ABOVE: PAUL IACONO. PHOTOS BY MARCO OVANDO
America is finally ready for a mainstream, teen gay comedy. Director Darren Stein’s film G.B.F.—an abbreviation for “Gay Best Friend”—tells the story of three competitive prom-queen aspirants in an upscale suburban high school, who decide they need a gay best friend to act as arm candy and sidekick to advise them on their outfits and listen to them prattle on. Two closeted best friends, Tanner (Michael J. Willett, United States of Tara) and Brent (Paul Iacono), become frenemies when Brent inadvertently outs Tanner—and turns him into the hottest teenage-girl accessory at school.
Iacono, the sprightly 25-year-old co-star of G.B.F., has been acting since he was four. His credits include numerous theatrical productions since childhood, a part in the 2009 remake of Fame, and the starring role in the MTV series The Hard Times of RJ Berger, which ran for one and a half seasons. He’s in Rhymes With Banana, soon to come to Netflix, in which he co-stars with Girls‘ Zosia Mamet. This year, he’ll also be appearing in Animal and two independent films, Unbelievable and The Bad Guys. He’s also currently writing a dark comedy screenplay for a new pilot, titled GIF’ted, about a group of performing arts high school students who make their own web series.
We bumped into Iacono at nightlife diva Susanne Bartsch’s Tuesday night party at the Soho Grand, and later met over a late-afternoon round of gin and tonics and appetizers at Vinus and Marc, a trendy new wine bar on the Upper East Side.
GERRY VISCO: Is the film G.B.F. indicative in a change in the attitudes of young people about being gay?
PAUL IACONO: I think the film is already a little bit outdated. For gay kids, coming out is not what it used to be. Most younger gay guys that I know never had to formally come out. They came out of the womb and they were little faggots and they grew up and everyone acknowledged they were little faggots and they went on, and that’s it. I think coming out as a whole is old hat.
VISCO: Where did you go to high school? Were there Mean Girls types?
IACONO: The Professional Performing Arts School. I felt that my high school was more competitive than your average audition or casting call.
VISCO: Did you fit in?
IACONO: It was a mixed bag. By the time I hit my junior year, I had sort of found my voice and realized that my father’s political values were not mine—he’s a Republican. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t a Republican until I was 16 or so.
VISCO: Well, you are from Jersey!
IACONO: I know! You don’t have to remind me.
VISCO: Did you feel you fit in when you were in high school?
IACONO: Mixed bag. PPAS is like the Island of Misfit Toys. The other students were artsy and open. Personally, I had my own demons. I tried to come out after my freshman year of high school, and my dad found an email between me and this other boy. I had never even kissed a boy at that point, and he threatened to pull me out of the school.
VISCO: Why would he pull you out of school?
IACONO: He thought the performing arts high school was turning me gay!
VISCO Were there a lot of gays?
IACONO: Yes, but there were just as many closeted gays as open ones. I was still attracted to girls and stuff, so I went back to dating girls. I had a couple “on the DL” hookups, and by the time I officially came out to him when I was 20 years old—right after Fame and RJ—he didn’t really have a choice. I think at that point, he was fine with it. He’s back to being my number-one fan.
VISCO: You have other siblings?
IACONO: A younger brother. He’s 20. He’s a Jersey DJ. And I have a sister who’s five, from Dad’s second marriage.
VISCO: You came out to Michael Musto when he was writing his column in 2012?
IACONO: It’ll be two years in April.
VISCO: Do you think coming out has limited your ability to play straight roles?
IACONO: No. It’s opened up doors and windows that I didn’t even know existed.
ViSCO: You don’t think that you’ll be typecast?
IACONO: Even if I am for a moment, that’s cool.
VISCO: As long as you get good parts!
IACONO: If I get good parts, if I get interesting roles that I can relate to and identify with and bring something to—then I’m happy.
VISCO: You played a straight kid in The Hard Times of RJ Berger.
IACONO: Yeah! Everything up to G.B.F. was straight. The phone’s been ringing off the hook since I came out, so there’s definitely something there. I was very aware of what I was doing though it was a spontaneous move: I had not planned or premeditated it. I didn’t want to do a Zachary Quinto “me, me, me” coming out. I was doing a play in New York, it was gay-centric, and Musto goes “Oh, so you’re out now?” and I said “Sure!” and rolled with it.
VISCO: Were you out to your family?
IACONO: Yes, most of them. My dad’s side of the family is Southern Italians. Everybody’s cool about it now.
VISCO: You worked on G.B.F. in 2012?
IACONO: We shot G.B.F. in September 2012. The film was a turning point in my life. I’d done a couple of small things after RJ came out, but I went through this period where I didn’t want to audition anymore, though I knew I still wanted to act.
VISCO: You started acting and singing when you were four! You imitated—
IACONO: Frank Sinatra and Ethel Merman!
VISCO: When you got the call for G.B.F., were you excited?
IACONO: I was so excited. It sounded great! I was a little bit skeptical, because of the gay film stigma, and “the only people who see gay films are gay audiences.” Darren Stein was the director of Jawbreaker, so I knew we were in good hands. The script was brilliant and all these incredible people were rumored to be part of the project.
VISCO: How does G.B.F. fit into the high school comedy genre?
IACONO: I think it’s the next Mean Girls or Clueless. First and foremost, it’s a hysterical teen comedy that just happens to have two gay protagonists.
VISCO: Did you know your co-star Michael Willett before?
IACONO: No, but we got along famously. We became very, very close!
VISCO: Do you think G.B.F. is realistic or exaggerated?
IACONO: In New York we forget that the rest of the country and the rest of the world haven’t evolved as much as we have. So for New York City, it may seem a little bit outdated that it’s that big of a deal that there’s an openly gay kid in the school, but for a lot of Middle American schools and towns, it is a big deal. I think that a lot of audiences are going to connect with this in a major way. Much like PPAS, even though it was a performing arts high school, people still weren’t comfortable with it. I feel like it’s going to be such a non-issue.
VISCO: In the film, the gay best friend is arm candy for these girls, but in some places of course that’s not at all the case!
IACONO: I think it will give straight people an inside look at how gay people feel in these situations. It humanizes them. I think your typical high-school straight kid nowadays is not the straight guy of yesterday. I think he’s way more open and accepting.
VISCO: I wanted to ask you about your childhood—I read you had leukemia for a while, which must have been really difficult.
IACONO: I had leukemia when I was 8 to 11 years old.
VISCO: How did you know you had it?
IACONO: I was in a community theater production of A Christmas Carol as Tiny Tim. Performing has always been the one thing that I always really loved, and one of the things that I was ever good at especially as a kid—I wasn’t an academic person, I wasn’t a sports person. When I became less enthusiastic and not acting like myself, my mother sensed something was up. I was feeling weak and tired. They diagnosed it as mono at first, and then a couple blood tests later figured out it was leukemia.
VISCO: You had chemotherapy? Did you have to stay out of school?
IACONO: During two and a half years of chemotherapy, I never lost my hair! There were two or three months before I came back to school, and then I was in and out between treatments and performing.
VISCO: Were the other students sympathetic to you?
IACONO: It felt like I was the only person to ever have cancer. The whole town came together. There was this enormous outpouring of love and support.
VISCO: Did you think you were going to die?
IACONO: I was obviously frightened, but I didn’t think I was going to die. I always knew that I would come out of it.
VISCO: Was it ever really bad?
IACONO: The initial treatments were. When I first got on chemo, my body had a horrible reaction.
VISCO: How were your parents?
IACONO: They were really cool. I had my family by my side for the entire thing. My mom is too much at times! I guess when you have a sick kid, you never get over that.
VISCO: Do you feel like you’re 100 percent healthy now or do you feel more fragile as a result?
IACONO: I do. I go for a yearly checkup. I’m such a contradiction: I eat really healthy, I go to the gym, but then I smoke two or three cigarettes a day, and I smoke other things as well. Overall, I feel really healthy. But sometimes I feel like I’m more sensitive to little things.
VISCO: Did having that experience change your consciousness of life?
IACONO: Completely. You realize that we only have so much time, and whatever you want to do in life, you need to do it now. There’s no time to wait.
G.B.F. IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TODAY, JANUARY 17, AND WILL EXPAND TO WIDER RELEASE IN THE COMING WEEKS.