'You hear all those horrible stories about high-profile people who had been living these closeted lives. There's no excuse for it anymore'
Wearing a tight-fitting Buzz Lightyear costume on a Los Angeles movie set, Ian Roberts is a long ways away from his days as a professional rugby player in Australia.
He calmly does take after take of a scene taking place at a Halloween party for the romantic comedy Saltwater where, ironically, it is his love interest (played by the film's writer, Ronnie Kerr) who is dressed as a rugby player.
'I play Josh who is a middle-aged gay guy who was in the Navy back in Australia back in the 90s who was discharged because he is gay,' Roberts tells Gay Star News during a break in filming. 'Josh is totally comfortable with being gay. He meets a guy, Will, who had just gotten out of the [US] Navy on his own accord and who's still having issues dealing with his sexuality. He's made compensations and allowances and his private life and his professional life have been different – he's kept them separated whereas for Josh, it's all personal.'
The role, Roberts' first lead in a feature, resonated with him because like Josh, he made a decision long ago to be openly gay in his personal and professional life. It was in the mid-90s that he became the first rugby pro to come out, the first high-profile Australian athlete to do so.
'I came out in The Advocate in 1994,' he recalled. 'The reporter was asking me about my wife or girlfriend and I said, 'I'm gay.' It was an American magazine and I didn't really think anything of it. And from there it kind of escalated. I wasn't bothered. Knowing what I know now, I should have done it when I was about 20. I was about 29 and for me that's the breaking age for gay guys. It's about at that 30 mark where you realize that you're responsible for the rest of your life, your own happiness.'
He says no one who knew him was surprised by the news.
'In rugby circles back in Australia, it was the worst-kept secret,' Roberts said, laughing. 'As far back as I can remember, I was taking my boyfriends to the functions of the clubs I was playing at. The reporters and the media at home were all really respectful of that, it was almost like they were waiting for me to do it – to let it be my choice. the media in the US and in the UK work very differently.'
Although Welsh rugby pro Gareth Thomas came out a few years back and Australian Olympic champion diver Matthew Mitcham is openly gay, there are still very few professional athletes who have come out – even after their retirement.
Roberts finds this frustrating.
'I have been surprised,' he said. 'You hear all those horrible stories about high-profile people who had been living these closeted lives, there's no excuse for it anymore. What price is your integrity? You don't have to separate the personal from the professional. It should never have to be hidden.'
'I'm no less of a man because I am gay,' he added. 'Look at me: I love my partner, I love my parents, I love my siblings, I love my two cats. It's no different. I play rugby and I can be a big girl at times too. I love camping it up. I actually think that's one of the advantages of being gay because there's no rules, there's no boundaries about that. I really think that being gay is like this wonderful gift, you get to see the world as it really is. There's not all those constraints that straight people are brought up to believe. When you family and friends learn to accept your sexuality, they gain from it as well. It's a real gift.'
Roberts is happy he was able to play rugby on his own terms and he has pursued acting in the same 'take me as I am' way. His first film role was a brief cameo in the Australian film Little Fish but that was followed by a bigger one as one of Lex Luther's henchmen in 2006's Superman Returns.
He's also had roles in the 2009 Australian television miniseries Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, the TV film The Cut, and the feature film Cedar Boys.
Before filming Saltwater, which will be released later this year, Roberts completed a role in the independent film Hate Crimes.
'Even though my whole history was in sport, I did do theater while I was in school,' he says of the transition from athlete to actor. 'When you look at sport as an entertainment industry that's played in a theater, this is not that difficult. It's a rush of adrenaline and I still get that equally now.'