On the phone, Julie White is lively, funny, and a good deal more optimistic than the acerbic widowed lesbian mother Anne she plays on NBC's new dramadey Go On. A self-aware dark sitcom, Go On focuses on a self-help group for those dealing with loss, moderated by an unlicensed therapist played by Laura Benanti. The show is anchored by Matthew Perry's Ryan King, a Los Angeles sportscaster trying to move forward after the death of his wife. Like Ryan, White's Anne is reeling from the loss of her spouse of 17 years, Patti.
Anne and Ryan's situational similarity is obvious from the first episode, and White and Perry have excellent comedic chemistry, both balancing bitter, snarky coping mechanisms with real, genuine efforts to connect and heal together as friends and as members of the group.
"I think it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship," White says of Anne and Ryan's on-screen dynamic. "Based in deeply understanding what somebody's going through."
Anne's sexual orientation is a refreshing non-issue as the show gets under way, though audiences have yet to delve into Anne's life outside the group. But that's something that's due to change on tonight's episode, which airs at 9 p.m. EST, White tells SheWired. Anne has two teenage children, whom she has mentioned in group, but who audiences have yet to meet in the first eight episodes.
"On Tuesday, you meet my kids," said White, a real-life mother of one adult daughter. "And they're really cute, and naturally, they fall in love with Ryan King. They think he's fabulous, which just completely throws Anne for a loop."
While viewers will get a peek into Anne's family dynamic tonight, White told SheWired that she wishes viewers could meet Anne's late wife, Patti.
"In my mind, Patti is so fully realized, and we were so happy" said White. "She was very much the anti-Anne. She was kind of an earth-mother. She was very domestic, and I imagine that she had a beautiful garden, and made a beautiful home for us. And I was wildly happy with her."
White is cautiously optimistic about Anne's future in the group, and in carrying on without the love of her life — though her character isn't quite ready to jump back into the dating pool just yet.
"She's certainly working hard to try to get better, and keep going with life… but it's just such a great love," said White. "The truth of the matter is, if you're with somebody for a number of years, and Anne and Patti were together 17 years, you don't just pop out of it. You have to honor the process of it."
That's a poignant summary of the show's premise, and a powerful point of relatability for many viewers, gay, straight, or anything in between. "It's just the loss of a great love of your life," says White. "Regardless of how the genders work out, a great love is a great love."
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Not that White is apathetic about equality. She has a history of playing lesbian on the Broadway stage, in her Tony Award-winning role as a lesbian therapist who tries to keep her gay client in the closet in Little Dog Laughed, and the radical feminist in The Heidi Chronicles. Unlike her character in Little Dog, White sees the closet becoming an increasingly uncouth place for actors to linger.
"There are so many openly gay actors now, and they are so cool, that they make closeted people seem sad," said White. "Just pitiful. It's like, Get with it! Zach Quinto's out, Neil Patrick Harris is out — get out, you silly fools!"
Of course, White pays homage to the original lesbian on TV, Ellen DeGeneres. While recognizing that DeGeneres' 1997 coming out cost her her sitcom, White says "like a super-ball, she bounced back in this amazing way… We didn't need Ellen to be playing a character called Ellen, we just wanted Ellen in our lives every day, as Ellen."
The responsibility of representing realistic lesbian families on TV doesn't weigh lightly on White's shoulders. In an effort to understand the legal complexities facing LGBT families today, White teamed up with the Family Equality Council in New York to connect with people who had often tragic first-hand experience with the cost of inequality.
"Especially when somebody dies, in some states that is big trouble," said White. "And it's just ridiculously unfair. And I do think things are changing — it would always be nice if they changed faster. But I'm pleased that America is getting with it."
White also believes visibility — even of fictional queer families — is an important part of advancing the conversation toward equality.
"The more images we can put out there in states that are resistant for some reason to letting everyone be equal under the law, the more that you put out gay couples, and gay parents especially, I think the better it is," said White. "Even if you live in Rooster Poop, Arkansas, you still know Anne. You kind of know her, you're like, oh yeah, that woman has kids. And I think that's a good thing."
Of course, we think Julie White is a good thing. And Julie White playing lesbian is an even better thing.
To top off this collection of "good things," check out White's Instagram page, which features behind-the-scenes snapshots, sneak peeks, and several guest appearances by White's sartorial Pomeranian, Lulu. Go backstage with White at JulieWhiteGoesOn for more fabulous images like the one below, which White tweeted in advance of Go On's halloween episode. Her caption? "Naturally Anne is dressed as the classic literary bitch. Off with their heads, indeed."