Like many a straight Hollywood wannabe, Cy Carter approached his first big gay role with trepidation. However, his anxiety didn't arise from his character's sexual orientation, but from his concern about doing justice to his alter ego — Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming collegian whose 1998 murder is the focus of the fact-based MTV movie Anatomy of a Hate Crime (premiering tonight at 8 pm).

"I was honored to get this part," the soft-spoken actor tells TV Guide Online. "But I knew there would be a lot of people watching, so I had to really do my job well. It made me work harder than I ever had."

After conducting exhaustive research — he studied everything from Shepard's dialect to his gait — the newcomer felt as if he'd gotten into his subject's heart as well as his head. "If Matthew had been in my shoes, he would've let my mom know what was going on," he theorizes, "so I wrote his mom letters. I'm not sure whether she's received them, but I hope I'll hear from her."

In the meantime, the native Texan is optimistic, nay, confident that the film can teach Middle American kids to accept rather than except individuals who are different. "They've had hard lives," he suggests, "but they could see this and realize that Matthew was human, and trying to get along in the world just like them.

"[Shepard's killers] had a pretty s----y time, too," he adds, "but maybe if they'd been home one night watching MTV..."