Macfarlane grew up in a small town in Ontario, Canada, and developed two loves: acting and science. His bros character, Aaron, an estate lawyer whose hidden artistic side is brought out by an intense new love interest (played by Billy Eichner), represent something of a path not taken (specifically “The University of Toronto applied-sciences program”). “So much of a theater education is your truth, and your vulnerability is your superpower,” Macfarlane says. “I really felt open to what they had to teach me. As a kid in a small town, your idea of an actor is Inside the Actor’s Studio—like, people are going to be really interested in your take on Hamlet. Then you realize, oh no, you actually have to make a living.”
Michael Urie, another Juilliard classmate known for stealing scenes in Ugly Betty and Younger, remembers his old friend as a dedicated student. “Luke would always get The New York Times on Tuesday for the science page,” he says. “He’d get as excited about dissecting a scene in Richard III as a new black hole that he read about in the Science Times. He’s an endlessly curious guy.”
Macfarlane loved learning about acting; he loved rehearsing and playing with different kinds of performers. For his first movie role, a bit part on Bill Condon‘s Kinsey, he explored the basics of working on a set with the Oscar-winning filmmaker. It got clinical, and a little tense, but Macfarlane still tells the story with a huge smile on his face. “I remember Bill kept on telling me, ‘Don’t look at your mark!’ It was my first time on a movie set, and at first I was like, ‘Oh, sorry!’” Macfarlane says. “I could tell he was so frustrated with me. But you learn.”
He shared an infectious enthusiasm with his peers; Urie says that “everybody was completely in love with him.” When Macfarlane had the chance to shine, that sentiment extended to viewers too. See: Brothers & Sisters. Playing Scotty, the quippy and kind-hearted partner to Matthew Rhys‘s buttoned-up Kevin Walker, Macfarlane became an immediate fan-favorite—just one reason for his quick promotion to main-cast status.
Scotty and Kevin’s televised wedding was seismic for network TV in 2008. This was the year Proposition 8 passed in California, banning same-sex marriage, and in the thick of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. Macfarlane felt that weight personally. “My father had passed away, and all the sort of ‘what’s important’ life stuff was happening,” he tells me. “Having gone through press junkets on shows where I’d never mentioned I was gay—not that I was lying, it was nobody’s business—I was like, I’ve got to say something.” He came out to his local paper, The Globe and Mail, that year. “Numerically, it’s not that long ago, but as we all know, culturally, that’s a lifetime ago,” Eichner tells me. “Luke didn’t come out to sell a book. He didn’t come out to get on the cover of people magazine. He didn’t come out to give his career a burst of relevance, the way other actors do. It was very rare for the time.”
Macfarlane granted to The Globe and Mail that he felt terrified about the potential impact of being out. The dearth of queer A-listers at the time certainly justified that fear. Macfarlane had dreams, a vision. After Brothers & Sisters ended in 2011, he worked out a ton, bulking up to look and feel a world away from Scotty, to enter into a new chapter with confidence. He wanted to do action movies like GI Joe and Marvel blockbusters—or hey, maybe play a TV superhero on The CW’s smallville. He didn’t. “I can literally remember an agent once saying to me, ‘Superman can’t be gay’—like just straight out,” Macfarlane says.
He’ll never know exactly what jobs he didn’t get because of his sexuality. He doesn’t want to sound ungrateful, or bitter; he’s worked steadily and learned lessons with every setback. I press him on this a little bit, though—it had to have been frustrating, right? Hey nods. “I do remember being frustrated, seeing other actors and straight guys my age—and I never want to make it about that, but—thinking, Why are they getting [the parts]? Why am I not getting them?” he says. “The post–Brothers & Sisters moment was scary, for sure. I was like, ‘Dude, I’m the perfect age for this stuff.’ And it wasn’t clicking, for whatever reason.”