Charlie Carver, Boys in the Band's Resident Hustler, on LGBT Identity

Interview: Charlie Carver

When Charlie Carver came out on Instagram in 2016, he’d already won the hearts of TV viewers for his roles on The Leftovers and Teen Wolf. Now the 29-year-old heartthrob is taking on a much more mature role as the hunky hustler Cowboy in the 50th anniversary Broadway revival of The Boys in the Band, opening May 31.

Given the context of the play, one might argue it’s Carver’s most personal project yet. When he was 11, he found out his dad was gay — an experience he later said encouraged him to come out as a teenager. For Carver, a play like The Boys in the Band, which takes place amid the backdrop of a pre-Stonewall America, might seem like a challenge for today’s audiences, but it’s one that’s crucial.

The Advocate: How has it been working with all the other guys?
Charlie Carver: It's been so rewarding. It's a dream come true of mine. I mean, so many of these people, who I am so lucky to work with, are my heroes. This is, for me, a very, very special experience.

Do you remember the first time you read or saw The Boys in the Band?
I remember reading the play in high school, and I don't think back then I was quite able to contextualize it. And then I saw the movie. It's been really fun for me to [look at] this with fresh eyes from the vantage of a different point in history.

The play certainly tackles an era of time when homophobia and internalized homophobia were ingrained in our culture. Do you think much has changed?
I think there's phobia, but I think there's a human quality to it, a more universal quality I should say. We still live in a very competitive culture and one with a lot of comparative shaming. I think that this play touches on that because that's a universal experience. At the same time, it's really been humbling to look at how a sort of larger homophobia [in the 1960s], but really the pathologization of homosexuality, led people to feel like they weren't fully human. I will say I think what we’re discovering together with this script is how much love there can be in the shade that's thrown. Obviously, lines get crossed and things go pretty far in this story, but I think there's something almost provocative.

The way that friends, even my friends, can gather together and poke at one another and some of that may be coming from a place of affection and some of it obviously comes from each person’s respective issues with themselves and how they feel.

Well, toxic masculinity has certainly kept femmephobia alive and well. Have you had to deal with that in your real life?
I think that that is something I hope we are beginning to contend with more deliberately and compassionately now. I experienced a lot of internalized femmephobia growing up. I kind of grew up at this major inflection point in gay history where I got to see marriage equality happen as a young person, state by state and then on a national level. As I've grown up with these major historical changes, my feelings about myself and my masculinity have changed and [I’ve] kind of grown with it. I think what's really exciting about being a young person, about young gay, queer, LGBTQI+ culture now is this sort of queerification of gender altogether.

I hope that it is through things, whether it's Drag Race or a larger cultural conversation that's happening that this sort of femmephobia does go away, or change. … I've experienced some fears on my own taking a look at my own masculinity, I go, "How much of this is a construct and how much of my masculinity is quintessentially me or mine?" I hope that it’s just an ongoing conversation and that ultimately everybody feels they are able to express or be exactly as they're meant to.

You don't want to play the sort of feeling that displays a refraction of gay psychology into different types, because I think ultimately we have to choose these characters as individuals, and the poetic that comes out of that are exciting and telling and can be interpreted in various ways. But, it’s interesting to see in this play the sort of relationship dynamics and what that has to do with gender and presentation.

Do you think today’s generation can relate to Boys?
What's interesting is, I think in 2010 they asked audiences of this play in their 30s, 40s, and 20s how they responded. I think people in their 40s wanted to place some distance between identifying with a lot of these characters, but the young people went, "Oh, wow!" Even though this took place and first premiered 50 years ago, this is me and my friends on some level, [and are] some of [our] conversations. My friendships are very caring, supportive, but there is this absolute human ability to cut one another down.

When I read the play, I see some tragic things but I also see some sort of humor and the humanity of what happens when a bunch of friends get together and drink too much in an apartment. … Just because this play takes place 50 years ago, we don't have to impose a sort of historical quality to this thing.

Your character, known as Cowboy, is a hustler. What surprised you the most when researching the role?
I've been reading quite a bit about what gay life was like in the 1950s, 1960s, early '70s, whether that's The Gay Metropolis [by Charles Kaiser] or this other book that I've been reading City of Night [by John Rechy], which is a first-person account of being a hustler back then. I've just been kind of shocked reading it. like, wow, people were this improper at the bar. [But] it's not too altogether different from now.

With any character, I think the most valuable information you can glean from a script is memories. So starting from there, kind of creating a personal story but then yet going in and really trying to empathize with what it would be like being a sex worker, particularly at that time. … I feel like I'm really settling into my best embodiment or experience of what it would be like to be a hustler.

How important is it for young people to learn about LGBT history?
It's important to know one's history because not only does it lead to a sense of appreciation for what you have, but I think it galvanizes one toward protecting that and trying to usher in whatever the next phase of liberation may be for whoever comes after us. … I’m so lucky to be surrounded by amazing people. I hope there is even more of a real practice of activism and care and knowing where we came from because without that we're sort of lost.

A lot of actors are scared to come out publicly in fear of losing roles, but it didn’t seem to impact you after you came out on Instagram in 2016.
I think for me, from the moment I started working in this business, [there was] a desire to be out. I wanted to get to a point where I felt I've accomplished enough of what I've accomplished that the consequences didn't matter, because a lot of the messaging was “Don't come out.” Even from actors who I respected or directors or agents: “Don't come out. That's not something you need to bring into your career and it is something that will likely ruin it.”

I think the moment I decided that the only honest thing for me to do was to come out, there was this sort of next phase, which I hadn't fully anticipated. I don't want to speak for anyone or be sort of any kind of headpiece, but I have to speak my truth and be out as a gay man. I think you come out several times in a course of your life and that was not the first, second, or third time, but it’s definitely led to coming out again and again — my truth and standing up for our community on some level.

I proudly wear the label of being a gay man so that somebody else can feel seen through me.

Do you think we need more evolved, richer LGBT characters on film and TV?
One-hundred percent. When I think about the future even for myself I would love to play a role where sexuality or gender identity, I wouldn't say is secondary, but where you get to see LGBT people afforded roles or positions or storylines that are complex and in jobs and ways of being we haven't seen before.

There was an amazing show in the United Kingdom called London Spy, which was just so wonderful because here you have a show about a gay guy working in intelligence, but it was also so much more than his sexuality and just a complex thing. And I go, “More of that, please!”

What messages do you hope people will receive when watching The Boys in the Band?
I hope that by having this many out gay men in a production about gay men on stage, that not only do LGBT people in the audience feel represented in some way, but I hope that other [people] in the audience feel warmer and closer to the LGBT community, [especially] now in times that are challenging. Therefore, [I hope the audience] feels that this community's history is even more a part of American history. This production might help canonize that a little more.

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