Thankgiving 1995: Despite having two parents who lived through and participated in the ’60s, I still didn’t know who the four Beatles were. We caught the first installment of The Beatles Anthology because my sister wanted to watch it. I was still pretty into the Civil War, an obsession a teacher kicked off when we basically LARPed the conflict in an educationally creative way as a class. I’d spent most of my life deep-diving into topics that grab me: bugs, whales, Redwall, The Lion King. But the Beatles became the first thing I was obsessed with that belonged to adult pop culture.
I gravitated toward Paul, the melodic one, the pretty one. I tried to draw portraits. I bought and read every single book I could. I wrote reams of fanfiction, including the ones where the Beatles travel forward in time and find themselves in their early 20s, lost in my small Appalachian hometown and wandering down my street, where I sat on my porch with my dog, ready to help. My instinct when I fall in love is always to make things. My fantasy partner is one who will make things both with me and about me, as I would. Art, whether it’s fiction, fashion, comics or film, is my ideal lens for experiencing and interpreting the world.
When I look at my stable of future husbands (“They just haven’t met me yet!”), I can’t help laughing at my “type”: lanky, with thick, wild hair, overly expressive faces and an interesting nose. All of them are storytellers, whether it’s through TV, movies or music. Some were hand-served to me by large corporations (thanks, Marvel Cinematic Universe!), while I congratulated myself for the oddness of others. Given this pattern, it’s most likely that I’ll fall hardest for a thickset bald guy, just because the universe loves to laugh. But I’ve told good stories about these other people, and I owe them for that.
The Nic Chicks
I’m not going to pretend it’s not regrettable, but you have to understand, Face/Off came out the summer before eighth grade and I saw that sucker five times in theaters. And the thing you do when an actor fascinates you is you go through their extensive back catalog of dues-paying roles, and you do it for the purest kind of love. Nicolas “Coppola” Cage put out a trio of genuinely awesome-fun action movies when I was at a formative age: The Rock, ConAir and Face/Off. That was really his peak. I give him credit for the National Treasure movies, and I really enjoyed Adaptation, but it’s been a rough road since 1997, for the most part. Yet we forget, in a time when Cage’s credits now mostly include Ghost Rider and Left Behind, that he was also in some real charmers: Honeymoon in Vegas, It Could Happen to You, Raising Arizona — and of course, Moonstruck.
In high school, I organized a group of friends to come over every weekend and watch one Nicolas Cage movie, no matter how godawful. We saw Peggy Sue Got Married, Amos & Andrew, Trapped in Paradise, even Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. On Sept. 10, 2001, I watched The Family Man and chatted about it in the high school parking lot the next morning with a semi-regular in the group. (We did not watch City of Angels, though I confess, I own the soundtrack.)
Look, I really liked that he was weird. I liked his weird face and the strange roles he took. I wish him well in his weird, weird life.
Other honorable mentions from the high school years: Hugh Jackman, Leonardo diCaprio (The Man in the Iron Mask only)
My second year of college or thereabouts, Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhaal came to the University of Chicago campus to film Proof. At the time, of course, I was excited to see Paltrow and then-husband Chris Martin goofing around in between takes. I had no idea who Gyllenhaal was. Then someone showed me Donnie Darko, which led me inexorably to Bubble Boy, October Sky and The Day After Tomorrow. When I found out that Gyllenhaal, with his weird Scandinavian last name, was also Jewish, I was pretty sure he’d been cooked up in a lab for me — Jewish, with a Swedish last name.
At the time, I was really into online RPGs. Friends and total strangers all over the world would choose the same general set of celebrity faces as X-Men, characters from books, characters from mythology, original characters in exciting settings. One friend and I told a months-long story about friendship pushed to its breaking point, about political alliances and what it means to come in from the cold. I used Gyllenhaal’s face as mine, writing long into the night across time zones about these two boys and their connection. It felt like writing about ourselves, and when we suddenly fell out for a few years, it hurt that badly, without the catharsis of control writing about made-up pain brings.
I still haven’t seen Brokeback Mountain; it always felt too hard to bear, from what I heard.
Other honorable mentions from the college years: Josh Hartnett, Adrien Brody
Lemme hear you say yeah!
Lots of people have strong opinions about whether Jon Spencer is an asshole. He’s a faculty brat from a little town in New Hampshire who studied semiotics at Brown before dropping out to hurl himself into DC’s ’80s punk scene. He steals riffs with abandon, he’s been accused of minstrelsy and he’s clearly been living hard in the rock’n’roll way. But shoot, his music and his concerts are outrageously exciting and fun. I’ve seen him multiple times with Heavy Trash and the Blues Explosion and I’ve never been disappointed. (We met after one; I had him take a picture with me holding a tiny paper umbrella. It was an in-joke and he looked appropriately baffled.)
I thought it was a sign of my maturing tastes that after a fair bit of online sleuthing and digging up alternative music magazine interviews from the ’90s, I found out that he was shy, that he was sort of desperately in love with his wife and that when he’s offstage, he’s pretty quiet. Because of him, I starting dancing around the edges of rockabilly culture and vintage repro. I used his face as the modern-day Titan Prometheus, a Tom Joad figure “drunk on pomade.” He was the not-quite-the-villain in a novel I banged out one November, in which he’s a New Englander banished by the sea and trying to coax a reprieve from the Mighty Mississippi. I still think the Heavy Trash song “You Can’t Win” is apocalyptically brilliant and I want to write in the universe it conjures for me.
Jon Spencer starred in the stories I wrote to distract and comfort myself when we found out my mother had brain cancer. He was passion coiled incredibly quiet and incredibly tight.
Other honorable mentions from the early Chicago years: Alexander Skarsgard, Jensen Ackles, pretty much the whole cast of Band of Brothers
Double first in classics, too many hugs and a known value
Tom Hiddleston was my gateway drug. I honestly didn’t care much about the Iron Man movies — like, they were fun, but I didn’t need to see them over and over again. Thor, however, was maybe the most fun I’d had in a movie in years. Loki was the most interesting character, and so I dutifully learned that Hiddleston is actually a dopey blond who loves dancing and impressions, that he’s blazingly smart (double first in classics at Cambridge, which sounds impressive even if you don’t know what it means) and that he’s 6’2″, an ideal height. We used to joke that he was so perfect, he was going to fall hard when he inevitably revealed himself as Problematic somehow, but it really took until Taylor Swiftgate and a weird awards show speech about UNICEF to tarnish his image.
Come 2014 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Sebastian Stan knocked his largely nonspeaking role so far out of the park, I stayed in love with Bucky Barnes long enough to consider a pinup tattoo of him (I didn’t) and naming my fish after him (I did). As you may have guessed from that picture up top, I met known goober Sebastian Stan that summer at a con in Chicago. When I show that portrait to people who don’t know who he is, some ask, “Is that your man?” Yes, yes he is: a sweetpea who was admonished at his first fan convention for giving too many hugs, whose stepfather is going through something like what my mother experienced, who is a big, happy dweeb at heart and keeps getting typecast as these broody, tormented types. (Yes, I watched his whole IMDb page. Avoid The Covenant, but definitely see Red Doors, he’s A+ at physical comedy.)
Hayley Atwell is stunning and confusing. Everyone deserves to feel confused about their sexuality at some point. I still sort of want her and Chris Evans to end up together in real life. Her Peggy Carter may actually be my favorite character in the whole MCU, and yes, I am still considering a tattoo of her.
Other honorable mentions from the Marvel years: Aldis Hodge, actual softbro meatball Chris Evans; photo credit: @AllHailCasey
I’m not being funny but
My love of noses reached its apotheosis in 2012, when I discovered English character actor Joe Armstrong in The Hollow Crown. Not only was he playing Hotspur, an intemperate Shakespearean rebel, but he was speaking in a Geordie accent, which, just listen for yourself.
Kate and Harry Percy have my favorite love story in the canon, along with the Macbeths and Much Ado’s Kate and Benedick. All of them stems from The Hollow Crown’s Henry IV Part 1. Michelle Dockery does so much with so little, and Joe Armstrong is so ferociously, vividly alive. They’re irresistible. This infatuation was at the end of my mother’s life and just after she died. I kept trying to save them both, over and over again.
Armstrong is immensely private; I really don’t know much about him, except that his father is also a famous character actor and he seems to prefer theater over television these days, which doesn’t help me. I watched a number of his single episodes of murder mysteries and period pieces, and live-blogged my way through the BBC’s execrable but somehow delightful Robin Hood. I came out of that convinced that Armstrong’s Allan-a-Dale has the only actual character arc in the whole second season, and we definitely pretend that third season doesn’t exist. We find what we need from the stories we love.
Other honorable mentions from the aftermath years: Bucky Barnes; don’t laugh. I needed a lot, and characters trying their best who still got screwed over got me through that.
The next one
I’m not actually sure who the next one will be. This is Hale Appleman; I keep messing up his last name: Appleby, Applebaum, Don’t-Sit-Under-the-Apple-Tree. He’s currently starring in The Magicians, a book series I never wanted to read but a TV series I am loving like hell. His character is a brilliant, hilarious and tormented queer dandy named Eliot Waugh. I love his nose, I love his beautiful hands and wrists, I love his hair and I love how inescapably Jewish he is, no matter what his character’s backstory is. He’s my current iPhone background. He was made in a bottle for me.
This is the first story I’ve really loved since I found the right antidepressants. Somewhere between Gyllenhaal and Spencer, the world got darker and heavier and harder, and I wanted nothing to do with the real, difficult, emotionally taxing dating scene. The one-offs were bad enough that I tended to give up every time I tried to jump back in. Over the past year, I’ve been trying to break through the fog with more than just therapy. It feels like it’s starting to work. I’m getting back toward creating my own worlds and building my web of friends. Dating real people seems like the next big thing, and don’t imagine I’m not keenly aware of how awkward I feel at 32 with mostly imaginary relationships behind me.
It’s good to know what sets your heart pounding and your imagination racing. I’m grateful for the stories these folks gave me, on my end and theirs. It’s good not to insist on a predictable package for love and satisfaction too. That’s my next goal.
But until then, seriously, if any of you all know these dudes in person — they just haven’t met me yet. The future really could hold something great.
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