Less than one hour after e-mailing an interview request to an actor's manager, the telephone rang. It wasn't a publicist demanding to know the parameters of the interview, where the story would go or how big the photographs would be. It was the actor himself, and in his unassuming way, he agreed to meet with a reporter.
This is not how it usually happens in Hollywood, but T.R. Knight doesn't seem interested in most things Hollywood. Before Grey's Anatomy transformed his life, he was a Minnesota native who passed up college to become a New York theater actor. But then he signed on to what has become a TV phenomenon, and Knight's personal and professional life took some twists and turns he could have never foreseen when he was toiling in Noises Off or Tartuffe on Broadway. How could a struggling actor ever figure on landing a leading gig on one of TV's biggest shows only to be impelled to come out as a gay man when tabloid coverage of an on-set fight made his sexuality an unexpected target?
In person, Knight, 34, is polite and is a slow and cautious speaker who becomes more animated when he is not talking about himself. His decision to forgo the publicity machine followed a remarkable season for Grey's, which undoubtedly will go down as one of the most important, if not most difficult, years in his life.
"You know, when you get [to L.A.], people say you should do this, and this is what you have to do," Knight said. "And I just think that sometimes it takes a little bit for you to figure it out yourself and see where your comfort is. This is just a more low-key approach. It's not like you've got hundreds of people a day trying to get at you. That's someone else. That's not me. Flying under the radar is preferable many times. I like this for now. I do."
The very popular Grey's won the Golden Globe for best drama in January and has been nominated for five of the top Emmys, including best drama and best supporting actor for Knight. He has received the honor for his turn as the lovable, bumbling underdog George O'Malley, who after failing his exam must start over as an intern in the fourth season, which starts Sept. 27.
But instead of reveling in the sweet times, the Grey's cast had its third season marred by the ugly behind-the-scenes controversy that began with Isaiah Washington's on-set homophobic slur in October and ignited when he repeated it at the Golden Globes in front of the press. The end of the season should have brought much-needed relief, but after Washington was fired in June, he embarked on a tell-all publicity tour.
At whom was the demeaning word directed? Washington says he said it in a moment of anger and that Knight had nothing to do with it. But Knight, in his only public comments about the ordeal, on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in January, said Washington directed the slur at him.
Nearly a year later, the he-said, he-said of it all seems insignificant when Knight discusses his decision to announce publicly last October that he is gay. After rumors about the on-set problems circulated, Knight issued a statement to People magazine, against the advice of most of his handlers. It said: "I hope the fact that I'm gay isn't the most interesting part of me."
Knight wasn't coming out of the closet; the people in his life know his sexuality. But revealing it to the world is a thorny matter for an actor on a hit TV show. Over lunch last month, Knight said no one had ever used that word against him before, and he felt he needed to address it.
"It wasn't the only choice I could have made, but it was the only choice I could have made and lived with myself," Knight said.
Katherine Heigl, who plays Dr. Izzie Stevens on Grey's and is Knight's best friend, says she is proud that Knight had the conviction to follow his heart despite advice that he could ruin his career by proclaiming his sexual orientation.
"T.R. wasn't going around acting like a playboy or pretending to be something he wasn't," said Heigl, who also is nominated for an Emmy, in the best supporting actress category. "But it's an omission of the truth by not saying anything at all, and there's a weight to that."
Over the past 11 months, especially since Washington's gabfest began, Heigl said, she has often wished her friend would speak up about so much more. But Knight is adamant that he has said all he will ever need to say.
"I have nothing, absolutely nothing to say about it," Knight said, his leg tapping underneath the table, his speech slowing considerably.
Heigl, on the other hand, has plenty to say: "I have absolutely no respect at all for how Isaiah has handled this. I'm disgusted."
Now the actor, who dabbled in a few television show guest spots before he auditioned for Grey's, is 10 days away from possibly winning an Emmy. Knight was nominated for the two-part episode "Six Days," in which George's father dies.
The nomination means "recognition" to Knight, but, he said, it's also a "humbling reminder" of all that he still needs to learn. To the Emmys, he is wearing a tuxedo and taking a female friend from New York as his date.
"As we all know, the most painful lessons are the ones that can cause the most growth if you face it," Knight said. "So a lot of it, I think, I'll still be thinking out for a while, but it's good. It's good. And who knows what September is going to bring?"
"Well, yes, we know that," he said, and laughed.
Maria Elena Fernandez writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Watch T.R. Knight in a scene from Grey's Anatomy at baltimoresun.com/knight