Known for his stage and television work in his native England, Chris New makes his big-screen debut as Glen, a confident and cheeky artist, in Weekend, out British filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s festival favorite about two gay men who meet at a London nightclub and spend the next 48 hours having sex, sharing their stories, and baring their souls. New, a 30-year-old gay actor, stars opposite straight actor Tom Cullen in the naturalistic romance, which opened September 23 in the U.S. and, propelled by positive reviews and strong box office, continues its national rollout through October. Recently named one of five breakthrough performers of the fall film season by The New York Times, New phoned The Advocate from across the pond to discuss his decision to be out professionally and the not-so-dirty secrets behind the film’s realistic sex scenes.
The Advocate: Have you been keeping up with how well Weekend is being received in the U.S.?
Chris New: Yeah, Andrew, Tom, and I have all been following the progress over there, and we’re just absolutely amazed. It’s really weird, because the film is obviously so intimate, and it was put together very quickly on a very small budget with a very small crew. When we finished, we thought, Well, we had a good stab at it. Hopefully, it might get seen by some people, maybe screen at some festivals, and maybe go straight to DVD. So to see the film getting such strong personal reactions from people is quite astounding and really thrilling.
You’re not one of those actors who won’t read reviews?
I don’t like to read reviews about me, but I quite like to read reviews about the project I’m doing, just to see if anybody’s going to buy a ticket.
One of my favorite reviews is in Entertainment Weekly, which called you “magnetically slippery.”
[Laughs] I’m not really sure how that can work, but I like it.
Your character Glen, an artist, has a great line in the film about his latest exhibit: “The problem is that no one’s gonna come see it because it’s about gay sex. The gays’ll only come because they want a glimpse of cock, and they’ll be disappointed. The straights won’t come because it’s got nothing to do with their world.” Is that more or less what you anticipated about Weekend’s audience?
Yeah, when we were talking about the film, Andrew and I were very keen on discussing that notion. I think — I can’t really remember, because we did so many versions of each scene — but I think we were going to have a reference to gay films as well. We were going say something like, “Gay films only ever get seen in gay festivals,” but we thought it was too pointed a reference. We did worry that the film would be labeled a “gay film” and put into a ghetto, but the great thing is that it has broken out, not only with audiences but also with critics. You often worry that critics might look at the film more cynically than a normal audience, but their reaction has been incredible, and it’s encouraging the film to do better and break out of any pigeonhole that it might be placed in.
For the gays who “want a glimpse of cock,” there is some brief male nudity in the film. Did you have any hesitations about that?
I was a bit nervous. Some actors don’t have a problem with it because they’ve got talents downstairs that they don’t mind showing off. Ian McKellan, for example, has the biggest thing you’ve ever seen, so no wonder he gets it out. But yeah, there’s always a worry with nudity, and partly because it’s harder to hide behind the character when you’re naked. But with Andrew’s script, we all felt that the sex was never gratuitous or just there for titillation. It was purely there to drive the plot and reveal the characters.
There has been criticism that the drug use and promiscuity shown in the film perpetuates the stereotype that gay men are all druggy whores. How do you respond to that?
If you watched Beauty and the Beast, you wouldn’t say that all beasts lived in castles and had magic mirrors, would you? So that argument is a bit silly. Whenever you have a character that portrays any kind of action, you’re never making a judgment that all people are like that. But the most important thing the drugs and sex aspect of the film is that the film doesn’t rely on those things to be interesting, and it’s not glamorizing it. What’s more important is what’s going on between these two guys.
Both of your performances feel incredibly natural. Did you adhere strictly to Andrew’s script or was there room for improvisation?
Andrew’s script was very strong from day one, but he wasn’t precious about it. We had a week of rehearsals where we went through every scene, every line, and talked through the entire script. We shared our ideas, we maybe looked at things that could be trimmed, rewritten, or shaped in a different way. But when we came to shoot, Andrew said to chuck the script away. We still ended up staying very close to the script, and we certainly kept the same structure of the scenes, but we always felt like we had the freedom to change a word or a phrase. If I wanted to put in a different gag to make Tom laugh for real, I could do that. Every time we did a take, Andrew encouraged us to do the scene completely different. Just having the freedom to do whatever we wanted was incredible, and it led us to that naturalistic style.
Were there any extra challenges involved in shooting those very intimate sex scenes with Tom, a straight actor?
Well, we were all understandably embarrassed about doing it. Andrew made a deal with us that we would film those scenes very quickly and then we’d all ignore that it ever happened and never talk about it again. Andrew actually spent the entire shoot with a towel over his head, trying not to look at us. Those scenes are what felt most like work.
There’s always a certain amount of controversy involved when a straight actor is cast in a gay role, primarily because of an argument that it’s stealing parts from gay actors. What’s your take on that?
It’s weird. I asked Tom if people have said things to him like, “Oh, you’re very brave to take this role,” and he said that yes, he has gotten that impression. But as the film gets a bigger audience, I hope that people realize that those things really don’t matter. It’s about who’s the best actor for the job. During the auditions, I read with various actors; some of them were obviously gay, some of them weren’t, and some of them we weren’t sure. We never asked, of course. Andrew just chose the actor that he thought could do the role the best. It’s a difficult subject. Maybe only straight actors should play gay roles because then you know they’re acting? I don’t know. Look, it’s obvious that people behave very differently toward Tom, being a straight actor playing a gay role, than they do toward me, being a gay actor playing a gay role. But I’m not very interested in dwelling upon it. It bores me a bit.
There’s also a discussion in the film about the shared gay experience of coming out to one’s family. What was your coming out like?
My coming out was sort of like Glen’s. I just said to my parents, “Look, you have to deal with it. If you can’t deal with it, it’s your problem, not mine.”
How did that go over?
Well, I never really asked after that. I just carried on with my life. I was born with a certain amount of stubbornness, which is sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse. In the area of coming out, I was just stubborn.
As an actor, when did you decide to be out professionally?
There was an interesting moment. It was when I did my first play out of drama school [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art]. I did a play called Bent by Martin Sherman in the West End [in 2006]. It was a massive role to get right out of drama school, and it was a really lucky break. I did the play with Alan Cumming. I had an agent at the time who, when it came to talking to press interviews, told me not to come out. She said, “Just don’t mention the gay thing.” I spoke to Alan about it, and he took me aside and said, “Look, if you want to be really unhappy and feel like you’re hiding something forever, then by all means don’t mention the gay thing. But if you want to live a happy life, just be honest about it, even if you have to deal with some consequences.” I agreed with him, so I fired that agent and I came out.
Have you felt any consequences?
If it has affected anything, then I don’t really know about it. If people are having a conversation about it in a room when they’re talking about casting — “Oh, no, we can’t have Chris New because he’s gay” — then I never hear about it, so it doesn’t really bother me. I’ve had a very nice career so far. If I ever get any backlash for being an out gay actor, they can eat my ass. [Laughs] I’d rather live in the world I live in than live with a lie.
Do you feel like an actor’s sexuality is as much of an issue in the U.K. as it is in Hollywood? We hear Rupert Everett chime in on the subject from time to time, but —
I think Rupert Everett might just have too much time on his hands. There might be a lot of other reasons why Rupert Everett’s not happy with his career, but if I were him I’d be very happy — he’s done some great stuff. But yeah, I do think that sexuality is an issue in the British film and theater industry. Very often the scripts that come through the door for me are for gay roles, but it’s up to me whether or not I take them. If the part says, “20s, camp, best friend to a girl,” I’ll probably not do it.
I imagine that Weekend has made you rather popular with some gay men on Twitter. Has anyone reached out to ask for a date or a shag?
[Laughs] I think Glen’s too much of a dangerous character for people to fall totally in love with him. Glen’s not a boy you particularly want to take home to your mother. But there has been a lot of appreciation from people on Twitter who tell me how much they love the film. Besides, I’m a married man now — I just got married, actually — so all those days are gone. But I’m sure there won’t be too many people weeping in their pillows.
Congratulations on your marriage.
Thank you. Well, over here it’s not called marriage, obviously — it’s called a civil partnership — but I’ll use the word marriage whether they like it or not. I think the most admirable thing about the American gay marriages, like in New York, is that you’re actually getting the word marriage. In America, you guys have a lot more fight than we do over here, partly because the antigay movement is so much more visible in America. It’s really interesting to watch the gay rights movement in America from over here. It’s so much more focused and energetic than it is here, where the attitude is very relaxed, very “Oh, it’s fine.” I like the American refusal to compromise.
Finally, I must know what the semen was made out of during one of the more graphic sex scenes in Weekend. It looked suspiciously authentic.
[Laughs] I will tell you two secrets about that scene. When we’re grabbing at each other’s erections, those are finely carved carrots in our pants, which is apparently an old trick. I actually had to snap mine in half because it was far too big. And then the semen itself was just good old-fashioned hand soap. So now everybody can try it. You too can recreate that moment at home!
For more info visit Weekend-Film.com.