(EW.com) -- "Firefly" alum and "Playboy Club" actor Sean Maher has worked steadily in Hollywood for 14 years, and during that time, he made the choice to be closeted about his personal life as a gay man -- until now.
For the first time, Maher opens up about his sexuality in an exclusive interview with Entertainment Weekly.
"I was nervous coming here today because I've just never talked about it," Maher says, while sitting down to chat at Little Dom's Italian bistro in Los Angeles' trendy Los Feliz neighborhood, the area where the actor lives with Paul, his partner of nearly nine years, and their two children, Sophia Rose, 4, and Liam Xavier, 14 months. "But, it's so liberating. It was interesting to be coming to have a conversation that I was always afraid to have." Despite his trepidation, he adds with a big smile: "This is my coming out ball. I've been dying to do this."
"I've never discussed it publicly," the 36-year-old continues. "I've never been asked about it publicly, but I would be lying if I said I didn't paint a different picture." Maher says that not coming out wasn't so much a choice as much as it was a reality of the business when he first came to L.A. fresh out of college back in 1997. Publicists working with him during his first Tinseltown role as the title character on Fox's short-lived cop drama "Ryan Caulfield: Year One" assumed he was straight -- and he didn't tell them otherwise, out of fear.
"I'm 22, I move to L.A., and it's such a cliché, but the day I arrive, publicists from the show took me out to The Ivy for lunch," he remembers. "They're telling me, 'You know, gosh, we'd really appreciate it if you could keep your girlfriend on the side because we want to appeal to the female demographic of the show.'"
Granted, Maher could have corrected his handlers, but in that instant, he decided not to. "At that moment, I didn't think to say, 'Oh, I'm gay,' because right before I left New York [where he went to college at NYU], I had my manager tell me: 'You need to get a girl on your arm or people will start talking.' I remember telling him: 'I'm gay.' He had no idea. And he said: 'All the more reason to get a girl on your arm.' My agent was also like, 'It's best if you keep your options open. Maybe bisexual?'"
Despite pressure from his manager and agent, both of whom he has since parted ways with, it was ultimately Maher's decision to stay in the closet, out of concern that he wouldn't otherwise be able to book leading-man roles. "I kept thinking, This is my first show, I don't want to get fired," Maher says. "I'm thinking, What is the potential that if they caught wind that they had cast a gay lead actor that they would fire me? I was young, I was 22. I didn't know anything. So that sort of started the idea of, okay, well, I'm working a lot, I guess I'll just keep that gay part of my life on the back burner for now. I went so far as to sleep with women a couple times. It was a very confusing time for me."
But being in the closet tormented Maher. "It was so exhausting, and I was so miserable," Maher says. "I didn't really have any life other than work and this façade I was putting on. So I kept my friends from college [where he was out] separate from my work friends, and that was very confusing. I just kept going on and on painting this picture of somebody I wasn't. I didn't have time for a personal relationship anyway. And you just don't realize that it's eating away at your soul."
Through the years, though, Maher has slowly let the people closest to him in on his secret. Two mentors of his are Craig Zadan and Neil Meron -- a pair of powerful and openly gay producers behind movies like "Hairspray" and "Chicago," as well as TV shows like Lifetime's "Drop Dead Diva" -- with whom he has worked with on two TV movies, ABC's "Brian's Song" (2001) and A&E's "Wedding Wars" (2006). "After I did this movie called Brian's Song, where I was another football player, one of the producers Craig would watch the dailies and said he knew immediately," Maher remembers. "He says he knew the instant he met me, although he told me this months later. Craig was a really wonderful mentor to me because he knew, but he never asked me and never forced me to say anything. He just did his best to indirectly guide me."
In "Wedding Wars," Maher actually did play a gay character -- a scary position for a gay actor attempting to appear straight. "This was where it's still kind of tricky," Maher remembers of the "Wedding Wars" time period. "We decided to do no press for it because I wasn't ready to answer the question. Neil and Craig knew, so we just decided, okay, I was a supporting character anyway. The press was going to fall on [star] John Stamos anyway."
The role for which Maher is probably most well-known is Dr. Simon Tam, a surgeon on the run after breaking his sister River (Summer Glau) out of a research facility, on the cult TV series "Firefly" and follow-up feature "Serenity," both created by Joss Whedon. Maher remembers those projects as some of his best -- even though his personal life was still off-limits during that time. "Looking back, on "Firefly" for instance, I do wish on day one I had told them because these are some of the most amazing people who are still like family to me," Maher says. "I am so grateful for that show because they saved me. I was so unhappy and lonely and to come to work everyday with that group was wonderful. It really was all I had at that point in my life."
Although there have been famous cases of homophobia in Hollywood (ex. when Isaiah Washington called fellow actor T.R. Knight a gay slur on the set of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and was subsequently fired), Maher says he never encountered much hostility -- mostly because he was never out and was very adept at acting straight.
"Because I was never out, I was never addressed in a negative way to my face," Maher says. "Although I witnessed a lot of it, whether it be making fun of gays or gay jokes. I just bit my tongue or looked the other way. That was part of the reason that I didn't come out earlier -- because there was an energy on set, and I felt like my being gay would have offset that, especially with the crew."
Does Maher regret spending 14 years in the closet professionally? "I don't think I have regrets," he responds. "I do believe that sort of this journey took me to the place where I got and I don't think I would feel so strongly about doing what I'm doing now had I not suffered for the years that I did."
Having a family is what ultimately what made Maher want to be honest about his sexuality. "I have these beautiful children and this extraordinary family," Maher says, "and to think in any way shape or form that that's wrong or that there's shame in that or that there's something to hide actually turns my stomach." Maher kept thinking about what daughter Sophia would say when she realized he was closeted professionally. "What would she think if I said, 'Oh honey, you can't come with me to work because they don't know I have an adopted daughter and they don't know that I'm gay.' My children and our family, I've really never been as proud of anything in my life. I couldn't be happier at this point in my life, and I feel like we've created this pretty extraordinary family."
So, why does this revelation come now? Maher decided to use his role on NBC's The "Playboy Club" -- a character coincidentally also named Sean, a closeted man who's married to lesbian Playboy Bunny Alice (Leah Renee Cudmore) --- to finally engage in a dialogue about how being closeted has strained his life in Hollywood. "I was working on other stuff, and then this role came up, which was like a light bulb going off," Maher remembers. "I was like, This is perfect. I want to do this, and I want to use it as a platform to come out."
As viewers saw in the premiere episode on September 19, his character is involved with launching the Chicago chapter of the Mattachine Society, an underground gay-rights group from the '50s and '60s. The organization is scarcely remembered, but was the subject of a recent play, "The Temperamentals," that launched in New York City starring "Ugly Betty" alum Michael Urie. "That's part of the reason I wanted to do it so badly," Maher says, "because I do think it's a story that needs to be told."
Although Maher was only seen in a handful of scenes in the premiere episode, his character Sean's storyline gets bigger in the coming weeks. For starters, he becomes the campaign manager for Playboy Club staple Nick (Eddie Cibrian), who's running for state's attorney. "There's some great stuff in the next episode when we have my parents over for dinner," Maher says. "It's a beard-y situation. When are we having grandkids comes up, but there is actually two things we're hiding: There's the gay thing for both of us, but then also the Playboy Club thing. [His parents] would be mortified if they knew she worked in the Club. So there's lots of things we're keeping hidden."
In the end, coming out publicly is what Maher feels he needed to do to tie his life together, personally and professionally. "Creatively, I feel so much more open and free, and I am so happy on The Playboy Club," he says. "I think it's because I've never been so open on set. All of the relationships that I have off-camera, I never would have allowed five years ago. It feels so liberating."
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