LOS ANGELES – Supporting players who break out on a hit series often walk away to headline their own show or try their luck on the big screen. Instead, T.R. Knight retreated.
The Minneapolis native has been tough to find since the 2009 season premiere of “Grey’s Anatomy,” when his lovable character Dr. George O’Malley was killed off, sacrificing himself to save a stranger from an oncoming bus. His current appearance in the miniseries “Genius: Picasso” is only his 10th TV or film credit in the past nine years. He’s popped up mostly as a guest star in such network dramas as “The Good Wife” and “Law & Order: SVU.”
If he had remained on “Anatomy,” wouldn’t he be collecting a fat paycheck these days?
“Yeah, no doubt,” Knight, 45, said recently. “But going into acting, that was never the expectation. The hope was to pay the rent, even if you had to pay it a half-month late, which I did a lot.”
Lots of red-hot actors wax eloquent about returning to the theater, then cash in by punching the clock on “CSI: Portland.” Knight actually followed through, treading the boards in productions of “Parade,” “A Life in the Theatre,” “Romeo & Juliet” and “It’s Only a Play” after five seasons on “Anatomy.”
He seemed to be making a statement — a theory the actor is quick to dismiss.
“I think you’re giving me too much credit for any sort of control I have,” he said. “Yes, I made a decision to move to New York and focus on theater, but I still did some television. I’m not in control of who hires me. But I think a part of me will always focus on theater. It’s too much a part of my upbringing.”
Knight was referring to his early days as one of the most lauded actors on the Twin Cities scene, winning over directors like Joe Dowling, Bain Boehlke and Allen Hamilton.
By 2003, he had starred opposite Patti LuPone in a Broadway production of “Noises Off” and earned a Drama Desk nomination for his work in “Scattergood.”
He made a noble attempt to parlay that stage success into a mainstream, and more lucrative, career. But from the get-go, Knight seemed a reluctant celebrity. When I first interviewed him in 2003 for his short-lived sitcom “Charlie Lawrence,” co-starring Nathan Lane, the actor was infinitely polite but visibly uncomfortable, as if an interview with his hometown paper was akin to a root canal.
His avoidance of the spotlight only grew after “Anatomy” castmate Isaiah Washington was accused of an anti-gay slur against Knight. Washington was eventually fired from the series and Knight, who hadn’t come out yet, felt forced to address his personal sexual orientation to the press.
“I guess there have been a few questions about my sexuality, and I’d like to keep quiet any unnecessary rumors,” the actor said in a statement to People magazine in 2006. “While I prefer to keep my personal life private, I hope the fact that I’m gay isn’t the most interesting part of me.”
He seems more relaxed these days. I asked him whether his 2013 marriage to dancer and writer Patrick Leahy had anything to do with it.
“I’m sure it’s changed me,” said Knight, who recently moved back to Los Angeles with his husband and their four dogs, the smallest of which weighs 45 pounds. “Growing up I never thought that would be an option, and then to find somebody and actually do it, I can’t begin to explain how profound an experience that is. You start being aware of how your crazy affects other people and it’s no longer just your own self that you’re torturing.”
One part of his past Knight has never gotten over is his decision to leave the University of St. Thomas after just a few months to commit himself to acting. While he doesn’t regret the move, it’s often in the back of his mind, especially when he gets a role like the one he has in “Genius: Picasso.” He plays Max Jacob, a poet, painter and critic who was an influential figure in the French avant-garde and one of Picasso’s oldest friends; he died in Gestapo custody in 1944.
Antonio Banderas plays the title role in the National Geographic show, which launched last year with a miniseries about Albert Einstein. Knight appeared briefly in that first season as J. Edgar Hoover.
To prepare for the part of Jacob, Knight viewed Picasso's work in New York and the Prado in Madrid. He also shaved his head.
“Maybe one of the reasons I go overboard on research is because I didn’t go to school — and because of that I feel like I’m always going to school. Does that make sense?” he said. “There’s an insecurity that comes from that, but it’s an insecurity that drives me, especially as I get older.”
Knight, who visits the Twin Cities at least once a year to see family and catch shows, said the experience made him appreciate the Twin Cities cultural scene even more. He continues to talk about coming home for a full-fledged production — just as every Minnesotan who’s had success in Hollywood seems to do, without it ever actually happening. In Knight’s case, though, it seems inevitable.
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving theater behind,” he said. “Maybe this is me being greedy, but to be able to go back and forth between TV and stage, you can’t get much luckier than that.”