In Rotting in the Sun, Jordan Firstman wants to tell the truths of modern gayness
Social media sensation Jordan Firstman tells PinkNews about letting it all hang out in his X-rated film Rotting in the Sun.
It strikes me as somewhat ironic that Jordan Firstman, the actor, writer and comedian who earned the title of “the funniest man on the internet” in 2020, should be regaling me with an anecdote of how supremely dislikable some people find him in real life.
“On my birthday last year in Berlin, I was at this bar with a bunch of friends, and this guy was there,” he tells me over Zoom. “And a person came up and started saying how much he loved me, and the guy was so visibly angry”. After a couple of minutes, Firstman decided to confront him. “I was like, okay, so, you hate me, obviously, do you want to talk about it? And me giving him permission, he just went the f**k off. He was like, you represent everything I hate in this world,” he grins.
Still, he wasn’t deterred. “I’ve always been the kind of person that, I know I can be polarising, but I make people say it to me”.
It’s just as well that Firstman remains unbothered about his detractors, because his latest film, Rotting in the Sun, is one big provocation.
Directed by Sebastián Silva, the Chilean filmmaker best known for his cringe comedy Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and Golden Globe-nominated breakthrough The Maid, the indie comedy-thriller made waves in January at Sundance after headlines declared Rotting in the Sun as “the movie with 30 d**ks”, instantly putting it on the radar of millennial Instagram gays.
“The press immediately started centring on the d**ks, and we thought that was really weird,” Firstman recalls. “Like, did you watch the movie at all? They’re such a small part of the movie”. Once word spread about the nudity, though, the pair decided to use it to their advantage. “We started using it for the marketing, just seeing how shallow and stupid people were being to get them in the theatres”.
Naturally, audiences are taken aback when they realise how dark the film really is. “I think they’re expecting a beach comedy with a bunch of d**ks in it. It kind of gives them a bit of whiplash,” he laughs. “Both Sebastian and I are pretty mischievous people”.
Firstman is all about upending expectations in this next phase of his career. To many, the 32-year-old is the popular Instagram comic who kept everyone entertained through lockdown with a series of impeccable impressions. He was “2021 in therapy”, “a bluetooth speaker that will not pair”, “an asshole being penetrated”, and perhaps most memorably, “banana bread’s publicist”; skits which earned celebrity fans such as Jennifer Aniston and Ariana Grande, as well as a modelling contract for Versace. Now, though, he’s shedding the title of internet personality, and taking on his first leading role.
Rotting in the Sun, is, by Firstman’s own admission, “confusingly meta”. In the film – which received a promotional waiver from SAG – both he and Silva play larger-than-life versions of their offscreen selves.
Silva is a depressed director and artist living in Mexico City, who spends most of his days snorting ketamine and contemplating suicide until he’s persuaded by his landlord to go on holiday to a nudist gay beach called Zicatela. There, he meets Firstman, an obnoxious Instagram influencer who is convinced that fate has brought the pair together, and wastes no time in pitching a TV show “like Curb Your Enthusiasm, but positive”.
Despite Silva’s clear disdain for Firstman, he realises that he’s hot property to HBO executives, and so invites him to his hometown to get started on a collaboration. Only when Firstman arrives at Silva’s apartment, he’s nowhere to be found, prompting Firstman to turn detective as he faces life, death and d**ks on the streets of Mexico City.
In taking on the role of his doppelgänger, Silva instructed Firstman to “play the worst version” of himself. The main difference between himself and his character, Firstman explains, is a complete lack of self-awareness, such as the shameless way he propositions Silva when he meets him on the beach.
Even so, he feels defensive when people view his character as the villain. “The character is one of the only people that shows any sort of empathy in the movie,” he reflects. “He’s also pretty intuitive. He immediately sees something in Sebastian that needs to be saved or fixed, and when he meets Vero (Silva’s housekeeper, played by the brilliant Catalina Saavedra), he immediately senses something is weird.” Firstman pauses. “I feel for the character because people really hate annoying people,” he says. “A quiet bad person can get away with more than an annoying good person.”
While Firstman plays a fictionalised version of himself in the film, he’s struck by the way Silva captured some of the “bad parts” that he possesses in real life. Some of the takedowns in Rotting in the Sun are seriously brutal (“You do impersonations because you’re a nobody,” yells Silva at one point); and even if you’re not the biggest fan of Firstman, you have to hand it to him for being game to be mocked unironically, as Silva always promised he would do in the film.
“I think that art shouldn’t shy away from the darkness we have, and even though this isn’t something that I wrote, I do feel ownership as an artist,” says Firstman thoughtfully. “I am exposing myself and looking at some really nasty parts of myself and making that into art”.
It’s not just Firstman’s flaws that are under the microscope in the film. In a summer that has seen a tide of crowd-pleasing but sanitised queer love stories, Rotting in the Sun has sparked conversation for its honest portrayal of gay culture; drugs, orgies and all.
Firstman partook in many acts of unsimulated sex in the film, and you can bet he lets it all hang out. “We were like, wouldn’t it be funny if like, I’m in the middle of a murder mystery and there’s a c*ck down my throat?” he quips at one point. Joking aside, though, he’s in agreement with those praising the film for providing a realistic depiction of queer sexuality.
“When I try to think of anything else in media that captures the modern gay experience, I can’t think of one single thing, to be honest,” he muses. “I think that’s why the gays are talking about it. We’ve wanted something like this for a long time, but it’s impossible to make within the system.”
He says he’s been trying for years to make shows that are truthful about the gay experience, such as a show based on his 2017 short film Call Your Father that was set up at HBO Max. Ultimately, he was hampered by trying to do it “through proper channels”, which has made him all the more appreciative of the way Silva makes subversive films on a budget.
“I think what’s so beautiful about Sebastian and the way he works is that he doesn’t really give a fuck about Hollywood,” he says emphatically. “This movie would have gotten killed within one draft of a Hollywood executive reading it. I think that’s the reason we were able to make a story that felt really timely, because it’s not shying away from these brutal truths of modern gayness”.
There are many more layers to Rotting in the Sun, of course, beyond queer relationships. It’s a meditation on class inequality, influencer culture, suicide, addiction, modern art and existential dread. Also, fate, in which Firstman is a big believer. “My character gets made fun of in the movie a lot for trying to be the new Oprah and believing in manifestation and the universe, but I did meet Sebastian on the street, and he’s the greatest collaborator of my life so far,” says Firstman. “I think I’m a great collaborator for him”.
Silva would admit to that, he adds, but he doesn’t know if he’d want him to say it. “But everyone, when they see us together, they’re like, ‘you guys are the perfect odd couple and you need to keep working together’”.
Whatever audiences make of the film, Firstman isn’t going to be affected by other people’s opinions. “I can’t control what people think about me in it,” he says briskly. “I’ve learned that time and time again; you can’t control what people think about you, no matter what.”
That being said, he is hopeful that people see the comedic craft in his performance. “I’ve worked in comedy for a decade, and I understand timing,” he adds. “I understand how to deliver a joke”. From where I’m standing, I’d say sex and satire are a winning combination.
Rotting in The Sun is streaming now on MUBI.
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