When I first left home in New Orleans, I lived in an apartment in the poorest section of LA. I got it because it said “New York-style living” and had a pool. But they meant the killings and muggings were New York-style. Every night I was scared to go home. The first morning I woke up, there were lights and cameras outside. They were filming a show called Hell Town. The day after I moved out they found a body floating in the pool.
I didn’t have an unhappy childhood, it just wasn’t honest. I couldn’t really express anything. I was turning out to be gay but I was supposed to be quiet and make sure that everybody liked me, so when I started to feel horrible I didn’t know what to do. It took me a while to realise that it is normal to feel sadness and happiness.
Like Dory, I don’t think people should ever give up looking for home and for a place where someone loves you unconditionally. Being gay should just be a matter of fact, like being female or having blue eyes, so it’s great that I, as an openly gay person, am playing Dory. The difference between me and Dory is she wasn’t rejected, she just got lost.
Now I have an amazing wife, Portia. We have been together for 11 years and married for eight, and I have a home. I also have friends who are my family. When I go out in the world, people seem to like me. And because there was that dip when they didn’t like me, it was more of a surprise when they started again: “Oh my God, they like me again!”
I wish I’d had Dory in me when my career ended for three years. [Her sitcom Ellen was cancelled by Disney-owned ABC in 1998 after DeGeneres’s character came out as gay.] There was definitely depression and anger in that period; it felt like an eternity. But if I were Dory I would have forgotten it immediately and just kept swimming.
Whatever anybody says, you get into this business because you need everyone to love you. And it is the wrong reason. Because no matter what you put out there, someone’s going to write something nasty or make stuff up. It took me a long time to realise that. As Woody Allen said, “If you believe the good, you have to believe the bad.”
In the movie, Dory goes on a journey to find her home. I am still on my journey, and it is a journey that has taken me to places that I never in a million years could have imagined going. I have come a long way from Hell Town!