entertainment

Fire Island's Bowen Yang: 'There's no such thing as a perfect queer movie'

Exclusive: Attitude sits down with Bowen Yang, one of the stars of the upcoming queer rom-com, Fire Island to discuss the film, what makes him funny, and Saturday Night Live.

2022-05-31

Words: Alastair James; pictures: Searchlight Pictures

Bowen Yang is forensic. 

During our 40-minute chat he talks of “the thesis” of the gay rom-com, Fire Island (due for release on Hulu/Disney+ on 3 June), observing the “machinations” of comedy, and the crucibles of life. He admits in this interview his answers are sometimes "overly cerebral". 

Even asking if he considers himself a funny person, the answer is not a simple yes or no. It’s considered and methodically thought through in front of me. There’s never at any point in our Zoom call a moment where Bowen, 31, is quick with a definitive answer. Everything is contemplated.

As an interviewer, it’s incredibly interesting to watch especially as someone so naturally hilarious walks me through their thought process about whether they really are or not.

At one point he turns to me and asks, "Am I answering your questions?" Even Bowen gets lost in his process. 

Bowen shot to prominence after getting a job on the long-running US sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live in 2018. His hiring was something of a boundary pushing moment: He was the first Chinese American cast member on the show, the third openly gay, and the fourth cast mate ever of Asian descent. The excitement of the new job was slightly tempered by the revelation that Shane Gillis, who was hired at the same time as Bowen, had previously made homophobic and racist comments. Gillis was fired after three days. In subsequent interviews (we don’t touch on it here) Bowen has revealed he reached out to Shane and the two spoke about the matter and came to an understanding, as phrased by GQ.

Since then, Bowen has gone on to viral fame, and even been nominated for an Emmy, for several of his characters on the show including the iceberg that sank the Titanic (or did the Titanic hit the iceberg?) Chinese trade representative Chen Biao and one half of the iconic pairing, the Trend Forecasters. Aidy Bryant, his partner in crime, has now left the show following the finale of the most recent season. Will the Trend Forecasters continue?

“No, I think it was a nice little swan song for them as characters. I hope and pray that I'm around when Aidy inevitably comes back to host… But who knows! I was very flattered when she said, ‘let's do one last Trend Forecasters.’” A return sounds possible.

But not only is Bowen known for his hefty comedic chops on SNL, but the comedian-actor has also carved out a following on social media through flawless lip-syncing to movie scenes such as THE Miranda Priestly scene from The Devil Wears Prada. You know “that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean…”

In addition to that, he fronts a very successful Las Culturalistas podcast with his long-time friend and fellow funnyman Matt Rogers. You’ll also find Bowen popping up here and there, including in another upcoming gay rom-com, Bros alongside Billy Eichner, Luke Macfarlane, and a heap of LGBTQ talent. 

So, you may have heard of him somewhere along the way.

Congratulating Bowen on his many projects as we sit down to chat, I ask how he’s faring being so busy. “I think this has been a nice moment of boundary setting for myself,” he concedes. “Mostly in terms of going, ‘you have to be the person to put a cap on things.’ Because it did get a little dicey for a second, recording the podcast every week, going into the psychically taxing space that is SNL every week, and then thinking about what I'm gonna say about this movie, and then potentially field other stuff.

“I had to untangle a lot, but I think that's probably this crucible that everybody kind of walks through in life, just knowing how much you can commit yourself to things. I think about how edifying this whole process has been just in terms of knowing how deeply I should engage in something. But I'm in a much better place than I was earlier.”

Left to right (top) Bowen Yang, Tomas Matos, Matt Rogers, Torian Miller (bottom) Joel Kim Booster, and Margaret Cho in Fire Island (Photo: Hulu/ Searchlight Pictures)

That place right now is the international press day for Fire Island, a gay take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice based around the gay mecca that is Fire Island in New York. The film sees Joel Kim Booster star (he also wrote the film) as Noah, the Lizzie Bennett of the film as he and his gaggle of gays go on their annual week-long pilgrimage to the queer haven. Accompanying him is his best friend Howie (Yang), the Jane of the group, as well as Matt Rogers as Luke, Tomas Matos as Keegan, Torian Miller as Max, and Margaret Cho as the lesbian, Erin.

There they meet the handsome doctor, Charlie (James Scully) as well as the delightfully wicked Cooper (Nick Adams), and the brooding and standoffish Will (Conrad Ricamora), our Darcy. From there the film follows the major beats of Austen’s novel as Noah and Will grow from reluctant acquaintances to something more, while Howie and Charlie mirror the journey of Jane and Mr. Bingley. Unlike Austen’s novel, however, there’s an underwear party, drugs, revenge porn, and a bit of sex. And then there’s plenty of heart and humour. 

Left to right: James Scully, Nick Adams, and Conrad Ricamora in Fire Island (Photo: Hulu/Searchlight Pictures)

Bowen first got involved in Fire Island thanks to his close friendship with Booster, a relationship that is mirrored in their on-screen characters. “It feels like apocryphal at this point,” Bowen says remembering the initial ideation of the film. Bowen, who was apparently sat next to his friend when he had the idea shares it came about on one of their first trips to Fire Island together.

“This is about seven years ago, and our lives closely resemble what's in the film, where we were barely able to afford the trip to begin with and had 12 people to a 4-bedroom house with all of our friends. We're poolside and I remember he brought this copy of Pride and Prejudice with him. It was this green paperback version and he read it next to me on a sunny day, and he turned to me and went and this sort of maps on so perfectly to like the dynamics here.”

Fast forward a couple of years and a first draft begets further drafts all of which feature Joel and Bowen’s names instead of Noah and Howie. “It had this closeness to our experience that I think was really special,” Bowen glows.

At the time, it was “lightly presumed” according to Bowen that they would both be involved in the film if it ever got made. “Obviously, he would be involved, I would be, maybe, in our wildest dreams,” Bowen adds.

But thanks to some “fortuitous cosmic alignment” both were able to develop in their careers to a point where they thought it was viable that they could lead the movie and hey presto! We get Fire Island.

Bowen Yang and Joel Kim Booster in Fire Island (Photo: Hulu/Searchlight Pictures)

Through their friendship, Joel and Bowen have developed a shorthand where they can look at one another across the room and silently communicate and understand the other’s experience. That all translated perfectly into Pride and Prejudice, was Joel’s thinking, which is executed perfectly in the film. Noah and Howie spend much of the film in sync and there’s a sense of a genuine connection between them that would be hard to replicate.

"I’ve never been to Fire Island. I want to go (even more so now) but from what I know the film is an accurate representation of life on the island. “There's no one Fire Island experience,” Bowen advises. “But I think the movie does a really good job of transporting you there. The best kinds of rom-coms make you want to fall in love. I think this movie hopefully makes you want to go somewhere with your friends.”

And yes, some of Bowen’s personal experiences from past trips did inform the movie. “I remember the first time I went thinking it was going to be pure debauchery and pure alienation at the same time. It was enticing, but it was also going to be unwelcoming. And then I went, and there were these different communities of people that were so warm.”

Bowen has never seen himself as a lead. He excuses himself for using the British-ism that it would be “daft” if he thought of himself in that way. “Wouldn't it be so crazy if I had that expectation for myself in my life? Some people do and that's perfectly fine. I feel like expecting something like that, there's a weight to it. You have to uphold that vision for yourself in the future.”

I can imagine he’s not wrong. To see oneself as exclusively a lead character must take a lot of inner confidence: something many queer people struggle to channel after time spent repressing their true selves.

But as a queer rom-com led by two queer actors from Asian backgrounds, Fire Island, much like Bowen himself, is breaking ground. Billy Eichner’s Bros is also set to do the same as it places queer people at the front with its entirely LGBTQ principal cast (including Bowen).

Much is made of the value of representation these days, and rightly so. Heartstopper, Bros, and Fire Island allow and will allow queer people to see themselves represented on screen in a way that is still quite rare: truthfully. Compared to previous examples where gay men are either highly sexualised or stories focus entirely on trauma, these projects demonstrate that queer people live normal lives and can find love and happiness over the rainbow.

But while progress is happening, we haven’t yet reached a turning point, thinks Bowen. “It's hard to get the full holistic view of things in a way that makes you extrapolate into the future. I feel like it could just all stop abruptly, and we don't get other queer rom coms made at all for whatever reason. I don't know when we'll hit that sort of satisfactory point, though.

“I'm hopeful that something will just seamlessly take us into this new space where like, everyone's represented pretty truthfully. But Joel said this, ‘there's no such thing as a perfect queer movie, but there can be such a thing as an honest queer movie’ and I think Joel has really made that with this.”

It’s an interesting take, and one that recognises an inevitability with filmmaking: not everyone will be happy or feel completely represented. As Bowen points out when I bring up the honest portrayal of gay men and their sex lives that we’re getting more of as of late with both Fire Island and the trailer for Bros showing us gay men just having sex. It is what it is. It isn’t overly exaggerated or made to seem dark and seedy.  

Bowen Yang in Fire Island (Photo: Hulu/Searchlight Pictures)

“That an audience can recognise something as being true or accurate, also opens up some side conversation into someone saying, ‘Well, this doesn't represent my experience in terms of a sexual encounter’,” continues Bowen. “And so, if there's a way to open that conversation up in good faith, I think that will engender more films like this in the future. I'm appreciative of the fact that both of these movies [Fire Island and Bros] are showing something that maybe I haven't experienced, but I recognise happens to other queer people. If all goes well, a movie will come out that is just infinitesimally that much closer to something that I've gone through.”

The film also avoids focusing on trauma. There are a couple of serious moments, as there often are in life, but there’s a lot of joy, which is also a truth in life, even for queer people. Responding to my admission that I finished the film feeling a little emotional, Bowen swoons, “there's a lot of joy to be had, obviously, in our lives. And in this movie, I think there are nice little representations of that. But I feel like that's what brings your guard down so that you hopefully can relate to what's happening.”

“I think the movie does a good job of telling a queer story decontextualised from straightness. There is obviously other-ing that happens within our own community. I think if people keep doing work that is more about an observation about how we are as a community, I'm excited about more of that vein of storytelling.”

With Fire Island being a gay version of Pride and Prejudice, I have to ask if there are other heterosexual-focused classics that Bowen would like to yassify. “None off the top of my head,” he laughs although he and Joel may be working on the other Jane Austen novels sometime soon. We’ll have to wait and see, I guess.

Left to right: Matt Rogers, Bowen Yang, and Tomas Matos in Fire Island (Photo: Hulu/Searchlight Pictures)

Bowen and I are speaking a few days after the finale of the latest season of SNL. It’s not uncommon to see one of Bowen’s sketches circulating around social media week after week.

Perhaps it was written in the stars that Bowen, who once dreamed of being a doctor after watching Sandra Oh’s character on Grey’s Anatomy, would be performing on SNL. He admitted this, he tells me, to Oh when she hosted the show in 2019. Or perhaps it wasn’t, and Bowen is merely acting on his high-school classmates’ opinion after they voted him ‘most likely to be a cast member on Saturday Night Live’.

Whether it’s either of those or something else, Bowen is just going along for the ride. “I really like did not go in with any expectation. I didn't expect to be on camera, I would have been perfectly happy working behind the scenes. But an organising principle in my career is to think I don't hope for anything and therefore I can be pleasantly surprised by things that come my way.”

It's a good principle to live by. As for wanting to be a doctor, it’s not something the 31-year-old can see himself doing now. “I was in a different reality!” he exclaims. His degree in chemistry and the fact he was in pre-med at New York University is now just a fun anecdote for parties.

As we delve into the inner workings of Bowen, I’m curious; does he consider himself funny? Or is that like when someone says they’re a fun drunk? “It's interesting. I used to think of myself as very hammy, and then through whatever refractions would think that must mean I'm a funny person.

“One of my favourite things that my friends and I talk about is that we love how you can't really define what's funny, there's no universal definition of what's humorous. There's this nice puzzle to solve in any situation, whether it's a sketch or a script. I watch someone like Matt Rogers, who is very elastic in his performance and nimble - I’m not like that, but I bring something different to the table.

“So, I don't know if that translates to me self-identifying as a funny person. And even this answer feels overly cerebral. This is just how I relate to comedy now, which is that I go, how is that working? How do I pop the hood up and see the machinations of it?”

It’s a great example of the level of thought that Bowen puts into everything. Regardless of what he says I and many others think he’s outstandingly funny. The Titanic iceberg sketch is worth a watch if you haven’t already.

The conversation turns to what he thinks of when he’s writing. Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller Bridge once said on The Graham Norton Show that she writes to make her friends laugh. It just so happens that it appeals to a wide audience. It’s the same for Bowen.

“Working at SNL trains you to write to a general audience. Sometimes that's helpful. And other times it's sort of this handicap. I've been revisiting that notion of writing to make my friends laugh, because I can be more specific. Ironically, something specific can broaden out to something that's relatable in a skewed way to more people. I think that's the beautiful potential in comedy.”

Bowen gets the most enjoyment from creating something new every week on SNL. Creating something from end to end within five days is a challenge, but one the actor laps up. His ambition for future seasons is to be like his fellow cast mate, Kenan Thompson, who Bowen clearly reveres and waxes lyrical about his colleague’s ability to hold a sketch on his own as madness goes on around him.

Truly humble, he kindly rejects my assertion that he can do that now. “I feel like I haven't done that quite yet. I hope to do that soon. I have no timeline on I'm not like putting that much pressure on myself. It's just sort of a nice little pie in the sky for now.”

As we reach the end of our chat, I bring up a discussion from a recent episode of Bowen’s podcast with Rogers, Las Culturalistas, about “the scam” and the odd jobs they used to slave away at while getting into comedy in typical Hollywood fashion. With Bowen’s achievements and work in mind, does that all seem worth it now? Unsurprisingly the answer is not clear-cut yes or no.

“I haven't reached the terminus yet to make that assessment. I feel like I lucked out in so many ways. The scam quote unquote just meant I had to live through life in a way that made it so that I could go to Fire Island on a budget and have some grounded reality in this so that it could translate for this movie. And I feel like if I'm assessing it on that level, I feel like it was worth it.”

With that we say our goodbyes and close the meeting down. I walk away from the interview with a sense of half satisfied intrigue. I've learned plenty but have many more questions. It could have been an academic seminar. I find myself wanting to watch Fire Island again, but alas, my press screener has expired. A marathon of SNL sketches it is then.

Fire Island premieres on Hulu and Disney+ on 3 June.

The Attitude May/June issue is out now.