When actor Charlie Condou felt ready to have children, he and his partner joined forces with their friend to create a family unit far removed from the old 1950s archetype. Best known for playing Marcus Dent in Coronation Street, Charlie has become a figurehead for same-sex parenting, thanks in part to the events and activities group he runs: Out With the Family.
Of his own set up, he is endlessly positive. The kids split their time between Charlie and his partner Cameron Laux, and their mother: Charlie’s friend and fellow actor Catherine Kanter. “They seem to love it,” he grins. “I suppose the 1950s construct of mum, dad and 2.4 children, while it absolutely has its place, is just not the norm anymore.”
What is most impressive of their approach to parenting is the stream of communication that flows constantly between all three parents. Catherine and Charlie, Catherine and Cam, Charlie and Cam: they all speak on the phone every day. “We know what they’ve eaten, we know how they’ve slept—we are never divided,” he says. “It’s important we stand as one.”
In preparation for having their daughter, Georgia, they discussed everything: schools, diet, discipline, even politics “with a small p”—if it could conceivably concern children, Charlie, Cameron and Catherine talked it through. “Obviously things like neither of us moving to Australia are important, but we also wanted to make sure we are on the same page morally, and have the same ideas about children and upbringing. It’s something everyone should do, not just people in our situation,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what your family set up is. Having kids is a really big deal.”
It’s the deal that persuaded him to leave the security of Coronation Street and pursue other acting roles. The filming schedule for Corrie demanded he stay in Manchester four days a week, leaving his time with the kids confined to weekends. “I just wasn’t seeing them enough. I needed to move on.” After a long overdue holiday, he was cast as the lead in Next Fall, a gay relationship comedy at the Southwark Playhouse—where we meet one afternoon to talk about his family, his life and his eclectic acting career.
I love it. I’m having a great time. There’s something really nice about going deep into a text: in Corrie you don’t have the time, you just get the scripts and go. There’s a big difference between doing a big show like that and coming to a tiny theatre, but I do my best work when the job frightens me, which this did. I come on at the beginning, I don’t go until the end, and I’m doing an American accent for two hours solid. He’s a great character, completely neurotic and really funny. I wanted to do a bit more comedy, and the subject matter raises lots of interesting questions about faith in religion, and in yourself as well.
You play a gay man in Next Fall, just as you did in Coronation Street. Is it true to say you prefer gay roles?
It’s interesting. I’ve been in acting for 20 years, and it is rare I play gay. People ask if I worry about being typecast but, you know, Robert De Niro is pretty typecast and it hasn’t affected him. When people say, “Do you worry about being typecast as gay?” it suggests there’s something wrong with gay characters—which I obviously disagree with. For me it is far more important that the role is interesting, and that it’s something I know I am going to struggle with so I can be my best.
Have you encountered much discrimination as a gay man?
I have encountered very little homophobia in my life, but I suppose I’ve been very lucky. Somebody who is working on a website about coming out has asked me to share my story, and I don’t really know what to say. There’s nothing exciting about it. I told my parents, they said “okay”, and that was that. But I know that I’m the exception. I work with a charity for homeless gay teens who have been thrown out of their homes because of their sexuality.
I don’t believe that children are born prejudiced. It’s learnt behaviour. When kids are born they are open to the world around them. I think if we could teach children that it’s fine to be different, and fine for their family to be different, it would be a really positive move. Otherwise they can end up as avatars for their parents, just spouting what they have heard.
What first prompted you and your friend Catherine to have a child together?
It was one of those situations where she was approaching 40, she realised time was ticking on and she hadn’t met her Mr Right. I’d always wanted to be a dad and by that time I had met Cameron. We started to have those conversations, and before we knew it we were having IVF and eventually had our daughter, Georgia, then Sam three years later. We talked about it for around 10 years before that, though.
IVF can’t have been easy…
It took a few attempts—three cycles of treatment in all—and Catherine had a few issues which made it complicated. It was emotionally difficult for all of us, but it was also very physically demanding on Catherine. She was so desperate to be a mum, though, so she was quite happy to put up with injecting herself every day with hormones.
How did the current set up come about?
I said from the start that if we were going to do it, I wanted to do as much as Catherine does and properly co-parent—not just be one of those fathers who are only around occasionally. In the beginning, I was up in Manchester doing Corrie so I could only see them at weekends. Catherine would have them Sunday to Thursday and Cam would pick them up Thursday night. But it didn’t really seem fair. We got the fun stuff and Catherine got the “come on, let’s get ready for school” stuff. Now I’m back here full-time, we have them Monday and Tuesday, she has them Wednesday and Thursday and we alternate weekends.
How are you finding it?
It’s actually really nice. People ask if the kids find it difficult, but it’s all they’ve ever known. There are pros and cons to any situation but the nice part is, because we only see the kids for half the week, we’re able to really focus on them. We never get to that point where we think, jeez, I just want a break.
Was Cameron as keen to be a father as you were?
He wasn’t at the time, but he knew how important it was to me. He was well up for it, definitely, but didn’t have that burning desire to be a dad in the same way I did. Now, of course, he loves the kids as much as I do—and they love him as much as they love me. Biologically they are mine and Catherine’s, but you soon realise that doesn’t make much difference. Only last night my stepdad was here at the theatre and when I introduced him to the cast they said how alike we are—not knowing that we aren’t related at all.
How did Out With the Family come about?
There has been a real boom in same-sex parenting, particularly where gay men are concerned. While lesbians have been quietly getting on with having children for a while, you haven’t seen many men doing it, because obviously it’s a bit harder. Over the past few years, it seems that gay men are realising it’s an option for them. They can be parents. But it can be very isolating when you are the only gay people with a family in the area. I set up the group for two reasons: one was for kids to meet other children in the same situation, and the other was for parents to meet each other and share experiences.
How is it going?
It’s doing amazingly well. It started with just four events a year but we are going out much more than that now. We didn’t expect it to grow so quickly: we’ve been overwhelmed at how popular it’s been. It’s really nice that so many people come from outside of London, too. We have had a lot requests to come up and do things in Manchester and Scotland, but we just don’t have the money for that kind of thing at the moment. At the rate the company is growing though, that is definitely the plan.
Whereabouts do you go with the group?
We did a trip to Legoland, we’ve done theatre trips and we are planning to go to London Zoo—all sorts of things. We are very careful about the places we choose, but these days discrimination is much less common. We have a kids’ entertainment company called Sharky and George and they are brilliant. They are really aware of the language they use with the kids. For example, being inclusive when talking about mums and dads, as not all kids have both.
Will this take over from acting eventually?
No, I love acting. I always will and I don’t plan to stop. But this stuff is really important to me. It’s interesting how political you become when you have children. I wasn’t that concerned with the world I was growing up in but now I’m a dad, and a gay dad at that, I want to make sure they grow up in a better world. I suppose that’s why having kids forces you to grow up yourself.
Thanks for taking with us Charlie, all the best with the play and Out with the Family!