Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman Gives Us the AHS Scoop
Category is... Apocalypse.
Category is... Apocalypse.
Text: Andrew Fitzsimons
Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman is the queer, Canadian actor who just joined the latest season of American Horror Story: Apocalypse.
Bowyer-Chapman catches up with us about the bringing queer characters to life on TV and the importance of queer actors portraying queer characters and stepping into the Ryan Murphy Universe.
So, most people will know you as Jay on Hulu’s UnREAL. Were you a fan of American Horror Story before getting the role? If so, what was it like going from UnREAL to American Horror Story?
I’ve been a huge fan of American Horror Story since the first season of the show. I loved it and I’d never seen something on television that was so dark and subversive and sexy and stylish and was created by an openly gay man [Ryan Murphy]. I was absolutely blown away by everything from his casting choices to his set decorations to storytelling. I stuck with the show from the first season onward. Murder House and Coven, being my top two favorite seasons, having the blessing of going into Apocalypse and having it be the crossover season of Coven and Murder House was beyond a dream come true. Landing on that show afterUnREAL was, once again, another extraordinary dream come true. I didn’t know what was going to happen after UnREAL, after being on the show and being so comfortable for five years of my life, and then going back out into the world of auditioning and trying to find good material, I didn’t know what was out there. I hadn’t done a pilot season in years. Generally for an actor, its boot camp; you get thirty scripts between a two or three week period and you have to go through and sort out what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. And, as a queer actor, especially as an openly queer actor who only, primarily, wants to play gay characters, sometimes the options can be far less than my straight counterparts. So, when I wrapped up UnREAL, and a few months later American Horror Story came my way, it felt like an invitation being asked to act on this show. Ryan Murphy is such a genius and I love his open mind so much. I love that he sees aspects of the industry that other people don’t see, and he sees casting choices in ways that other people don’t see. I loved his loyalty to his cast and his crews, from all the actors from everywhere from American Horror Story to Glee to Pose to 911 to The Politician. It felt much than a new job -- It felt like I was invited into the Ryan Murphy universe, which I’m so blessed to be a part of.
Specifically with American Horror Story, what is it about the AHS world that’s exciting for an actor, especially for an openly gay actor who plays a gay role?
I think one of the most obvious and exciting things for an actor is that you have the potential to explore different characters within the same universe. As much as I loved playing Jay on UnREAL, and having that opportunity to explore the character and really get to know him for TV over five years -- I was looking for something more. I was looking to be excited in a different way and to dive into the psyche of another character after playing that one for so long. So, the potential to play more characters in the Ryan Murphy universe is so challenging and so exciting, and I see Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters and Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett and Adina Porter doing it and they do it so beautifully, I just hope that I have the same opportunity.
Ryan and his writing team and his producers write gay characters, and they write gay characters as leads who have interesting, compelling, deep lives which aren’t something we’re used to seeing on television. We’re used to seeing heteronormative standards as the ideal and queer characters pretty much being the side stories or the best friend, and we don’t really get to know what makes them human beings, so that is incredibly exciting. Second of all, he tends to cast gay actors to portray gay characters which is something, even in 2018, incredibly rare, unfortunately.
Are gay actors portraying gay characters something that you think is important?
I think, at this point in 2018 it’s incredibly important for queer and gay actors to play queer and gay characters. I think it was necessary [in the past] for our straight allies to step up and play those roles for very obvious reasons, in order to make the studios and network more comfortable. Also, it was important to make it more palatable for a heteronormative audience so that the fly-over states in middle America can see their favorite straight actors playing these gay characters and can see the story and internalize it in a different way as opposed to if they knew the actor was actually gay.
They humanized the characters, and I think it was a necessary stepping stone but in 2018, the doors have really just been opened for us, for queer actors to be stepping in and playing these roles.
I think we’re at the point, luckily, that there’s going to be repercussions with casting. And casting people in terms of their race, their sexuality, their gender. People now have to power now, to push back, and we’ve seen that many times, like with Scarlett Johansson being up for a role as a trans man and these situations where American Horror Story, and as you said, the Ryan Murphy world is created by a lot of queer people and queer stories are being told in a way they’ve never been told before.
I just think, as a point, it’s totally unnecessary and lazy for casting, producers, studios, networks to not seek and book quality queer talent and trans talent to play these roles. The talent is out there.
Maybe more queer characters being played by queer actors will encourage some actors -- Hollywood is famous for having a lot of closeted actors - do you think that will encourage actors to come out?
Absolutely! I get messages weekly from young kids saying that they’ve seen my work and seen my interviews and seen me live so openly and authentically as a queer man that it inspires them to do the same. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have that when I was coming of age. I had actors and personalities who I could look to who, if and when they were ever outed, their careers would potentially be over, it was a really clear marker for me, from the beginning of my career, that I saw what they did, and the choices they made, and how it led to the same disastrous end, so the conclusion that I came to was just to never be in the closet. Never be in so I would have to come to a crossroads where someone was going to out me.
So you’re saying that you have never been fully mirrored in media, in television and film roles, but you are a mirror for a new generation of queer creatives. What would you say to a young person who is mirrored by you?
I would say to look in the qualities in each of us that resemble each other, but find what makes you most authentic, and I will say that I’m certainly not the only one at this point who is the only openly queer actor out there, that was just my story when I was coming of age, and coming up as an actor, but now, there countless numbers of us, thank goodness. Now I can use my peers, colleagues, and friend as sources of inspiration to continue to strive and be authentically myself and see how that pays off. Yeah, I think as long as you focus on the best qualities of what makes you, you, no one else has that. So when you go into an audition room, you go into any situation, if you bring the best version of yourself and the parts of you, that may be different growing up, if you nurture those qualities, and nourish them and feed them with love, the world will respond in time. That’s something I always keep in mind, one of my favorite quotes by Walt Whitman, from the book Leaves of Grass, it says, “I celebrate myself, and what I assume, you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as Good belongs to you.” We’re all connected, we’re all one, if we celebrate the parts of ourselves that we love the most, the world will celebrate those parts as well.
That’s beautiful. Back to AHS, what can we expect, it’s American Horror Story: Apocalypse, and judging by the trailers, it looks like a certain select few have been given a reprieve from the apocalypse and are now living in some kind of bunker. What was it like shooting in a bunker?
Well, a Ryan Murphy-style bunker was certainly glamorous. [Laughs] I wouldn’t even necessarily say that the chosen survivors had been given a “reprieve” from the apocalypse. Certain people may have survived, but in a situation like that, where it’s the end of the world, it really does come down to every man for himself and every woman for themselves.
And in AHS, being saved from the apocalypse doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re safe.
Exactly, and supernatural elements certainly pay into the daily survival inside of the bunker. I don’t know if I am allowed to give that much away, or if I’m even allowed to say if I’m even in the bunker.
All I can say is that this season shows a different side of the apocalypse that what most people would envision or imagine what the end of the world would be like. It’s glamorous but it’s still terrifying.
What you bring to a bunker with you?
[laughs] Marijuana. And water.
What are the things you’ll be happy to escape from in the bunker?
Number 45, the T-word, for sure. And, I guess it would sort of end all social anxiety.
There would be no more FOMO.
Yes, and social media.
So, just you, pot, and water.
And no more FOMO, and I guess food would be great.
And vegan treats.
Vegan treats, that would be nice. Greens, just tons of greens, but I don’t know how we could grow those, but, we’ll figure it out.
So, you jumped from one dark world into another. Comparatively, very different worlds. Do you prefer dark material, or would you like your next role to be a rom-com?
I love comedy. I’ve done my fair share of comedy, and I think that it actually comes quite easily to me. I really thought after doing UnREAL that I would be doing something comedic. My co-star and one of my best friends, Constance Zimmer, it was her intention after doing UnREAL and House of Cards, that she would jump back into the sitcom world, and she did, she moved on to Mom on CBS, and you can see the joy she gets from that and how much lighter and happier she is, and I’m thinking that could be really good for me as well. As dark as UnREAL and American Horror Story are, there’s still elements of comedy to it, but it would be nice to work on a set where the lighting isn’t incredibly dark and the material isn’t incredibly dark even though there are elements of comedy to it. I would love to go back to do something fun and kind of carefree. The thing about that is, one of the last projects I did, which was a comedy, was a movie called Love By the 10th Date. It was a rom-com with myself and Meagan Good and Kelly Rowland and Kellee Stewart and Keri Hilson and it was really fun. I played a bisexual character and he was funny and hilarious and eccentric and wild and all over the place and people really vibed with him, I really vibed with him as well. That was one of the first times I played a comedic, queer character that wasn’t a joke, that wasn’t the punching bag or the court jester. This character was really smart and thoughtful and really was the launching pad for a lot of thoughtful conversation around sexual fluidity for men and women. So I thought that was really impactful and interesting and important. So if I could play another role like that, and continue to find stories like that that are positive representations and authentic representations of queer people, then yeah, absolutely.
Do you think that exists? And if not, what would your version of a romantic comedy be?
I think it certainly exists because I’ve done it. I think seems few and far between, but it starts at the source. It depends on the writer is, who the producers are and what their intentions are behind these characters and how much actual personal experience they have with queer, gay, and trans people, I think it’s very obvious and transparent when writing is done strictly from imagination and has no point of reference, no firm foundation to receive inspiration from.
What would It look like for me? You know, I’ve always loved the number of quote unquote gay shows that I can count on one hand that I watched growing up, Like Queer as Folk, or Noah’s Arc. I think it’s great to have these gay characters as the leads. But I don’t know, I think I’d like the find something in between Queer as Folk and HBO’s Looking. I’m talking about the UK version of Queer as Folk, the original version, where there are elements of comedy, there are elements of darkness, but it’s being written and produced by queer people and it’s not campy or satirized, because, you know, as a queer person, my life isn’t as funny on a daily basis as some queer characters are. Like Will and Grace, like that’s not what our lives are like, you know? So, to have some sort of realness - category is: realness - would be a dream. Also, on Queer as Folk, all the characters are white, on Noah’s Arc, everyone was black. On Looking, the majority of the cast was white and there was one Latino character. To see, not just realness not just when it comes to sexual representation, but when it comes to racial diversity as well. It’s necessary. When I turn on the tv, everyone is white, and when I change the channel, everyone is black. And that’s not what I see when I walk out into the world, the beautiful blend of everyone and every color and every weight and every gender. So, to have that represented in film would be real. That would be nice.
So, nowadays, a visible social media presence is expected of celebrities. As an openly gay man of color, do you ever see negative comments, and if so, how do you deal with them? And what would your advice be to young people who are afraid to come out because of the free-for-all that is social media?
Well, I’ve only recently started to get negative comments or messages from people online, and those are people, who, as far as I can tell, I don’t know them, they don’t know me, they’ve never met me, they don’t have any real reference to who I am as a human being, yet they have this tremendous courage to jump on their keyboard and write the most vicious and cruel things that I couldn’t possibly imagine thinking about another human being, let alone saying them. It’s hurtful, and it really gutted me like a knife. I was actually on the set of AHS when I received one really nasty message, and I was talking to the cast members about it, and their advice was to just look at the source. Don’t take it personally, they don’t know you. This is more than likely, a deeply unhappy human being who is lashing out at you because you’re representing what they can’t be or what they aren’t. I really just tried not to take it personally, and just learning to not think about it much at all. So, it knocked me down for a minute when I first saw them, but it’s not going to stop me.
I can see the next generation of kids stepping up in the entertainment industry, they’re going to have an advantage in life that we weren’t given. We’ll go to RuPaul’s DragCon and see these beautiful families together with their kids from 3 years old to 20 years old dressed head-to-toe in drag and being able to celebrate themselves and then the world around them celebrating them because of their authenticity. And, I think now, not having to tend the wounds of the emotional and physical and verbal abuse, you see yourself and the world in a different way, you don’t have as much to fight against, and that’s only going to add beauty and realness in the entertainment industry and the world at large.
American Horror Story: Apocalypse airs every Wednesday at 10pm on FX.