Being the first openly gay child of the “First Family,” would be pressure enough, but “Political Animals’” T.J. Hammond still can’t find peace now that his mother is the Secretary of State, and divorcing his father, the former President of the United States.
“I don’t know this personally, but one of the things I’ve tried to research is the idea of how do you exist in the world as an individual when your parents’ persona is constantly an umbrella over your identity,” says Sebastian Stan, who plays T.J. in the new USA network political drama which premiered this week about a former First Family coping with change in the years after the White House (It airs Sunday nights at 10).
While many young LGBT people T.J.’s age face pressure and depression, and may experiment with drugs and alcohol like the character, most don’t do so under the microscope of the media, with a mother — former First Lady Elaine Barrish played by Sigourney Weaver, whom Stan calls a “sweet soul” — in the cabinet of the incoming President.
T.J. copes with the pressure by acting out and pushing the envelope, much like another set of first kids, the Bush twins, whom Stan says T.J. may be able to relate to.
“Its like someone handing you the same plate of breakfast every day,” Stan tells the Blade, saying he doesn’t know personally what it would be like to be under such a microscope, but has tried to research extensively this complicated character. “’Well this is now my life, and this is what I gotta do.’ And you get bored. Its like, ‘Why? I want more? I want something else. I don’t want to be pigeonholed.’ And I think that maybe … you want to branch out, you want to be different, you want to do your thing, you don’t want to constantly have to live in the shadow of your parents, which is unfortunately what these characters are living under.”
Stan says that the show from acclaimed producers Greg Berlanti and Laurence Mark, which also stars Ellen Burstyn and James Wolk who plays T.J.’s twin brother, attempts to pull back a curtain on the private lives of these very public people.
“When these people go home, and they sit down at dinner, what do they talk about?” Stan says. “How are they with themselves?”
The character differs greatly from another gay character he played in a political family on NBC’s “Kings,” because, while the young prince Jack Benjamin was strong-willed, driven and knew what he wants, T.J., Stan says, is much more fragile and lost and feels that he’s been pigeonholed in a way that does not fit him, and he’s searching for escape.
“Someone says to you, ‘Guess what? You’re going to live in this box.’ And how do you deal with that?” Stan says, saying T.J. and his straight twin Douglass deal with the pressure in vastly different ways. “T.J. deals with it by numbing, as an alcoholic and a drug addict.”
Though T.J. has strong allies in the family like his grandmother Margaret, played by Burstyn, and his powerful mother, unlike the “Kings” character, T.J. has little control over his life, and Stan, who’s straight, wonders what the young son raised in the spotlight might do with the freedom that a life of anonymity might lend.
“Ultimately he’s just a character that’s trying to find himself and trying to be heard that’s desperately wanting to be loved … Does he have a choice, and if he had a choice, what would he do with it.”
Stan says working with veteran actress Sigourney Weaver is “phenomenal,” and that he’s grateful to share a set with the “Alien” star.
“She’s an incredibly generous person, as well as an actress,” he says. “A powerhouse … The level of etiquette and discipline and commanding the set that she brought on was absolutely awesome. Made everyone feel very special … You always knew when she was going to walk in. You felt her presence.”