Actor Gary Cowling Celebrates 25 Years as an AIDS Walk NY Captain for William & Mary Alumni and Friends
by Chael Needle
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Alina Oswald
Speaking of his new apartment in his longtime New York City neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, theater and screen actor Gary Cowling has his fingers crossed when it comes to keeping the view from his big kitchen window unobstructed.
“Right below me is a basketball court, and a jungle gym, and then a little park area. So I get all the light all the time because it’s not blocked by all the buildings. And, if I look in the right direction, I can see the top of the Empire State Building’s spire. So it’s kind of like Goodnight Moon to me—stand in the window, see it’s there,” the Virginia native says, referring to the children’s book about the calming ritual of saying goodbye to the world around you before sleep, “because I’m sure it will not be a couple years before something is built and I won’t see the spire anymore. So I’m appreciating it while I have it.”
“I’ve been in Hell’s Kitchen for a long time, and seeing the high rises go up…I want to be Norma Rae and [yell] ‘Stop that bulldozer,’” he says, with the same spunk Sally Field brought to her union-organizing character. “‘Leave the tenement houses, the walk-ups, the history, the architecture! Don’t take it all away!’”
The landscapes of our youths always seems in danger of being erased. Indeed, faster than you can hail a cab in Midtown during a rainstorm, buildings in New York City seem to be torn down and erected. Or converted. Circle Repertory Theater, the renowned company where Gary held an internship during his early days in the city, had once been a garage, he notes. Then a nightclub. Now, almost twenty years after having shuttered as a theater company, it’s a restaurant and live jazz venue called…Garage.
But, as Gary reminds, it’s not so much the buildings but the people who inhabited them that matter in our lives. “I really miss the spirit of [Circle Rep], and what it served as for the whole community. It was a company-based theater, so any play that they chose to do, half of the roles went to company members. And there was always new work in the pipeline, with readings and projects and a bunch of plays in progress. It was very supportive of playwrights and loyal to its members,” Gary says, reminiscing about when he first came to New York City in the mid- to late eighties, a time that coincided with the devastation by AIDS of neighborhoods and communities.
It was time, too, when a new community was born out of different cultural, economic, and political DNA, whose members railed against AIDS indifference, AIDS stigma, and AIDS fear, whose members rallied to celebrate the lives of loved ones gone too soon and to wake up those in power who were not acting fast enough in the name of health justice, in the name of simply helping those who needed care. This community of advocacy and compassion found one of its greatest expressions of solidarity in the AIDS Walks that were popping up around the country.
This year, AIDS Walk New York is marking its thirtieth anniversary [see this issue’s NewsBreak], and Gary has led the William & Mary Alumni and Friends Team for twenty-three of those years, helping the Walk to raise funds for GMHC and forty other AIDS service organizations in the New York City tri-state area. After having walked for two years before the event had teams, he founded the team in 1992, and, over the years, it has raised more than $270,000. The team repeatedly ranks among the top fundraisers, as does Cowling as an individual. The team has had about twelve members these past few years, shooting up into the twenties in the past.
“So we’re tiny but mighty,” Gary shares. “We still keep raising a lot of money. But it doesn’t get easier!” This year, the team has set a goal of $14,000. “I’m excited that the NYC William & Mary Alumni Chapter and GALA (Gay and Lesbian Alumni) will help make AIDS Walk ’15 a success!”
An alum of the College of William & Mary who has over the years served in various capacities in the New York City chapter of its alumni society, Gary founded the AIDS Walk team in part to honor the place where his dream of acting took focus. Though he had acted in high school, which had been uber-supportive of its dramatic arts club, Gary first went to William & Mary to become a lawyer.
“I was going to be all lawyer-y, all legal, and all fancy, and sometime in the middle of my sophomore year I realized the only classes that I wanted to stay up all night and get the projects done for were theater [ones]. I thought maybe that was answering my own question.…I decided I’d rather be a lawyer on TV than a real one,” he quips.
He continued on to grad school and earned an MFA at West Virginia University. Though he first moved to New York to go on auditions for regional theater and gain other credits to build up his résumé, he stayed in the Big Apple after his Circle Rep stint, finding work backstage on the newly opened rollerskating-themed Broadway musical Starlight Express.
The performers first and foremost needed to be adept at maneuvering up and down the ramps that composed the set, so “it was a very interesting group,” Gary explains. “A lot of them had not done theater—they had done Muppets on Skates, or Muppets on Ice. They had different skill sets, coming from all different places. And then [the show also cast] a lot of really good dancers who learned how to skate, wonderfully. For almost all of them, it was their first Broadway show and they were making more money than they’d ever seen. And a lot of them were [partying].” And what is a common rite of passage for youth flush with their first big paychecks—celebrating life, indulging in its pleasures—slammed up against a society mostly indifferent to protecting the sexual health of some of its most vulnerable members.
“I worked on the show for eight months and then in the next three years twelve of the cast had died. And I was like, whoa. Some really lovely people died that I had become quite fond of, and I thought, we’ve got to do something…,” he shares.
Though Gary has supported organizations like AIDS-focused Broadway Cares and LGBTQ-focused The Trevor Project over the years, AIDS Walk New York was one of the first chances to do something on a big scale.
He was temping at a publishing company the first time he sought out sponsors from among the staff. “Most of them did [sponsor me]. They were all nice people. But it was crazy because just by holding that sign-up sheet for money for something for AIDS, for one, I came out, that was a given—I was never not out but that made it official! And then, a lot of them thought I was sick—because why else would I be doing it, I guess. I don’t know [what they were thinking.] We’ve come a long way.”
But while some assumptions may have faded, others have been freshly activated. These days, Gary is confronted by we’ve-solved-AIDS attitudes: “‘Oh it’s all taken care of, right?’ I’m like, no. I mean, things are better, but it’s not all over here.”
And nowadays, when he is in the fundraising zone, he senses that perhaps the advocacy paradigm is shifting. While the old guard “have been pushing and challenging and screaming, I think the next generation behind them are probably going to find different ways to do new things—but there is a complacency that is not healthy to the cause.”
One of the hardest hit groups of late has been young gay and bi men, he notes. “I call them the Invincibles. And we were there, too. We thought nothing was going to hurt us—ever. We were Superman,” he says.
He is emboldened by the fact that we’ve made strides in awareness and advocacy, but realistic enough to know that there is more work to be done. His home state of Virginia now has marriage equality, he notes, but not protections for job discrimination against individuals who are LGBT.
“The fight is not over,” he says.
With all this talk of then and now, Gary mentions that LinkedIn, a social media site for professionals, alerted him that he was celebrating a work anniversary: twenty years at “Various.” “I’m like, Various has been very good to me,” he muses, wryly.
“Various” has been good to him. He has found steady work as an actor. On television, he has had recurring roles on The Sopranos and Guiding Light, as well as roles on three different iterations of the Law & Order franchise and has appeared in two pilots. On the stage, he has appeared in productions of Love! Valour! Compassion!, Burn This, Take Me Out, Macbeth, The Laramie Project, and Damn Yankees, among other projects. On the big screen, he has had roles in The Accidental Husband and The Namesake, to name two. Apart from acting, he has brought his creative energy to producing, directing, stage crew work, you name it, and he has also been teaching in the MFA and BFA programs at Brooklyn College.
Recently, he wrapped the third and final season of the much-lauded and award-studded web series Hustling, a sexy, intelligent dramedy about a forty-year-old man (Sebastian La Cause as Ryan) who is seeing what else life has to offer now that his career as a sex worker and adult film star is coming to a close.
Cowling, who also served as one of the series’ producers, plays Mitchell, who starts off as Ryan’s job-search counselor but then morphs into a mentor.
Created by La Cause, who also produced and directed the series, aside from wearing other hats, Hustling started on a shoestring, but, after gaining an audience on YouTube, it attracted Kickstarter donors and a top-notch cinematographer. So far, the series, which also stars Wilson Cruz [A&U, June/July 1995], Daphne Rubin-Vega [A&U, March 1999], and Gerald McCullouch [A&U, January 2011], among others, has racked up nearly three million views and counting. (Check out free episodes at: www.Hustlingthewebseries.com.) Recently, Hustling garnered nine more Indie Series Award nominations, including Best Series, Ensemble Cast, and Writing, among others.
“One thing about the web series that is so great is that we were creating something [without having] to go ask somebody, ‘Can we do this?’ There wasn’t a network or someone funding the whole thing that we had to please; there wasn’t a big studio behind it. It was really the purest version of what Sebastian wanted to do. To be that involved in the creative execution part of it is kind of cool,” says Gary, whose favorite episode, “Open Doors,” is from season 2. “I teased Sebastian because in that episode I paid for sex but I don’t get it. So, in the third season, I [pitched], ‘Mitchell Gets Lucky.’ That’s the name of the whole season!” His wish to spice things up on-screen in all his buff, hairy-chested glory came true, though Sebastian’s text relaying the news of his upcoming sex scene came when he was at a party, unwrapping the foil on a second cupcake, he says. He put down the cupcake.
Right now he is working on a play-in-development at The Actors Studio and, as the AIDS Walk on May 17 is fast-approaching, he and his team are busy raising funds. Over the years, he’s usually been a bulldog about pursuing donations and, while he hasn’t lost his tenacity, he has been able to relax thanks to a support base that “always comes through,” he notes.
And just like the New York City skyline, fundraising changes and presents new hurdles to navigate. “Some people have donated for years and years and years (I have some real loyal people who keep giving and God bless them) but I think others fall off and support other things. And the hardest part is, I was really hoping to get young grads from William & Mary who are now in the city, because it can be social and networking and philanthropic all at the same time, but I find that so many of these young people are so involved in so many different philanthropic things that they don’t really commit big to anything. Or they already have their one thing that they do. So fewer of them seem directly motivated [to] support the HIV and AIDS collective organizations.”
Unobstructed views in New York City are rare, but one view of Gary’s has remained—will remain—constant: his belief that we need to do all we can in the fight against AIDS. Despite the challenges, Cowling stands tall. “I keep saying that I have to have the team and have to keep walking because, if I don’t, I don’t think all of these people will give money. So if I stop then they may not remember….” The momentum that Gary and tens of thousands of others have built, however, is perhaps not so easily razed.
Chael Needle, along with Sean Black, wrote about HIV Equal and Reach LA in the March issue.