Maybe Bowen Yang will just forever live the Fire Island fantasy wherever he is. Is that what happens when you make a movie in what many consider gay paradise? Who knows, but based on Yang’s attire on Zoom — a beaded, rainbow-colored flower necklace and a casual white-and-blue checkered shirt, his white undershirt exposed — the Australian-born Chinese American actor looks ready to challenge the rich, white gays known for essentially claiming the queer party town (just off the southern shore of Long Island, New York) as their own.
But not in Hulu’s “Fire Island,” a movie that can make us believe it isn’t exclusive to any group as a boatload of intersectional queers — the main friend group is refreshingly Asian American and Black — sail away to the island for more than just wild nights and romantic seashore walks. They know what they’re getting into — drugs, drinking, and all those white gays — and they’re the kind of besties who know exactly what’s on everyone’s Fire Island agenda.
For some, obviously, that’s a little more than a snuggle. For Howie, though, that is a snuggle. Yang plays Howie, and his very good friend Noah (Joel Kim Booster, who wrote the script as a modern retelling of “Pride and Prejudice”) knows that Howie won’t ever be the slut he wants him to be. That, of course, doesn’t stop him from trying to whore out Howie. After all, that’s just what good friends do! “You’re cute, you’re funny, you’re consistently the least repellent of men out of all of us,” he tells Howie, earnestly.
The same could be said of Yang, who’s gained an avid following since he started writing for “Saturday Night Live” in 2018. Just a year later, when he was promoted to featured cast member, he made history as the first-ever Chinese American cast member (and third openly gay male cast member after Terry Sweeney and John Milhiser).
In a recent conversation, Yang chatted about being a leading man for the first time, not being recognized in a West Hollywood gay bar recently, and infusing his own signature queer flavor into “Saturday Night Live.”
Every time I watch a queer movie, I just wish it existed sooner.
Is that like our lot in audience life? I think we’re just gonna think that for everything. For me, and I don’t mean to undermine this thought, but even if it’s a perfectly fine-to-bad queer movie — not saying that our movie is those things — but add it to the pile!
So the whole time I was watching “Fire Island,” I wanted to know how you got cast as Howie, the non-slutty character? Specifically the non-slutty part.
I think Joel was doing this great thing, which is to map it onto our friendship a bit while also mapping it onto the source material of “Pride and Prejudice” and having it be like Jane and Liz. But then also just outlining the ways that a lot of queer people, and maybe specifically gay men, might not share an organizing principle in that way. Like, there are some people who really go for it and just catch as many Pokémon as they can, so to speak, and there are some who choose not to.
I mean, in my 20s I was definitely a Howie.
Oh, and then that shifted?
It did shift. And it feels good.
Great. I think maybe that’s in store for me.
In 105 minutes, this film takes on body positivity, prejudiced gays, horny gays, non-horny gays, infighting…. Was there a lot of conversation about what this movie would cover?
I mean, if you create a liberated space for people, then their thoughts might kind of reach just a bit beyond the pale in a setting outside of that. And so I think Joel’s whole thesis for the movie is “what happens when gay people go to an all-gay space, and then gay people start to bring all their societal baggage onto each other and turn it inward.”
I think he did a great job of balancing all those things. I think he just recognized that Fire Island is this wonderful stew pot full of different kinds of people, and that you get all these different elements to that when everyone co-mingles in that way.
I love that there’s a group of queer people of color who are just like, “Gonna sail over, and you know? This is also our place.”
Yeah. And in my experience going there — and I go at least once a year, every summer — it is weirdly still a given that you’re gonna see that it’s a bit dominated by one kind of person.
I’m always really delighted by the people I see there who are there driven by the same sort of mission of just spending time with their queer friends. Going to the beach, just getting away from all the things that sort of bog them down on the mainland.
Did you see “Wine Country”?
I did, yes.
So was this your “Wine Country”?
Oh my god, I guess so. All “Fire Island” was missing was a Brené Brown cameo. I think the nice thing about this is that it’s like a vacation comedy, obviously, and a rom-com, but I think the way that Joel wanted to map it onto “Pride and Prejudice” is such an ingenious thing. It’s about the way people relate to each other. It’s about the ways that we stratify each other, or relate to each other based on class, wealth or, in this case, race.
With “Wine Country,” Amy Poehler had said the film was basically a trip those same girls had taken many times before. Had any of you already experienced “Fire Island” together?
Yes, yes. We have. Me, Joel and Matt Rogers had gone in the past. And the idea came out of Joel and I going the first time together. This was 2015, where he brought a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” to the island. And then he and I were reading by the pool one day, and he just turns to me and goes, “This would make a good movie. The way that people judge each other is similar. The way that there are all these social gatherings that people sort of get worked up about, it’s all there.”
In some ways, the idea predates the established dynamic that Joel, Matt and I have had there. But I feel like it’s [in] a similar vein in that it’s loosely based on these trips that we’ve taken together. It’s similar to our experiences going there in terms of like, we would go there when we could barely afford it. We [were] 18 people to a three-bedroom house, those kind of “roughing it” early experiences.
Did you, Joel and Matt also meet at a brunch like your characters in the movie did?
We did not meet at a brunch. It was at a much more boring place, honestly. And it’s hard to get more boring than brunch.
I’ve never been to Fire Island, but I think I may be more of a P-town gay.
Listen, I am about to go there for the first time this summer. And part of me is a little scared that I’m gonna be a turncoat and just fully, like, be a P-town gay for the rest of my life.
What can you say about your part in the upcoming major-studio gay summer rom-com “Bros”?
I have a really fun part in that. My character, ironically, lives in Provincetown, so not Fire Island. That might be all I can say. But I think they’ve been showing clips of it at different events, and it’s getting a really good reception. I really hope people — I’m sure people will see it. There’s such a great team behind it, and Billy [Eichner, co-writer and star] is just so wonderful. He was so great to work with. I was sort of a day player. I just popped in for a day in between shows at “SNL.” So I was a little disoriented. But it was just such a lovely experience, and I felt very lucky that I got to do that in addition to “Fire Island,” to be a little witness to all these great [LGBTQ+] movies that are being made.
Was “Fire Island” a loose shoot? You are all so naturally funny, so were there moments of improvisation, and did any of those make the final cut?
Plenty of moments of improv made it into the final cut. From, like, Matt specifically. From me, from everybody. I think everybody [added] a little sprinkling in there. Overall, what’s remarkable about that set was that there wasn’t too much breaking. We weren’t out to make each other laugh or crack up. I think we were all there to hit our marks and do the job well. Because it was a very intense situation. A lot of us, you know, [this was] one of our early jobs doing a feature. And I think we all just were kind of focused on delivering. So maybe in the future, if we all work together again, it’ll be a little bit looser. But it was pretty regimented. We were all very good students, I would say.
Your film career is really taking off, which is exciting. And you got to really create a character for this.
I know. This is one of my first experiences doing that.
What was that like for you?
Really nice. I learned so much. And I think this is one of those jobs that I think will carry into future projects, if I’m so lucky to have them. I mean, James Scully, who plays Charlie, and I… this is my first time having a love interest in something. And he’s someone who is experienced enough as an actor to know how to make that believable onscreen. So we just had a lot of discussions about how to portray that and what these characters would be like after they left the island and what that journey is.
James had the idea to make a playlist. He was like, “Let’s make the playlist the character would make for the other character.” And that was perfect tone-setting. Like, these are two very sweet people who are sweet despite everything around them telling them there’s no place for sweetness. That this is about debauchery only. And even at the end of the movie, there’s an open-ended question about whether or not these people will even end up together after they leave the island. And what happens then? But these are two characters who aren’t concerned with that, who aren’t really worried about what’s gonna happen afterwards. Whether it ends badly or well, they just are very present in their connection to each other.
I’m glad you say that because those trips to me often feel like they’re suited for that sort of experience — for a little weekend romance.
I think the movie does that very well in the end where, again, it’s that open-ended thing. And I don’t think a lot of rom-coms in general do that. It’s a very realistic, authentic sort of representation of that concept. Like, “Maybe this is just a vacation boyfriend. But it’s OK. I’ll still enjoy it.” It’s still a love story, you know? There’s something really powerful about acknowledging that reality for a lot of people. I think there’s a subtextual thing there in the movie where it’s like, “This is how gay people live, and this is why they come to the island, to experience that, to have the possibility of experiencing that.” And then if they do, then what happens?
Whose idea was it to sneak in the reference to the “Gays in Space” sketch, which aired on “Saturday Night Live” in 2015?
That was Joel. I promise it wasn’t me. I just never pushed back. It was in every draft of the script, and I never pushed back on it. And I was like, it’s so on the nose of me as Bowen saying to a character that he loves “SNL.”
But that was a Joel line. And we just kept it in there. But then it got me thinking, like, OK, if Howie and I are similar, in what ways are we similar? Howie doesn’t work at “SNL,” but if I didn’t work at “SNL,” I would probably bring that up, too, at a party, if I was getting to know someone. And there was something somewhat authentic about that. I think Joel was going for that sort of authenticity. It was just, What would Bowen say through the lens of this character?
While we’re on the topic of “SNL,” I have you to thank, in part, at least, for making a show I grew up with and loved a much queerer experience for me.
Oh, that’s very nice. But yes, there are so many other people to thank. It’s people like James Anderson who wrote “Gays in Space,” who left somewhat recently. Kate McKinnon, obviously, Chris Kelly, who made “The Other Two.” Paula Pell of “Wine Country.” There’s been this pretty rich lineage of queer people at “SNL.” I think now there are more things to index and reference, and I’m just very happy to be a small part of it.
Historically, yes, there are other skits that were queer. But it definitely feels like it’s become much queerer in more recent years.
I think we talk about how “SNL” has always been this variety show in the truest sense. There’s something for everyone, or at least there’s something different in every sketch. And certainly, with Kate being there, it’s given people a model for how you infuse queerness into a sketch.
Julio Torres working there around the same time I did was just such a fortuitous thing for me because I was able to understand, “Oh, I can write something.” When I first started writing there, I was trying to fit into the mold of an “SNL” sketch. I was trying to write a game show sketch or a commercial parody. And then, when Julio and I started working together, he was like, “No, you can do whatever you want. You can make something that’s from your point of view. That makes the show better.”
Do you have an example of something you wrote from your own POV because of Julio’s influence on you?
One of the first sketches I wrote for the show was called “Cheques.” It was a commercial for checks, like these dramatic, soap operatic women just signing checks for misdeeds. That was something Julio and I co-wrote together. We co-wrote this sketch called “Sara Lee” with Harry Styles, who’s this social media manager who writes all these thirsty gay captions for Instagram. That was Julio’s idea, and it wouldn’t have happened without Julio’s assuredness in his own point of view. And it kind of gave me this example to follow, so that by the time he left, I was like, “I guess I can do that on my own, right?”
So yeah, you think all the way back to Terry Sweeney in the ’80s who was doing stuff at a time when gay men were completely stigmatized at every level [in] society. I think there’s been a queer sort of helix in the show for as long as it’s been on.
What about the “Pride Month Song” sketch from last year? What’s the story behind that?
I co-wrote that with Sudi Green and Celeste Yim. Just really funny writers. Queer writers. And we just were talking about how there is this pretty widely acknowledged reality now that I just don’t think we’ve seen on TV of how Pride is kind of exhausting. And it’s kind of not what you expect it to be: You think it’s gonna be this amazing thing and it actually ends up being really stressful and logistically a nightmare and someone has a meltdown at some point. You know, those are the realities of Pride. And there’s still something joyful about that, even so. And maybe that’s the thing that we kind of look forward to every year. So yeah, that’s where it came out of. And I was, like, listening to Charli XCX’s “Girls Night Out,” and I was like, “Let’s just map it onto this beat.”
Well, that’s your POV, right?
My POV! Yeah. She counts.
It seems you’ve become a big name in such a short amount of time. How have you processed what I think is a relatively meteoric rise to notoriety these last few years?
I got really lucky in terms of an incremental, segmented ramp-up, maybe? For me, so far, it’s been manageable at every level. Starting out doing stuff in New York, you kind of are putting yourself out there more and more with every show and every year that you do it. And then Matt and I started this podcast [“Las Culturistas”] together. That kind of got people who didn’t live in New York knowing who we were and connecting with what we were doing. And then going on “SNL,” obviously, kind of broke that open. But I think I’ve gotten some sort of training wheel taken off and there’s multiple sets of training wheels, I guess, in this metaphor. But I think I’ve gotten really nicely acculturated to that. And I’m very grateful.
Can you step into a gay bar in West Hollywood without being conscious of, “I know that there will be eyes on me because I’m Bowen Yang”?
It occurs to me that that might be the case, but I went to Hi Tops recently in LA, in West Hollywood, and was ignored at the bar. And I was like, “This is great.” Not that this was great but I was like, “See, there’s something very democratizing about going to a queer space like that where you’re like, ‘That’s why I go: to feel like a part of something.’” There hasn’t been anything fundamentally different about my reality, which I think is really nice, actually.
What do you want the future of your film career to look like?
I hope I get to just do a nice variety of things, across different genres probably. I feel like we’re about to get hit with a bunch of rom-coms, and I wouldn’t mind just staying in that lane for as long as possible.
I’m keeping an open mind because people have been asking me if I expected to be leading a rom-com ever. I was like, “No, no way.” And so I think me sort of keeping my expectations pretty sparse is kind of setting myself up for some delightful stuff in the future. I don’t really have a vision for what that is yet. And I think that’s OK.
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.