Living for the Weekend – Chris New interview

Gritty new romance Weekend is Britain’s answer to Brokeback Mountain – a sizzling exploration of gay identity that’s as smart as it is sexy. Star Chris New chats to Josh Winning about celebrities, gay rights and getting his clothes off…

Weekend’s getting loads of really positive buzz. Are you ready to become a celebrity?
People get very funny about becoming celebrities. In the acting world, all you do is constantly battle your ego, and that’s why people like becoming famous – they give in to their ego when everybody starts telling them they’re brilliant. Michael Jackson, Britney Spears. I’d rather do the washing up.

You actually whip your clothes off for the film as well, don’t you?
I do. I do a Ewan McGregor. I was a bit nervous ’cos you can’t act when you’re naked. You can’t really say, ‘This is the character’s penis,’ it just is your penis.

Weekend’s had a very warm reception Stateside even from non-gay audiences. Are you surprised by that?
The good thing is there seems to be a consensus from audiences saying, ‘Come on now, stop thinking this is just a gay film. There’s got to be more to this.’ It’s surprising what’s happening in America. It started on one screen in New York, and now it’s gone to 16 or 20 screens. That must mean it’s not just a gay audience that’s going to see it.

Do you think it’s a sign that being gay is becoming more and more accepted?
I think it’ll just happen naturally, we don’t need to force it. If we would just relax about it a bit, we’d find we’ve moved quite a long way. I’ve got older gay friends who I like to sit around and talk with about what the world was like when they were my age. Obviously for the majority of them being gay was illegal, so that creates an almost unimaginable mindset. One of my friends is Ian McKellen, obviously he’s had an amazing history, and it’s great to talk to him about this stuff. We have a gay film night at his house where we watch classics and documentaries, and it’s really interesting to hear what happened in people’s lives.

Ian McKellen’s been very active in gay rights, hasn’t he?
When I was growing up in Swindon, I didn’t understand what the gay movement had done for us. I’d heard of section 28, which meant my teacher couldn’t discuss being gay with me. There was one lunchtime when I was 13, he said, ‘Is there something you need to tell me?’ And I was like, ‘Nope.’ The law was that he couldn’t raise the idea, but he was trying to say, ‘I know you’re different and you’re allowed to talk about it.’ It was a very brave, generous thing to do. He could’ve lost his job.

Your love interest in Weekend, Tom Cullen, is actually straight. Isn’t that every gay man’s dream?
Not my dream! Straight men do nothing but pester me! I’m never the one going after the straight men – the straight men are usually coming to have an experiment with me. Whenever straight boys are like, ‘I just thought we’d mess around a bit,’ I’m like, ‘Go home, decide what you want to be, I don’t want to be your play thing.’ I’m a married man now. We didn’t actually buy rings, we bought iPads. We’ll get rings one day.

Do you think straight actors playing gay roles get all the praise, but not vice versa?
I’ve mentioned that to Tom, asked him if anybody’s said to him, ‘You’re very brave,’ and he’s said, yeah, people have. A lot of the scripts that come through for me are usually for a gay character, but if it says, ‘Gay. Funny. Best friend of girl’, I say no straight away. Then suddenly you’ll get a script like Weekend which is so different, it’s a huge relief. You have to jump at those scripts. Bob Hoskins calls good scripts ‘bum-nummers’, because he reads them on the toilet and if he stays there it must be a good script!

Gangland Gay

“It was an absolute eye-opener,” says filmmaker Simon Pearce. We’re chatting about his experience shooting gay drama ‘Shank’, for which the 22-year-old first-time feature director has been scooping awards left, right and center (to date he’s bagged the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival’s Emerging Talent trophy, as well as the prestigious Audience Award in Barcelona).

A tortured love story set in the streets of Bristol, ‘Shank’ follows young drug pusher Cal (Wayne Virgo). Confused about his sexuality, Cal belongs to a rag-tag gang, and is closest to Jonno (Tom Bott), with whom he shares a handful of homoerotic encounters (“in the film there’s the blow back scene, which I kept calling ‘Blow Back Mountain’,” jokes Bott). But when Cal attempts to extricate himself from the gang, and falls for natty-dressing French exchange student Olivier (Marc Laurent), he discovers that getting out is going to be even harder than coming out.

“My friends often joke that we need to do a comedy,” laughs Pearce, “’cos I tend to veer towards darker stuff.” And dark ‘Shank’ is; a rough, fearless examination of today’s youth culture, where issues of sexuality, masculinity and violence inform and enforce our chaotic world. “I’d not seen anything like it before,” affirms 19-year-old Virgo, whose friendly, rapid-fire vernacular is the polar opposite of Cal’s muted uncertainty.

For Pearce, Virgo and Bott, ‘Shank’ represents the plucking of their feature film cherries. All of them 21 or under at the time of shooting (and all, sorry about this, straight), they’d each had varying filmic experiences, but never the heavy responsibilities that ‘Shank’ demanded them. It all began when gay producing partners Christian Martin and Darren Flaxstone, having seen a short by Pearce, offered the young director a bag of cash (an estimated £120,000, peanuts in the film business) to help bring their script to the screen.

Pearce was as stunned as anybody. “It was quite a bold decision for them to make,” he nods. “I immediately loved the story and wanted to do it, but I was worried about being able to deliver on their expectations, it’s obviously a story that is very close to them. Christian and Darren have been happy slapped and queer bashed. A lot of the themes in the film were derived directly from experiences they have had.”

Key to the film was casting. In a neat twist on traditional casting calls, Pearce and his producers sent out an announcement for actors to submit their auditions by mobile phone (“we thought that was very fitting for the film,” says Pearce). They also visited a local film college to scout for talent, and weren’t sure they’d have much luck, until… “Wayne walks in halfway through the session,” Pearce recalls, “Myself, Christian and Darren all clocked each other across the room and were like, ‘That’s him! He looks the part, God I hope he can act!’”

Virgo, who signed up for the film even before reading the script, found that the role of Cal struck a particularly personal chord. “I can relate to a few things that Cal’s been through; hanging around with people out in the park drinking and stuff,” the actor says. The part also required Virgo to bare all on camera, something that he had no problem with. “The nudity scenes I had never done before,” he says. “Like, I’d get naked for a joke or if I was pissed. But it was basically just telling the story, getting the story across.” Pearce laughs at the mention of Virgo’s nude scenes. “Wayne couldn’t wait to get his kit off! He really had no problem with it at all.”

As ‘Shank’ careers towards a gut-wrenching finale, its final scenes demanded a lot of 21-year-old Bott. “I was actually looking forward to that day,” the actor cheerily reveals. “‘Shank’ is very gritty and a lot more violent than most gay films. The end was the most challenging scene for me out of all of it.” No spoilers here, but suffice to say that ‘Shank’ wields a powerful emotional climax that will shock many audience members.

So what next for the trio? Pearce and Virgo have just completed another gay-themed film, ‘Release’, while Bott stars as a mentally disturbed young man in ‘Tender Age’. But for Pearce, ‘Shank’ will always be that special first film, overflowing with ambition and promise. “Yes, it’s a gay drama,” he reasons. “But we were keen to cross over. Christian and Darren built in themes that would enable ‘Shank’ to go beyond the gay market. Part of the film is that there is still a lot of intolerance and hostility out there. We wanted to address that. It should be seen by everyone.”

Via QX

Playing it straight

“How do you do it? It must be so difficult and hard for you to hug, kiss and make love to a heterosexual on camera when you are not straight.” It’s 2006, and Brokeback Mountain – with its brave hetero leads ‘going gay’ for their art and tenderly portraying a homosexual relationship – is primed for an awards coup de gra. A giant leap for widespread acceptance of homosexuality? Not in the eyes of comic actor Jerome Cleary, who ironically posed the above question and who couldn’t help wondering one thing… What about all the ‘brave’ gay actors playing straight?

Queer characters have been coming out of the media woodworks with gay abandon in recent years – no television show is complete without a camp sidekick, no film can function without a prancing poof sprinkling the fairy dust. A recent survey by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation discovered 83 gay, lesbian and transgender characters present on television at this very moment. The days of sweeping homos under the carpet is over – they’re here, they’re queer, they’re ordering a light beer. They’re also, more often than not, portrayed by straight actors – from Tom Hanks in Philadelphia to Sean Penn in Milk.

When it comes to gay actors walking the straight and narrow, though, there’s been a media silence akin to crickets sullenly chirping. Where is Rock Hudson’s kudos for his convincing rendering of a straight man in Pillow Talk? Or Cynthia Nixon’s applause for throwing herself (often literally) into steamy hetero sex scenes for Sex and the City?

It’s a question that is – finally – beginning to tremble on certain media lips (ahem). The New York Times recently stated that “for most gay actors, Hollywood is not a warm and fuzzy episode of Will & Grace.” So that while being gay is becoming more acceptable on the other side of the pond, gay actors are still asked “wrenching questions” about their place in the world of entertainment.

Gay actors playing straight parts is, of course, not a new thing. Poofs have treaded the boards, thesping their hearts out to strains of Shakespeare since the dawn of entertainment – we’re looking at you Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Yet, somehow, gay men butching it up for entertainment has always been viewed as somehow irrelevant, as if the level of performance involved in pretending to be straight is nothing compared to pretending to be gay. After all, argue the cynics, have we all not at some point in our lives been closeted and flexing butch-style in fear of social stigma?

Recent months have seen a turn in the gay-straight tide. A number of homosexual actors have followed the trend set by the likes of Portia de Rossi and Cynthia Nixon by coming out of the closet while playing high profile hetero roles. T R Knight of Grey’s Anatomy, How I Met Your Mother’s Neil Patrick Harris and Jasika Nicole of new show Fringe have all stepped into the pink spotlight. Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman says that “we’ve gone from the revolution to the evolution”. With actors less afraid of coming out, what happens after the event?

‘Going gay’ in entertainment is still seen as the ultimate test of a straight actor’s dedication to thesping. The ultimate test for gay actors now will be if they can acquire ‘straight’ roles post-closet. As the New York Times noted, T R Knight and Neil Patrick Harris “landed the parts before they came out”. Where will it go from here? Watch this space.