Fellow Travelers creator says Jonathan Bailey and Matt Bomer had ‘spark’ from first chemistry read
Fellow Travelers creator Ron Nyswaner has told PinkNews about the immediate chemistry between Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey and the importance of casting LGBTQ+ actors in the series.
Showtime’s adaptation of Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel Fellow Travelers is an epic voyage across LGBTQ+ US history spanning four decades, from the 1950s to 1980s. Considered one of the darkest periods to exist as a queer person in the US, the story traces the LGBTQ+ rights movement from McCarthy-era “persecution of homosexuals” through to the AIDS epidemic.
However, the beating heart of this eight-episode political thriller is the tension-filled forbidden love between Catholic college graduate Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey) and State Department political upstart Hawkins Fuller.
Their volatile romance – packed with steamy sex and an ever-changing power dynamic – is relentlessly threatened by the turbulent political climate.
They are joined by a standout ensemble cast, including Black political journalist Marcus Hooks (Jelani Alladin), his lover and dazzling drag queen Frankie Hines (Noah Ricketts), sharp-minded lesbian secretary Mary Johnson (Noah Heufer) and Hawkins’ long-suffering wife Lucy Smith (Allison Williams).
Series creator and executive producer Nyswaner (alongside Bomer, Robbie Rogers and Daniel Minahan) delves into how he brought this ambitious project to life with PinkNews.
What drew you to the project and why did you want to adapt Thomas Mallon’s novel?
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I really fell in love with the relationship at the centre of Mr Mallon’s beautiful novel [between] Hawkins Fuller and Timothy Laughlin. A love affair between opposites really; often filled with frustration and missed opportunities. The exchange of power and an unequal desire all makes for really good drama.
I love drama that has high stakes to it. What’s interesting is when people really don’t fit together but they have these moments of such joy and pleasure in each other but life just keeps interfering and their own flaws keep interfering. That’s what really drew me to this material.
Tim and Hawkins’ relationship is at the heart of the show. What was the process behind casting Jonathan Bailey and Matt Bomer and watching their chemistry play out?
At least three years ago, Robbie Rogers, one of my co-executive producers, introduced me to Matt. Matt had read the book and was interested. Matt walked in the room, and I knew that [he] was a really fine actor. He had a look that was just perfect for Hawkins Fuller. Hawkins’ beauty is actually something that he uses. He’s very aware that he’s attractive – which is not being conceited – just knowing that that gives you power.
Jonathan Bailey came to us very early. Robbie had met him while we were casting My Policeman and I knew Jonathan from Broadchurch, which is one of my favourite favourite series of all times, [where he plays] the young, eager reporter.
It’s funny, when I watched Bridgerton [Bailey plays leading man Anthony] I was actually a little thrown because he’s playing almost a Hawkins Fuller-type of character, [who is] very sure of himself.
When Matt and Johnny did a chemistry read, Johnny was in London and Matt was in the United States, so they were continents apart on Zoom pretending to be sitting on a park bench next to each other. It was just obvious that we had to see these two people play these roles, [it was] self-evident.
They really, really, really liked each other. Matt and Jonny really [had] the spark between them as friends and there was a warmth between them they then used in their relationship as actors.
Yes. And also Jelani Alladin, Noah Ricketts and Erin Neufer are also out LGBTQ people. That casting was important to us, but not a requirement. [We went] into casting with an open mind but looking to find LGBTQ people to play these roles. When you are casting you are not allowed to ask [if an actor] is LGBTQ so we have had to sometimes do a little bit of detective work.
Robbie would go on people’s Instagram accounts, and he said, ‘oh yeah, he’s following me. He’s gay.’ So Robbie was our detective.
The series also has several explicit sex scenes. There’s been a lot of debate in the media around the censorship of gay sex scenes, how did you make sure the series wasn’t toned down for a straight audience?
It was very important to me. The president of Fremantle [US, Danta Di Loreato] said to me ‘let’s make a show that makes straight men want to have gay sex?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go for that’. And then [the network] Showtime just said: ‘Push it, go for it. Don’t hold back’. There was no pressure at all.
The actors were so committed to telling the story of Fellow Travelers and being absolutely present every moment. Of course we had intimacy coordinators there to make people safe. Every sex scene in our show moves the story forward. We have a love story that is wrapped in a political thriller.
When I say political thriller, that’s not only about the McCarthy era and the persecution of homosexuals but it also applies to the 80s, when our government was allowing gay people to die of AIDS.
So there’s always that pressure of high stakes that we put our love story in the middle of and that applies to the sex scenes as well. Every sex scene is about an exchange of power.
Did Jonathan and Matt have any concerns about filming the scenes?
Nobody stressed. Everybody felt completely trusted and they trusted me and they trusted the script. The actors didn’t come feeling that they had to somehow work against the script that was asking them to do things that were not moving their characters’ stories forward.
They were all committed to the same thing. Let’s make this a great scene about the story. Once you do that then it’s just a matter of people wearing protective things in certain places and, you know, clearing the set.
How did you approach telling this intersectional story, which includes perspectives from queer Black people and women from this era? Do you think that there has been a shift in queer storytelling recently that offers a wider perspective?
Obviously, there’s been a shift in our culture, certainly over my lifetime. Until I went to college, I had never heard the word homosexual spoken aloud. When I grew up, there were no gay characters in any book I could read, or any movie I watched, or any television show I’d see.
When I came out of the closet there was this whole secret world – which was fantastic – behind closed doors. Gradually we began to have some visibility, so the world has definitely changed. Certainly, in 2023, I didn’t want to do an all-white show. I just didn’t think that that was what we should be doing at this point.
I’m a storyteller. It’s fascinating and challenging to be white and LGBTQ [between the 50s and the 80s]. How much more fascinating was it to be Black and LGBTQ, what did that mean?
I worked with some great collaborators and with Jelani and Noah. There were many, many conversations with Jelani. He wrote a journal in Marcus’ voice and would sometimes repeat it to me.
I’m not interested in noble victims. The hardest thing is to give your heart to another human being because you might lose that person. Let’s not embrace victimhood, let’s embrace the struggle to love.
How do you hope Fellow Travelers resonates in the current political climate?
There are obvious parallels between the power that [former US senator] Joe McCarthy sought and got by creating fear and paranoia and dividing people and going after minorities so that he could accumulate power [and what’s] happening right now in the United States and other Western democracies.
As LGBTQ+ people, we will continue to struggle but we must not give into despair. It’s not the worst time it’s ever been, trust me. We’re not invisible anymore. Continue to struggle but find the joy in the struggle and take the risk to love and get your heart broken. You’ll survive.
Fellow Travelers premieres on Friday, 27 October on Paramount+ with Showtime. The next episode airs on Sunday, 29 October and subsequent episodes will release weekly.
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