Nathan Lane will speak after a screening of “The Birdcage.” COURTESY LUKE FONTANA

An evening of entertainment and laughs with Nathan Lane and ‘The Birdcage’

Saturday, Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m.

New Jersey Performing Arts Center
Prudential Hall, One Center St., Newark

njpac.org, 1-888-GO-NJPAC

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

When actor Nathan Lane came out to his mother at the age of 21, she said she’d prefer that he was dead.

He replied, “I knew you’d understand.”

Coming out of the closet isn’t easy.

That’s one reason the “it gets better” campaign started: to reassure LGBTQ youth that no matter how people respond to the news, no matter how much bullying they endure, they will in time find acceptance.

In the 1996 film “The Birdcage,” based on the 1978 French movie “La Cage aux Folles,” Lane played Albert Goldman, a gay club owner who poses as straight to appease his son’s prospective conservative in-laws.

On Saturday, Oct. 21, Lane will appear at New Jersey Performing Arts Center to talk to the audience, after a screening of the film.

We spoke to Lane last week. A Jersey City boy, Lane is also the winner of two Tony Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and two Daytime Emmy Awards.

Some of his famous roles include the voice of Timon in “The Lion King,” Max Bialystock in Broadway’s “The Producers,” and recurring roles on television’s “Modern Family” and “The Good Wife.” Recently he appeared as Hickey in a sold-out production of O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and later this year he will appear on Broadway in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”

He also appeared with Mickey Rooney and Dana Carvey in the four-month 1982 sitcom “One of the Boys,” which TV Guide, according to Wikipedia, ranks 24 on its 2002 list of the 50 Worst Shows of All Time.

(Editor’s note: this interviewer shouted “I love you!” five times during the interview.)

Montclair Local: Were you always funny?
Lane: Maybe. I guess. Comedy, humor was a defense mechanism.

Montclair Local: What did you learn from working with Mickey Rooney?
Lane: Working with Mickey Rooney was a cautionary tale. He liked me because I was old school, professional, knew my lines. He thought I was funny. He was having this renaissance at the time: He was doing “Sugar Babies” [*note: Broadway musical review/tribute to the Burlesque era] and “Black Stallion” [*1979 movie], and was nominated for an Ocar.

He decided in his spare time, he would do a TV series, while doing eight shows a week of “Sugar Babies.”

He was reveling in that kind of comeback. He was a survivor.

I had to hand him that. It’s what show biz is about. He’d had ups and downs. He was a product of the studio system, and the biggest star in Hollywood, then nobody wanted him.

He was one of the most talented who ever worked, a brilliant actor when he wanted to be. He could sing and dance, everything.

But it was all about being young, Andy Hardy and Judy Garland [Andy Hardy was a fictional teenage character in MGM movies from 1937 to 1946, with a revival in 1958].  Suddenly, because of his height, people thought of him as a young person.

Montclair Local: So the cautionary tale is them wanting him to stay young?
Lane: Yes. It’s tough after a certain age. People didn’t know what to do with him.

He had a self-destructive side. He was around the age I am now, early ’60s. He managed to have a big comeback.

He was a part of Hollywood. He started in silent film. It was fascinatig to be around him, hear stories, get a sense of him as a person…and his talent.

Montclair Local: Where did you find that strength to say “I knew you’d understand” to your mother?
Lane (laughs): I came out to her when I was 21. I was about to move to New York. I was in a relationship, my first one. I didn’t date in high school, I was a very late bloomer.

I didn’t want to upset her. She had been through a lot. Her mother had passed away. My father ,who was an alcoholic, drank himself to death.

She had a breakdown, and was found to be bipolar. She was finally diagnosed after five years, and got the right medication.

Even though we were very close, I wasn’t ready to do it. I didn’t want to burden her with that information. When I was about to leave home- aside from wanting to move to New York, I was in a relationship with a man- I sat her down and told her.

She was shocked. You have to understand the context of how shocked she was. She was just devastated.

She said, “I would rather you were dead.” I said, “I knew you’d understand.”

She immediately told my two brothers, though I told her not to tell.

They all came to terms with it and have been very supportive of it. Even she was supportive in her way, though she have preferred otherwise. She met anyone I was involved with.

By the time “The Birdcage” came around I was trying to make it about performance. It was the first time I had a leading role in a film. I didn’t want to make it abut coming out initially. I said, “I’d rather not discuss my personal life.” Not long after, in 1996, US Magazine asked if I was gay. I said, “I’m 40, single and work in musical theater, you do the math. What do you need, flash cards?”

For some people in the gay press that wasn’t enough.

I had lived a gay lifestyle, never hiding or denying. I did an interview with The Advocate a few years later and talked about it all. Everyone has to do it in their own time.

It was a time when people being outed and I thought that doesn’t seem to be healthy way to go about it.

It does have an effect on your career. Homophobia is alive and well It does affect the way people see you. Unless they go to the theater every day and see things, they don’t see the variety of things you do.

People think of you in one part or role or a couple of famous things you do. It’s easy to pigeonhole.

Maybe its happening less and less, but it still goes on.

Montclair Local: But where did you find such strength?
Lane: It had to do with my relationship with my mother. In that circumstance I had to grow up very quickly, become an adult very fast. I was taking care of her. We had no secrets. It was the only thing I hadn’t discussed with her. I hadn’t fully come to terms with it myself, but I felt had to be honest with her about it. I had said I was seeing a young lady in New York, and felt badly I was lying about it.

I just thought “I need to do this. I need to tell her the truth.”

I don’t know if it was strength, or my connection with her. It wasn’t easy at the beginning, but I’m glad I did.

Eventually she came to terms with it.

(laughing) Success doesn’t hurt.