly
Photography by
Samuel Hodge


42-year-old Murray Bartlett is the dashing Australian actor playing an American in the new serialized HBO gay dramedy, Looking. On that show, he plays Dom, one of three gay buddies living the life in San Francisco. Before he stole the show as Dom, Murray was busy-busy refining his acting chops in the theater, seducing daytime TV housewives, and appearing in supporting parts on shows like Damages and Sex and the City. Since the promo of Looking has been in full swing, Murray’s thick, lunate moustache dominates every second billboard in Los Angeles, where we meet up for a chat. Those twinkling blue eyes! It's giving me a semi just sitting next to him.

Zac: I just saw like a half-dozen billboards with your face on the way here.
Murray: Did you? It’s so weird… All I see in that picture is my moustache. It’s so big!
Yeah, I’m impressed…
I’d never grown a moustache before. I was in Egypt last year for a chunk of time. I was feeling like a foreigner, so I thought maybe I should grow a moustache. When I auditioned for Looking, I kept it.
Apparently tourism has reached an all time low in Egypt this year.
It’s in some kind of transitional time. No one really knows where it’s headed. I was there in November and I never felt unsafe or, you know, in any kind of danger. For the most part, as a tourist, it’s still fine, it’s just… It’s becoming a little more unpredictable, there have been random bombings. You’d have to be really unlucky… I was a little nervous going back this time. I never felt that before.
Had you been to Egypt before?
Yeah, I backpacked through a few countries in the Middle East like fifteen years ago. I also went through Syria, which was amazing! I got to see a lot of stuff that doesn’t exist anymore. I’ve been back to Egypt a couple times. I love it there.
Where did you grow up?
In this suburb of Perth that’s called Wembley Downs. That sounds so Australian, doesn’t it? I went to high school there. Have you been?
Yeah, a lot of people haven’t. As soon as I finished school I was ready to get out of there… I love the frenetic energy of a big city. Everyone in New York might seem superficial and wanky at first glance, but it’s one of the rare places where you can ride that wave of encouragement, where everyone is doing stuff and supporting one another. I need to be where people are kicking me in the arse…
People who encourage you to self-actualize.
Exactly. You can find who you want to be in New York. I stayed in Australia for a year recently when I was sorting out visas, but you just can’t get the same kind of acting jobs that you get in the States.
Is this soda water making you burp? Sorry, I’m burping…
I’ve been secretly burping. I can’t stop…
Have you done much theater in New York?
Yeah, a little… When I first moved to the States I didn’t have a green card. I had like a working visa, but you can’t get into the theater union without a green card. So I focused on TV and film. In Australia, I worked in theater a lot. I went to acting school.
To NIDA, National Institute of Dramatic Art… It’s kind of a tough place. It’s a good platform to take you into work because, you know, it’s a small industry there, and a lot of the casting agents will come and see you. I did half-half theater and TV in Australia, but my training was in theater. Especially when you come out of acting school, you tend to be a bit of a purist — a lot of us were anyways — you want to do Shakespeare. But when I got to New York, it wasn’t so much of an option, particularly in terms of making a living.
You had your first big break playing this dude Randy Evans on this famous Australian soap, Home and Away, that Dannii Minogue was also on.
That show was a pitstop for a lot of famous actors — Heath Ledger, Chris Hemsworth, Guy Pearce and Naomi Watts all went on to do Hollywood films. What is it about Home and Away?
I have no idea. When you come out of acting school, soaps are one of the few options. ‘Home and Away’ is the gateway.
Why do so many Australians find success as actors?
It’s a generalization, but Australians are more relaxed and people respond well to that.
From 2007 until 2009 you played a conman on the long-running U.S. soap, Guiding Light.
I signed on for a year, initially. I never thought I’d stay on that long. I was a little apprehensive in the beginning just because, I don’t know, I thought like creatively, it might not be what I was into. But actually, I learned a lot… It also helped me to get my green card.
They seemed to give you a lot of room to explore your character, Cyrus Foley. Obviously, you’re playing up the romance, but there was a lot of action too.
I know. I was a jewel thief so there were a lot of opportunities for adventure. Soaps are produced really fast, so you don’t have a chance to really refine what you’re doing. In that way, it can be a little unsatisfying. But at the same time, it taught me to not be too precious about my work. You just do the best you can, and move on with it.
Did playing Cyrus help you learn to be a good liar?
No, I don’t think I’m very good at lying. I’m a little bit transparent. Although there have been times in my life where I would have liked to be a good liar. I feel a lie coming on right now.
Have you ever faked an orgasm?
That would be the ultimate test of acting skills for a man, wouldn’t it? I did have to fake one on Looking.
How was that?
I was acting like I was fucking a guy up against a mirror and we were in these like little socks… It’s basically this pouch that you tie around your dick and your balls. We’re pushing against each other and pretending to cum. That was probably the last time I faked an orgasm.
How little was your sock?
How little was the sock? Don’t you mean how big was the sock?
Are you cut or uncut?
That’s something I can’t fake. I’m cut. Are you?
Yeah. My Spidey-senses were tingling…
Am I giving you a ‘cut’ vibe? Or was I saying it with my eyes? Some people seem to have this idea that Australians are uncut.
I thought most Australians were cut.
I know, but I’ve come across this — people thinking that Australians are uncut thing — in New York.
What do you prefer?
I like both. It’s a big world out there. I mean, it’s just a dick… The most important thing is who it’s attached to, right?
I guess… When you played Carrie Bradshaw’s new GBF on an episode of Sex in the City, your character referred to a set of ‘international rules’ for gay men having sex outside their relationship — ‘blowjobs only, no last names, gym is a free space’, etc. Do you follow any of these rules yourself?
You have to make your own rules in relationships. You figure it out as you go along. You can’t say that a relationship should be this way or that way. You kind of just have to go with the flow… It’s cool to make your own rules.

BUTT - Murray_hodge_small-rev_web
Thanks to Gavin Anesbury who was responsible for Murray's grooming.

Was it fun to make Looking in San Francisco?
We were having such a great time, living in this bubble…
Like when you’re super drunk at a party and you assume that everyone loves you, and then the next day you’re like, ‘Did they though…?’.
It didn’t feel like work at all.
You shot everything there?
Yeah, it’s a beautiful city. It really is. People are more laid-back in San Francisco. Maybe because it’s physically closer to the water? It’s also got this ‘smaller city thing’ that reminded me of Perth. But you’ve got to be careful what you do there because everyone knows everyone.
Are all the actors on the show gay?
No, it’s a real mix. I don’t think that played into casting at all.
I was thinking about how in Brokeback Mountain, it’s so obvious they’re not really gay because of the sex scene. You don’t go in dry that quick and easy…
I thought they were really great in that film. I don’t think it matters, or should matter, whether you’re gay in real life, if you’re playing a gay. But you gotta do your research, I mean, otherwise it’s not believable. It’s frustrating when you hear that gay actors don’t get straight roles because of their sexuality.
Yeah, I mean that’s the thing — it’s acting!
It just doesn’t make sense.
I remember watching Will & Grace as a kid, and not really identifying. Looking seems like a more realistic portrayal of the gays.
All those shows that have had gay characters, or have been gay-centric, have come at different times and have been reflections of those times. Looking is a reflection of this time where, hopefully, we’re ready for a next-level kind of honesty. Did you ever see Weekend? Andrew Haigh directed it. When you watch that film, there’s nothing between you and the characters. You’re in their space and it’s very raw, but it doesn’t feel like you’re being beaten over the head with gay issues, even though there are quite a lot of intense concepts.
How much of you went into creating the character Dom for the show? Like are you talented in the kitchen?
I am.
Can you also make piri-piri chicken?
I could make piri-piri chicken. My specialty is actually roast chicken. I have a very specific way of roasting a chicken, which, I have to say, is pretty awesome.
What is that special way?
I’m not sure if I should share… Maybe I should just invite you over, and you can taste it. There’s a lot of butter involved.
Like Last Tango in Paris?
You stick butter inside the chicken with some garlic. And then push more butter and salt and herbs under the skin of the chicken. It’s also about buying a really good quality chicken…
That’s your secret.
Yeah. And make sure it’s rubbed well with olive oil.
Butter and olive oil?
Yeah. Rub it with olive oil all over the outside, so it gets nice and crispy. And be sure to turn it and baste it.
That’s super important as well isn’t it?
Yeah. And I’ll put potatoes or sweet potatoes in the pan, so you’re cooking it all at the same time in the juices.
Now that you’ve made this cable TV series, and you are on more screens — or maybe different screens — than when you were in that daytime soap slot, do more guys recognize you in public?
Sometimes… I shaved off my moustache and that seems to be quite a good disguise. I had the moustache all last year, and people that I met up with again recently didn’t recognize me. It seems like there’s a fair amount of people watching it in New York, and I’ve gotten a lovely response, too. People seem moved by the show.
Is Looking going to get a second season?
I hope so… Fuck! We’re waiting to hear. I think we’re gonna know in the next week or so. The show has stirred up some interesting conversations, and the audience seems to be steadily increasing, so, you know, it all looks good.

Look for Murray as Dom, who celebrates his 40th birthday in this week’s episode of Looking, ‘Looking in the Mirror’, at 10:30 P.M. this Sunday, 23 February 2014, on HBO.

Published on 21 February 2014