Resurfaced '90s Interview Shows Oprah Prodding "Birdcage" Star About His Sexuality: "I Wasn't Ready"
Nathan Lane recently opened up about the awkward conversation and how co-star Robin Williams stepped in.
Prior to 1996, Nathan Lane was much better known more for his work in theater than on the big screen, but that all changed with the release of the comedy The Birdcage. In the remake of the French film La Cage aux Folles, the actor plays a gay drag performer opposite Robin Williams as the club's owner and Lane's character's partner. And while Lane was excited about the movie hitting theaters, he was nervous about promoting it, because he knew he would be asked about his own sexuality. In an interview with Sunday Today, Lane opened up about the appearance the cast made on Oprah Winfrey's show at the time and how Williams stepped in to handle an invasive question.
Lane publicly came out a few years later, but he told Sunday Today that he "wasn't ready" to open up about that part of his life when The Birdcage hit theaters. Read on to find out more about the difficult interview and to see how Lane feels about it today.
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Lane was worried in advance of the Oprah interview.
Lane and Williams appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show together in 1996 to talk about The Birdcage and other aspects of their careers.
"I just wanted to talk about [how] I finally got a big part in a movie and I didn't want to make it about my sexuality," Lane explained to Sunday Today (via People). "Although it was sort of unavoidable because of the nature of the film and the character."
"And there was this famous moment when we had to do Oprah," he continued. "I don't think Oprah was trying to out me, but I said to Robin beforehand, 'I'm not prepared. I'm so scared of going out there and talking to Oprah. I'm not prepared to discuss that I'm gay on national television. I'm not ready.' And he said, 'Oh, it's alright. Don't worry about it. We don't have to talk about it. We won't talk about it.'"
Williams supported him in the moment.
Williams' talk show interviews were usually outlandish affairs in which he would launch suddenly into characters or tell jokes. This spontaneity came in handy during their Oprah episode.
"And then, of course, she was like, 'How come you're so good at that girly stuff? … Are you worried about being typecast?'" Lane continued of the interview. "And then Robin sort of swoops in and diverts Oprah and goes off on a tangent and protects me, because he was a saint."
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Winfrey asked Lane if he cared about others speculating about his sexuality.
Toward the beginning of her interview with the co-stars, Winfrey asks Lane, "Were you afraid of taking that role and being like typecast and people forever saying, 'Are you? Are you not? Is he? Is he, honey? I don't know.'" Winfrey affects a different voice when asking the question, which Williams latches onto and makes fun of.
Winfrey then turns to Lane and says, "So?" He answers the question without addressing her reference to his sexuality.
"Being typecast? Not really. I don't have an image to uphold. I'm basically a character actor," he says. "I'm not a sex symbol. From role to role I'm usually pretty different. So, no. And the material was so incredible that I don't know how you could turn it down because you would be worried about your image."
Later in the interview, Winfrey asks if Lane "got in touch with [his] female side." He responds, "Yes, I did, and she said, 'Why are you doing this?'"
The host also asked the actor about walking in heels, which may be what Lane was paraphrasing as "girly stuff" to Sunday Today.
Lane said he was "terrified" of coming out at that point.
In his Sunday Today interview, Lane said of coming out publicly, "I just wasn't ready to do that. This whole thing of being… the public side of it, the celebrity side, oh, now you're a public figure and you have to some sort of public statement about it. I was terrified. I wasn't ready to do that.
The Only Murders in the Building actor added, "It's great that everyone now feels comfortable—but homophobia is alive and well, and there are plenty of gay people who are still hiding."
Lane has said he wished he was more "brave" in the interview.
Lane looked back on his Oprah interview in 2021 speaking to The Daily Beast and expressed some regret.
"I wish I had been brave enough to just—when Oprah said, 'Gee, you're awfully good at those girly things.' Thanks, Oprah. 'Why is that?' she said. And I should have said, 'Well, I'd like to think it's because I'm a really good actor, but if you're asking me if I'm gay, the answer to that question is yes.'" Lane said. "But I didn't say that. I was very nervous just talking to Oprah and Robin was very protective of me and saw where that conversation was headed and he sort of quickly detoured her in another direction."
Lane told The Hollywood Reporter that he had been out to his family and friends since he was 21, and that the cast and crew of The Birdcage also knew. He came out publicly in a 1999 interview with The Advocate.