Unicorns star Jason Patel on ‘amazing’ chemistry with Ben Hardy and celebrating gaysian drag

Unicorns stars Ben Hardy (left) and Jason Patel (right)

Jason Patel speaks exclusively to PinkNews about his starring role opposite Ben Hardy in LGBTQ+ romance Unicorns and the power in embracing your identity.

In Unicorns, when single father Luke (Ben Hardy) accidentally stumbles into a nightclub where the sharp-tongued and alluring drag queen Aysha (Jason Patel) is performing, the car mechanic’s otherwise average life takes a dazzling turn.

After mistaking Aysha for a woman, the pair kiss. But when Luke discovers that outside drag, Aysha is a shop assistant called Ashiq, he must face the prejudices he grew up with and walk through the looking glass into a world of gaysian drag, tender queer love and all that comes with fearlessly showing up as yourself.

Written by James Krishna Floyd who co-directed the film with Sally El Hosaini, Unicorns comes at a time when drag artists are facing increasing vitriol simply for existing, and LGBTQ+ rights across the country are under threat in a society that often feels more divided than ever.

Patel and Hardy’s performances give an optimistic outlook on how love conquers all when we embrace our differences, keep an open heart and mind, and find the shared joy in humanity.

“It’s honestly been a life-changing month and I’m really honoured and humbled and grateful,” Patel tells PinkNews on the eve of the film’s premiere at the London Film Festival.

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At the heart of Unicorns is the endearing and unlikely love story, with chemistry between Hardy and Patel that’s impossible to ignore.

Ben Hardy (left) and Jason Patel at the London Film Festival premiere of Unicorns
Ben Hardy (left) and Jason Patel at the London Film Festival premiere of Unicorns. (Getty)

“[Working with Ben] was amazing. It was something that we didn’t fake in any sense,” Patel says. “Chemistry between the two leads is really important. You have to click and we clicked from the get-go.

“Our preparation was separate because they wanted to keep the danger and the nervousness alive so coming together was us really coming together. We have the same work ethic and we support each other.”

This connection was put to the test early on in the filming process when they shot the film’s central sex scene. Neither star had filmed an explicit gay sex scene before.

“There was a lot of discussion on set,” Patel recalls. “We didn’t have an intimacy co-ordinator but that was that of our own choosing. It was a closed set and it was all done really respectfully.

“We did rehearsals before we started and it was a fun day. What was great for us was that we trusted each other so we were able to bring a lot of natural energy, warmth and passion to it.

“I also didn’t want to feel limited because I was comfortable in my body and so was he. But this was my first sex scene and this was his first sex scene with a guy so it was new for us. We were both exploring so many different things at that point. It was a whole operation.”

Ben Hardy as Luke in Unicorns.
Playing Luke meant former Eastenders star Ben Hardy filmed his first gay love scene. (LFF)

Aysha/Ashiq’s character is full of nuances as a queer South Asian Muslim fighting for his right to live his truth away from the judgment of his family and threats from homophobic bigots.

Luckily, fighting for what you believe in is something the star is all too familiar with. “I come from a working-class background, with immigrant parents from Greater Manchester. As a South Asian person in Britain, being creative is not seen as something to pursue, it’s more like a hobby,” Patel explains.

“I remember seeing people like Britney Spears on television or watching Bollywood films and musicals and I was like: ‘Wow, [that] clicks with me, that’s what I’m supposed to do’. Some people think they’re going to be the prime minister or an astronaut. I knew that I was meant to be an artist and I worked hard.”

After attending drama school and building a music career based around “inclusivity” and “empowerment” (most notably shown in his latest music video “Choclafied“), Patel embarked on the lengthy audition process for Unicorns.

“When I read the script, I was immediately hooked,” he says. “I thought: this is just a really beautiful story and so special. I felt I could bring such authenticity, honesty, vulnerability and a fun energy [to the role].”

Aysha/Ashiq is loosely based on the life of trailblazing UK South Asian drag queen Asifa Lahore, who acted as a consultant on the film and worked closely with Patel to bring the character to life.

For Patel, the experience was invaluable.

“It was really, really insightful,” he reveals “There are a lot of gaysian queens in the film and I was a regular at places like [queer South Asian club night] Hungama, so I had met them but I didn’t know them to this capacity.”

There are some hilarious cameos from several real-life queens and vibrantly colourful drag sequences scattered throughout the film, celebrating South Asian drag in all its riotous glory.

Drag artist Asifa Lahore.
Drag artist Asifa Lahore was a consultant on the film. (Getty)

“It was amazing to create this bond with them all and learn so much,” Patel continues. “It was incredible that I got to explore this art form of drag, something that I’ve never done before, but something that I love to my core. It was really humbling and special.”

His investment in the character didn’t end there. Although Patel comes from a Hindu background, his character is Muslim and during one poignant scene Ashiq removes his drag makeup as he gets ready for a body-washing ritual known as wudu.

“I practised every single day for six weeks and learnt all the prayers,” Patel recalls. “It was to the point where I would be running on the treadmill and still be learning them because I wanted the pronunciation to be perfect.

“I wanted to understand what I was saying. Arabic is such a beautiful language. I found it so peaceful and beautiful. I learned so much from it and I really respect it. I was honoured to be able to explore that and I wanted to do it respectfully and appropriately.”

Patel is especially pleased to see a gay character on screen who maintained a connection to their faith. “It means that you don’t need to decide [between faith and being queer],” he says.

The hard work was all worth it for the final product, which delicately balances the hope fostered within a new queer love with the wider hostile climate LGBTQ+ people are facing today from all corners.

“It is a really scary time,” Patel admits, “and I hope this film brings people together and shows people that it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside. We’re all humans, we all deserve a space on this Earth.

“Don’t apologise for who you are. You have a right to own everything that you are and be proud of who you are. If people are reacting with fear or with bias or anger, it’s because they just don’t know.

“A lot of people live in fear and I feel we’re being manipulated by certain people these days. If we start educating people, they will start to see that actually, this person is just a human. They were exactly the same person before they came out.

“Even though everyone’s being pushed down right now, it’s time to not give up, [to] show strength. We can make a real impact and real change.”

A UK release date for Unicorns is yet to be confirmed.