‘Queer as Folk’ Showrunner Stephen Dunn on Updating the Gay TV Classic for Modern Times

·11-min read

The new Peacock drama “Queer As Folk” opens with a video of naked men dancing in front of a psychedelic backdrop. As it loops, the camera pans out to reveal the TV screen its playing on and show the main lead of the series, Brodie (Devin Way), in the middle of a particularly messy hook-up.

For many viewers, the video might ring some bells to them — it’s similar to the opening sequence of the original U.S. version of “Queer as Folk,” which aired from 2000 to 2005 on Showtime. For Stephen Dunn, the co-showrunner (with Jaclyn Moore) of Peacock’s reimagining of the series, it was one of his first exposures to the queer community, and he wanted the opening to pay homage to it, before introducing them to one that’s completely new.

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“There’s definitely a tongue-in-cheek energy with that opening scene,” Dunn tells Variety.

Dunn, a Canadian filmmaker best known for his 2015 coming out horror film “Closet Monster,” was a child when the Showtime “Queer As Folk” first premiered. Growing up in St. John’s, Newfoundland, he would watch the show in his basement with the volume turned down, an experience he described as “terrifying,” but also one that helped him feel less alone. But the show his version is most patterned is the original 1999 British version created by Russell T. Davies, which he first encountered when he rented it in high school from a video store.

“It blew me away — it was just so punk and resilient, and filled with this rock confidence I wish I had,” Dunn says.

That punk sensibility can be seen in the new “Queer as Folk,” which relocates the action of the series to New Orleans. The name of the gay club, Babylon, is the same, but the new show mostly charts its own course, one both frivolous and political. In updating “Queer as Folk” for the modern day, the show builds its first season around a shooting highly reminiscent of the 2016 Pulse nightclub tragedy.

The shooting occurs toward the end of the pilot, and the following episodes focus on Brodie, his best friend Ruthie (Jesse James Keitel), his brother Julian (Ryan O’Connell), cocky high-schooler Mingus (Fin Argus), Ruthie’s partner Shar (CG) and Brodie’s ex Noah (Johnny Sibilly) as they separately reckon with the aftershocks of the tragedy, and the effects it has on their lives. But in spite of the heavy subject matter, the show maintains its soapy fun and a sense of deeply, almost defiantly queer joy.

Ahead of the “Queer as Folk” premiere, Dunn talked to Variety about revising the series for 2022, making the show feel both joyful and political and where it can go from its first outing.

How did you think of using the British “Queer as Folk” as a launchpad for your own work?

There’s definitely a lot of references to the original British version. If you squint, you can kind of see the character dynamics, slight archetypes that exist — maybe not in one specific character, but are fragmented throughout a couple of different ones. There’s definitely structural references to the show that exists in ours, but ultimately it’s an all new story, a new cast, new characters, new city.

What made you pick New Orleans as the setting?

I mean, for me, it was a no-brainer. I have a long time relationship with the city. But we’ve seen L.A., New York, San Francisco queer communities on TV. New Orleans is my favorite city in the U.S. It has such a distinctly unique queer scene that very rarely gets to be seen. New Orleans is a very queer city. It is a liberal oasis in the south, a lot of queer people gravitate towards this community. It also was a place I visited a lot with [the late drag queen] Chi Chi DeVayne, who was a very close friend of mine and she’s from Louisiana, from Shreveport. Going there with with her and integrating with the local queer drag scene, I just saw something. I felt like there were so many stories that needed to be told.

The first two “Queer as Folks” were very white, very cis and very able-bodied. They represent such a small fraction of the queer community. How did you update “Queer as Folk” to be more inclusive?

Once I left Newfoundland, I moved to Toronto, which is where the first “Queer As Folk” was filmed. And our show is a reflection of my community. Specifically, my Toronto Community. That really is my family. And so many of my friends are people that rarely get to see themselves reflected on screen. It’s not very common to see characters who are differently abled in these kinds of narratives. And in reimagining the show through the lens of what the word “queer” itself even means right now, it’s impossible to imagine a world in which they’re not included as a part of the main ensemble. We’re not trying to represent everyone; that’s not possible in eight episodes. But something I’m proud of is these new characters that hopefully the world will get to meet and fall in love with.

As a white man, how did you think of leading the writing team for a show that has a very diverse cast, in which the lead character is a Black man?

Of course, I am a white guy. And part of my job as a creator is to navigate ways in which to tell these stories authentically. And the amazing thing about television is that you have a writers’ room for a reason. You hire these voices who can bring to life ideas and stories that we’ve together identified as important, and worthy of being seen on screen. I’m so proud of our room. They did such amazing work. And that process continued throughout the casting process and directing — television is just endlessly collaborative. As someone who’s new to television, I come from an independent film background, it’s definitely one of the more exciting aspects of this medium.

In the first “Queer as Folk,” all three of the main leads are played by straight men. There’s been a lot of discourse in recent years about whether or not straight people should play queer roles.

A lot of it from Russell, who cast them. Which, I love a messy queen.

How did you consider that while casting your show?

Personally, I went into the process not with this mandate, but with a goal of “We’re gonna try and cast the show fully queer.” I think queer people should be playing queer characters, but I think it’s different when it comes to trans representation. I don’t think a cis person should ever be playing a trans person. But my feature, “Closet Monster,” the lead [Connor Jessup] wasn’t out when we shot the movie, but then came out afterwards. Hollywood has ingrained homophobia, even though it’s the queerest industry. There’s a reason that actors are told by their agents or whoever to remain closeted. We can all name stories that are not public knowledge of queer people who remain closeted to protect their careers. I feel very conflicted about it, because it is not my place to say who should come out and who should not. I want to encourage people to come out because there is a lot of support and love and it doesn’t mean the end of a career, it actually can cause a career to blossom. But anyway, this is tangential. We just looked and we found an incredible cast of characters, and it is not hard to find queer talent at all.

The entire first season of the show follows the aftermath of a shooting that’s similar to the Pulse nightclub shooting. How did you think about representing that on screen?

I went to Orlando to meet some of the survivors who were interested in speaking very early on in the development process. And a few things that I learned were really important in telling a story was to never show the shooting, to never see the shooter, to not give more energy into that moment. I never wanted to depict it, but I really wanted to get right the feeling of that night. There are lines from some of the survivors they mentioned to me that you’ll hear sort of peppered throughout the hospital sequence that came straight out of those early meetings.

Unfortunately, the topic of our show is consistently relevant in America. And it just happens over and over and we move on, and we forget about it. But for the people who actually were there and experienced it, it was really important for me to sit with them and learn about what this year and a half had been like since it happened. Because they’re still there and they’re still queer people and they’re still living. These random acts of violence have long term impacts on our lives. They don’t just disappear, like a headline. So I wanted to do them justice, and we hired those who were interested as consultants on the show, to read scripts and make sure we were doing this authentically.

Even though the show takes place in the shadow of that tragedy there’s still that soapiness and sense of fun in the show. How did you think about keeping queer joy in the show?

I’m not gonna lie, it came straight out of my meetings with the survivors. They’re so funny and so charming and real, and it reaffirmed what I wanted to do. A lot of this comes from my community, but also I think queer joy is unfortunately an act of defiance in and of itself, but it’s also a survival tool for a lot of queer people. Trauma and joy are connected, and always really have been. I wanted to give the full gamut, I wanted to push our queer characters into genres that we don’t even really get to see that often. It’s important for us to have our queer “Notebook” moment. I wanted to take the show and these characters into places that we rarely get to see, and that is part of the joy of working with this incredible queer ensemble — they can do anything, and they should.

The one character who to me had a more or less direct parallel from the original was Mingus, who fills the same basic role as Nathan. How did you think of doing that same storyline, of a teen falling for an adult, through a modern lens?

I actually feel the biggest difference between a character is Mingus, because Nathan was so naive and just being led around the bar and had less autonomy. Mingus is already overconfident, has a self-possessed sort of nature, wants to become a drag queen, goes to Babylon to be able to find their queer community in a drag school. What happens is that night is interrupted by the shooting, and that is the moment in which I think they become untethered from themselves and they get lost momentarily in this fascination with this older community that is not the right fit. This is not the storyline of Nathan and Stewart that we want to explore. It is crucial for “Queer as Folk” to include an intergenerational component, because that is the crux — a mash of these generations. And Mingus’ story is about finding not just their community but their reconnection with drag and with their family. For me, the ultimate love story of the season is actually Fin and Juliette [Lewis], Mingus and Judy’s mother/child relationship, because it becomes so fractured. But their reconnection at the end is one of my favorite scenes in the entire show.

The original “Queer as Folk” ran for 10 episodes. The Showtime version ran for over 80. How long do you want your version to run for?

That’s not really up to me to say, but I know that we have a lot more stories that we want to tell, and we’re already brainstorming about what those those are. Honestly, after we finished the season, I’ve just had this feeling of like, “It’s not over. This is just the beginning.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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