Sunday, August 29, 2010

Out Spotlight

Today marks the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and thinking of that wanted to find an Out Spotlight with ties to the Big Easy. And on the day of the Emmy awards wanted to find some one connected to the Emmys as well. And found it in one man. Born and raised in New Orleans, he not only makes it his home, but is a New Orleans business owner as well, all while being on one of the most critically acclaimed dramas on television. Today's Out Spotlight is actor, entertainer, interior designer, author, business owner, and activist Bryan Batt.

He may play closeted art director Salvatore Romano, on Mad Men, but in real life is he's anything but.

Batt was born born on March 1, 1963 into a prosperous and socially prominent New Orleans family. His paternal grandfather, founded Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park, which became the largest such enterprise in the South before closing in the 1980s.

His father John, followed the family tradition managing the park. His maternal grandmother was a dance teacher, and his mother Gayle a glamorous socialite. He attended and graduated from Isidore Newman School, a preparatory school in New Orleans, and Tulane University.

His childhood was filled with extended family of doting grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, all who delighted in his theatrical flair and love of costumes.
But his strongest bond was with his mother, whom he has described as "the steel magnolia from whom I was fortunate to come forth into this world, made me the man I am today, and although I am still discovering who and what that is, she gave me--or rather taught me by her example--some great life lessons: 1) defeat is not an option; 2) be happy in your own skin; 3) there is great beauty in great strength."

Despite his father's reservations, his mother encouraged his interest in fashion and makeup and the performing arts growing up. As a boy he participated in the Spring Fiesta debutante season, various Mardi Gras balls, and assorted parades and celebrations. "The rite of passage for most Southern boys entails hunting and killing a deer or a duck or another random woodland creature. Mine involved pink satin, a glittering papier-mâché float, and a dozen young girls in hoop skirts."

When, at the age of nine, he made a dramatic entrance at a cocktail party given by his parents dressed in a hoop skirt, he was promptly sent to a child psychiatrist.
Luckily, the experience was positive, the doctor explained to him that he and his father did not have to like the same things: "We were just different. Dad and Jay [his older brother] were football and sports; Mom and I were theater and fashion, and that was all right. All men didn't have to like sports."

Attending Tulane University he pursued a degree in theater, in pursuit of being a being a professional actor. While his family supported his love of theater, they did not encourage him to make it his profession, fearing it would never support him. But fate intervened in the form of "first lady of the stage" Helen Hayes. She was in New Orleans and caught the production of "Godspell" Batt was in, and later during the same trip, she met his parents. When they asked her if she could try to discourage their son from a career in show business, she not only refused, but invited them to brunch the next morning where she convinced his dad that he was talented enough to support himself as an actor.

Batt soon left The Big Easy to head for the Big Apple to pursue his dream. He succeeded in securing jobs in small productions quickly, but his goal was to be in a Broadway show. That happened on March 15, 1987, when he opened in the Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express. On opening night, he received a telegram from Helen Hayes: "Welcome to Broadway. May you have a triumphant stay."

During his early years in NY, he also began exploring the city's gay scene, picking up guys in gay bars but never revealing his real name. As he recalled many years later, "There are quite a few willing men who may fondly remember a midnight tryst with the elusive and tipsy Brad, Rick, or Craig." The encounters, while thrilling, were also the source of guilt and shame for Bratt. At the time, "Being outed seemed a fate worse than death; coming out was utterly unimaginable."

After Starlight closed he earned the rent working as a "fragrance model" (aka tester guy) at Bloomingdales. He was fired for making a questionable joke about Perry Ellis's perfume line soon after the designer's passing but fate stepped in again and he received an offer to play Che in a road production of Lloyd Webber's Evita at an Akron, Ohio dinner theater.

The job would not only keep him in show business, but it introduced him to the man who he has spent the last 21 years with, Tom Cianfich who was an ensemble actor in the company. On April 1, 1989, the two men shared a kiss, and soon became lovers, though Batt remained closeted, fearful that coming out might harm his career or, more likely, disappoint his family and friends.

After Akron it was back to Broadway for two years in Cats. "From December of 1990 until December of 1992, I was the biggest pussy on Broadway." Grateful for the well-paid job, he eventually tired of the role, in part because it was exhausting, but also because he yearned for an opportunity to act in a serious play. That opportunity came when he was cast in Paul Rudnick's AIDS comedy Jeffrey (1993). Batt played Darius, a naive Liza-loving HIV-positive chorus boy.

He knew that if he took the role, he would have to come out to his family. Having accepted himself as gay, he had overcome much of the guilt he had previously felt, "but he had become acutely conscious of an element of hypocrisy, or at least inauthenticity, in his life, one that would be exacerbated by playing a gay character while pretending to be straight."

Most of his friends and colleagues knew that he and Cianfichi were together, but his family was led to believe that they were merely roommates. When his mother and other family members came to New York to see Jeffrey after opening to rave reviews, Batt, over a bottle of wine, told his mother that he was gay and that he and Tom were a couple. Although there were tears, his mother reassured him that she loved him and that she loved Tom as well.

The person he feared telling most was his "good ole boy" brother, Jay. But Jay's response was both funny and accepting: "You're gay? Thank God, I thought you just weren't getting any!"

The play Jeffery went on to be adapted to the big screen, where Batt revised his role as Darius.

Professionally it took a little longer to come out. Talking to Playbill he said that he used to worry about the effect of coming out would have on his career:

"When I played the lead in Sunset Blvd., the movie of Jeffrey was coming out, and I was petrified. Back then, every agent told you that if you want to play a straight role, you don’t come out. This was before Ellen [DeGeneres] came out. But now I couldn't give a rat’s ass. It’s normal to be gay."

He continued to work in Broadway, but he hadn't achieved the kind of breakthrough success that would make him a star. When his career hit a lull in beginning of the new new millennium, he and Cianfichi began thinking of redirecting their lives.

After much thought, they decided to open a gift and home accessories store on Magazine Street in New Orleans. Batt didn't know the business end of running a business, but wanted to focus on his design and fashion talents. Cianfichi, who is an event planner, had the business know how from working retail when they were living in New York. He would manage the business. And in 2003, they opened Hazelnut, named for Batt's beloved maternal grandmother whose name was Hazel Nuss.

With the new business came them making New Orleans their home, they also keep places in New York and Los Angeles, making them tri-coastal.

In 2004, Batt was back on Broadway when he understudied for Gary Beach as Albin in the revival of La Cage aux Folles. Although he felt that he was miscast,believing that he was too tall, he loved being able to belt out "I Am What I Am," which he described as "this great soaring, affirmative anthem."

In August 2005, soon after La Cage closed, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Batt and Cianfichi were on vacation in Sonoma, California when it happened. Miraculously their store and house suffered only minor damage, and his mother's home was unscathed. However, the lakefront home of his brother--then a New Orleans City Councilman--was ruined by eight feet of water.

A veteran of AIDS fundraisers and benefits in both New York and New Orleans, he threw himself into relief efforts for his city in ruins. He appeared in numerous benefit concerts, including the "Broadway Celebrity Benefit for Hurricane Relief," "Heartsong: The Concert for New Orleans," and "With Love, From Broadway to the Bayou." He co-chaired a benefit at the Museum of New York that raised $150,000 for post-Katrina rebuilding and preservation efforts in the crescent city. In nearly all these events, he mournfully crooned, "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?"

Not only did he use his theatrical talents and contacts, he used his decorating talents as well. He frequently appeared on television design shows promoting the recovery of New Orleans and participated in a program called "Pimp My [FEMA] Trailer" in which he decorated the temporary home of a woman displaced by the hurricane.

In the wake of New Orleans' recovery, he developed a cabaret act, premiering it as a fundraiser for the New Orleans cabaret Le Chat Noir then taking it to New York's Metropolitan Room and reprising it later as a benefit for Le Petit Théâtre in New Orleans.

In 2007, television came calling and Batt was cast in the role that brought fame beyond the Great White Way. It was Salvatore Romano, the closeted art director in Mad Men. When first asked to audition for the role, he turned it down because he and Cianfichi had promised to take his goddaughter to Paris to repay her for all she did for them in the aftermath of Katrina, including evacuating Batt's mother from the city. Luckily, the role was still available when he returned, and he eagerly accepted a renewed invitation to audition.

The series, has received numerous Emmys, Golden Globe Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards, as well as a Peabody Award.

His story line during first three seasons emphasized both Romano's homosexuality and his attempt to repress it. In the second season, Sal marries, but in the opening of the third season he has an encounter with a hotel bellhop, which is observed by the head of the agency, Don Draper. At the end of the season, however, Draper fires him at the behest of a male client of the agency, whose advances he rejected.

It is not sure whether Romano will return in the fourth season. Batt has that the character has been fired not killed, so there may be hope that he will return either to the Sterling Cooper agency or, perhaps, open his own agency. Given his performance, subtle and richly layered as an Italian-American outsider in the waspy world of the Sterling Cooper ad agency, has many hoping he and Sal return soon.

Batt also made appearances on other television shows, including a recurring role in ABC's Ugly Betty, as well as a guest segment on Martha Stewart.

In 2010, Batt wrote an affectionate memoir entitled "She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother", about growing up and emphasized his mother's charm courage and influence on his life. He is also coming out with a book on design in the near future.

As one of few openly gay actors, he was asked to comment on Ramin Setoodeh's controversial April 2010 article in Newsweek alleging that gay actors cannot convincingly play straight roles. Observing that the article was "self-loathing," Batt went on to refute Setoodeh's premise by defending the acting abilities of the gay actors maligned in the article, especially Sean Hayes.

One recurrent rumor of his personal life is that he and Cianfichi either had married or were intending to marry. When asked about thee rumors, Batt confirmed that they had considered marrying in California before Proposition 8 passed, but that the illness of his mother made it impossible. He added that they had now decided against marrying until they could do so in their own state: "I'm not going to haul my cookies to another state to enjoy a right that should be enjoyed in all states."

Batt is active in numerous charitable, civic, and political organizations, including the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the Human Rights Campaign, the Point Foundation, Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, Habitat For Humanity, Second Harvest Food Bank the SPCA, The Preservation Resource Center, N.O. AIDS Task Force (board member, Humanitas Award), and Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre (board member and interim Artistic Director).

In addition, Batt has also earned recognition as a designer and interior decorator, his designs and their store Hazelnut has been featured in NY Times, House Beautiful, In Style, Traditional Home, Southern Accents and other design and lifestyle magazines.

Another project Bratt undertook was designing furniture. Batt recently designed a loveseat, "The Hef" for the 50th Anniversary of the Playboy Club. "Inspired by the Playboy lifestyle and the legacy of Hugh Hefner’s vision,... has designed a loveseat that represents timeless modern style, class and functionality. Cultivating the design elements of the early 60’s and incorporating contemporary flair." A limited edition of 50, each one is hand signed by Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner.

Byran Batt Official Site

Hazelnut New Orleans


the real m said...

I was thrilled to read this spot light. Thanks so much for choosing him as a subject. Mad Men is one of my favorite shows and I was devastated when Don fired Sal. I never took the time to learn anything about the actor, so am glad to learn more about him. I think we may see Sal back in Mad Men in the future, maybe at a lunch or party. But I doubt they would hire him back as long as Lucky Strike remains the ad agencies largest client. You never know though. They seem to be making an effort to show what a jerk the guy that came on to Sal is this season.

Special K said...

OTH season 6 is on this afternoon. Tell me where the hell did that Julian go?

You know the smarmy up to no good, out to steal the girl, and make a movie guy the one that maybe has a hidden heart of gold but your not sure.

Why is it when he was guest star there was more depth to his character than what they wrote for him as a regular?

Special K said...

Glad you live the Spotlight M. Mad Men is great, and I too want to see Sal come back somehow.

I total remember him playing Darius in Jeffrey. It took me a minute to realize that was Sal the first time I saw Mad Men.

I saw Bryan do an interview on The View, and he was great. I had tucked him away for this spotlight after all of his connections and love for his hometown, New Orleans.

AUS10 said...

Witty Baby Clothes
about 1 hour ago via Twitpic

Asheville, NC= My new favorite place on Earth about
3 hours ago via Twitter for BlackBerry®

Jersey Tom said...

Asheville, NC= My new favorite place on Earth about
3 hours ago via Twitter for BlackBerry®

ITA Austy. Awesome town!

Special K said...

Austin tweeted this earlier today

ElizabethBanks I'll go ahead and say it: listening to other people's loud hotel sex is pretty great. You go, room 492!
about 8 hours ago via ÜberTwitter Retweeted by AUS10NICHOLS and 100+ others

@ElizabethBanks. Oopps. Sorry about 7 hours ago via Twitter for BlackBerry®

Well that's the downside of using speaker phone Mr. Nichols. J/K

And why is Austin checking out witty baby clothes? ; )

Interesting that OTH who never films on the weekends picked this of all weekend to film. Why? Because it's Emmy weekend, you'd think it of all weekends they would want off it would be the one about their entire section of entertainment gets together.

destiny said...

I really enjoyed the spotlight today too.

Regarding Datalounge, I always say "for what it is worth" when I mention gossip from there. I have also said that I think items about people who are not well known tend to be more reliable than for bigger stars.

Like any other blog full of anonymous posters, some of it is true, some half true, and some of it pure bullshit.

Special K said...


I saw Bryan with the crew from Mad Men who just won Outstanding Drama. He was rocking the white dinner jacket of the group.

First Broadway and now TV. You can see how the television industry is changing. Another openly out actor - Jane Lynch won. Neil Patrick Harris won his two Emmys last weekend. Jim Parson who also won tonight, doesn't speak publicly about his personal life, brought his boyfriend who has accompanied him before to the awards. And others publicly thanking their partners, spouses, and others without a second thought.

So there is change, one step at a time, it is happening and it will change in the film industry too.

Favorite part. The sketch of pitching the idea of George Clooney coming on Modern Family as Phil's brother, comforting Claire after Phil's has an accident. Julie says I like it. Sofia says wait a minute. Cut to George comforting Gloria after Phil, Claire and Jay are gone. Then Jesse and Eric said what about them, and cut to George in bed between Cameron and Mitchell.

eejit said...

And why is Austin checking out witty baby clothes? ; )

Because he wants to share with the world what Jake won't - BABYTILE EXISTS DAMMIT!!!

twitter said...

pyrrha_jewelry: Just saw a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal at M Cafe on Melrose wearing obligatory "I don't want to be recognized" sunglasses.
about 2 hours ago via web

AUS10 said...

Yes that was the Biltmore Estate. Incredible place to visit.
9 minutes ago via Twitter for BlackBerry®

who won the emmy for most dashing and supportive fiance in a drama? 12 minutes ago via Twitter for BlackBerry®

This is where I summer. Yes, I use summer as a verb.
30 minutes ago via Twitpic

janet said...

I see that it still hasn't dawned on anyone here that Ted's BI's are

destiny said...

I didn't know Parsons brings his bf to the Emmys.

Things are definitely changing when it comes to tv.

prairiegirl said...
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prairiegirl said...
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