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.”
“I am so, so, so grateful for them; they really helped me get through this,” he said. “I think of that as the worst time in my life because after all those years of hiding all this I genuinely felt like my soul was being chipped away.”
After “Firefly” was canceled in December 2002, he decided to quit acting. He had been studying holistic nutrition and was considering moving to Maine to start a new life when, in April 2003, friends forced him to go to a “rather large gay event.” (He tried so hard to avoid going that he pretended to have food poisoning.)
That night changed his life. He met Paul, who he says inspired him to stay in Hollywood and pursue his dreams. After they started dating, Maher slowed down professionally and began to relax. He reveled in his new relationship.
“I hadn’t had that in my life for a really long time. It was so exhilarating and wonderful,” he said. “He’s an extraordinary person and I love him tremendously. Finally, for the first time in seven years I just focused a little more on my life.”
When he shot the “Firefly” feature film, 2005’s “Serenity,” he came out to his co-stars—“A lot of them were not surprised,” he said—and introduced them to Paul.
“Serenity” and 2006’s “Wedding Wars”—a TV movie from gay producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, whom Maher calls his mentors—were two of the last projects he worked on before taking two years off to be a stay-at-home dad for Sophia. He calls that time “enlightening,” and said he began thinking about coming out when he returned to work.
Then “The Playboy Club” came along.
“I got this part and it just seemed almost too perfect,” he said of the Chicago-filmed series, for which he’s been completely honest about who he is and happy with how it’s helping his acting. “There’s a sense a truth that I was missing that I hadn’t had since I was 22 that I feel like now I’m starting to regain.”
He’s also thrilled with the response to his coming out last week.
“The response has been just extraordinary,” he said, adding that he expected to get support from fans and co-stars, but not from so many other people in the industry. “A lot of casting directors and studio executives, a lot of people behind the scenes in our industry have reached out to me or my manager to say congratulations … and that they will only fight harder for me now.”
Maher said he would be honored to become an advocate for the gay community and equality in general, but the biggest reason for coming out is for his family.
“I always say that my daughter has been my greatest teacher. She was such a strong part in all of this,” he said. “She, of course, has no idea because she’s 4. But if I could just explain to her the decision that I made [was for her], I hope that she would be proud of me.”
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