Sean Maher’s role in "The Playboy Club" seems to have been tailor-made as a platform from which he could come out publicly as gay.
Not only is his character also named Sean, but he's a closeted gay man married to a lesbian bunny who helps organize an underground gay rights group.
In "A Matter of Simple Duplicity" (9 p.m. Oct. 3 on NBC), Sean, working as campaign manager for state's attorney candidate Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian), suggests that Nick hide his affiliation with the Playboy Club and his relationship with Bunny Mother Carol-Lynn in order to gain votes. He fixes Nick up with socialite Frances Dunhill (Cassidy Freeman), who has a secret of her own.
“I think it’s interesting that Sean is trying to hide all these aspects of Nick’s life,” Maher told me. “He’s making a living out of hiding [other people’s secrets], which is what he does personally.”
During lunch Wednesday at Markethouse restaurant, Maher repeated what his character said to Nick in last week’s episode: “It doesn’t matter who you are; it only matters what you portray.” That line resonates with Maher because, until he came out in a Sept. 28 EW article, he had portrayed a very different image of himself for most of his 14-year acting career.
Although some friends, family members and even co-workers knew he was gay, he rarely brought up his personal life on set and never spoke out publicly about it. But now, the 36-year-old and Paul, his partner of nearly nine years, have two children, Sophia Rose, 4, and Liam Xavier, 14 months. The couple, who exchanged wedding rings their first Christmas together, wants to raise the kids without secrets.
“How could I tell my daughter, ‘There’s something about our family we’ve got to keep to ourselves’?” Maher said. “Everything that we’re instilling in her is to have compassion and kindness and to be confident and to not judge and just to embrace who you are…
“I just wanted to be a good role model for my daughter.”
Now Maher is happier than he’s ever been both personally and professionally. “I feel really good about it,” he said. “I’m so happy how it’s turned out.”
Maher’s charade started when he moved to L.A. fresh out of New York University in 1997 and landed the coveted title role on Fox’s drama “Ryan Caulfield: Year One.” His publicist and manager at the time urged that he keep his sexuality a secret.
“I didn’t sleep pretty much the entire season,” he said, adding that he decided to stay in the closet because he thought being out would limit the jobs he might get and, in the case of that first job, that he would be fired. “I was petrified. I pictured the meeting with the Fox people: ‘We cannot have a gay actor being the star of our show.’”
During that period, Maher moved in with an old friend from NYU where, incidentally, he was out. (“If you’re not at least bi-curious [at NYU] there’s something wrong with you,” he joked.) His relationship with this friend in many ways mirrors that of his “Playboy Club” character and his wife, Bunny Alice.
Maher and his friend lived together in a one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood. She knew he was gay—she was his last girlfriend when he was still “straight” in college—and would often accompany him to social events for work.
“She knew how hard I was struggling with it,” he said, adding that the two still are close friends. “People just assumed that she was my girlfriend. It really was this façade that I let people believe.”
By then Maher was deep in the closet, and like many closeted gay people he went to great lengths to keep from being found out. While filming the 2000 series “The Street,” he would go out to bars with his co-workers and hit on women to keep the pretense alive. “I didn’t even leave the character at work,” he said.
Keeping his secret became so exhausting that by the time he started filming “Firefly,” the 2002-03 Joss Whedon series for which he is probably best known, he subscribed to a belief that many closeted gay people do: It’s much easier to keep your secret when you just don’t socialize.
Maher avoided off-set contact with co-stars Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, Gina Torres and Alan Tudyk. Whedon called him the “aloof New York guy,” Maher said, because between takes he would go off by himself and read the New York Times.
Although he only fully engaged with his co-stars while he was shooting his scenes, he said having the job to go to at such a trying time and being able to work with such an amazing group “kind of saved my life.”