entertainment

Fra Fee on making it as an out gay actor: 'You have to be the change you want to see'

With high-profile roles in Marvel’s Hawkeye series and Zack Snyder’s Rebel Moon, and taking over as The Emcee in the West End’s revival of Cabaret, Fra Fee tells Attitude’s Will Stroude how he’s managing to keep his feet on the ground.

2022-06-14

Words: Will Stroude; Photography: Dean Ryan McDaid; Creative direction: Joseph Kocharian; Fashion: Sacha Dance; Grooming: Sven Bayerbach at Carol Hayes Management using Peace Out Skincare and BOUCLÉME; Fashion assistant: Douglas Miller

“This is my coming out tattoo,” smiles Fra Fee, drawing up his shirt sleeve to show me one of many intriguingly intricate inkings that adorn his arms and torso as we take a seat outside the east London studio where he’s just shot his first Attitude fashion editorial. Before me is a striking design depicting a hummingbird “which represents freedom and spreading one’s wings” alongside three flowers — one for each of Fra’s sisters, the first people he came out to — and a line from a Tennessee Williams poem the actor studied as a closeted gay teenager in Northern Ireland at the turn of the millennium that reads “There will be pity for the wild.”

“It just resonated with me so much,” explains Fra in a quietly commanding Irish lilt, floppy hair and boyish good looks belying his 35 years as we conduct his first major gay press interview in a rare window of British sunshine. “Tennessee Williams is a famously gay writer who was so victimised as a result and really struggled to live comfortably in his own skin in the world that he grew up in. It really seemed to reflect what was happening in my life in Ireland at the time.

“I got the tattoo years after coming out and all that, but I wanted to remind myself of that moment, and how things have changed for me…”

Changed they certainly have. Since graduating from the University of Manchester and the Royal Academy of Music more than a decade ago, Fra has carved out an enviable stage career, with turns in Les Misérables (shortly followed by a role in Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning big screen adaptation) and The Ferryman among the many highlights. The past two years have seen the County Tyrone-born performer’s career kick into an even higher gear, however, with screen roles in 2021’s Cinderella remake and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Hawkeye, where Fra was introduced to a global audience as complicated henchman Kazimierz ‘Kazi’ Kazimierczak.

With the future of Kazi (and Fra) in the MCU still up in the air (more on that later), Fra has recently returned to his bread and butter with another electrifying stage performance, taking over from friend and former Les Misérables castmate Eddie Redmayne in the coveted role of The Emcee in the West End’s Cabaret; a production that smashed records for a revival when it picked up seven Olivier Awards earlier this year.

Fra wears shirt by Prada at Mytheresa, vest by CDLP

“I have nothing to do with that!” laughs Fra self-effacingly at the mention of the show’s heaving trophy cabinet. “I am not responsible for that at all but it’s very nice to step into something that’s being lauded for being so brilliant — because it is so brilliant.”

Inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, Cabaret charts the dying months of the German capital’s Jazz Age during the Nazis’ ascent to power through the intoxicating and sexually uninhibited characters that orbit the Kit Kat Club (a venue that has been magnificently recreated at London’s The Playhouse Theatre for this latest revival). First staged in 1966 before being adapted for the big screen in 1972’s famed film version starring Liza Minnelli, the show has been revived every decade since to great success but feels more unsettlingly prescient than ever amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, growing nationalism in Britain and Europe, and US evangelism and conservatism leading to rafts of new anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-abortion legislation.

“It’s eerie really,” sighs Fra, who by his own admission is passionately engaged with politics. “But this is how society works: we’re always going to be faced with opposition to equality. You know, we just live in a greedy society so there will always be fascists in the world, and there will be people who will be susceptible to their rhetoric. I can’t imagine a world in which that doesn’t exist at all, it’s just the nature of things, which is why it’s important to use our voice in opposition to that. Everything is so delicate at the moment and I think the idea of gay marriage being on the cards in the States as a result of what the Supreme Court are getting up to over there, the fight is never done, you know? And that’s why it’s so important to not get complacent and to use your voice in the right way.”

Fra wears full look by Burberry

Redmayne was the first person to text Fra to congratulate him on securing the role of The Emcee, the playful yet discomfiting narrator who has previously been portrayed on stage by the likes of Alan Cumming and Neil Patrick Harris. The announcement of Redmayne’s own casting last year was met with a degree of criticism in some quarters for putting a straight male actor in a role that’s often read as queer — an interpretation that’s perhaps in no small part due to notable past portrayals by out LGBTQ+ stars. Fra says he was “surprised” and “a little bit perturbed” by the response.

“From my perspective, from how I viewed the character of The Emcee, it’s always been such an enigma,” he explains. “He doesn’t have a backstory within the musical; that’s what makes him such an intriguing, fun role to play.”

He adds: “I guess it’s just been more famously played by gay actors, but there’s certainly no rulebook when it comes to that particular role, so I don’t think that criticism was warranted, personally.”

Fra Fee as The Emcee in Cabaret (Photography: Marc Brenner)

As an out gay performer himself, Fra is keenly aware of the ongoing debate about casting LGBTQ+ talent in LGBTQ+ roles, but approaches the subject carefully.

“I absolutely respect and value the importance of queer stories being told with queer voices when that is a possibility and that’s an exciting and brilliant thing to see,” he says. “I do think there’s a potential danger, though, in just playing roles because of one’s lived experience… I’d hate to be restricted to roles that are just gay and Irish, for example.”

Citing the breakout success of Jonathan Bailey in a straight leading role in Bridgerton, he adds: “To just say that gay actors can just play gay roles or vice versa is dangerously reductive, I think. It’s a very complex issue.”

Fra wears top and jeans by Erdem

Having been refreshingly casual about his own sexuality throughout his decade of West End success, the idea of ever ‘going quiet’ on his identity as a gay man to aid his career is anathema to Fra, despite what he calls the sometimes “abominable” pressure put on LGBTQ+ up-and-comers to keep themselves a “blank canvas” for casting directors.

“You know all the stories of so many closeted actors. I never wanted that for myself, it sounded horrendous,” he declares. “You have to be the change you want to see and if that means my sexuality, my sense of identity, is in the public sphere, then so be it.”

Of joining the MCU in Hawkeye, he says: “[I] feel unbelievably proud of the fact I achieved that as an openly gay actor. Whenever I was studying and seeking advice from what I deemed to be very learned, experienced people, often the old-fashioned attitude was ‘Suppress the sexuality. It’s OK to live your life privately but don’t put it anywhere near the public eye because people will only see you as one thing,’ which was something I really, really struggled with.

Fra wears suit by Alexander McQueen

“So to be able to be living authentically and very, very openly about who I am and yet still be given an opportunity like that; I don’t take lightly the importance and the significance of that at all, because I hope that other young queer actors who are coming through the ranks can see that it’s possible to be anything.”

That self-assurance was not something Fra found until relatively late on; a hangover of the shame accrued growing up Catholic and in the closet in conservative County Tyrone. Describing being gay as “a burden I carried by myself until I was 19”, it took Fra many more years before simple self-acceptance blossomed into more vocal pride.

“I knew I was gay when I was very young, but didn’t know what it was or how to label it, certainly,” Fra recalls. “But I knew I was attracted to men. I was very much intrigued by them, a lot more so than girls.”

Fra wears sweater by Ami at Mytheresa

He recounts a particularly “traumatic” incident from his time at an all-boys Catholic grammar school. “There’s certain things I look back on and feel such sadness and frustration and, yeah, a bit of anger. I remember in religious studies class having to write an essay about how homosexuality was just blanket ‘wrong’. And if I hadn’t done that, I would’ve got a low grade, because the ‘correct answer’ was to say that it was a sin.

“I can’t quite believe that happened to me, and to so many others, so many other LGBT people growing up in that place at that time. It means a certain level of shame follows you for such a long, long time when you’ve had that level of indoctrination.”

Having been “desperately drawn” to city life in his early twenties to escape his “tumultuous” childhood in Ireland, Fra now finds himself adjusting to rural life once more, having moved to Oxfordshire in early 2020 to ride out the first lockdown with his partner, singer and actor Declan Bennett, who is currently appearing in Moulin Rouge on Broadway.

Fra wears shirt by Portugese Flannel at Mr Porter

“We moved to the countryside and days later I got Hawkeye, which required me to go to Atlanta for six months, leaving my boyfriend by himself in this little town in which he didn’t know anybody and in lockdown,” chuckles Fra. “It wasn’t planned at all that things would start getting really exciting, career-wise, while simultaneously having this quiet idyll of a life, but it’s amazing to have that physical separation from it all.”

Of Bennett, who will also be recognisable to many as EastEnders’ Charlie Cotton, he says: “I always thought that I would end up with someone that did something completely different to what I did and I really sought that out, actually, just so there was a part of my life that really had nothing to do with work. But actually, it’s amazing having someone that completely understands the thrill of getting the job and the utter devastation of not getting it, that understands that sometimes you just have to go away for a certain amount of time to work. It’s great that we’re able to support each other through these amazing gigs we’re doing at the moment. Thank f**k for FaceTime, that’s all I’ll say!”

Fra certainly has plenty of successes to celebrate, with the recent announcement that he’ll be appearing in Zack Snyder’s sci-fi epic Rebel Moon. “I love Zack Snyder, I think he’s an amazing visionary,” he says excitably. “He has grand aspirations for it to become a huge universe of its own.”

For Fra, though, it’s all about the work, with the seasoned actor dismissing “the whole concept of fame and recognisability” as “so silly”.

“I don’t take it seriously at all,” he explains earnestly. “It’s not something I ever aspired towards; it’s not something I would ever really want for myself, that level of recognisability and not just being able to go for a walk and look like crap.”

He continues: “Joining the MCU and feeling as though you’re being projected onto something that’s a bit more global and very, very visible is a little bit scary… but I certainly do think I’m able to process it a lot better being 35 than if I was 21. I think it would be really hard to deal with such an onslaught of commentary and opinions on how you look and how you act and what you say.”

Fra wears suit by Alexander McQueen

Of course, the question on many a Marvel fan’s lips is whether Fra will be making any further transatlantic trips to reprise his role as Kazi in the MCU, despite the character (spoiler alert!) being left for dead in Hawkeye’s final episode.

“Erm, the truth is, I don’t really know just yet,” replies Fra, who admits to finding the script-destroying, NDA-signing cloak of secrecy that guards the MCU’s inner workings as “really fun”.

“But I very much hope that Kazi can make an appearance. I wouldn’t put money on the fact he met an untimely end at the end of Hawkeye. No one’s ever dead in Marvel. I would be very hopeful and I’d certainly be thrilled to revisit the character and the world — I had such a good time.”

Fra wears sweater by Ami at Mytheresa

One show Fra is unlikely to be seen in for a while is Disney+’s now-indefinitely delayed Beauty and the Beast prequel series, where he was to play a prince opposite Luke Evans and Josh Gad in their roles as Gaston and LeFou from the 2017 live action adaptation. Fra says he knows as little as anyone else about when and if production will start after it was put on hold just a few months after it was announced due to “scheduling conflicts”.

“I very much hope that the project will happen at some stage because I know that everyone involved was so passionate, and Josh Gad… it was very much a passion project for him and Luke Evans,” he states. “So I think it will happen — whether or not I’m involved, I’m not sure, I already felt like I was pushing it Prince-wise [laughs], so if it’s delayed too long I might have to audition for the King or something!

Fra wears shirt by Portugese Flannel at Mr Porter

“[Luke and Josh] both sent me lovely emails of regret and disappointment and how sorry they were that it panned out that way. Luke’s very good friends with Declan, actually, because they did their first job together, [Boy George musical] Taboo, 20 years ago, so I’m sure we’ll get to catch up at some point and have a chat about it.”

In the meantime, Fra will continue to delight audiences in Cabaret this summer — and there might even be time for a new tattoo, too: a butterfly, to signify “freedom of expression and liberty”. The powers that be might want their actors to be a ‘blank canvas’, but Fra Fee isn’t afraid to wear his heart — and his story — firmly on his sleeve.