Wednesday night’s episode of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace features two very different coming-out scenes. In one, set in 1995, Gianni Versace openly discusses his sexuality with a reporter from The Advocate, even introducing his longtime boyfriend Antonio D’Amico during the interview. This refreshing, meaningful moment is intercut with a scene during which Jeff Trail—an ensign and a Gulf War veteran who was later murdered by Andrew Cunanan—risks his career to participate in a segment for CBS news magazine 48 Hours called “Gays in the Military.”
Reporter Richard Schlesinger, who interviewed the real Trail in 1993, later recalled that the U.S. Naval Academy graduate “chose to speak to us because he thought it was the right thing to do.”
The segment coincided with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and a change in the policy on gay people serving in the military.
“He did the interview in silhouette but he was still taking a tremendous risk with his career,” said Schlesinger. “He had absolutely nothing to gain by doing the interview. Yet he took the risk and spoke out.”
Trail warned Schlesinger, “You’re going to weaken our national defense if you remove gays from the military. And you’ll never be able to do it 100 percent, it’s just whether or not you’ll continue to hunt us and force us to fear.”
Asked whether he felt comfortable speaking from the literal shadows to protect his identity, Trail said, “There is nothing I would like more than to be lit up [here] and tell you who I am and show you who I am. But I am not allowed to do that. . . It’s [only] comfortable for me because I know I will be able to continue to serve my country and do my job and do it right. That’s what I care about most.”
To prepare to play Trail on American Crime Story, actor Finn Wittrock told Vanity Fair’s Still Watching podcast that he watched footage from the 48 Hours special on repeat: “That was my bible. I would watch that and listen to that every day.”
Wittrock said that when he first read the scripts for the series in the summer of 2017, he thought that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was such a “dated” concept.
“‘I don’t know if people are going to be able to relate to that,’’’ Wittrock remembered thinking. “Then a week later there was the transgender military Trump ban. . .Suddenly I thought, ‘Oh wow. How many steps we take forward and how many we take back.’ So suddenly I was examining the whole story in that way. How relevant is this still? Sadly, so much of it is still relevant.”
Wittrock, who is not gay himself, said that he prepared for the role by speaking to gay men who were “in their 40s or 50s and lived through this period when they weren’t [out].” Ultimately though, Wittrock was struck by how much he had in common with Trail: “Besides my sexuality, I could be Jeff Trail. There’s very little, I found, that separates us in that way.”
To find out more about the true story of Versace, Cunanan, Trail, and more you can listen to the full interview with Wittrock—as well as past guests Maureen Orth, Ricky Martin, Max Greenfield, Judith Light, Cody Fern, and writer Tom Rob Smith—by subscribing to Still Watching: Versace on Apple Podcasts or your podcast app of choice. New episodes of the podcast air every Wednesday night.
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Julie MillerJulie Miller is a Senior Hollywood writer for Vanity Fair’s website.Joanna RobinsonJoanna Robinson is a Hollywood writer covering TV and film for VanityFair.com.