Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo have been together since 1998 and were married—by Mayor Antonio Villariagosa at Los Angeles City Hall—on June 28, 2013: five years later than they wished. Katami, a fitness expert, graduated from Santa Clara University (where we studied in the same department) before receiving his graduate degree from UCLA. The general manager of a theater exhibition company, Zarrillo graduated from Montclair State University. The happy couple resides in Burbank, California. Along with Kris Perry & Sandy Stier, Paul and Jeff found themselves in the spotlight when both couples agreed to be plaintiffs in the historic federal lawsuit filed in an effort to overturn Proposition 8, California’s discriminatory ban on same-sex marriage. Their journey together has been documented in an all-access film called The Case Against 8, airing exclusively on HBO starting Monday, June 23rd (9:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT). I spoke to Katami and Zarrillo on the occasion of the red-carpet San Francisco premiere of the film at the Castro Theatre.
Paul Katami: Hi, I'm Paul Katami.
Groucho: Peter Canavese. We actually know each other—
Paul Katami: Peter! Oh my God!
Groucho: (Laughs.) Nice to see you.
PK: Sorry—we've been doing so much of this! How you doin'?!
G: Good, good. I'm honored to meet you, Jeff.
Jeff Zarrillo: What's your name?
G: Peter Canavese.
Jeff Zarrillo: Peter. That's an Italian name, right?
PK: That's so cool. Good to see you. How are you?
G: I'm alright! I better work my job here.
PK: Right, right, exactly! We'll hopefully—
G: We'll catch up later...So have you pondered your role in history? You're civil rights leaders—what does that mean to you?
JZ: Well, "civil rights leader" is a loaded term. You know, Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin—those are all civil rights leaders. I think Paul and I are very proud to have merged with an extraordinary effort that was ongoing long before us and will continue to go along after us. I like to think of it as a relay race, that it's an ongoing race that everybody hands off a baton to someone else. And we got the baton along with a great group of people. And we like to say we have a small part in a big book.
G: When you watched the film, did it give you any fresh perspective on what you'd been through over five years?
PK: You know, watching the film did one thing for us. It made sense of what happened, because when you're living it, it's very odd to have to go to court and defend your life, and have to testify about your love and how that cannot change. And I think the most important thing about the film is it just tells a story. It's really simple. It doesn't try to hit you over that head with any agenda. What it does is say, you know, people love each other and want to get married, and there's a barrier to that. There are laws that protect those people, and that's what we fought for.
G: So what did you do to cope with the various pressures over the years? What kept you grounded?
JZ: I think each other. And knowing that our relationship was strong. And that we were going through it together. It was something that was really important to us. We have a very supportive family. We have very supportive employers. So all of that support around us really builds us up. One thing that really helped us get through is interactions with strangers, people that came up to us on the streets and told us how much our story was their story. And being involved in this case really helped to give them strength and inspire them to move forward too.
G: So with the play 8, you had Hollywood actors playin' ya. How do you rate them? How'd they do?
PK: They did a lot better than us in the documentary. (Laughs.) I'll tell you that. I'd like to have someone else play us all the time. No. 8 was awesome because it gave everyone an inside scoop on what happened in the courtroom. I think The Case Against 8 gives everyone the human story. So together they are amazing tools to maybe get that person who's in the middle, that can sit and watch this film at home on June 23 and really kind of make a decision based in the story of personal lives versus a bumper-sticker argument.
G: And if this were to become—it seems inevitable—a dramatic film, who would you cast?
PK: (Laughs.) That's a good question! I have no idea.
JZ: I think Matt did a great job in the play—why not? He's easy on the eyes! Ands so why not have Matt?
PK: We'll go with the originals from 8, Matt Bomer and—
Both: Cheyenne Jackson!
PK: There it is. (Laughs.)
G: How conscious were you of the filmmaking as it was going on? You had bigger fish to fry, I guess.
PK: You just said it. I mean, many times we were so focused on the task at hand. Y'know, being plaintiffs in a case, you're very busy, you're very focused, there's a lot of intense days and emotion. And it's a testament to the filmmakers. Sometimes you're going a full day, and you look up at the end of the day, and you feel like you're tired, and you see that they've been standing there the entire day with the camera on their shoulders. So we actually really give them a lot of credit because—not only were they filmmakers, but over the course of the four and a half years, they really became friends as well. So there were days where we were looking for them, like "Where are they? They need to be here." Because we really did care for them during the process. They dedicated four and a half years of their lives without knowing what the end of this story was going to be.
G: Lastly, one of the surprises in the film for me, 'cause I hadn't tracked it much during the case, was how many LGBT groups were sort of offering resistance to this legal strategy. Do you have any comment on that?
JZ: I think that's a comment left for Chad [Griffin, President of the Human Rights Campaign] and the lawyers and people who were involved in those meetings. We know, like I said earlier, that we just happened to merge with a group that had a bold new strategy. Certainly doesn't [undermine] what the previous groups had done, and what those same groups are doing now! Y'know, it's a collaborative effort. Now is the time to celebrate how far we've come, but also understand how far we still need to go.
PK: And debate is good. I mean, this was a bold, risky move. And when you're able to have a group of people that actually debate something, it actually helps you filter through the process in a way where you can come to a very thoughtful conclusion. And as long as we all have the same goal, which we all did—I think the goal was always to make sure that we could win marriage equality, forward the advancements of equality in general, and I think that healthy debate on that makes us a stronger community.
G: Well, you guys are very articulate representatives. It's good to have you out there.
PK: Thank you.
G: Congratulations. Enjoy the night.
JZ: Thank you very much.
PK: Good to see you, man!
G: Good to see you!