Interview: Phillip Keene

A Conversation About Abandonment and Compassion

Phillip Keene is an LGBTQ actor and activist. He played the ongoing roll of “Buzz Watson” on the TV series “The Closer” and its spinoff “Major Crimes.” He has been with his husband, James Duff, since 1993, and they married in 2013. Duff is credited as being the creator of “The Closer” and “Major Crimes.” Keene is involved with many non-profits, including the PanAm Museum Foundation. He worked for the organization before exploring acting, and wants to maintain the legacy of an entity he enjoyed working for. The museum is located on Long Island near the point of departure taken by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 for his historic flight to Paris. The foundation also functions to give students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) classes an opportunity to learn in realtime with professionals and engineers in their chosen subject areas.

Another interesting program Keene works with is called Project Wingman. The goal of the organization is to provide some respite and pampering to doctors, nurses and other support staff at hospitals. These front-line workers strive diligently throughout the coronavirus pandemic to help as many patients as possible, and Keene wanted to support them in return. Project Wingman set up first class lounges in various hospitals in New York City, and the hope is to eventually add locations in other metropolitan areas. The lounges were staffed by flight personnel who had been furloughed.

Phillip Keene: But since the numbers in New York have gone down so much, there’s not so much a need for it anymore. And so that program has just ended I found out last week.

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QNotes: Well, I guess it’s good it’s not needed, right?

PK: Exactly!

QN: Yeah, it’s a good sign if they don’t need that kind of reprieve.

PK: I’m sure they could use it in California right now.

QN: Will you try to establish something out there?

PK: It has not happened yet, but I am in contact with the person who started the program, and another guy who was working on it as well.

Right now Keene has quite a bit more free time than usual, because shooting for television and movies has largely been paused due to COVID-19 closures. To make good use of the time, Keene works with a variety of charities. Another organization Keene has dedicated his time to is called Homes for Families.

The project builds houses for veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces that only they can purchase and touches only the surface of what building “for” them implies.

PK: Homes for Families builds housing developments called Housing Enriched Communities. The veterans are able to buy a home in an established community… and the homes are built specifically FOR them.

All the drawers close softly, because often-time loud noises can trigger PTSD responses. The outlets are 18 inches high off the floor, so they don’t have to bend down so much. This is to ease any injuries from carrying heavy packs for so long; many have back issues. There are no fluorescent lights, because those can trigger seizures.

I didn’t know about these things until we went out there helping to build the homes. I worked for a few days mixing cement in wheelbarrows to pour driveways. Another day I was digging holes to put in fence posts. I helped to build walls… I got to be supervised by actual contractors.

QN: It sounds very enriching.

PK: Definitely. We did get to meet a few members of the families whose houses we were building — they themselves are volunteering as well — and it was interesting to get to work side by side with them like that.

QN: I had never considered that a house would need to be customized for a vet, but it makes absolutely perfect sense.

PK: It never crossed my mind either, because I’m not a veteran.

At this point we discussed a canceled program that had required returning combatants to undergo intimacy training as they transitioned back into civilian life. As funding priorities have changed, support systems like these have disappeared. This was the first point in the conversation where the topic of abandonment came up. The way in which we abandon our soldiers, and the compassion required to bring them back to as normal a life as possible — something they have earned and fully deserve.

This caused Keene to bring up another charity that he assists. It is called Convenance House, and it has various locations in places like New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles to name a few. This organization functions as emergency shelter for homeless teens and foster kids (a vastly disproportionate number of whom are LGBTQ).

The network of locations serves to relocate the young people from their current abusive or neglectful environments, and very specifically removes them from any sex trafficking to which they have often been subjected. It puts the children out of reach of their traffickers. Once the kids graduate out of the rehabilitative program at around age 18-21, they continue to receive outreach programs (so long as they continue to participate in the programs designed to keep them safe, sober and thriving). This is important, because it would make little sense to abandon a recovering young person into the world simply for turning a certain age.

PK: Now, my husband has also volunteered there, too. He is a writer/director/show runner, and he developed a writing program… He would go in and have the kids start by each writing a sentence for themselves. And the sentence became a paragraph. That led to telling a story. My husband encouraged them to write about what they knew… and after about six weeks he invited a bunch of the actors from our show to go in and read the kids’ scenes.

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If you had seen these kids’ faces: They just light up. Their eyes sparkled. It was one of the most rewarding things I have ever, ever been to…

QN: Sure, and people need to see themselves represented in a positive way. And to see it done with empathy that way — I bet that was very overwhelming for some of them.

This type of compassion for people runs through Keene’s work on television as well. During the narrative of “Major Crimes,” a young boy abandoned by a drug addicted mother is discovered in Griffith Park. He is a material witness to a murder and then becomes a ward of the state. He is eventually adopted by the squad’s Captain. The character arc for him examined the way in which the boy is brought by his new family into a more normal life. The story was based in part on true events about a young man whose mother and her boyfriend dropped him off at a park and never showed up again.

PK: The boy was 15, and found himself out on the streets. Most males of that age who are homeless end up within 24-48 hours selling themselves for sex, because they have no other means to procure shelter or food. So that was a story that needed to be brought out.

We received a lot of backlash actually from a lot of groups saying we were pushing a gay agenda. But we thought of it as a human agenda. This was a person who had been mistreated and thrown away by society. Some people stepped in to help, and I think that is the core of the story. For our detractors: It’s not about sexual identity. It’s about the need for human compassion, but that does not take away from the fact that he was gay.

QN: Looking at the broader culture, and LGBTQ people specifically, what is it do you think that leads people to have so little empathy that they can just abandon others?

PK: On the face of it I would say financial interests, selfishness and addiction. These are three causes I would attribute to that.

QN: Addiction is an interesting one. I wonder if these instances of abandonment aren’t worse in areas that have suffered an onslaught of opioid crises. Are instances of abandonment worse in places that experience epidemics of addiction?

PK: I would have to think, yes. Having known a number of people with substance abuse issues, everything goes out the window, except that next fix. Whatever it is that that person needs to do to get that, they will do, even if that means abandoning a child or other loved one, family or friends.

And it isn’t the person you know who is doing it. In my mind, the person you know and love is not present. They have become an addict… they are being controlled by their addiction… The person we know and love is still there inside, but we are not able to see them while they are pursuing destructive behavior.

QN: So there’s always redemption?

PK: Yes, I definitely think so.

QN: I can see why you would use your platform to raise awareness for all these issues. It’s very commendable.

PK: Thank you. Whatever little attention that my career has afforded me, I think it’s important to bring light to these situations. It’s important to carve out little inroads to begin the process of making bigger changes.

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