Let’s go back to 2006, a year when our TVs introduced us to the gritty world of high school football on “Friday Night Lights,” the insanity of a writers’ room on “30 Rock,” cold killers like “Dexter” and a young Mexican American woman whom we began to know and love as “Ugly Betty.”
Fans of the show, which ran on ABC for only four seasons, from 2006 to 2010, will fondly remember the show’s outrageous looks and punchlines as Betty Suarez, played by America Ferrera, attempted to climb the ladder of the glossy world of fashion magazines. But while Ferrera’s Betty captured our hearts in so many ways, she was far from the only standout on the show.
Enter Mark Indelicato, who graced our screens at the mere age of 12 when he appeared on the show as Justin Suarez, the ultra-chic and queer nephew of Betty. Justin started out as a side character likely intended to add another element of comedic flair to the ensemble comedy. But Indelicato evolved his character into a groundbreaking role that was widely lauded by LGBTQ awareness groups such as GLAAD and was considered one of the best queer characters on television. Most notably, Justin’s coming-out moment and subsequent kiss with a male teen on the show marked the first time two same-sex minors kissed on network TV.
“I do still feel very warmed by kids around the world who are just now watching ‘Ugly Betty’ that are teenagers, especially in places where they are not as welcoming to LGBT bodies as they should be,” he recently told HuffPost. “I find that to be very inspiring to me to go on to play queer characters because that’s really what I think that I want to do in my career: to continue to play as many queer characters as I can and to bring as much nuance to them as I can.”
Indelicato is now 27, and, despite his long hiatus from a consistent role on the small screen, he is immediately recognizable to those who were introduced to him 15 years ago: His boyish looks have remained seemingly untouched as well as his still impeccably thick head of hair. And he reads just as approachable in person as he does on TV. Importantly, showing the many facets of the queer experience on screen is not only still part of his work but also arguably the driving force.
We spent an afternoon at the end of August catching up with Indelicato to unpack the path he paved for fellow members of queer and Latinx communities with his role on “Ugly Betty,” what he’s been up to and what’s to come. With recent roles on the Jean Smart-helmed hit “Hacks” and the upcoming Gloria Calderón Kellett vehicle “With Love,” we seem to have caught Indelicato on the precipice of his very own renaissance.
Indelicato was admittedly “stoked” to take a look back at his time portraying a queer Mexican American teen as a queer Puerto Rican-Italian-American teen. He’s spoken openly before about how his character’s arc was so “personal.”
“Justin and I were the same age,” said Indelicato, who added that he “came out of the closet” while filming the last season of “Ugly Betty.” “Our sexual orientation journey started at the same time and intersected.”
Simultaneously, social media platforms were also growing rapidly. He explained that prior to that point, he’d never been “called a faggot on the internet” before and that with the advent of Twitter “the cyberbullying really started in a huge way.”
“I would be leaving [school] and... my friends had to put coats over my head while these paparazzis are calling me a ‘faggot.’ That doesn’t feel good for a 15-year-old,” he said, emphasizing that being screamed at and gawked at is “detrimental” to anyone’s mental health.
Taking the bullying, both in real life and online, into account, Indelicato said that the “Ugly Betty” set culture helped him feel safe and protected and that he’d “walk onto set every day like I was the bravest person on the planet.” He added that elder castmates, including Ana Ortiz and Michael Urie, would emphasize to him how his portrayal of a queer teen was helping to change the world.
It’s easy to see just how much has changed — for both him personally and the culture. The influence of Indelicato’s Suarez can be seen in shows like “Sex Education,” “One Day at a Time” and “Love, Victor,” where teenage same-sex couples have been normalized.
“When I look at the ways in which we’ve come so far, it feels very, very good,” Indelicato said. “I feel very pleased with the idea that I’m considered one of the characters and one of the people who helped push that narrative forward and helped break down the door, one of the many doors the LGBTQ community has had to break down.”
He also added that it makes him “feel so good when older gay men come up to me that are like, ‘I wish we had a Justin when we were growing up.’”
Though some child actors seem to never stop working, it’s not uncommon for others to fade out of the scene and pursue other ventures, maybe even leave acting forever. For Indelicato, he’s sort of had his foot in and out of the door for the better part of the last 10 years.
He did bit parts in shows like “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” and “Hot in Cleveland” during his tenure on “Ugly Betty,” but he ultimately went off the radar for a bit to go to college, “naively thinking [acting] was always going to be there.”
“I can always just come back,” he said, recalling his mindset of deciding to pursue his studies at the time.
In 2012, Indelicato enrolled at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he pursued international relations and gender/media studies. He wrote his thesis on the U.S. media representation of Muslim women during the “war on terrorism” after 9/11. He candidly said that there weren’t roles available for him at the time and that, although there were ones he wanted, he wasn’t “focused” enough.
Prior to 2021 and outside of his appearances in Gregg Araki’s 2014 film “White Bird in a Blizzard” and one season of a since-canceled Freeform show “Dead of Summer,” Indelicato hadn’t been on the Hollywood map in ages.
His more recent characters are quite the departure from young Justin Suarez.
In “Hacks,” Indelicato plays what he calls a “revamp” of the sassy gay friend trope as Damien, the uptight and diligent assistant to comedian Deborah Vance (Smart). In the upcoming romantic comedy series “With Love,” he stars as Jorge, whom he described as “high strung” yet “extremely fashionable.” The show will follow Indelicato’s Jorge Diaz and his sister Lily, “who are on a mission to find love and purpose” as they “cross paths with seemingly unrelated residents during some of the most heightened days of the year: the holidays,” Deadline reported earlier this year.
“A hopeless romantic, but has some trepidations about romance,” he said, sharing that he was “very drawn to a character where the family is so accepting of his gayness without question.”
There’s also his web series, “Mark & Bailey,” in which he stars with friend Bailey Edwards as queer con men trying to make it in California’s Orange County.
Indelicato said his form of activism as a Latinx man is to “play as many different gay men as I possibly can and do them in as many different ways I can.”
“How unique can I make every cis gay man that I play?” he wondered aloud before continuing on to say “it’s important to show the ways in which we’re all very different even though we’re under the same umbrella. If I only play gay men for the rest of my life, I would love that.”
Additionally, Indelicato said there needs to be more “socioeconomic status” diversity when it comes to people of color on TV.
“You’ll see this with ‘With Love,’ something that Gloria [Calderón Kellett] was really passionate about is that they’re upper-middle-class people. The story of poverty among Latinx bodies and POC bodies is extremely important to note and be aware of... but maybe sometimes television and film should still be aspirational,” he said, adding: “There are plenty of wealthy Latinx people in this country.”
He stressed how in “every single ethnic group, there’s a multiplicity of lived experiences within those groups, and I want to see more of that regarding Latinx characters.” The most popular films often depict Latinx people as “criminals, low-level workers and ‘the other,”’ or they disproportionately focus on immigration stories,” according to a recent study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California.
“I think we are very much in a realm where we see too many maids, too many stories on immigration only around Latinx bodies, and that’s fine, but I would like to see more diversity in storytelling,” he said
In paying homage to Justin Suarez and what Latinx representation has become since then, Indelicato stressed that he thinks that character “did something and served its purpose.”
“I would hope that Justin gets buried under the many other queer characters that come to the forefront,” he said. His hope is that in the future there will “have been so many queer characters that represent our community and that people respond to in a way that — not erases Justin — where we can look at more relevant examples for now.”
“That doesn’t erase what Justin did. I would never want us to stop.”
Read more of HuffPost’s Latinx Heritage Month content on Estamos Aquí.