Return to 28 Barbary Lane with the addictive reboot and new limited series “Tales of the City.
The series, starting June 7 on Netflix, features familiar and new characters from Armistead Maupin’s popular books.
The pilot episode opens with Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) returning to San Francisco to attend the 90th-birthday celebration for Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), the owner of the apartment building where she once lived.
Mary Ann reunites with her best friend, Michael Tolliver, a.k.a. “Mouse” (Murray Bartlett, replacing Marcus D’Amico from the original 1993 series). She also reconnects with Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross) and their now-grown daughter, Shawna (Ellen Page). She meets Mouse’s boyfriend, Ben (Charlie Barnett), as well as transman Jake (nonbinary actor Garcia) and his lesbian girlfriend Margot (May Hong), among other characters.
“Tales of the City” may open with a party, but things get soapy really fast.
Anna is being blackmailed to sell Barbary Lane and the truth about Shawna’s parentage comes to a head for Mary Ann and Brian. Mouse, who is HIV-positive, is having anxiety in his relationship with Ben, which is compounded by his need to move and the return of his ex, Harrison (Matthew Risch).
“I wanted to take Mouse directly off the page from Armistead,” Bartlett described in a recent phone interview. “I wanted Armistead to speak to me through the books.”
He had first read the novels after he seeing the 1993 TV series (on VHS when he was in San Francisco visiting a guy, no less), and he reread them after landing the part of Mouse.
“I fell in love with the [books] all over again. Armistead is such an incredibly compassionate writer, and the books are funny and have different tones in them, but underneath very human and real and characters that are universal. That these characters found a sense of family in Barbary Lane — I was lucky to have some of that in my life, and the possibility of that, of family and fleshed-out, three-dimensional, very-human characters was great,” said Bartlett.
Mouse still has trouble adulting in “Tales of the City,” and Bartlett laughed in agreement.
“I think we are all just kids still. We do mature, but here there’s a part of us being a kid dealing with the world. One thing I love about the character I play is that childlike curiosity — the essence of a character is who they were as a child. We all have remnants of it. Mouse has a big dose of that, and I find that incredibly endearing and lovely.”
The actor contemplated where Mouse’s unfiltered quality comes from.
“He’s been through a lot. In this iteration [of the series], he has been through the AIDS crisis and Mouse thought he’d die; he lost people he loved and faced his own mortality — that’s huge! He’s managed to keep this childlike quality through all of that, and it is counterbalanced with depth and wisdom, which I think is beautiful.”
The HIV-positive storyline is an important plot point for Mouse’s relationship with Ben. While the couple also debates having a threesome — which generates more comedy than drama — Mouse has anxiety about having unprotected sex with Ben.
“I think it’s a fascinating thing to explore,” Bartlett acknowledged. “It’s a real thing, in this intergenerational relationship and the way different generations of gay men relate to each other. I’m a little younger than Mouse and there was a lot of fear around sex. That’s all changed in terms of this opening-up sexually, and gay men can be freer with PrEP, and the fact that the treatments are undetectable, all that wonderful stuff. It affords freedoms the older generation feels baggage dealing with. It’s the history of where we come from, what we’ve gone through, and what we carry with us.”
As for the intimacy that does occur between Mouse and his lover, Ben, Bartlett said he and costar Charlie Barnett had a natural rapport. (One particular scene of them in bed is very touching.)
“We were mindful of making the sex scenes not about sex, but about connection. They love each other; they are navigating the intergenerational stuff with love as a foundation. We wanted to have this wonderful tenderness and love between them.”
That said, there are complications in the relationship when Mouse reunites with his ex, Harrison, in the series. Bartlett reconnected with Matthew Risch, with whom he worked on “Looking,” another queer TV series set in San Francisco.
“We keep revisiting each other!” Bartlett laughed. “Being of a similar generation, Harrison and Mouse had a common language and history, and a familiarity. They can have conversations about things that Ben doesn’t understand. He really highlights the intergenerational difference.”
But let’s save the drama for the series.
In “Tales of the City,” Mouse works at a nursery, hates trivia and loves “Murder, She Wrote.” To complete the interview, Bartlett agreed to answer a lightning round of questions about how he overlaps with Mouse in real life.
PGN: Mouse works at Plant Parenthood. Do you have a green thumb?
MB: I like to think I have, but I live in New York, so I don’t have a yard. I hope to put it to use.
PGN: Mouse needs to manage his anger at times. Do you forgive easily or hold a grudge?
MB: [Laughs] I do forgive easily but part of me holds grudges longer than I would like to.
PGN: Mouse wants to impress his friends at Trivia night. Are you good at Trivia?
MB: No. [Laughs] I have a deep connection with Mouse on that.
PGN: Mouse went through a leather phase. Are you into leather?
MB: I like leather, but it’s not something I have a thing for.
PGN: There’s a scene of Mouse in a dress. Do you have a good going-out-in-drag story?
MB: I don’t. I wish I did. I met with Jacob Tobia (author of “Sissy”) and they are an amazing person. As a younger person, I used to dress up in the princess costume, and that was left behind. I was talking to them, and they assured me they would dress me up whenever I’m ready.
PGN: Mouse is a huge fan of “Murder, She Wrote.” Are you?
MB: [Laughs] Not as much as Mouse but I appreciated it, and I’m a huge fan of Angela Lansbury. It’s a guilty pleasure.
PGN: Mouse says some rather naughty things in Italian. Can you speak Italian?
MB: I cannot, but I did work with an Italian friend who knows naughty Italian phrases, so he helped me refine that.
PGN: Anna’s comment to Mouse (and others) is to be seen. How do you feel you are seen?
MB: I like to be seen in person. I’m still into human contact as much as possible.