Out Australian actor Murray Bartlett really did leave his heart in San Francisco.
Starting in 2014, he starred in the short-lived HBO series “Looking,” which was set in the Golden Gate City. Bartlett played Dom Basaluzzo, a restaurateur who hung out with his friends Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez).
Now he’s starring as Michel “Mouse” Tolliver in the Netflix limited series “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.” The series is also set in San Francisco, which Bartlett says is one of the most gorgeous cities in the world.
“Tales of the City” started life as a newspaper serial by Maupin in 1974. The serial was later picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle and then published as a novel in 1978. In the intervening years, Maupin added eight books to the series; the ninth and final novel, “The Days of Anna Madrigal,” was published in 2014.
The wildly popular novels have been adapted into a variety of forms. The first three books were turned into three separate television series by PBS and Showtime. Jake Shears and John Garden of the rock band Scissor Sisters turned “Tales of the City” into a stage musical with a book by Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”). Working with a new libretto by Maupin, out composer Jake Heggie wrote “Anna Madrigal Remembers” for mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and the choir Chanticleer.
In addition, Maupin, a talented raconteur, has performed excerpts from the books with symphony orchestras and LGBT choruses.
Finally, as part of the “Letter Live” series, Ian McKellen performed “Dear Mama,” the coming-out letter that “Mouse” writes to his fundamentalist mother from his hospital bed.
As Bartlett explains, the new Netflix series picks up two decades after the previous “Tales of the City” miniseries and Mouse’s life has changed.
“Michael is HIV-positive and he went through the AIDS crisis at its height,” Bartlett says. “He thought he was going to die and he lost a lot of friends. He was deeply affected by that; it was a transformative time.”
Despite his status as a long-term survivor, Bartlett says Michael has retained his natural charm and buoyancy.
“He’s got a very boyish spirit and that’s one of the things I love about him as a character,” the actor says. “He’s older and wiser and he’s definitely walked through fire, but he’s still managed to retain this beautiful kind of optimism.”
Michael has also acquired a much younger boyfriend named Ben (Charlie Barnett). For fans of the books, Bartlett warns that the character of Ben in the series is somewhat different than the character in the books.
“The show is not strictly based on the books, but it is definitely inspired by them,” Bartlett says.
When the series opens, Michael and Ben are six months into their relationship.
“The honeymoon isn’t over,” Bartlett says, “but they’re at a point in their relationship where they’re starting to look at some issues and notice their different ages. They have this deep love, but Michael is quite a bit older than Ben. We see a lot of intergenerational issues come up between them.”
The new series kicks off — and these issues get highlighted — when Michael’s friend Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) suddenly returns to San Francisco. She’s reunited with her ex-husband Brian (Paul Gross) and her adopted daughter Shawna (Ellen Page), as well as Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), who gently presides over the lives of the residents of the legendary apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane.
Despite the pressure of playing such an iconic role, Bartlett did not do a lot of preparation before rehearsals started.
“I didn’t go back and watch the previous shows. I did read the books and try to get the essence of Mouse off the page and let Armistead hand him to me. I thought I could come to him fresh and keep the essential boyishness of the character.”
Since the character of Mouse is somewhat autobiographical, Bartlett admits he feels a special duty to be faithful to Armistead Maupin and his vision.
“There’s a sense of responsibility,” he says, “but a wonderful sense of responsibility. I had first met Armistead on the set of ‘Looking. It’s always a joy being around him. I adore him and his books and he’s a kind of personification of his books. He’s an incredibly compassionate, loving, wonderful man with a deep understanding of human beings and what it is to be human.”
Now that work has wrapped on the Netflix adaptation of “Tales of the City,” Bartlett is quietly developing some new projects for himself.
“I’m trying to drive my own ship a little bit.”
In the meantime, Bartlett feels the time is right for a new generation of fans to be introduced to the magic of “Tales of the City.”
“I feel very excited about this show coming out when there’s a lot of divisive stuff going on. This show really speaks about family and understanding each other and having compassion. I hope people respond to that and run with it. I feel like we could use more of that.”