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Gaywatch: Interview with
'Oz' star Lee Tergesen

By Christine Champagne, PlanetOut
Jan. 18, 2002

I know Lee Tergesen is just acting. But I still have trouble understanding how he gets through every season of "Oz" in the difficult and demanding role of inmate Tobias Beecher, a.k.a. prisoner number 97B412.

As fans of the show know, prison life has been no picnic for Beecher. When we first met the character back in 1997, he was a clean-cut lawyer sent to Oz for vehicular manslaughter. Over the years, Beecher has been transformed from a gentle family man into a hardened convict who has had a swastika burned on his ass, been devastated by his wife's suicide, had both of his arms and legs broken and ... well, need I go on?

I almost hated to ask what's in store for Beecher this season when I recently interviewed Tergesen, the 36-year-old actor you've also seen in films such as "Weird Science," "Wayne's World" and "Shaft." But, being the tough journalist I am, I did ask, although I didn't probe for too many details.

Read on as Tergesen talks about his upcoming storyline, his character's intimate relationship with fellow inmate Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni) and much more.

Gaywatch: As Beecher, you've played some tough storylines. Is it emotionally difficult to play this role?

Lee Tergesen: It's definitely intense to walk away from at the end of each season. I would say that playing this character has caused me to think about a lot of things. He's always questioning himself and trying to get back to something he lost touch with and trying to find forgiveness. Everybody struggles with these things to some extent in their life.

Do you find a lot of fans rooting for Beecher to survive? It seems like people I talk to connect with him.

Tergesen: Yeah. It's interesting. The characters on the show don't have that many redeeming qualities. But Beecher is somehow seen as this sympathetic character. Like at the beginning of the second season, when some guy -- Schillinger's (J.K. Simmons) right-hand man -- tries to make me blow him (I can't think of a better way of putting that) and I bite it off. When we saw it at the screening (we always have a wrap party where we see the first episode) I'm standing there, and my stuff starts, and a couple minutes into it, I'm like, 'Oh, shit, that scene!' And all of a sudden I become really paranoid. 'What is going to be the reaction?' And people just were like, 'Yes!' So they get excited about this.

Can you tell me what's in store for Beecher this season?

Tergesen: Physically, it's not as hard on Beecher this year. [He laughs.] I get a little bit of a break, although there's a lot of psychological stuff. Schillinger and Beecher come to another level in their relationship that I think is surprising. That's what I think is great about the show. Just when you think it's going to go one way, it goes another way.

Beecher has had this ongoing romance with Keller. Do you see the attraction?

Tergesen: What I think is great about the relationship between Keller and Beecher, and what seems to be what people feel about it in the world (at least the people who decide they want to talk to me about it) is they look at it like a relationship. It's not commented on too much in the show, except externally every once in a while we'll talk about how we are together. People will say derogatory things in the show. But he and I never really question it. We don't talk about it, like 'Oh my God. I can't believe that I'm doing this with a man.' It's about their relationship, and I think in a relationship things come up.

The sort of primal things that have been ingrained in us since we were children start to bubble up because now you're there with a mirror and who we are shows up. And you can either stand up for that part of yourself and act like it's real, or you can begin to try and push it off of you so that you can get closer. I think they are two people who've had a lot of stuff that is going to bubble up to the surface, but they stay true in some ways. They can't argue the fact that they care about each other, that they love each other.

I think for Beecher specifically, Keller was with him when his wife died. Beecher had decided after he first got into prison that he had to shut off everybody. You can't let anybody in and you have to become like them and you have to be threatening and all that. He went a little crazy, which he still is I guess. But even after his arms and legs got broken he realized that by trying to save that relationship (with Keller), he's trying to save himself.

Beecher has changed so much since we first met him. Have you ever played a character that has gone through such a major transformation?

Tergesen: Nope!

I would imagine that Beecher is the role of a lifetime for an actor. Is that true?

Tergesen: Yeah, definitely. When it came to me, everything was perfect about it, and it really was a great opportunity. Only as time has gone on was I able to really get that. When we started, it was like, 'Who knows what this is going to be?'

From the start, did you have any clue how intense the part would be?

Tergesen: I knew how intense it was going to be. But as we started to make it -- the first year -- even crew people would say weird things to me. Like, we would have some Schillinger scene, and they'd be like, 'Jesus Christ. Why don't you just beat his ass? What the fuck?' It was so strange that they would talk to me like, 'Come on, you pussy.' What it made me realize was that a show like this makes people look inside themselves. Because this crew guy isn't sitting there wishing the character would fight back. He's hoping that he would fight back.

A lot of violence occurs on "Oz," but the show isn't simply a fightfest. It's also an emotional show in which the characters are going through incredible transformations and facing enormous obstacles, and obviously that hits viewers.

Tergesen: All the characters are so three-dimensional.

Not all actors are comfortable playing characters that are gay or are going to have gay relationships. When you took this role, was that an issue for you?

Tergesen: Not really, because I had known ["Oz" executive producer] Tom Fontana for awhile -- I'd actually met him back in 1989 when I was working in a restaurant around the corner from his house -- and I trusted him. Even when Chris [Meloni, who plays Keller] came on the show, and we got to the point where we were going to kiss for the first time, we both got together and talked about it and said that we did not want to shy away from it. There is this, 'Oh my God. I'm going to be on the set, then I'm going to have to say I love you, then I'm going to have to kiss him!' And that could freak you out. But we both came to the decision that the powerful thing is to go into your fear, walk in there with it, don't walk away from it, and to try to be true to it.

Well, a lot of gay guys enjoy your scenes with Chris.

Tergesen: As I walk around, I have met 70-year-old women who live on the Upper West Side who love the show. And I met a couple in Kansas -- a couple of truck drivers who drove around together -- who loved it. It's popular all over the place and definitely in the gay community.

I'm assuming you've never been in prison.

Tergesen: I've never done hard time, no. [He laughs.]

Has being on "Oz" increased your understanding of what prison life is really like? Maybe made you more sympathetic as to how inmates live?

Tergesen: I ran into somebody on the street the other day who stopped me. He had been to prison. I've met a lot of prisoners, and the main thing they want to say actually is, 'Thank you for telling these stories.' I know what it's like to be ignored, and I think that is the big problem about the prison system: These people are being thrown away. There is no sense of rehabilitation. In some places, they are trying to do things. But, in most cases, it's a holding cell. And it's tough. I've also met a lot of corrections officers who say, 'You know what? For 12 hours a day I'm a prisoner.' If I've learned anything, it's more about human beings and that they can wrap their head around anything. People can really assimilate.

I've heard the "Oz" set is incredibly realistic. What's the atmosphere like on the set? Is it relaxed? Do people joke between takes? Lock each other in the cells?

Tergesen: There is a lot of humor. It's a gallows humor. I always like to announce right before I get naked that I'm a grower and not a shower.

Beecher is a real survivor. Do you possess his strength?

Tergesen: Yes. I have always said about myself I am a survivor because I am. I went through a divorce right as we were starting the show. My divorce became final right after we started shooting the first year, and during that time I was in such a low place. One day, I had gotten back out to L.A. after we had shot the shows for a couple of weeks or so, and I was in my apartment where I was living alone, and I thought to myself, 'Anybody who gets up every day and doesn't blow their brains out is a hero.' People who continue on -- especially after something like what happened with the World Trade Center. ... When that happens, you have to say to yourself, 'My God, that is the world we live in. We live in a world where that is possible, where that is what is going on.' If we think that it's not, then we're in denial. There is sometimes so little payoff. I don't mean to sound depressing, because for me it was something when I realized you've got to keep going.

In some ways, Beecher is inspirational because he keeps going -- no matter what.

Tergesen: He's resilient, yeah.

How much longer do you see playing this role?

Tergesen: I think that I would be there until the end. Like you were saying, it's the role of a lifetime.


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