entertainment

Brennan Clost on Netflix’s Tiny Pretty Things, racy sex scenes and why he’s no longer labelling his sexuality

Exclusive: The star of Netflix's ballet school-set teen drama is ready to dance to his own beat.

2020-12-16

Words: Will Stroude

Rewind just a decade and you could have counted on just one hand the number of out LGBTQ teenagers characters on TV – but in 2020 and the era of Riverdale and Euphoria, queer representation in teen dramas is pretty much par for the course.

Lucky then that Netflix’s latest original series, the deliciously devilish ballet school drama Tiny Pretty Things, gives its gay male lead Shane McRae - played by 26-year-old Canadian actor Brennan Clost - plenty more to do than just act as ‘GBF’ to the show’s cast of other impossibly hot young things.

Brennan wears suede jacket by Tom Ford; satin dress shirt by Ottolinger; trousers by MM6 Margiela; leather trainers and belt by Armani (Photography by Karolina Kuras; styling by Shea Hurley, hair and makeup by Aniya Nandy. Assistant stylist: Jonah Solomon)

Based on the novel of the same name by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, Tiny Pretty Things follows a group of students at a prestigious Chicago ballet school that is left in turmoil after its star pupil is pushed off the roof by an unknown assailant. Filled with back-stabbing, bitching, and enough sex to make old episodes of Gossip Girl look like Little House on the Prairie, it’s basically Pretty Little Liars meets Black Swan

As you can imagine, we’re living for it.

For Brennan Clost, the role of Shane might just be the perfect role: A competitive dancer from the age of seven, the Ontario-born actor left his small-town upbringing – and the bullies – behind to train at New York’s world-renowned Juilliard School, where he juggled training with a role on Canadian teen series The Next Step, which has aired on CBBC in the UK and various Disney Channels across the world (and which recently generated global headlines after airing its first same-sex kiss).

Brennan Clost as Shane McRrae in Netflix's Tiny Pretty Things

As Shane in Tiny Pretty Things, Brennan spreads his wings as a gay character whose story arc allows him to explore his sometimes less than healthy relationship with sex and femme-shaming within the LGBTQ community. Oh, to spend a lot of time rolling around the floor with several of his male co-stars.

As Tiny Pretty Things arrives on Netflix, we caught up with Brennan to find out more about how his own journey mirrors that of Shane, the sex scenes he deemed too racy to watch alongside his parents, and why, after years of having his sexuality labelled – first by the bullies and then by members of his own LGBTQ community – he’s decided to renounce labels altogether…

Where did your journey with Tiny Pretty Things and the character of Shane begin?

I actually got the audition for [Shane’s roommate] Oren first, but while I was filming the [audition] scenes I also got an email from my agent that they also wanted me to read for Shane. I remember being so excited, because something about Shane’s character description really resonated with me. I sent everything in, got a call-back, and was told it was for Oren. I showed up at the call-back, started the scenes and they were like ‘What are you doing?! We loved you for Shane!’ So I got like five minutes in the lobby to review the Shane stuff, came back in and they were like ‘Don’t worry about it being memorised, just read off the script’. I don’t know what came over me but I was fully off-book and finished the scene and they were like ‘Wow, okay?!’ [laughs] And then a few days later I got the official offer.

Sounds like it was meant to be. Tiny Pretty Things obviously revolves around an elite ballet school, and you trained at an elite performing arts school in the form of Juilliard: was the competition as cut-throat there as it is in the show?!

Unfortunately, that is really true in the world of dance schools. There’s 12 men and 12 women in your year at Juilliard dance: you have all your academic classes together, dance classes, you live in the dorms together… They really become your family, and you love them, but you also want the lead role in whatever piece you’re learning at the time. So as much as you love them, they’re also your greatest competitors – there is always that kind of love/hate relationship layered into everything. I remember reading the script for Tiny Pretty Things and thinking how authentically they were portraying that world, which I haven’t really seen before on a television show. But it does really mirror the world of prestigious dance schools.

(L-R) Kylie Jefferson as Neveah Stroyer, Brennan Clost as Shane McRrae, and Damon J. Gillespie as Caleb Wick in episode 6 of Tiny Pretty Things. (Credit: Sophie Giraud / Netflix © 2020)

Hopefully with less people being pushed off buildings…

[laughs] Yep! Less murder, for sure.

You said you were drawn to the character of Shane from your first read-through – is there much of yourself you recognise in the character?

A lot of Shane’s back-story felt really autobiographical for me: he was described as this hot-headed scrapper who was tormented growing up for his love of dance. For me, that feels very true in that I grew up in a smaller town - more closed-minded, I would say – [and] I got quite badly bullied for being a male dancer. And when I moved away to Juilliard I was finally surrounded by like-minded individuals and it was really my chance to flourish and figure out who I was. Actually, a lot about Shane’s story through the season was challenging for me: it brought me up against a lot of points of resistance within myself that I had to overcome to do justice to the character. I remember some days standing in my trailer in a sequined skirt and eye-liner and getting emotional and scared to go out and work, because those are things I would have loved to have tried growing up, but got bullied for so badly. I’m so excited for the young Brennans to see this character on TV – I needed this character on TV.

Brennan wears hat by Kijima Takayuki; teddy bear coat by Burberry; socks by Carne Boulente; slippers by Balenciaga (Photography by Karolina Kuras; styling by Shea Hurley, hair and makeup by Aniya Nandy. Assistant stylist: Jonah Solomon)

One of the things that’s great about Shane is that he doesn’t have a by-the-numbers ‘coming to terms with your sexuality’ storyline: he’s already confident and comfortable in his sexuality, and his arc comes from how he marries that with his wider identity; be it his relationships with people or with sex, or issues like masculinity and femininity in the LGBTQ community. It feels like a step forward.

That was such an eloquent way to say it, I really love that. He is already confident in his sexuality but he’s still coming of age – and these characters, gay or straight, are all figuring out who they are as adults. Shane’s trying to figure that out [too], but he’s already figured out his sexuality, which I love. I love that it’s not a ‘coming out’ story that we’ve seen or done a lot of times [before]. I think our show does push the envelope forward – his arc is so much more complex than just his sexuality.

He also faces plenty of prejudice because of his sexuality, but he’s never painted as a victim.

Oh no, if anything he’s a fighter.

(L-R) Kylie Jefferson as Neveah Stroyer, Brennan Clost as Shane McRrae in episode 1 of Tiny Pretty Things (Credit: Sophie Giraud / Netflix © 2020)

There’s that incredible scene where you get to beat on a guy who uses a homophobic slur – did that feel as good as it looked?!

It did! In real life I’ve never punched anyone [laughs] so I had to lean on the stunt co-ordinator quite a lot to teach me how to make it look convincing, but that scene was really cathartic for me. And similarly, the scene later on where I punch Ramon. I’m sure a lot of male dancers have felt this – I was told a lot growing up ‘you need to dance like a man’, and like, what does that mean?! Movement doesn’t have a gender. I love that that was woven into the story. Shane is a fighter and stands up for himself, which is something I wish I’d done more growing up.

How do you look back on that period of your life now? Is there any lasting resentment, or have you managed to find some sense of closure?

Yeah, I definitely have [found closure]. I’ve actually done a lot of public speaking at elementary schools and the speech I give is kind of an anti-bullying assembly. The underlying message is ‘never give up on your dreams, and do what makes you happy, no matter what anyone else says’. I was in grade nine and kids were throwing ice balls at me across the street, calling me slurs and teasing me for being a male dancer, and then, not even six years later, I was on a Disney Channel show dancing and at Juilliard. Holding on to what made me happy brought me success. And while I was on that Disney show, I had kids that had bullied me in school reaching out and apologising. I’m so glad I didn’t give [dancing] up, because none of this ever would have come about.

 
 
 
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You choose not to label your sexuality: How much did that bullying affect your journey to understanding your own sexuality and sense of self?

Unfortunately, I think it really did. I remember struggling a lot with not adhering to that heteronormative way of being - struggling because I so badly didn’t want the bullies to be ‘right’. It was such a battle within myself, such a loathing. For me, my biggest journey to accepting my sexuality and myself was letting go of the anger at the bullies: I put my own happiness above my, sort of, resistance to not letting them be ‘right’. That really was for me my biggest struggle in changing the way I thought about my sexuality, because my family, my friends at Juilliard were so accepting of whatever, but it was me - I couldn’t accept myself because I didn’t want to fall into the ‘stereotype’.

When people have been telling you what you are from a young age while belittling you for it, it can force you far into a place of repression.

Yeah, you’re right. And even at Juilliard, I was in a place that was more accepting, where I thought I could figure it out, but again everyone was labelling me, telling me I was gay. They had this saying they said to all the freshman boys: ‘Gay by May - you’ll be gay by May'. I ended up ‘coming out’ because I was dating a guy, but I never actually ‘came out’ as gay - one of my friends just told everyone I was gay, and so it was this label that was placed on me. Now, I’m in this place where I’ve actually gone – I wouldn’t say, backwards – [but] it’s a whole new way of being true to myself in that I never got to decide that label, they decided it for me. So now I’m in a place of, I just don’t label it. I think I could fall in love with anybody, and I never had that confidence before, when I was younger [to say that]. It was really repression, and then letting other people label me because I didn’t have the confidence to speak my truth, I guess. And I think playing Shane has really given me this confidence to be myself now.

Brennan wears suede jacket by Tom Ford; satin dress shirt by Ottolinger; trousers by MM6 Margiela; leather trainers and belt by Armani (Photography by Karolina Kuras; styling by Shea Hurley, hair and makeup by Aniya Nandy. Assistant stylist: Jonah Solomon)

On an unrelated by not dissimilar subject: Tiny Pretty Things has got to be one of the most sexed-up teen dramas I have ever seen. Was it intimidating knowing those scenes were coming up? Because they’re pretty full-on.

Very intimidating, yes. I was very nervous about it. I myself am not a very nude person, but Shane is! I remember reading the script when they’re all skinny dipping, and I remember it said ‘All the dancers are swimming in their underwear – except for Shane, who’s fully naked!’ I was like ‘Damnit, really?!’ But I remember talking to my grandparents about it, and I was going on and on, saying ‘I’m really nervous about the sex scenes, my butt’s gonna be on TV’, and my grandma just said, ‘Brennan, a butt’s a butt’. So that really got me out of my head.  But the scene with Barton [Cowperthwaite, who plays Oren] in the toilet, that scene was my first day on set! I don’t know why it was scheduled that way, but my first day on camera was filming that sex scene, which was throwing me to the sharks. I had a concussion that day too - Barton was so sweet, we’re wrestling in that scene and he would like, cushion my head as I got flipped around [laughs]

It was such a safe environment. Our intimacy co-ordinator would always come in with these bits and bobs, like ‘I found this exercise ball to put between you guys so that when you’re thrusting your rhythm can sync up without actually touching!’ and we were just like, ‘Amazing!’ There’s so much that goes into those scenes you don’t see. When I watch, I’m like ‘Damn, this is really sexy!’ but on the day it does not feel that way.

So I guess the big question is: will you be watching the show with your grandma?!

So we actually were sent the episodes a few months ago, and I showed my grandparents the first episode, and I warned them, like ‘There’s a sex scene’, you’ll see my butt’, and they were like ‘Whatever, we don’t care!’ My grandparents are some of the most liberal and accepting people I’ve ever known, and they loved it. My parents and I sat and watched all 10 episodes together, but I did fast-forward the big sex scene in episode six. I made the decision. I was like ‘I would like to skip it, I’m going to feel weird!’ [laughs]

Having seen that scene, I think I would’ve made the same call in your position...

[laughs] Yeah!

 
 
 
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Your big breakthrough came in Disney Channel show The Next Step, which recently generated global headlines for including its first same-sex kiss and aired on the CBBC children’s channel here [in the UK]. Was that a proud moment for you?

Yeah, and it was something we discussed when I was on the show too. I’m just so excited that it finally happened. It’s about time – it should have happened sooner. That show has a vast audience, so many young people are watching it, and I think it’s really important for them to see so many people represented on the show, and that was one facet of the dance world that they’d never touched on - it was a bit of a blind spot in the earlier seasons. I’m proud the show finally took that on. I wish it could have been my character on the show, but he’d been written more as a villain, and so I understand [it]. They were really worried about introducing a same-sex love interest for him when he’d been written as the villain. ‘Do the young people think that being this way makes you a villain?’ So I completely understand. But I’m so excited it’s finally on the show.

What does 2021 hold for Brennan Clost?

So I recently acquired the shopping rights for an LGBTQ book that I read years ago, which really moved me, so we’re in the development [stage] for that and hopefully bringing that to the screen and getting it bought in the new year. I’m really excited about the story: it’s a really fun novel and it presents so many facets of the LGBTQ community that aren’t often demonstrated on screen. And I really hope we get renewed for a second season of Tiny Pretty Things. I would be so happy to be back again...

Tiny Pretty Things is streaming on Netflix now.