entertainment

Queer as Folk cast on explosive sex scenes, working with Kim Cattrall and reimagining a TV classic

Attitude meets the dynamic cast continuing Russell T Davies’ LGBTQ+ legacy (and giving viewers a Queer Eye-ful) in Peacock’s sexually explosive new show about resilience, self-acceptance and chosen family.

2022-06-07

Words: Jamie Tabberer; photography: Leigh Keily; fashion director: Joseph Kocharian; styling: Luca Kingston 

"Punish my white ass! My ass takes up so much space! It's so fucking privileged!"

These are the hilariously uncomfortable words that launch Peacock’s hotly anticipated Queer as Folk TV revival. Followed by: “Let me pay reparations with my tight hole!” Moments later, lead character Brodie bails on his hook-up after removing his lover’s jockstrap to find… a Black Lives Matter tattoo. Then, after the white saviour declines Brodie’s parting request for Venmo payment for a hotel, Brodie retorts: “And here I thought you were an ally!” 

The cast of Queer as Folk for the Attitude July/August issue. Devin wears top, by Alice & Olivia, trousers, by Levi’s Made and Crafted, shoes, Devin’s own, bracelet, by Pawnshop London. Ryan wears shirt, vintage, glasses, Ryan’s own. Finn wears top, by Enza Costa, necklace, stylist’s own, earrings, by Pawnshop London. Jesse wears dress, by Dion Lee at END., shoes, by Christian Louboutin, rings, Jesse’s own. CG wears two-piece, by Equipment, waistcoat, by Dsquared2, boots, stylist’s own, jewellery, by Pyrrha, necklaces, CG’s own. Johnny wears knitwear, leather trousers, tank top, and rings, all by Dsquared2

And with that, this writer picked his jaw up off the floor, Karen from Mean Girls-style. A fiscally tight hole, maybe.

“It’s one of my favourite scenes,” laughs actor Devin Way, who plays Brodie. (Caleb J. Spivak plays 'Fuccboi'.) “It speaks so clearly to the tone we’re setting for heavy issues moving forward: so racially charged, right at the top, speaking not only to the hypersexualisation of Black people by white people, but performative allyship. We let people put BLM in their bios, and they don’t actually exert any allyship! We got to speak on this topic, and it got to be sexy, smart, fun and drive a point forward.”
 
Origin Story

Charli XCX and Troye Sivan might want to go back to '1999' — an era when a story about a trio of white, cis gay men was genuinely innovative, to be clear — but Queer As Folk circa 2022, evidently, does not. In the words of Kandy Muse, it feels… correct. Where it does overlap with the past, however, is in its unapologetic depiction of queer sex. 

“I’m ready to talk about ass-eating — bring it on!” laughs actor Fin Argus (they/them), who plays teenager Mingus (they/them/he/him), when Attitude asks if they’re aware of the hyperventilating cultural conversation around the original’s rimming scene. (They certainly don’t remember it. They were five months old at the time!) History may be about to repeat itself: as per Charlie Hunnam’s impressionable schoolboy in 1999, and Randy Harrison’s angelic Justin in the American version in 2000, Mingus enjoys a sensuous serving of tuchis lingus in 2022. 

“It was my first scene,” remembers Fin, who identifies as queer. “It was so much…” they guffaw. “I was in almost full drag, had to do a tuck situation, go into a bathroom stall, get my ass ate… It was hilarious! I’d never done a scene like that prior. Now I feel like a seasoned pro! I was so nervous… but it was a perfect introduction to Queer as Folk.” 

Truer words were never spoken. When I was a gay teen (OK, tween), I read about Nathan’s sex education at the hands, or tongue, of Aiden Gillen’s Stuart in (where else?) Heat magazine. Like many a millennial LGBTQ+, I was thus powerless to resist the urge to sneak into the living room of my family home, heart pounding, to catch my first glimpse of televised gay sex. It changed my life, and popular culture, for ever.

 

Team spirit: The cast of Peacock’s Queer as Folk revival (clockwise from top left) Fin Argus (Mingus), Ryan O’Connell (Julian), Devin Way (Brodie), CG (Shar), Jesse James Keitel (Ruthie) and Johnny Sibilly (Noah)

Ryan O’Connell (he/him), who plays Julian (he/him), a gay man with cerebral palsy (a condition Ryan was born with), feels similar about the Pittsburgh-based remake that ran from 2000-2005. 

“Oh, honey… like every self-respecting closet homosexual, I devoured it,” he confesses. Before adding that it was “ground-breaking; a lifeline to the queer community. [And yet], 12-year-old me internalised this message that ‘It’s going to be hard to be gay and disabled.’ If I’d known at that age, I was going to be a co-executive producer and star in this, that would’ve meant the world.” 

For all this broken ground, on-screen anilingus remains a rarity: look at the fuss over 2021’s “iconic ass-eating scene”, as Fin puts it, in The White Lotus, between Lukas Gage, a soon-to-be Queer as Folk guest star, and Looking’s Murray Bartlett. “There might be a homage to that [later in the season],” teases showrunner/creator Stephen Dunn, rim-tastically, before sharing his memories of watching the original Queer as Folk

“It was my sexual awakening; my first exposure to queer culture,” says Stephen of the Queer as Folk UK DVDs he rented as a highschooler in Newfoundland, Canada, where he had “no semblance of queer community. It was so punk, angry, and violent. It spoke to me.”

In 2015, after the success of his brilliantly named indie movie Closet Monster, Stephen travelled to Manchester’s Media City (via Canal Street, naturally) to personally ask It’s a Sin maestro Russell T Davies for the rights to Queer as Folk. “I pitched him my take, with the humour and joy in the original, about a community that moves on after a tragedy,” explains Stephen. “He gave it to me. We sold it that year.” It’s a mountain few would have thought to scale, but a bigger challenge was on the horizon. How do you respectfully reimagine a 1999 story for a 2022 audience while breaking new ground and not repeating past mistakes?

Devin wears top, by Alicia & Olivia, jeans, by Levi's, bracelet, by Pawnshop London; Ryan wears shirt, vintage, trousers, by Helen Anthony, shoes, stylist's own, glasses, Ryan's own

“This was the gift Russell gave me [as executive producer],” explains Stephen. “Early on, he was pushing me to do really dramatic things.”

Chosen Family

A burning car. An unstable parenting triangle. A rim job. Nods to the 90s abound in Queer as Folk 3.0. There are also traces of Stuart in the swaggering Brodie, described by Devin as the “smartest, hottest, funniest, most humble… but with an ability to love”, while Vince’s soulful kindliness can be found in Brodie’s BAE Noah (he/him), played by Johnny Sibilly (he/him). 

“He’s the daddy of the group,” says Johnny. “On the outside, it looks like he has everything one would want. On the inside…” 

That’s where the similarities end. For starters, the disco lights of Canal Street have been swapped for the kaleidoscopic chaos of New Orleans, owing to Stephen’s friendship with the late Louisiana-born drag queen Chi Chi DeVayne. (The RuPaul’s Drag Race star died of pneumonia in 2018 at age 34.) 

“I was very close with Chi Chi,” Stephen explains. “She’s honestly the main reason I set the show there. I wrote the role of Bussy for her, now played incredibly by Armand Fields, but there’s so much of Chi Chi’s heart in it. And New Orleans is so resilient. The community’s resilience is what our show’s about.” 

Devin wears top, by Alicia & Olivia, jeans, by Levi's

The balmy Big Easy is a “moody, sexy city”, according to Jesse James Keitel (she/her), who plays semi-reformed party girl Ruthie (she/her) and lived there for the duration of the shoot, bonding with castmates by hosting game nights and a Halloween night out. (She dressed as Zelda.) 

“I felt FOMO not living in the French Quarter at first,” she remembers. “Then I realised I’d made the right choice: it’s pure chaos! Me and Devin lived by Audubon Park, went roller-skating with our dogs every day. We lived across the street from each other. There were maybe two days over those five months where we didn’t see each other!”

Fin, who visited the city as a kid, was always “enchanted, but living in the French Quarter was a totally different thing. But I grew to love it. The weather on the other hand — I’m not cut out for that!” With a ruffle of their mullet, they add: “My hair just goes: ‘Whoa!’” 

New Orleans — also known as NOLA — is a fitting backdrop for an expanded main cast of six bringing admirable LGBTQ+, disability and POC representation, which Ryan calls “inclusive, honest and not check-the-boxy”. As a liberal oasis in a conservative state, it’s a melting pot of cultures, languages and identities. 

As Devin puts it: “You can’t change geography and not change the way people look.” NOLA’s largest ethnic group is Black or African American (non-Hispanic) at 58.5 per cent, followed by white (non-Hispanic) at 30.7 per cent. 

 

CG wears knitwear, by Dsquared2, trousers, by Snow Peak, trainers, by adidas, necklaces, by Pyrrha and CG's own

CG (they/them), who plays non-binary professor and “stone cold teddy bear” Shar (they/them) lives in New Orleans full-time, and “watched some of the Pittsburgh version and not much of the UK version, only because of what you just said”. That is, Queer as Folk’s and other queer stories’ past preoccupation with one facet of a community. (Google cast pictures. It’s painfully apparent.) They opine, however, that “Things have to start somewhere. I don’t want to say ‘unfortunately’ — ‘fortunately’? I don’t know which word! It sometimes starts with the cis, white men. It’s a matter of cracking open what’s started so more can emerge. [It’s] a jumping-off, a continuation, but in a different direction. Holding the same quality of queerness, but in different forms.” 

Pose, of course, blazed a glittering trail in this respect. Johnny acted in three episodes and feels like “the luckiest guy in the world to go from Pose — radical at the time in its casting and storytelling; even the set was queer-inclusive — to this, which is very different, but so similar in those queer ways. It’s a coming home of sorts, an embarrassment of riches.”

“Working in this queer bubble was a gift I didn’t realise I needed,” adds Jesse, a rapidly rising star off the back of Ryan Phillippe-starring crime drama Big Sky and probably Queer as Folk’s most valuable player. “Showcasing all the different ways queer people can exist in different bodies, skin colours, abilities, disabilities — it more accurately reflects the world we live in.” 

Jesse, a queer trans woman, describes Ruthie as “the messiest trans character on TV! Biting, smart, sexy… by far the coolest teacher in Louisiana, I’ll tell you that! I adored playing her. She’s the slightly spikier, more manipulative version of me. A lot of her feels true to myself. Our fashion senses have melded together. But I don’t weaponise my ability to manipulate the way Ruthie does, and I’m instinctually more maternal. I am excited to showcase a queer parent who’s maybe not as excited for parenthood as we’ve seen in similar stories. [But] I often got notes that I needed to be less mothering. I was like: ‘OK, I’ll try to be a worse mom!’” 

Jesse wears top, by Dion Lee at End., earrings, by Pawnshop London

Conversely, CG’s character Shar is heavily pregnant when we meet them, and “transitioning into this next phase, involving new lives, deeper circumstances”. CG had to “work on [it], being ‘with child’, birthing these children… I don’t relate to having kids! I cannot say that’s something I see for myself at this moment or the next years.” They related to Shar in other ways, however. 

“Shar has a volcanic ease about them; in this city I call home, I haven’t always been this person you see right now, as far as living my truth in sexuality and gender. So, I took this moment to fall into and find new things for both CG and Shar. It’s been a nice, ongoing lesson, and sweet to introduce myself to my home again … I identify as this queer being, both sexuality and gender-wise. You can use the word ‘non-binary’, but as the question is being asked more, genderqueer and gender-fluid are starting to feel comfortable.”

Let’s Talk About Sex

“The thing you need to know is, it’s all about sex. It’s true. In fact, they say men think about sex every 28 seconds. Of course, that’s straight men. With gay men, it’s every nine.” So said Gale Harold’s Brian in Queer as Folk 2.0. Such dialogue has aged worse than those ‘fabulous shirts’, but it still raises a chuckle. Perhaps it’s true: Attitude, for one, can’t stop thinking about the sex in Queer as Folk’s third iteration, but not necessarily (or solely) for horny reasons. “There’s not one scene that’s sex for the sake of sex,” Devin points out.

Take episode four, when Julian attends an S&M-themed sex party. Afterwards, he lubes up for a handsome stranger, played by none other than Nyle DiMarco, one of the world’s foremost deaf activists. The scene plays out so casually, but it’s hard to imagine it existing even 10 years ago. 

Ryan wears polo, by Slowear Vintage, jeans by Paige Denim, trainers, by Converse, glasses, Ryan's own

Ryan told Attitude last year that he considers sex scenes in his self-written Netflix hit Special a kind of “trolling”, explaining: “I feel like my sexuality as a disabled gay man has been, kind of, castrated by society, and I feel like, by me doing these sex scenes, it’s me being: ‘I dare you to erase me, bitch. I dare you to turn the channel, you’re gonna look at this body, honey, and you’re gonna feel things about it.’” 

In Queer as Folk, he and former Attitude cover boy Nyle make for an impossibly gorgeous couple. “I’d met him a few times before,” says Ryan. “We’d worked out at the same gym — that’s why we have the same body! He was a delight to work with. Sex scenes are never fun to do; they require a certain level of trust and vulnerability. But I felt totally safe with him. We made it fun, or as fun as it could be. He’s sweet, funny, smart. It’s so rude. I’m like: ‘How dare you be a model and a good person, and crazy intelligent and witty!’ It’s like: ‘Fuck off!’”

“Are you filming a porn?!” was Johnny’s mother’s reaction when he told her about Queer as Folk’s approach to sex. “I was like: ‘No, Mom, we’re filming sex scenes just like other shows you watch; Game of Thrones, The Sopranos… All highly sexualised for the story’s sake. We’re doing the same thing — it’s just sex you’re not used to! But this is how we do it here on our street. Enjoy. Just like we’ve been enjoying cishet sex on TV since the beginning of time!’” 

Johnny wears knitwear and earrings by Dsquared2

Johnny can lay claim to the show’s most confronting sex scene: when we first meet Noah, he’s bottoming with abandon for one of three (!) love interests while inhaling smoke from his pipe-using lover’s mouth. Indeed, drugs play a role in Noah’s sex life, and life in general, and the consequences aren’t immediately noticeable. In preparation, Johnny spoke to “friends who have gone through addiction [in a chemsex context]. We had nice conversations about how to represent this in a way that wasn’t judgemental. There’s always a conversation about glamourising drugs and sex together, but people don’t realise how easy it is to fall into this rabbit hole of substances. I felt a responsibility to tell it in a way that wasn’t pointing fingers.” 

He continues: “I’ve known so many Noahs throughout my years. Last year, in LA, I came home from a bar and was on Grindr at 3am, as one does. Maybe 80 per cent of the people I spoke to were like: ‘Hey, do you party and play?’ I was taken aback by how many. It’s important to also understand there’s a grey area of this use. We need to shine a light. We usually only see the far, far end of the spectrum. It’s an important storyline.”

One of the most important and beautiful sex scenes this writer has ever seen is between Shar and Ruthie. “I’ve never been prouder of anything in my life,” says Jesse. “I had to experience a very personal, radical act of self-love very publicly. I hope that scene has an impact on people who may look at people with similar bodies to me with disdain, lust, hatred, admiration, confusion, whatever… I hope people can say: ‘That was an emotional, impactful, empowering sex scene with someone who happens to be trans.’ Or: ‘I see myself in that.’” 

She adds that, “When the question was first posed to me of whether I’d entertain the idea of doing that scene, I always said: ‘For the right role, project and scene, I’d do it.’ I thought: ‘The only thing stopping me is my own discomfort with something.’ But I was like: ‘I love my body. You’re only 28 once!’ It took a long time for me to love my body, the one I walk around in every day, as a trans woman, and not feel shame about it. So often in the media, we’re made to feel shame around trans bodies. When in reality I love my body and being trans.”

 

Jesse wears dress, by Dion Lee at END., shoes, by Christian Louboutin, rings, Jesse’s own. CG wears two-piece, by Equipment, waistcoat, by Dsquared2, boots, stylist’s own, jewellery, by Pyrrha, necklaces, CG’s own.

CG adds of the show’s intimacy coordinator Hannah Hall: “We had a rehearsal before the rehearsal, sat down and went through, not beat by beat, but vibe by vibe what these two people were going through in this moment that wasn’t just sex. What’s underneath and on top of that? It was very comfortable, and my first intimate scene. [I was] very well taken care of. Not babied or cradled, but [there was] a lot of information fed in.” 

Adds Devin: “Fun fact: you know young Jenny in Forrest Gump? ‘Run, Forrest, Run’? That’s Hannah! She was teaching me how to eat a butt and I was staring at her, like: ‘I know you…’”

Yes, It’s Fucking Political

Just like Mingus, a dress-wearing, skateboarding, non-binary teen powerhouse, Fin’s been living their best life through gender expression for a while now. “Especially in live concerts, as I play music as well: exaggerated makeup, crazy outfits”; “oscillating” between a long list of drag names, one of which is ‘Jizzy Lizzy’. Fin’s looks are all kinds of amazing, and so are Mingus’s. One shot of them skateboarding in a pink, floaty dress is as if James Dean, Avril Lavigne and Kate Bush had a baby territory. 

And yet, the star had “occasional transphobic or homophobic comments thrown at me” while living in the beer-soaked French Quarter. “It happens everywhere, to be honest,” they explain. “Since coming into my gender queerness and wearing what I want — for example, a dress out on the town — I’ll attract a lot of negative attention. It was obvious in New Orleans. In LA, people aren’t as abrasive, but I’ll get dirty looks and people saying stuff, which is shocking. Even in WeHo, which is supposed to be a queer mecca. More like a gay mecca.” 

They instead found their people at “queer skate meet-ups, skating around in skirts and dresses”, photos of which in part inspired Mingus, “a self-actualised twink trying to find queer people up to their bar of coolness, through the art forms of drag and hooking up with men”. Fin furthermore calls Mingus’s drag persona “a manifestation of their angst and anger. The performances are very emotional. While Mingus is so self-assured — I imagine they were never closeted; just always who they were with an accepting family — it’s still the South; I’m sure they encountered a lot of homophobia and transphobia during their upbringing. It’s punk angst.”

 

Finn wears top, by Enza Costa, trousers, by Helen Anthony, shouse, by EYTYS, necklace, stylist’s own, earrings, by Pawnshop London

Queer as Folk feels like a much-needed middle finger to LGBTQ+ oppression, amid a wave of anti-trans bills sweeping the US, including Florida’s insidious ‘Don’t Say Gay, Don’t Say Trans’ law, banning discussion of sexuality and gender in classrooms. Asked for their message to kids impacted by the ban, Fin says: “The point of the show is to let people know there’s a community that’s going to welcome you with open arms. Unfortunately, you may have to dig to find it. But we’re here, and here for you. I’m sorry you have to experience what you’re experiencing. It’s not fair for queer people to be living in fear.” 

The star of 2020 Disney movie Clouds adds: “Right now, it’s difficult to be a queer person in America, and specifically a trans person. Everyone, corporations included, should be doing everything within their power to make queer people safe in this country. There’s more that could be done on every level.” 

Ryan chips in: “More people are with you than against you. These laws are an effort from the minority who don’t want to see the culture moving in a more progressive direction. It’s going to, no matter what. You have a big, beautiful future as an out queer person, regardless of what these laws say.”

Stephen adds: “The rights of queer people in America are in danger right now. The stories we’re telling in this show are coming directly from this community under attack. Are being told by, and with, members of this community.” As such, Stephen consulted with survivors of the 2016 Orlando massacre while sculpting the LGBTQ+ club-night shooting plotline that launches the series. The episode will drop six years to the month since gunman Omar Mateen murdered 49 people and wounded 53 more at Pulse nightclub, which was hosting a queer Latin night at the time. More than 90 per cent of his victims were of Hispanic background. 

When Devin heard about Stephen’s consultation process, he felt reassured the story wouldn’t be “trauma-porny, which was my initial fear. It’s about healing.” 

Jesse shares her opinion: “When I first read the script, I thought it was executed brilliantly. There’s this part where the shooting happens, then the hospital doors swing open — but it’s Shar going into labour. It’s not what you expect.” 

“It wasn’t because I wanted to tell the story of the shooting,” explains Stephen. “We don’t actually see the shooting, the shooter’s face, any violence at all. What we do see is what it’s like to rebuild, recover. Pulse is a very specific event that happened to the Latinx community in Orlando, but the ripple effect was felt worldwide. In a way it unified queer people at a time when it felt we’d been very divided. That’s the story I wanted to tell. ‘How do we be more inclusive?’ That was grounds to revive this iconic and meaningful title.”

Sex and A New City 

The final word on sex and sexuality is an important one. The ace up Queer as Folk’s sleeve is, ironically, a cisgendered straight woman, or at least not a known member of the LGBTQ+ community: Sex and the City icon Kim Cattrall. She plays Brodie and Julian’s glamorous mother, Brenda, compellingly described in press notes as ‘a Martini-soaked, high-society, Southern debutante with trailer-park roots’. 

“I wrote the role only dreaming of being able to cast her,” admits Stephen, who met the 65-year-old at the premiere of Closet Monster and pours cold water on my assumption that a scene in which Brenda lists synonyms for sperm is a conscious nod to Samantha Jones.

“She’s so fucking cool, smart and funny — she doesn’t get enough props!” adds Ryan, who rewatches SATC “24/7”.

 

Devin wears top, by Alice & Olivia, trousers, by Levi’s Made and Crafted, shoes, Devin’s own, bracelet, by Pawnshop London. Ryan wears shirt, vintage, glasses, Ryan’s own. Finn wears top, by Enza Costa, necklace, stylist’s own, earrings, by Pawnshop London. Jesse wears dress, by Dion Lee at END., shoes, by Christian Louboutin, rings, Jesse’s own. CG wears two-piece, by Equipment, waistcoat, by Dsquared2, boots, stylist’s own, jewellery, by Pyrrha, necklaces, CG’s own. Johnny wears knitwear, leather trousers, tank top, and rings, all by Dsquared2

Devin, by contrast, hadn’t seen the agenda-setting HBO show and got to know Kim “in the makeup trailer, where she told me I could stay while she got her hair done. I was like: ‘Hello, Mom!’”

In April, I audibly gasped when Kim told Variety she would be performing her “first non-binary love scene” in Queer as Folk. How fabulous that a woman famed for breaking boundaries in TV depictions of sex (remember when Sam caused *in Carrie’s voice* “the very elusive female ejaculation”?), who’s helped millions embrace their sexualities, this 90s gay kid included, is still pushing the sex-positivity envelope 25 years on. 

“She was so dialled into the character’s learning curve around queerness,” adds Stephen, saying Kim improvised a line (“Can I say bottoms?”) in relation to Brenda’s role in “this new queer friendship she’s establishing — it becomes sexual, yes, but it didn’t start that way”. 

I’ve seen the first four episodes and am none the wiser as to who the scene’s with. Although Ryan warns me to “Get ready, because the last four are insane. Kim’s storyline takes really fun turns.” 

When I bring up Kim’s quote with CG, they give nothing away — although the smirk on their face does, a little. “I don’t know what that’s about…” they giggle. “It’s spoiler territory by, like, a thousand!” 

Whatever’s coming, I’m queer for it. 

Queer as Folk will premiere on Peackock on Thursday 9 June in the US and on Starzplay on Friday 1 July in the UK.

The Attitude July/August issue featuring the cast of Queer As Folk is out on 9 June. Preorder here.