James Scully loves questions. He loves to ask them casually, to answer them thoughtfully and leave them hanging in the air untouched. Like fleeting scent of cherry blossoms in spring. His cheeky ear-to-ear grin and effortless laughter make you want to share with him the grinding secrets that keep you up at night, sleep a distant thought. Many people do.
His work as an actor asks him to be a natural storyteller, to feel a limitless curiosity about the world and those who inhabit it. James’ playbook is made up of deeply complex characters: men with fragile egos, men whose needs are to be loved, heard and appreciated, and men whose uncertainty with themselves takes them directly into the firing line. Charlie Bingley in Fire Island, Forty Quinn in You, Jason “JD” Dean in Heathers. All of them are searching for their place in the world, some struggle to find it.
James is deeply introspective without being guarded. There are, apparently, no walls left up. With a boyish freedom, he has fun in front of Kat Slootsky’s camera, letting himself enjoy the simple pleasures and textures that the natural world has to offer.
Within the collapsed time of conversation across oceans, James verses us on queer cinema and the sacred treasures that can be found on Fire Island. He explores his newfound love of Brooklyn and the queer culture he’s discovered on its animated streets. Like an element that must morph into some other form of energy to survive, James goes deep into his complex relationship with fame and ambition, the upward climb that keeps us moving forward but never fully satisfied. At times we wonder how we even got to that point. Perhaps in this moment, we’re trying to dig out some useful truths together.
Catch James Scully as Charlie in Fire Island exclusively on Hulu. Out now.
Can you recall the last time something made you full-on belly laugh?
Last night I saw my friend Greta Titelman’s one-hour stand-up that she’s in the process of developing to put on a streaming service, and there were some moments in that that made me laugh really, really hard. I was in public, so I didn’t roll on the floor because I thought that might detract from the performance. I couldn’t just insert myself in her stand-up special. I did laugh really hard and really loud, though.
Also: Jinkx Monsoon’s performance in the first two episodes of the new Drag Race All-Stars season. I was alone in my hotel room in Toronto, and it was one of those weird nights where I’d just woken up at 2 o’clock in the morning and thought, ‘well, I’m awake, I’ve got to do something’. Picture me, in bed, at 3 am, howling at my phone.
When do you feel most carefree?
Hanging up the phone with my representatives after just finding out that I’ve gotten a new job. There’s a twelve-hour period of: you could hit me with a car, you could shoot me, you could throw me in a ditch, and I’d say: ‘it’s okay…I’m employed!’. Also, when I’m with my boyfriend. Not to be gross [makes a gagging noise] but it’s as if he emits Lexapro out of his pores, because I definitely feel very settled around him. Oh, and now that the weather in New York is starting to be nice again, just walking outside in the middle of the day when it’s all sunny and beautiful, can be restorative. Society is an utter nightmare at this point, so looking up and thinking that it’s beautiful and sunny is sometimes all we have…
Those were a bunch of great, varied answers.
I’ve tried to give you a comprehensive portfolio of carefreeness.
You’re currently living in Brooklyn, New York. Did you fall in love with the city? I’ve heard a lot of creative people do…
Moving to Brooklyn has renewed my love of New York. Where I was living before is very informed by the idea that this is where you have to live, if you’re going to be an actor. I think the pandemic shattered a lot of people’s perceptions of what they should be doing. For me, it was simple enough that most of my auditions are on tape now. I can live wherever the hell I want. So moving out to Brooklyn and experiencing Brooklyn culturally for the first time, I’ve found it’s a lot younger and a lot more queer. I see people on the street every day and think that that is either a queer person or a straight person doing their best impersonation of a queer person. It’s made me feel more at home here. I have fallen in love with the city. I do bounce back and forth. I haven’t gotten back to wanting to go back to Los Angeles yet, but give me another six months. I’m restless.
You’re starring in the upcoming rom-com Fire Island, which from what I’ve read is a queer rewrite of Pride and Prejudice, set on Fire Island. How would you describe your character Charlie?
I’m the Mr Charlie Bingley in this queer retelling of Pride and Prejudice. In his goofy, Labrador-like energy in every iteration of the story, I feel like there has always been something inherently queer about Mr Bingley. He’s a paediatrician. Strong Labrador retriever energy. He’s sweet and earnest, in an almost cloying, saccharine way. He wants everyone around him to be comfortable and happy, but is often oblivious to the deeper needs of the people in his life that are often not being met. Good hair. Loves a polo shirt.
In the context of playing dark, complex characters on screen, how have you found the experience of playing a character who, from what you’re describing, seems to emanate the opposite energy to some of your previous roles?
As I’m hoping that you’re picking up in this conversation, I’m a pretty naturally cheerful person. Even in the midst of everything, I am pretty gregarious and definitely the person where I can walk into a room and if I’m not immediately cheerful and chatting with everyone, people will ask: “Are you alright? Has something happened?”, and I’ve experienced this a lot lately. I’m operating at a nine as a default energy. Playing Charlie was a return to me.
I think I get hired in those other jobs, because people are looking for those, (and let’s use Forty as an example), complex characters. They want there to be that golden nugget and core of goodness. We’ll cast this silly, silly boy to play the character and he’ll figure out a way to make him feel nice and human. It’s exhausting though. It’s definitely more comfortable playing the kindly, gay paediatrician. On set it may have seemed odd sometimes because I was telling myself to just follow my instincts in this scene: you as Charlie, you don’t have to play him exactly as yourself, but you are someone who earnestly wants to be kind and liked by the people around you, so just do that. Then you’re on set and they roll, and they get your coverage, and I’d feel like I wasn’t doing anything. It was an experience, but it was mostly a return to my essential qualities as a person, I like to think.
How often do you let yourself follow your instincts when you’re playing a role?
The best moments that happen on camera are often the moments where you do something that comes from whatever reservoir of the understanding you have of that character. Acting should always be on instinct, is the short answer to your question. It’s how humans work. That’s always the intention: to be human people on camera.
Joel Kim Booster talked about the film as a look into the ways in which queer people oppress each other away from heteronormative communities. How does Fire Island connect queer cinema and comedy?
Fire Island is like a PH-strip, or a mirror, where all of the dysfunction happening across the queer community at large is brought into very, very sharp focus. There is something that is inherently absurd about the way that it plays out on the island. Let me give you an example: I’m there on the Island with friends before filming, we’re walking on the boardwalk, and we pass a crew of men. We look over and we smile. Their crew just observes us and keeps walking. The boy in the front I knew personally, but he clearly sized us up and thought: “I don’t want to fuck any of the people that you’re with”, and so they just kept moving. Me and my friend Oscar stopped and looked at each other, and we were like: “Did that actually just happen?”, did that actually just play out, the way that it would in a film? People get so entrenched in whatever that was, that it’s almost like you’re doing camp drag of yourself. It’s not even really in touch with the way that normal people behave anymore.
I think that is where you find the humour. By stepping back and realising that so much of this is stupid, and the idea that it can be taken seriously enough to weaponize it against your fellow queer people, is really, really dumb. It also means that you’re committing the most egregious sin out of all of them, which is not understanding the assignment. We don’t go out to Fire Island to visit upon each other the oppression that we get from straight people on the mainland. The ways that especially cis-gender white men of privilege, with very little body fat, go out to that island, means that instead of the dissolution of the social hierarchy, they just keep it exactly as it is, and reposition themselves back at the top. That’s worth laughing at, because again, it speaks to a huge lack of self-awareness on their part.
So much of it is happening in the context of an underwear party, or a pool party, it’s as ridiculous as it was back in the days of Jane Austen, where we’re having a huge social melt-down because someone exposed their ankles to the wrong person. When you put it on a spectrum of everything else going on in the world right now, when I see two gay men be nasty to each other about where they got their speedos from, you just want to say, ‘hey, a reminder: trans-women are being murdered at a disproportionate rate!’. I think the dark, ridiculousness of all of that happening on the island is… you sort of have to laugh at it, or what else can you do?
What is the main message you hope people take away from the film?
I really do believe that Fire Island has the potential to be good for all queer people. I know that it’s expensive, I know that it’s complicated, I know that it’s difficult to get to. But I think, more than ever, we need places just for queer people to experience each other and to experience themselves, separate from straight society, almost in a vacuum where it’s just about me, and us, and what we feel, and not about us being reactive to the expectations of heteronormativity. Having recently experienced the magic of that place for myself, I think that it can be really healing and nurturing for queer people. All queer people. To go there, there is this very real common mythology about the island being a place just for rich, hot, white gay guys - at least The Pines. Joel touches on that, and it’s discussed a lot in the movie.
But what I’ve already seen is young, queer men of colour, watching the movie and saying: “Maybe I should go to Fire Island!”, and that’s what I want. Because as inaccessible as it is, objectively, because of the money issue and the travel issue, if we can just get way more people of colour, way more trans people, way more gender-nonconforming people to just go to the island, it will change the fabric of the place. The Pines will learn to start reacting to those people’s needs and prioritise them instead of calcifying what already exists there. That’s the realistic thing: the Island is at a turning point right now, where the generation of older white men, who cultivated The Pines in the sixties, are moving, and they’re dying. There’s not always someone to inherit that land, and so developers and straight people are looking at The Pines. If we let that happen, it’s gone. This one place that we have to go and talk about gay shit, will be gone. I’m hoping that people see the movie, and think: “I deserve a place on Fire Island and I’m going to take it”.
Could you share something memorable from your time filming on the Island, for better or for worse?
It got spooky sometimes because we would be shooting all day and then going back to the hotel and all sorts of reckoning with the question of: ‘where do I fit into this story we’re telling?’, ‘am I one of the good guys?’, ‘am I one of the bad guys?’. Spending all day satirising queer culture, and then going home at night in a house full of queer people, we’d spend a lot of time questioning the difference between the experience and the film. Where does one end and one begin?
That said, one of my favourite memories is from the last day of shooting. We had a Wednesday where we finished early, and the next day we were to go immediately back to New York. We had to have all our stuff packed and with us on set, because then they were sending us straight back to the city after filming. So that Wednesday night, we decided that we’ve got to go out. Tomás Matos, the fashion icon of the film, opened our closets and styled all of us. We were all wearing high heels. I don’t think I’ve ever looked more chic in my life. We strutted down to the dock, took a water taxi to Cherry Grove, went into Top of the Bay Bistro, and I remember standing at the host stand and being really nervous, even in Cherry Grove. Is the host going to come over and ask why there are a bunch of boys in heels at the host stand? Or tell us to go stand somewhere else? Instead, he walks up and asks: what can I do for you? We then had this beautiful, delicious dinner at the Bistro, we cried, talked about filming, it was very cathartic. That’s the kind of moment that you should go to Fire Island to have. To dress up with your friends, in a way that you would not feel safe doing in Manhattan, go and drink four dirty martinis - or not.
Have you ever done drag?
[Deep exhale] Yes. Unfortunately. The college I went to had a twice-yearly drag show. In my second year, I got picked to be one of the six drag queens to perform in it. I did the best drag that a beginner drag queen living in Ohio could have done at that time. I don’t think that's anything that I would be comfortable presenting to the world now, but I gave it my best shot. For my final show, I did a six-and-a-half-minute long evolution-of-Miley-Cyrus-number. It was a lot.
What was your drag name?
Varsity Thunderc*nt. I was really trying to model her after the senior class girl who threw parties when her parents were out of town and always looked beautiful in class, even though you’d see her the night before, chugging a bottle of Malibu. Her name would be Varsity. Beautiful and mean. It’s all the girls I went to school with in Texas.
What elements of a film script make you believe that it’s a great one?
Different genres call for different general structures. I will say that it’s important to betray the rule book at least once or twice. Sometimes the hits are the hits for a reason, but I do feel like studio films are afraid to innovate or to do something different. Maybe because they’re spending so much goddamn money on these movies, they’re thinking that they want people to like them, and they know a formula that works. But then you look at a movie like Everyone Everywhere All At Once, for example. They took a big swing, and it really paid off. The best film scripts are those that draw on that balance between finding recognisable outlines that make you feel comfortable because you feel as if you understand where you are in the story, but also have moments of taking a hard left turn on you. You need a little bit of escapism in every script.
Also: believable dialogue. Something that is really hard across the board for people, is believable dialogue. It’s writers, writing not in a way that is colourful and impressive, but in the way that people talk. Sometimes you’ll read a script and think: no one has ever said this line in their life, or ever would say this line in their life. Nobody talks this way. Only characters in a movie or in a television show speak this way. The unfortunate truth, and the reason why I feel like they stay away from it, is sometimes that the way that we speak to each other, even about very important stuff, is not very interesting or poetic because we’re people just talking to each other.
Let’s talk about the second season of You and the character you play, Forty Quinn. Forty is the brother of Joe’s (Penn Badgley) L.A. love interest, Love Quinn, but also an aspiring film writer who believes he’s destined for creative greatness. What were the influences behind his portrayal?
So much of the dysfunction, competitiveness, and the dark rebellion that we hear about in entertainment, comes from people just wanting to be seen and appreciated. Forty, for the whole show, just wanted somebody to look at him (in the way that Joe finally did in Episode 8) and say: “You’re brilliant and you’re doing a good job, and your thoughts are important and people care about them.” - that’s all most people want. As actors, we just want to believe that we have something valuable to give, and important to say. I was taking emotions, insecurities and anxieties I already had, and imagining: what if I was really, really rich? What if I could respond to disappointment or rejection, not how James would handle those feelings, but however I wanted, knowing that there would never be any real consequences for me. That’s what Forty was. He was unchecked expectations. When he was disappointed, as he so frequently was in that season, it was like okay… what are we going to do? What kind of tantrum are we going to throw today? In therapy, my therapist talks a lot about the inner child. Forty still was his inner child. He had experienced all of that emotional trauma at the beginning of his life, and then never really progressed past that. That’s where Forty came from.
How did it feel to fully let go in those moments?
In some ways, it was very cathartic, because when I get a call that I didn’t get a job or I get nervous that something I’ve written was bad, I would love to get blackout drunk, stand on a table and scream at people, but I can’t. I don’t think I’m famous enough to get away with that. What would one do if they felt like they could get away with anything in the world?
I enjoyed it at the beginning when it was just him being a dick, like in that first scene when he walks into Anavrin and is just bossing people around and being obnoxious. Then there were four episodes in a row where people were having a nice scene together and I had to enter, self-destruct and leave. By the time we were filming the brunch scene, and I had to destruct in the middle of the kitchen, I was thinking that Forty should maybe chill the fuck out in the next episode. Can he do some downers for once and take a long nap? It was fun at first, and then it really got under my skin. The only way I was relating to the other characters in the show was them being like: “It’s okay, don’t freak out”, or admonishing me for having no self-control. It’s weird. All of that stuff really gets under your skin. Even though you know it’s a job and you’re playing a character, you leave and you go home, and you’re like: ‘am I like that?’. Despite the series being centred around obsessive love and relationships, there are some really tender, intimate scenes between Forty and Joe, and then Forty and Love. I particularly loved that scene where Joe walks in on Love cutting Forty’s hair one morning in his apartment.
How do you approach building intimacy between characters?
With You, it was a hard road to walk because I knew that they wanted that feeling of intimacy between Victoria [Love] and I, but because the show was about Penn [Joe], and from Penn’s perspective, Victoria and I only got a few scenes together, but we spent a lot of time together outside of shooting. The first day we hung out, we did The New York Times’ ‘The 36 Questions That Lead to Love’ exercise with each other, just to promote that. She is such a professional, obviously, very emotionally available and had just come off another show where she played the twin sibling of somebody addicted to drugs. She was ready to foster that connection. It’s the same thing on Fire Island. I really believe in building a rapport off set, so that when you get in front of the camera, there is no awkwardness.
Although, I’ll say sometimes it’s fun when you’ve never spoken to a person outside of work, and then you both show up on set and the cameras start rolling and you just see what happens. With You and with Fire Island, especially with Bowen [Yang], it was more about having a good understanding of each other as people when the cameras weren’t rolling, so that when we were on set, we felt comfortable doing whatever, or anything that Andrew would come in and ask of us. At the end of Fire Island when they want me to be staring into Bowen’s eyes and getting emotional, I do, because I’m not just looking at Bowen Yang, the actor playing my love interest, I’m looking at Bowen Yang my friend, my colleague, my role model… somebody who I genuinely care about in real life.
You must have to get to a deep place quite quickly to feel at ease with someone in that way. That kind of connection can be really special, but also quite scary and intense. What kind of conversations would you have to get to that place?
I abhor small talk. I think it’s honestly a tool of the capitalist patriarchy to stop us from getting to know each other better and connect. The whole idea of things that are ‘polite conversation’ - fuck that! It’s funny, I think it’s a universal experience for queer people that often on our first dates, it’s like: “Um, so what horrible trauma did you endure before you turned fourteen?”.
As much as I sometimes wish that I was aloof, and very difficult to read, I’m not. I think there’s something about me, because frequently I’ll hang out with people for the first time, and by the end of the conversation, they’re just spilling whatever they needed to get off their chest and saying: “I’m so sorry that I’m sharing this with you, when you don’t even know me very well…” and I’ll say, “Nope, this is why we connect with each other”. This is why people exist - to have difficult conversations with people about things that are important to us. I love getting to know people better. I’m never really intimidated by conversation. I’m a ‘thank you for being vulnerable and trusting me with this information’ kind of person. I really think, that short of someone saying to me: “I’m a serial killer and all of the bodies are in my basement”, I can’t think of something that someone could say that I would be like ‘Wow, that was gross that you told me that’. When people start a conversation by saying: “Can I tell you something that is really gross?” I’m like, “Please. Tell. Me. Oh my god! What else are we going to do? Talk about the weather?”.
What elements of your personality would you consider as strengths to your work as an actor?
I have - and I think this is what made me really good as Forty and as Charlie - a soft, mushy, gooey centre. I don’t have it in me to be as catty and cutting as I can sometimes be. I also really don’t have it in me to not like people. It seems like I might sometimes, but at the end of the day, if my worst enemy called me in the middle of the night, and said: “I really need help”, I would probably be like “Okay… what’s up?”. Mostly I would relish the opportunity of reconciling whatever the differences were. I don’t like carrying grudges of animosity around in my body. It ages you. It’s not good for the skin. With both Charlie and Forty, that boyishness, that innocence, that desire to be liked and to like, is really useful.
Curiosity is so important in acting, and also in life. Being curious about people and being curious about things. That’s how you get into those conversations where you just keep asking questions, and suddenly the other person is like: “Yeah… so that’s how my relationship with my mum got so complicated…”. I won’t go into too much detail, but because of the circumstances of my upbringing and growing up as a queer boy in Southern Texas, I have a natural increased empathy, because I got the absolute piss taken out of me for much of my young adult life. Not in a fun, cheeky way, either. I expect that everyone is walking around the world with a deep inner wound that they are trying to acknowledge and make peace with.
Something I suffered from earlier in my career was that my desire to be liked bled into my screen presence in a way that wasn’t helpful, where I was like ‘I only want the character to be fun and desirable and appealing to the audience’. That’s not what makes a good performance. You have to be able to do all of the things, including the ugly stuff. I think that being at peace with the fact that one inch deep beneath the surface I’m kind of a mess, and so is almost everybody else, it just puts things in the right perspective to do great work.
Do you journal or engage in any other mindfulness practices?
No! I’ve tried really hard. My therapist is like: “Please start keeping a journal!”. It becomes this thing where I don’t do it consistently enough, and then I spend a lot of time making myself feel bad about the fact that I’m not journaling. We can’t be doing that. We can’t be adding things onto the docket of things to feel anxious about. I meditate. I go on a lot of long walks. I sometimes just let myself dissociate for a couple of minutes. I put on some classical music, stare into space, and think of absolutely nothing… and then therapy.
As a native San Antonian, what are your thoughts on Hollywood culture and ambition?
I turned thirty in April. Admitting that publicly already goes against the system of belief that I feel like we’re currently discussing. I should be lying about my age and ageing myself down three or four years. When I turned thirty, it was as if I had a flip-switch in my brain. I really think the beginning of my career has been gratuitous in that so many bucket-list items have been checked off. Heathers happened, and that was what it was, but at the time, it was a dream gig for me. Then after that, it was ‘if I could just get a sexy Netflix show, I’ll be happy’, and then I got the sexy Netflix show. And then it was: ‘now I want to play explicitly queer characters’, then I got to Fire Island. But even through all of that, it was ‘what are you going to do next?’, ‘how are you going to use this job to get you four more jobs that are going to win you an award and allow you to buy that house in Malibu and blah, blah, blah…’. It never fucking ends. You never get a chance to sit back on your heels and think: “Yes, I did it! Thirteen-year-old me would be so fucking stoked right now!”. It’s always the same uphill climb to something. Winning the Oscars, getting the production company, getting the three-picture deal. And then you meet the people who have those things, and they’re still… Even Meryl Streep, somewhere, is thinking: how can I do more?
When I turned thirty, something in my brain really switched. Now, I just want to work, I want to have a job, I want to hang out with my boyfriend. I want to tell silly little stories, to support the people around me and be generous with the people in my life. This feeling that I needed my whole life to revolve around me ‘leaving my mark on the entertainment industry,’ that’s gone. It’s not that I don’t have ambition anymore. I feel quite complicated towards fame and celebrity at this moment in time. Sometimes it feels like if you get to the top of that heap, what are you really saying? You’re saying: the world, as it exists right now, worked really well for me. It’s really sad to watch people who are making a difference become really famous, and suddenly they’re doing Amazon ads. What happened? A lot of LA culture is that feeling of needing to exist at the centre of the conversation, you know what? I’m fine. I’ll just play sweet, well-meaning, gay paediatricians and live my life. I think my boyfriend Julio has been really good at setting an example of not trying to fit into pre-existing institutions by playing the game their way, but by carving out work and a life on your own terms. Terms that you’re personally happy with.
The way that you describe your new perspective on work and life sounds like an ideal of happiness. Do you feel that way?
I still have bad, horrible, anxious days, but I’ve gotten a lot better at asking myself: right now, in this moment that I am currently living in, am I happy? Are my needs being met? I’m obviously speaking from a position of immense privilege on all of those things. Most of the time, the answers to those questions are yes. We live in such an anxious age because we have access to anything and everything that we would want to know in a given second. No matter where I put myself, there is always somebody doing it bigger and better. But you could spend your whole life stuck on that, when it’s like, look at the present moment! Right now, I could be feeling terribly anxious about something, but instead, I’m having a wonderful conversation, talking about press for a movie that I really enjoyed doing, and that people are going to really love. Even if I were to walk out of my apartment and get struck by lightning and die, I have already over-delivered on the promises that I have made to a younger version of myself, and to my family and my teachers. It’s so funny, it’s stuff that people say to us our whole lives: to live in the moment, and you just think whatever. You have to decide what success means to you, get really comfortable with that definition, and not think about anything else. Or something like that.
Final question. How has your acting career changed you creatively, and more generally as a person?
Recently, something that I’ve been learning to do is to advocate for myself. We are a generation that is so afraid of confrontation. We are either terrified to have it, or so primed for it, that that mode is always where we’re operating. Neither of those are good ways to live your life. I’ve been learning to politely, calmly, sweetly, earnestly, say: ‘no, I’m sorry, this is not going to work for me’ or ‘thank you, but no’. It’s difficult because everybody in acting has imposter syndrome. Cate Blanchett just gave an interview where she’s saying that on every job, she’s terrified that they are going to step out from behind the camera and say, “You’re not very good at this. How have you made a whole career doing this? Get the fuck off our set!”. So, you end up in a position where they say something like: “We’re going to glue dog-shit to your head, and that’s going to be the look for the whole season”, and you’d just be like, “Okay! Thank you for this opportunity!”, and that’s how Hollywood has become so predatory. People just want to be seen and appreciated, and they’re willing to sacrifice anything in the interest of that culture.
My acting career has taught me humility, managing expectations, and not being afraid to say, ‘no, I’m not comfortable with this and it needs to be changed’. If you want access to my body and my face and my person, and you want me to promote this project when it comes out, then we need to have a conversation about whatever this is. As it turns out, that is also a skill that is very useful to have in your real life. Traditionally, I’ve been someone who goes well out of my way to avoid having a couple of minutes of an uncomfortable conversation. That’s just a very messy way to live your life.