“It was the best 192 euros I think I ever spent.”
So said Stephen Dunn when I told him it was rather ballsy of him — a Canadian director with some shorts and one feature film to his name — to pitch renowned British producer Russell T Davies on a new version of his seminal TV show “Queer as Folk.” The 192 euros was train fare between London, where Dunn was working on another project, and Manchester, where Davies lives.
Luckily, Davies loved Dunn’s ideas. The new “Queer as Folk” makes its Canadian debut Sunday on Showcase, the same network that aired the American remake of the original in 2000.
“I really wanted to tell a story of queerness in 2022, because I think the word means something different now than it did back then,” Dunn said in a Zoom interview. “And I just couldn’t imagine ignoring some of the realities that we face still as queer people in this time.”
One of the most shocking realities was the 2016 shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Fla., in which 49 people were killed and 53 wounded.
After Davies’ “Queer as Folk” debuted in 1999, he was criticized for not mentioning the HIV/AIDS crisis in the series, but Dunn’s series puts a nightclub shooting into the very first episode.
The show takes care, however, not to focus on the violence.
“We never show the shooting, we never show the shooter,” said Dunn. “This is really the story of rebuilding. And the reason for that is because I think culturally it’s something that we are actually in that messy process of doing right now, realizing the ways in which maybe we weren’t as inclusive as we should have been and … I feel like we are making immense strides forward.
“It is wild to me that we can be making a show that features so many versions of queerness … and that is celebrating them with love and joy, like I cannot believe that we’re doing that right now on a major network.”
Indeed, the new show’s ensemble cast includes transgender, non-binary and disabled characters as well as queer people of colour, in contrast to the original’s white, cisgender profile — not to mention that the actors playing the leads in ’99 weren’t gay.
Dunn and his team not only cast queer actors; the show had a diverse, mostly queer writers’ room.
“Stephen talks about one of our writers, how she came out as straight one time in the room,” said Johnny Sibilly (“Pose,” “Hacks”), who plays lawyer Noah. “It’s so funny, but it’s also really touching to know that we have space where we can be the masters of our own destiny and feel like we’re not the guests, but we are the hosts … It feels like queer summer camp every time you step on set.”
His co-star Devin Way (“Grey’s Anatomy”), who plays Noah’s ex, Brodie, added that it was an atmosphere in which cast members could explore their own identities, “just figuring out what does being queer mean to you when your fight or flight isn’t on.”
Actor and producer Ryan O’Connell, who broke ground with “Special,” his autobiographical TV series about a gay man with cerebral palsy, initially came to “Queer as Folk” as a writer. When told Dunn wanted him to play Brodie’s adoptive brother, Julian, “my own poisoned brain was like, ‘Wait, but there’s already a disabled character. There can’t be two of us,’” O’Connell said, referring to Marvin, the wisecracking barfly played by bilateral amputee Eric Graise.
“So it was really, really exciting to not be the only disabled one and, hopefully, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
For Fin Argus, who plays Mingus, a 17-year-old aspiring drag performer they describe as a “punk bitch,” it was fun to portray “such a confident young queer person.” The character was also rewritten from cisgender once the gender-neutral Argus was cast, “so they are sort of post-gender on a gender journey.”
One word that came up more than once in Zoom interviews with Dunn and the four actors was “messy.” Both Dunn and executive producer Jaclyn Moore, a trans woman, say it’s important the show portray flawed, complex people.
“We don’t need any more squeaky clean best friend queer sidekicks,” Dunn said. “We need the flawed anti-heroes who can make mistakes and still be lovable. That’s a luxury that we’ve afforded our Don Drapers, our Tony Sopranos, our Heisenbergs (of ‘Breaking Bad’) … but has rarely been afforded to queer characters.”
To be sure, dealing with a traumatic event like a shooting would be messy.
Dunn travelled to Orlando to interview Pulse survivors and hired some as consultants to get that part of the story right. What’s key is that the aftermath of the fictional shooting at the Babylon club (which borrows its name from the British original) is about more than just grief and trauma: it’s also about love and joy and sex and parties, and coming together as a community, and getting really annoyed about being perceived as victims and people cashing in on the tragedy.
“When something so horrific happens, we never really know what happens to the people that survived it,” O’Connell said. “It’s sort of like they become a symbol of a tragedy, but we don’t humanize them in that way.”
And as Dunn said in press notes for the show, “Even in the darkest moments it is f—ing hilarious and that’s because that’s a queer survival tool.”
Dunn, previously best known for his 2015 coming-out film “Closet Monster,” has gone from watching the American “Queer as Folk” as a confused preteen in Newfoundland — in “terror,” with the volume on mute — to presenting queer life in all its complicated glory in New Orleans, in what he calls one of the most vibrant queer communities in North America.
Dunn wanted to channel the “punk,” angry authenticity of Davies’ show for a new generation.
“I never thought that it would be possible to be able to do this with such frank honesty, like our opening shot is of a penis,” he said. “We’re able to be bolder now than ever.”
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