What Bowen Yang Had to Expose to Make Fire Island

If there’s a queer film or television project this year, you can just about bet your bottom dollar that Bowen Yang will be in it. “I was also cut out of Heartstopper,” quips Yang, referencing Netflix’s hit queer Y.A. series. “I was the grandfather.” He jokes, but given how booked and busy the Emmy-nominated Saturday Night Live scene-stealer is it wouldn’t be surprising if it were true. This summer, he stars in Fire Island, a queer romantic comedy from Searchlight, which hits Hulu on June 3. Written by and starring Yang’s longtime friend Joel Kim Booster, Fire Island puts the pride in Pride and Prejudice, updating and queering Jane Austen’s novel and setting it in LGBTQ+ mecca of Fire Island.

“Joel turned to me in Fire Island in, like, 2017 with his copy of Pride and Prejudice and was like ‘Wouldn’t it be so funny if I wrote this movie?’” he tells me over Zoom. Now five years later, Yang stars as Howie, a sensitive graphic designer who undertakes some hilarious and heart-wrenching efforts to get laid. You can also find Yang in the trailer for Bros—Billy Eichner’s queer romantic comedy with an all-LGBTQ+ principal cast—which hits theaters in September. “I think it’s just really special that both movies can coexist. I think the conventional release calendar or wisdom would’ve dictated something completely different even three years ago,” Yang says of the two films. “The studios would’ve been like, ‘Oh, well, we got to actually give it six months or separate these.’”

Yang sat down with V.F. for an in depth conversation about the importance of a name change, becoming a utility player on SNL, and finding the perfect Britney Spears song.

Vanity Fair: When you got the Fire Island script, did you recognize what was going to be required of you, emotionally?

Bowen Yang: Not when I got the script—it didn’t really dawn on me. I was so not aware of what the journey would be or what the process would be. My neophyte was showing. The first few drafts of the script—basically up until the two months before we started shooting—the characters’ names were Joel and Bowen.

Wow, the characters were literally named after you.

It was Joel and Bowen. And it was me being chronically lonely, and it was about me not having a boyfriend even in my 30s. It took someone like Matt Rogers to be like, “Hey, have you thought about changing the name?” He wasn’t too prescriptive with it. He was just probing in the way that a best friend would.

Did changing the name make it feel more like you were playing a character and less like you were playing a version of yourself?

Yeah, I think so, because there was this process of letting the story go and separating it from me. I think if we’d kept the names as ourselves, it would’ve been pretty tough for me to not wallow too much in the solitude—in the feeling of undesirability. I feel like I sat in that for as long as we shot and even watching it again it kind of gets evoked. But I think the name change—as arbitrary and as kind of inconsequential as that sounds—does calibrate the distance just perfectly enough.

You’ve told me before that filming with your actual friends on location in Fire Island blurred the lines between fantasy and reality.

Totally. The name change was helpful to not permanently define my experience on Fire Island as one of loneliness or one of just being driven by desire or those things that are kind of part and parcel with going there for any cis gay man. I thought I had grown out of it. I thought I’d grown out of letting my self-concept be defined by how I fit into this whole structure.

Because queerness is de facto in Fire Island, it feels like the film was able to break down those structures of queer identity and delve into specificity of being a person of color on Fire Island and the vulnerability that comes with that.

Oh, I’m glad that seemed legible. I think there’s an entry point for every kind of person watching this film, especially someone who’s familiar with the rom-com tropes. Noah, Joel’s character, [is] someone who sort of has found comfort in casual things. Will, Conrad [Ricamora]’s character, [is] someone who is seemingly bound to class ideas. And then I think even Howie is someone who, in terms of the “pride” part of Pride and Prejudice, is someone who thinks that his vulnerability is this power. I mean, he feels empowered by his vulnerability and empowered by his want for something…sentimental and romantic. But then it also ends up being the thing that kind of entraps him in his own misery. It’s almost prideful in that [Howie] thinks it’s the better modality in terms of queer intimacy—he thinks it’s the better way and it humiliates him throughout the movie until the end.

Joel’s been talking about this, but it’s such a good thesis on the movie, which is how queer people oppress each other when there’s no straight people around. But, I think, a step [further] is thinking of the bell hooks quote: “not queer as in the sex I have, but queer as in being in opposition to something.” It’s not even that we oppress each other as queer people, but it’s that we are in opposition to something from within.

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