Taking taboo mainstream with Conrad Ricamora

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Conrad Ricamora in dark blue suit
Conrad Ricamora received his big break in ABC’s groundbreaking "How To Get Away With Murder."

How To Get Away With Murder actor says the show has educated America

During the final day of filming the final season, Conrad Ricamora sat down with me to discuss how one of television’s biggest shows has educated America.

Conrad Ricamora in dark blue suit
Conrad Ricamora relaxes in a dark blue suit

Conrad Wayne Ricamora lived a low-key life in suburban Florida, and didn’t come out until his senior year in college. Ricomora earned an MFA at the University of Tennessee and went on to perform in various award-winning off-Broadway musicals (Here Lies Love), but it was not until 2014 in which Ricamora received his big break in ABC’s groundbreaking How To Get Away With Murder. For the past six years Ricamora has played the controversial role of HIV-positive openly gay Asian, Oliver Hampton. A self-conscious computer hacker who Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee) seduces and ultimately marries, the evolution of Oliver parallels that of Conrad off-screen.

It must feel amazing and be a testament to your ability as an actor to have started out on the show in a recurring role from day one. How does it feel to be portraying an openly gay character on such a prominent television series?

Conrad Ricamora: It means the world to me because it was something that I needed so much. I feel if this show would have been in my living room growing up in Niceville, Florida, which is directly under Alabama, I would have felt less alone. I certainly would have felt that there was nothing wrong with me because I would have had an example of people living life and having sex the way that felt natural to me. To be able to now do that, and show that to millions of people across the country, is incredible. Today, I live bi-coastal between New York and Los Angeles and at times I forget that there are so many parts of the USA that are still unaccepting. We are able to go into their living rooms and illustrate that they are okay just as they are.

From open relationships to struggles with monogamy to the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDs, the series is one of the few to feature gay protagonists as well as tackle real life issues taking place within the community. When you received the role of Oliver Hampton, were you intimidated by how closely it aligned with your personal life or did it make taking on the role easier?

CR: Exactly. How To Get Away With Murder is a prime-time network show, it is not a cable show. We have had such a huge audience from the beginning, 14 million viewers upon premiere, so it is not an obscure indie project, but rather a wide-reaching global project. Now, the only way that the role of Oliver Hampton is close to my personal life is that we are both gay. The spectrums of gay identities that exist are huge. I was never concerned about coming out of the closet; it was never an option for me to not be honest about my life in every way. However, the sex scenes were intimidating because many sex scenes on television, especially on network TV, have been with heterosexual couples. Thus, this was pushing the envelope but it was something that was so necessary because gay characters in the media have too often only been depicted as the comic relief. It needs to be understood that we are sexual beings. Plus, I needed to get over my own fear of doing a sex scene in general.

Conrad Ricamora and the cast of "How To get Away With Murder
Conrad Ricamora and the cast of “How To get Away With Murder.”

Are there any qualities about the role of Oliver Hampton that actually parallel who you are in real life? For example, are you as much of a tech genius? 

CR: God, no. Luckily, they have written into the script the fact that I am half Filipino and half white. I was even able to wear a Filipino cultural wedding shirt called a barong during the wedding scenes. I also think Oliver and I both tend to come across as shy in larger social settings, albeit Oliver has broken out of that over time, ultimately coming into his own on the show. I am grateful to simultaneously be a voice for two underrepresented groups.

The series has had a monumental run. Reflecting back as you wrap up filming Season 6, what was your favorite season and why? 

CR: There is nothing like the first season of your first television show. You have no idea what you are in for, and I never imagined that this would be a part of my story, my life. I came from doing theater and I was content with just working if my agent got me a role. Fame was not exactly something I was seeking out. When you are part of a TV show of this caliber, everything that comes along with becoming well-known— because millions of people are watching you—is a really strange experience. Hence, you discover your castmates, their personalities, and forge a tight bond because you are all going through something almost nobody experiences, and in turn cling to one another for support. Looking back, season one was probably my favorite season.

How far ahead of time does the cast know which characters will be killed off, or, are you often on the edge of your seats as viewers are? 

CR: We don’t know anything because they develop the show right up until the very last minute. Writing wise, I feel they are listening to what the story is telling them. They are seeing what we are shooting daily, gauging what they think will be the most powerful storyline to follow and they get ideas from our performances. They are altering the script right up until the table read, sometimes even after the table read. It has been a valuable albeit fun acting lesson because you can’t plan out what you are going to do because the material is so fresh. It has been an interesting challenge.

Conrad Ricamora
Conrad Ricamora

You play a character that, out of all key characters in the cast past and present, is seemingly the most vulnerable. You are also very open about your personal life in real life. What would you say is the biggest misconception about your character and/or subsequently you as an actor?

CR: I think people underestimate what I can do as an actor. I just finished a play called Soft Power, which ran in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where I played this high-power, completely aggressive film executive. It is so easy for me to do that as well. However people think I am Oliver. We do have certain similarities but my abilities as an actor extend so much farther than that. Yes, I can portray the meek computer whiz, but I can also play the masculine executive of a company. That is probably the biggest misconception about me as an actor. In terms of Oliver Hampton, I think people underestimate his power because he underestimates what he is capable of as well. It has been interesting to see that unfold. I feel his arc has been one of the biggest of the show when you recall during the pilot, he was so terrified to talk to Connor that he was thinking of ways to manipulate the FBI. Fast forward and he becomes the one in their relationship to start suggesting they explore threesomes which pilot Oliver would have been terrified of.

This sixth and final season returnedto ABC on April 2. What are your thoughts on how the rest of the Keating students will get away with murder?

Conrad Ricamora in white jacket
Conrad Ricamora

CR: Ooh…not all of them will. Tune in! These characters have not been superheroes; there have been some real consequences for a lot of these characters, which we have seen unfold through the seasons for a couple of them. That is not going to be an exception for the finale. It is more of a matter of who actually does get away with murder than who doesn’t.

The show has received a lot of recognition in various aspects, from winning GLAAD, NAACP, and Emmy awards. In 2016, the Human Rights Campaign even awarded you the Visibility Award. How does it feel to receive such recognition for a role of this caliber?

CR: I did not come out until I was a senior undergrad. For so long I hid this part of myself. To now be awarded for showing who I am feels very healing. Moreover, as a gay Asian man, it feels great to be depicted in a non-stereotypical role as well as to not be a punch line of a joke, which we have been for too long in television and film alike. I feel as though I have gained a real sense of community and healing of past wounds. The show helped me come full circle.

Conrad Ricamora is relaxed in a blue sweater
Conrad Ricamora is relaxed in a blue sweater

No one expected How To Get Away With Murder to come to an end. What is next in your career and what roles are you looking to take on?

CR: I have written a show, No Rice, with two of my friends who I met doing theater in New York (Kelvin Moon Loh of Beetlejuice and another friend who stars in Moulin Rouge). The show is about three gaysian boys in New York City seeking love, sex, and acceptance in a white man’s world. It is based on our own experiences. We explore how the negative portrayal of gay Asian men in media affects our own self-esteem as well as what we are willing to settle for. We are going to start pitching to networks in the next few weeks. In 2015-2016, the dating apps released their data which noted Asian men and black women were the least desired in the dating world and that sort of discrimination is what we are hoping to explore.

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How To Get Away With Murder on ABC on Thursday’s at 10pm.