On a Tuesday morning in New York City, John Benjamin Hickey is getting settled into his new apartment. It is gearing up to be a busy week for him, as he had just wrapped his scenes on HBO Max’s Gossip Girl the day prior and is getting ready to head to Texas for a wedding during the weekend ahead. Still, the Tony Award-winning actor makes time in his demanding schedule for a phone call with me.
Whether or not you’ve seen any of Hickey’s shows or movies, the name Hickey bears significance in the town of Plano. His mother, Loreta, worked in Plano Independent School District as a teacher for 40 years, and is the namesake for Hickey Elementary School.
But before they arrived in Plano, Hickey and his family lived on a farm in Prosper, where they spent the first 10 years of his life.
Hickey remembers Plano as a “sleepy little town,” which, during his childhood, had a population of about 2,500 people. When he got to Plano Senior High School, he discovered his love of theater, and credits his teacher John Steele for instilling in him drive and work ethic.
“I wasn’t much of an athlete,” Hickey tells Local Profile. “But I loved movies, I loved plays, I loved the people who were in the theater department, but I thought it was gonna be easy. I thought it was gonna be like, ‘Oh, I can just smoke pot at lunch and blow off the last couple of hours because it’s theater class.’”
“And little did I know that John Steele had a work ethic and a discipline that was every bit as fierce and as tough and as demanding of your dedication as any of the football coaches had,” Hickey goes on. “And you know, football is everything in Plano.”
Hickey, who is openly gay, admits that he felt lonely as child, not for lack of support, but rather a lack of knowledge to identify those feelings. He didn’t know any LGBTQ+ people growing up, and representation in film and television was borderline non-existent.
He briefly attended Texas State University in San Marcos, which, at the time, was called Southwest Texas State University, and he remembers a time when he met up with his mother, who was in San Antonio for an educators’ conference, to see a movie in a two screen theater. One of those movies was Making Love, which tells the story of a married man coming to terms with his homosexuality and falling in love with another man.
“My mom was like ‘Which one of these movies do you want to go see?’ Hickey says. “And I remember very clearly, thinking ‘Oh, I can’t go see that with my mom.’ Because there was something about it that scared me. And I think it was because I had this feeling that I might identify with it too much. I remember that was one of the only things I had as a young person. There’s so much more now that a young person can see and identify with and maybe figure out who they are.”
After a brief stint at Texas State, Hickey decided to move to New York City, where he completed his B.A. in English at Fordham University. This decision was inspired by actress Julie White, whom with Hickey attended both Texas State and Fordham.
“The way people talked about [White], I wanted people talk about me,” Hickey says. “I packed my bags. And I had gone on a school trip with [Texas State] to visit New York, and I very, shrewdly asked my mom to come on the trip with us for a few days. She really didn’t want me to move to New York. But the minute she saw me there, she was like, ‘Wow, this is really where you should be going to school. This is where you belong. This is your place.’”
Upon graduating from Fordham, Hickey was accepted into Juilliard’s acting program. This would mark the beginning of a promising career in performing arts.
After three decades of performing on stage and in film and television, Hickey was set to make his directorial debut in a revival of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, which would star Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker. These plans were put on hold, as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a Broadway shut down the day before its premiere.
Fortunately, he was able to continue doing what he loves while filming new episodes of HBO’s In Treatment. On In Treatment, Hickey plays Colin, a disgraced tech entrepreneur, who is released early from prison after serving time for committing financial crimes. In order to fulfill his parole requirements, Colin must attend four court-ordered therapy sessions with Dr. Brooke Taylor (Uzo Aduba).
Hickey describes In Treatment as a “COVID-practical show.” Cast and crew would test for COVID multiple times a week, wear masks and shields while on set, and whenever Hickey and Aduba would film, they would maintain a safe social distance.
To prepare for the role, Hickey researched infamous scammers, like Bernie Madoff, and also read up on people he knew within the art world who had gotten involved in similar crimes. He would go into each taping having only read and memorized the script for that episode, allowing him to be surprised by Colin’s narcissistic tendencies and pathological lies.
“There were so many layers of deception,” Hickey says. “I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, I was lying about that last week. And I thought I was telling the truth about that thing.’ It was a really great exercise in just trying to learn the material, and to not think about the past or the future; just to stay completely in the present.”
In Treatment takes place in present day, where COVID is still present, and social justice is a hot-button topic. Hickey admits that the scenes in which Colin yells at Dr. Taylor were emotionally taxing and exhausting to film. However, Colin is forced to confront his privilege and biases, which allowed for Hickey and Aduba to partake in thought-provoking conversation.
“Colin thought he was going to get some old white dude, who was gonna listen to him blather on for a couple hours, and then sign his parole slip and say you’re free to go,” Hickey says. “And I think the fact that Dr. Taylor is a woman and a person of color, completely up-ended Colin’s idea of a therapist, and uncorked this very beneath the surface sexism, homophobia, racism and all of this stuff that’s toxic and horrible. And the fact that Uzo is a woman and is a person of color made for all of these really extraordinary, intimate, difficult conversations.”
On Gossip Girl, John Benjamin Hickey’s character, Roy Wolfe, also is forced to confront his own biases in terms of his sexuality. Roy is the husband of Gideon Wolfe (Todd Almond), both of whom are the fathers of Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty), who himself is pansexual. When Gideon begins experimenting with his gender expression, Roy secretly creates a profile on a dating app, on which he falsely declares he is “newly single.”
Max discovers the profile and outs Roy for his infidelity, and Gideon concludes that Roy chose to explore options as he decided to stop presenting in a masculine manner.
When he first was offered the role, Hickey had never seen the original Gossip Girl, however, was encouraged by his niece-in-law to accept the offer. At the time of our conversation, the revival’s first season is still in production, however Hickey is finished filming his parts. He says the amount of queer and trans representation in the revival reminded him that the LGBTQ+ experience isn’t universal.
“I think we need to work as hard as straight people do,” Hickey says. “We’re under a big umbrella, and just because we’re under the same umbrella as our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, doesn’t mean I have a solid understanding. We all have a lot of work to do to educate ourselves.”
While he couldn’t tell us what to expect for the remainder of the season, Hickey says he had “a ball” filming and promises some “deeply satisfying” storylines.
As of now, John Benjamin Hickey is preparing to direct Plaza Suite, which will finally open in February 2022. This will take a good chunk of his winter, but he is anxious to get back to the stage.
“For us to have had that small taste of doing it in front of an audience,” Hickey says, “and then pressing the pause button for two years, we’re all just chomping at the bit.”
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