New York skyline, lightening dialogue, and a stellar ensemble cast drives forward the narrative of The Boys in the Band, a simultaneously audacious and painful story of five men, and the emotional and psychological reality of queer existence in 1960s’ America. Winning a Tony Award for Best Revival, the hit play was revived for its 50th anniversary in 2018, and in a once-in-a-career opportunity, the cast will return to tell the tale later this year - this time on screen. Actor Charlie Carver is in many ways both at the periphery and centre of this dynamic. Reprising his role as Cowboy for Netflix’s upcoming adaptation, Charlie balances the line between present sorrow and hope for the future.
Since debuting in 2008 alongside his brother as one-half of Desperate Housewives’ Scavo twins, Charlie has learned the lay of the industry’s land over time. Against a backdrop of California coastline, Elizabeth Weinberg now photographs the artist at the top of the mountain, a place where he has gracefully relinquished professional ties to his twinship and forged a career of his own. A testimony of his impact on the industry and beyond, earlier this year Charlie was awarded the GLSEN Respect ‘Gamechanger' Award in honour of his LGBTQ visibility activism. Stylist Luca Kingston meets the glory of the moment. Luxury labels of the modern metropolitan man - Bode and Boglioli - ensure that whilst he is very much part of the Hollywood landscape, Charlie’s presence and energy will ever stand out from the crowd.
We touch on the psychological challenges Charlie has faced along the way. Yet with back-to-back releases of two major Netflix productions including Ryan Murphy's Ratched, as well as an upcoming role in The Batman, we make sure to honour the joy of the present, where Charlie is able to finally sit with roles that reflect who he is today.
Ratched is now available to stream and The Boys in the Band premiers 30 September - both on Netflix.
Things are obviously picking up again. How are you finding the comeback?
It's totally welcome. There is a little bit of whiplash, of course, because blessedly there's been really nothing to do, then in the last two weeks stuff has really picked up. I didn't know until very recently that some of these projects were coming out back-to-back, so now it's sort of several responsibilities stacked on top of one another, but I'm so grateful to have something to do and to get to share that pretty soon.
You were recently awarded the ‘Gamechanger Award’ at this year’s GLSEN Respect Awards. That sounds like an honour and welcome positivity during these strange times. How else have you stayed positive over the last couple of months?
On a personal level, it's been kind of nice to have some enforced downtime. Even when there are periods of not having work, so much of my time as an actor is spent waiting for the phone to ring or being prepared to audition at any moment. It's a silver lining of the situation. Obviously, it's pretty horrific what is going on, and one has to hold space for that, but I'm personally grateful for having some time to not worry about the phone; to focus on the small things. You know, I got a little puppy. I've been fixing up my place. Seeing my brother and keeping those circles of people around pretty tight. It's been nice to really appreciate every moment and have time to slow down.
Actor. Gamechanger. Who is Charlie Carver in your eyes?
Oh, God. I don't know. I think an identity is always in flux. But I did just celebrate my 32nd birthday... So it's sort of undeniable to me at this point that I am - at least on paper - an adult, though very much a kid at heart. I think with that amount of time spent on this planet, you start to have more of an assured sense of who you are: a more competent sense of all the different ways your personality or identity fluctuates. I'm just excited to really stand in what I'm here to do and what I believe in, and in whatever way I'm meant to contribute to the world.
I watched The Boys in the Band over the weekend and fell in love with every performance. The same cast from the 2018 Broadway revival appeared in the film. How was the experience of working as an ensemble in the film compared to being on stage?
Jim Parsons (who plays Michael) said very recently - and I completely agree - that it’s almost hard to imagine doing a film any differently, ever again. It was so special to be with a group of people that you love - not only to be completely off-book - but to work with actors who have been marinating in these characters for such a long period of time. It's been in my life for the past 3-4 years, so I think we all felt very prepared. And because of the nature of the project, we were able to shoot most of it chronologically, which also rarely happens, since the film is mostly taking place in one apartment. That means that you don't really even have to worry about arcing out your story, because every day you're going to be on that arc as it's unfolding. It was just really a lot of fun because nobody was worried about how we were going to show up for one another; we knew what we were doing. But there is a difference between the theatrical reality that happens on stage and how the audience informs that, versus then moving onto a soundstage and shooting in, I guess what you could say is like a 'cinematic reality' - something that feels more naturalistic.
When we did the Broadway show, for the first couple of performances we really had to contend with how many laughs we were getting - it added something like 20 minutes to the runtime! We had to learn how to step on some of those laughs and let them go so that we could keep the play going. It was so fun to have the audience roaring at everything - but then you go onto a soundstage, and suddenly that's gone. You don't have the relationship to the laugh or to the audience, so you have to trust that the story can be told in other ways. Whether it's the director and the cinematographer cutting to glances between cast that might not be caught on stage, or just trusting the writing and that the humour is going to be there. My part, the Cowboy, he's the light energy of the piece, especially when it gets dark, so that was fun to see how the stage version got transposed into film version. It was also tricky, and a really fun challenge for me: not having the relationship with the audience, but still providing that energy to the ensemble.
Perhaps this answers my next question: were you able to make any new discoveries about the story and/or your character in the film version?
Absolutely. How rarely do you get to go do a stage version of something and then contrast that to the experience of doing it on camera? It puts the different demands of those mediums in such high contrast. Bringing that character onto camera, in some ways you have to do less, but you have to trust that you have these specific relationships to every moment, and every statement, and every person in the room.
As you said, because you didn't have the audience to respond to, in any way did you feel more exposed?
Absolutely! To balance that out, so much of ultimately what ends up in the movie is up to the editors and director. You don't know which take is going to be selected to help best tell the story, so you kind of leave it all on the field. Part of the joy of getting to do the Broadway production was, 'well, that didn't that didn't feel right today or tonight, but I get to do it again tomorrow.'. There was a sense of finality in every scene that we were shooting the movie of, 'oh, that's probably the last time that I'll get to do it! I hope that it sings in the same way.'
As we’ve established, light relief was one role of Cowboy in the film. How does he fit within the bigger context of the LGBTQ+ scene of 1960s’ NYC?
At the first table reads when we were getting into rehearsals for the play, we were sharing a lot of our research, and how that research informed the characters - but also, as individual actors, how that research moved us. Being LGBT in the 1960s was, in terms of lived acceptance, pretty awful. But there was community. There were chosen families. I spent a lot of time looking at and reading about hustler scenes in New York in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. What that informed for Cowboy was a likely acquaintance with all kinds of people – trans folks, queer and femme men, wealthy johns, coteries of hustlers. There was a real sense of community among some of the most unlikely and most marginalized members of what became the LGBTQ community, meeting and hanging in these bars. And mind you, that was dangerous. You could be arrested for indecency, outed and exposed and therefore excommunicated from your family, the list goes on. But hey, these folks showed up anyway. There was a spirit in those spaces.
And so I think Cowboy is, in some ways, the most open-minded and most representative of the future out of all of these characters. He’s not relating to anybody at the birthday party other than as “new” fun people to be around - potentially some clients. Cowboy is intimately familiar with the breadth of queer New York. For Cowboy, that IS New York. He’s out on the range in an emerging LGBTQ urban America. Somebody who’s left a small town to find safety and community in a big city.
Being set in one place, it has this real feeling of being in a pressure cooker. Hank’s speech and the ending part with Michael I found particularly moving. Was that heightened from the stage to screen?
On stage, it was a split-level set in the same way that it is in the movie, but what was so genius about Joe Mantello's direction is that the action from the first half of the play is all over this two-level set. In the second act when there's a game being played and starts to take a dark turn, all the action went into this 1960s sunken living room, so it all got condensed and thrust out into the audience. In the film, the same thing kind of happens: we've all been out on the patio and there's this rainstorm, and the doors shut. Suddenly, there's a sense that you're in a powder keg: the pressure has increased, there's nowhere to go, and whatever was starting to percolate or catch fire outside is going to come in and explode. I think that's a testament to the writing and the direction. I think too, what's so great in the movie is that the first half is really joyful, and you really build a lot of affection for these characters, because everyone's funny and everybody is making zingers at one another, and there's dancing and drinks. Then in the second half, you really get some insight into everybody's pain and resentment and struggle. What that does, I hope, for any audience watching is build a lot of affection for these people before you really then get in touch with how awful each of their particular experiences are. When you leave, we were then able to open things up, especially in the movie, to show where the characters go after the birthday party - something you're not able to do in the stage production. You leave with a sense of hope about where they might be going or sense of grace with how they're dealing with everything. But you've also gotten to know someone who a lot of people might not necessarily encounter without seeing on their TV screen.
What else do you hope people take away from the film that they may not necessarily have taken away from the play?
I really do love the decision on the part of Joe Mantello and Ned Martel, who helped adapt this script to the screen, to show the ending montage. I do think in the film we get to leave the audience with a sense of care about where these characters are going; that they do continue out to the world. What I hope that does in some way is engender a sense of compassion, or conscientiousness for anybody who you might see on the street, because we've just witnessed these people go through a lot during one little birthday party and that last shot of Michael - Jim Parsons - sprinting in the dark... the first time I saw it, my jaw dropped. But it makes you realise that everybody out there is going through something, and we owe it to one another to be sensitive to the wide range of emotions that we all experience on a daily basis. I also hope, too, there's something meta about it: having nine 'out' actors. That couldn't have been done in the 60s, at least outwardly. The movie is going to over 187 countries in a simultaneous release on Netflix and I hope it engenders a sense of pride in maybe the LGBT folks who are watching, and a sense of community and respect for others who are watching.
I was very moved and thought it was shot beautifully, too. This is also your second time working with Ryan Murphy, who also produced the upcoming Netflix series Ratched in which you play Huck Finnigan.
We did the Broadway run of The Boys in the Band, and Ryan was a producer and very much present when we were in New York. Then I shot Ratched almost up until the day before going back to film the movie version of The Band - so that was really something! Ratched was an incredible experience and another huge production as an actor to jump from: a character in a much darker piece, with facial disfigurement, dealing with shame and trauma and that whole world - to then the very next day step back into The Band with these boys and this ‘thing’ from a year prior was really, really fun and exciting as an actor, but also just like, total whiplash.
Yes, I can imagine. I suppose in many ways it’s also a different side of the same coin - because there is this shame and trauma in The Boys in the Band, although your character personally does not address this.
It’s funny. The Boys in the Band being a play explicitly about the gay experience and working with other out actors, you are aware that those emotions are already on the table. But when I started having conversations about Ratched and my character specifically, who is a recently returned war veteran from World War 2 with a massive facial disfigurement, it was sort of like 'how do I get in here? How do I get into this character's heart and head without starting from personal experience?' There was a lot of research on the period and attitudes towards war - and how young people in some way were manipulated into believing that war would be an adventure, or safer than people thought. Within that research, I started to feel a little bit of my own story about shame, or the human story of shame, and wanting to hide your face and feeling ugly and all of that stuff - and the two got to meet. That was really great.
You asked, “Who is Charlie Carver these days?”, and on a personal level I'm in one place, but then professionally, I’m finally getting the kinds of opportunities to research, and transform, and sit with material. So often in television, at least in the old days, you have a brief sense of a character, and then you get a script - sometimes it would be the night before, and you would just throw yourself at it and hope for the best. But these recent projects are the first kind of projects where I really got to sit with what it meant to me and what it could mean, and then how does that show up in the work.
What has been your most challenging role to date?
I think Ratched was the most challenging for me. It’s interesting really getting to explore stuff on my own without my brother. I place a lot of pressure on myself about having to perform at a certain level as an individual so that we can each break out of our histories as just being seen as twins. Thankfully that is starting to dissipate, although it was something that needed to be contended with. For Ratched, again, just when you see it - the production value and the cast that I was working with, everybody was just so incredible. The performances are fantastic. The challenge was in having to trust that I belong there, and then being given the opportunity to have scripts in advance and take a look at the historical period and let that settle in. That was just new for me to do on camera.
Sarah Paulson is one of my all-time favourite actors so that must have been really special.
Urgh, she's so good. And she's just so fun too. I love Sarah, and I love working with Sarah. I'd met her out and about a little bit beforehand, but, you know, there were those moments of pinching myself, like, 'okay, yeah, it's Sarah. But like, holy shit - I'm acting across Sarah Paulson right now! This is wild!'
You touched on the fact that you stepped into the industry with your brother as a twin. And your first couple of roles were in really high-profile series - Desperate Housewives followed by Teen Wolf, which at the time must have been pretty overwhelming. Did it make it easier having your brother next to you whilst stepping into this new world, or, as someone who was facing inner personal conflict, were you more acutely aware of your differing experiences, as brothers as actors?
I think there was a burgeoning sense that there would be different experiences as actors, but no, I wouldn't take it back for the world. I think we both loved to act and goof around when we got started. I was certainly interested in more formal training and stuff. But I moved to Los Angeles to go to university and within a year happened to get an agent - I think my second audition ever was Desperate Housewives. Suddenly we were playing on what was then one of the biggest shows in the world with no experience on set - and experience on set is something that's very different than going to a high school or college play. There's a whole new vocabulary of things to pay attention to and be mindful of.
Having each other through that, to forgive and encourage one another was great. And to the writers' credits on both Desperate Housewives and Teen Wolf, I think part of the reason we got those jobs is they sensed that whilst we were very much twins, my brother and I couldn't be more different in some ways. We were able to bring the unit of twins as characters, but then ultimately have our individual characters, individual arcs, which was true for both of those projects. So, it didn't feel like a challenge having a twin. I think there was just always a fear of 'will there be anything beyond this? Will we each get to have our own experience as storytellers?
In your GLSEN Respect Awards recipient speech, you say your decision to come out in 2016 was motivated by the desire to help young people in their relationship to shame. What is your advice on how to address and overcome feelings of shame?
It's a process, right? There are certainly moments and thresholds that you step through. If it happens to be around issues of gender and sexuality, there is that coming out - that self-identification, first, to yourself, and then to whoever feels safe - and that is certainly a milestone. But while there is so much ugliness going on in the world, I think we're beginning to awaken to the fact that so much of the shame we take on isn't really coming from a place of sense. It's not coming from any one individual, it's sort of this collective agreement that has never really worked. I think the antidote to that is being willing to share a little bit of who you are: being willing to say, “Hey, either I was ashamed of this, or I refuse to be ashamed about this any longer” and finding community. Having community of any kind is really the antidote to it, because the point of shame, or what shame does, is it makes you feel other; it makes you feel alone. It makes you feel rejected, and nobody should feel that way. I think when you're willing to see community, you can start to really work through that and realise that you're not alone.
Building on that, the idea that ‘allyship’ is a verb, rather than being something that is performative, is something that has really come to light over the past year. What are the ways in which an LGBTQ+ ally can help create and encourage a safe space for these kinds of conversations?
It's like, "being an ally to anyone across various identities", or just being a good human being. I think, thank goodness, there seems to be a movement towards just being a little bit more conscientious of all of the various inequities that can happen that nobody chooses. We're born into a world with varying degrees of status/power based off of how much money your parents had, or the colour of your skin. These really arbitrary, stupid things, but that have a real effect on people's lives. So, I think part of being an ally is doing the personal work to be aware of and be conscientious of, of course, your privilege, but also empathise with what it might not have been like to carry around those privileges. And also to raise your voice. Say something. Show up. Whether that's somebody making a remark - I remember hearing the kids at school being like, "Oh, that's so gay". Nobody ever stepped in to correct that language. I can speak personally, hearing that, it just reinforced this feeling of being different or disgusting, or not welcome. That goes for any kind of marginalised community that needs allyship, even women - you hear the word "bitch" and the C-word and stuff. It's like, can we just for a moment pay attention to or call out the fact that that is a slur which is enforcing a level of power or domination over somebody? Maybe there are more creative and less hurtful ways to express your discontent. It's not just about words, obviously, but it's an example that when we give those words power, we give structures power, or perpetuate the damage they do and the inequity they create.
People are often very comfortable and sheltered in their privilege. Calling your peers out for hateful or hurtful language is not necessarily a comfortable thing to do. Although I do see steps towards that changing.
One part of why it's not comfortable is that it's not practised. So it's going to be uncomfortable to learn. I think, though, too, a huge part of it, at least in America, is that we've lost an education and understanding of civics. How do we participate in our local government? How do we participate in our regional, state, or federal government? How do we participate as citizens? I'm certainly learning how to do that better, and when you begin to learn how you can contribute, or that you have an opinion about something, as we all do, and can do something actionable about it - that's how you can be an ally. Because you can show up and vote; you can have a direct relationship with your local representative and speak up for or stand alongside your community of whatever scale and say, 'I also agree with this and my voice has been stated. As a collective matter, you have to hear us, and something needs to change.’
There is sometimes a push-pull to activism which I learned about when interviewing trans visibility activist, Kenny Ethan Jones. Especially when your personal story is a traumatic one, re-telling the trauma over and over can be emotionally draining. How do you manage this expectation?
It is tricky. I acknowledge, first of all, while relative to me there were some difficult periods in my life, I feel like I can speak about these subjects somewhat comfortably. But there's also a danger - I don't think anybody wants to be identified by the label that they've been given or that they wear, nor do they want to completely relate to one another through a sense of trauma or victimisation or vulnerability. I think it's important to be vulnerable with one another, but I think the grand project is like, “Hey, can we all find some commonality and have fun?” So keeping that in mind, I'm lucky when people ask me about my life or issues of identity, because I'm always able to then talk about work too. I have a creative outlet. So, I have some understanding and compassion for true activists who are fucking amazing people, because they are putting themselves out there on these subjects 24/7. On a personal level, it's about having some boundaries, but I also just acknowledge that I'm always able to redirect to talk about work or use work as a way to talk about these subjects. I've been really lucky and have kind of made a point of taking on work that aligns with my values and becomes a way to talk about subjects that I am interested in, in the larger world.
Are you easily able to separate your private life from your public?
I do feel like I can overshare sometimes parts of my private life, but I'm a pretty private person. That's a process. Part of it is just time - time in this business. I am better able to realise that I can have a life that doesn't have to be shared outwardly or that isn't under surveillance. Teen Wolf was amazing, but it was the first time in my life where, not as much in the United States, but I would go to a foreign country and get mobbed. Which is great because it meant people loved the show, but on the other hand, I'm a human being, too. Nobody teaches you how to deal with that. Having never experienced that before, suddenly you become a little paranoid, like, 'oh my god, do people know who I am?!'. And the answer is no because you're a supporting character on a teen show. But it does screw with your head! Haha.
What are you able to share about your upcoming role in The Batman?
Oh, God, I don't know if I can share much about the role, but the sets and the action and acting... It's a Batman movie! It is full tilt awesome. I always look for what the fun is going to be in a job, and, of course, I was going to say yes to this job, but I'm having so much fun getting to do the action stuff again. Thank goodness Teen Wolf was a little bit of practice but this is a whole other level.
What are you hopeful about?
I'm hopeful about our generation and the generation below. I'm hopeful about K-pop stans who can disrupt American propaganda. I'm hopeful about people on the streets. I'm hopeful seeing people smile, despite what's going on in the world. And I do think we are moving towards a more evolved place as a society, nationally, globally - whatever circle you want to draw around it - there is a move towards some more awakened way of treating one another. And we're all getting better at knowing how to participate. It's not perfect and it's not pretty, but I think we're moving in the right direction.