Mark Patton smiles as he pulls up the right sleeve of his grey sweater, revealing the name “Jesse” on his forearm. “I have every character I’ve ever played tattooed on my body,” he says. “But I’ve decided to put the name Lazarus next, because that’s who I am. I’ve walked out of the grave time and time again.”
It’s been more than 25 years since he played the part of Jesse Walsh in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, but the 49-year-old actor has had more in common with the boy whose body Freddy Kruger once wanted to possess than most people know. Today, sitting in a coffee shop in San Francisco, Patton shares with me how the theme of survival permeates his life.
Raised in Riverside, Mo., Patton says he often felt like an outsider in his hometown. “I had a rough time in school,” he says. “I was a very pretty boy and where I come from everyone looks exactly the same. If you’re even the slightest bit different you’re a target. I was a hypersensitive kid and I was bullied quite a bit.”
The confident man across from me is nothing like the young boy he describes. He seems perfectly at ease in a pair of khakis and deck shoes, nibbling on a pulled-pork sandwich and sipping a Diet Coke as a steady stream of pedestrians trickles by on the sidewalk outside. It’s a transformation he says began to take shape when his father gave him some words of advice after he came home one day in tears because several of his classmates were bullying him. “My dad took me in the bathroom and said, ‘Look in the mirror. Look in that man’s eyes. That’s who you’re going on this trip with. Know him, be on his side.’”
With his sense of self-worth beginning to grow, it wasn’t long before Patton discovered both his passion for acting and his attraction for other men — neither of which helped him assimilate into his southern home state. “I don’t think I was ever closeted, to be honest with you,” he says. “Once I figured out I was gay, I always acted on it. But I was always afraid some redneck would kill me on a back road. That’s where I thought I would end up because that’s where I come from. Theater provided me a safe space.”
After graduating high school, Patton bought a plane ticket and moved to New York with $132 to his name.
“When I got off the plane to New York, I breathed my first relaxed breath, probably in my life. Because I realized I was safe,” he says. “There, all of my negatives turned into positives. Things like the way I walked became an attraction as opposed to something people would laugh at.”