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Looking’s Murray Bartlett on Dom’s Incredible Mustache and Flirting With the Great Scott Bakula

You might remember Murray Bartlett guest-starring on Sex and the City. He had a pretty substantial role as Carrie’s “new gay friend” Oliver, who infamously laid out the international gay rules for her over brunch. But he didn’t have the perfect porn ‘stache that’s become his character Dom's signature on HBO’s Looking. (FYI, pre-facial-hair, the 42-year-old Australian actor had also been on Damages, White Collar, and was a series regular on Guiding Light.) Unfortunately, when Dom tried to cap off his 40th birthday in Sunday’s episode by planting a kiss on his once-interested business mentor, Lynn (played by Scott Bakula), both he and his mustache were rebuffed. You waited too long, Dom! Vulture caught up with Bartlett to talk about the popularity of his facial hair, working with Bakula, and how his own 40th birthday went down.

People are obsessed with Dom’s mustache.
It seems to be a little bit that way. [Laughs.] It’s kind of cool, although I’ve shaved it off now! I grew it while I was in Egypt because I looked so much like a tourist and I wanted to try and fit in and a lot of people had mustaches there. I auditioned for Looking with it and they wound up asking me to keep it, so I had it all last year. I kind of grew to love it, too. I had quite a strong affection for it. But it’s interesting now because people I met last year barely recognize me without it, which has been odd.

Did anyone tell you why Dom had to have a mustache?
One of the things that our costume designer Danny Glicker and I talked about was it being a nice throwback to old San Francisco. He played with that in the costumes as well, putting me in plaid shirts that gave the suggestion of '70s San Francisco. Also, I don’t know if you’ve been to San Francisco recently but there’s a lot of body hair going on.

Body hair? Really?
I mean facial hair! But body hair, too. A lot of mustaches and a lot of beards. It makes sense. There’s been a resurgence of facial hair in the last few years, across the board. I’ve grown it for Movember before, but I didn’t like it then. On the other hand, there’s something about letting it grow in and letting it become a half-umbrella that feels really substantial. It’s almost this badge of honor or something.

This will be my last mustache question, but what does it take to maintain the perfect half-umbrella?
Well, you know how it is in TV. You sit in a makeup chair and they trim it up. I didn’t really have to do anything. It’s not a huge amount of maintenance. One of the things they did do was put beard oil on it and that stuff is magic. It makes it look healthy, like a really good conditioner. This is, like, way too detailed, but I had no idea about this stuff either. When I grew it before, it was kind of wild.

Dom was not happy to be turning 40. How was it for you?
I didn’t really think about it that much leading up to my birthday, but then a week before I just felt really unsettled and was thinking about big life things. It just automatically came down on me. So I really relate to what he’s going through. Fortunately, I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I really like, too, so for the most part I didn’t feel bad. Dom is asking all those big questions and most of the answers aren’t what he wants: he doesn’t have a relationship, he doesn’t have a job he wants, he doesn’t have a house. He doesn’t have all the markers of what we put pressure on ourselves to have at that age.

I also have to say, I was down in Puerto Rico on the island of Vieques for my 40th birthday. It happened to be a super moon that night. We met these women from the town and they took us to a full moon party out on this little peninsula, and there was a DJ and great music and we were swimming and dancing. Someone had all these table lanterns they set off on the water. It was just this really magical evening that I could never have planned. At that point, I was like, “Wow, if this is where I’m at it’s a good signal that I’m on track. More of this, please.” Maybe Dom needs a trip to Puerto Rico in season two.

Jonathan Groff said his brother and sister-in-law were so disappointed in Dom when he wasn’t immediately into Lynn after their meet-cute in the bathhouse. I think we all felt that disappointment. Lynn’s a solid, good-looking guy played by Scott Bakula!
I feel like Dom is stuck. He’s turning 40 and he isn’t the person he thought he wanted to be at this age. Part of that is realizing he’s dating these much younger guys with whom it’s never going to turn into a real relationship. When someone like Lynn comes along, he can’t see it. I fortunately am not in that place in my life now, but I’ve definitely been there and can relate. I think a lot of us have woken up at one point in our lives and realized we’re dating people who aren’t necessarily good for us. And as we’ve seen, Lynn isn’t a pushover. There’s a bit of back-and-forth between them now. Lynn can see through Dom’s shit. It’s why I think he’d be a really great match for Dom. He wouldn’t let Dom get away with all of his charming tactics.

Well, he shut down that kiss.
Totally. To which I say, "Well-played, Lynn. Well-played."

How was it working with him?
The first day working with Scott we were all excited and nervous, and it’s kind of lovely when someone cuts right through that. He doesn’t bring any “I’m famous” baggage with him. He’s just really there, listening to you and being interested in making the scene work. He’s not shy about saying, “I don’t think this works,” or “How can we make this work better?” because he’s just a really good actor. And as you said, really good-looking.

He just shot a musical with Brie Larson. You toured with The Boy From Oz. Groff comes from the musical theater world. How much singing was there on set?
So much. Jonathan was usually the instigator. We’d even sing in a round with different part harmonies — mostly cheesy songs you’d sing in a round at school, and we always had Jonathan as our pillar. But you know what’s funny? There were a lot of karaoke fans in the crew, so we all went out a bunch of times to karaoke and Jonathan was so shy! He’d sing a duet with someone once in a while, but I guess he’s very humble about his singing or whatever. He’d always be sitting in the back going, “No, no, no, I don’t want to!” I like to sing, but I have to say I also find karaoke a little confronting. They had to drag me up there. I have to work through that.

For those who haven’t tried it, explain what the deal is with peri peri chicken.
It’s quite popular in the U.K. and in Australia, so I was familiar with it. It’s a Portuguese-style chicken and it’s prepared in this really delicious marinade with a bunch of different spices. It’s a specific but pretty simple marinade. It’s not intensely elaborate, it’s just a new thing for the U.S.

Do you think both the chicken and his relationship with Lynn can take off before the season’s over? There are only two episodes left.
I will say that I think you’ll like both of them. The show started off slow, introducing the characters and everything, but by the end it’s really firing. Lots of stuff going on. I think you could be on the right track.

Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO