Out gay actor Cooper Koch (“They/Them”) gets a juicy leading role in “Swallowed,” a wonderfully discomfiting new queer thriller now available on demand. Koch plays Benjamin, a young man about to move from Maine to California to go work in the adult film industry. His straight best friend Dom (Jose Colon) wants to send him off in style and arranges to earn some cash by smuggling some sachets into Canada for Alice (a flinty Jena Malone). However, when something goes wrong — the sachets are not drugs exactly — and Dom needs medical attention, the guys are taken to a cabin owned by Rich (out actor Mark Patton) and things take an increasingly more dangerous turn.
As a young man who is unwillingly put into an intense situation, Koch gives a very accomplished performance as the vulnerable Benjamin, who is forced into some very uncomfortable situations. The actor chatted with Philadelphia Gay News about his experiences making “Swallowed.”
I’ll start with an obvious question: What is the worst thing you have ever put in your mouth and swallowed?
[Laughs] It had to have been some octopus or something slimy at a sushi restaurant that I hated.
Benjamin says early on that he doesn’t give a f*** what other people think of him. What I admired about your performance in “Swallowed” is how utterly unselfconscious you are as Benjamin. Can you talk about that?
I think when he says, “I don’t give a f*** what other people think,” he doesn’t know what is about to happen. He is very empowered and then, when he and Dom get caught in this situation, he has to take a step back and reevaluate. I love the journey he goes on. At first, he is a victim and scared and doesn’t know what to do, but he comes into himself, and those survival instincts kick in, and it does prepare him for what he’s about to go do in L.A.
How did you play that? Ben goes from being very open to being very fearful, and then he finds a way to be that he thinks will get him through the ordeal that he faces.
When it comes to Benjamin interacting with other people in a sexual way, for his career, or his friends, or people he knows, he’s going to be very overtly confident. He knows he’s attractive and can seduce people and that is why he wants to go be a porn star. But when it comes to these dangerous situations and people he could potentially be hurt by, he gets scared and reclusive until he finds a way to stand up for himself.
The film shows what Dom will do for his gay best friend, and how Dom’s actions implicate Ben in not just criminal activity, but also some morally dubious actions. What can you say about their friendship and why Dom and Ben are so close? A kiss they share is both moving and tender.
I worked on where they met and some of the experiences they have been in before. It’s a pattern Dom has created with their friendship. He is always getting into situations where Ben has to step in and wake him up or save the day. That’s evident, too, when Ben is telling Dom to move with him and get his life together. This relationship has Dom putting on the face of being a protector, and really, it’s Benjamin who is coming through and figuring it out. Ben has more street smarts. Dom is an idiot.
There are several squirm-inducing moments in the film. Some are mild, like a scene with a homophobic bully in a bathroom. Others are more uncomfortable, like the “extraction” scene. Can you talk about participating in these moments? We feel a palpable sense of dread because you are seen in agonizing close-up. And why didn’t Ben wear gloves in that one icky scene!
In the moment, there is not really time to think about that. Alice is screaming at Ben. He was in a place he didn’t know. I don’t think what is going through your mind is “I’ve got to get some gloves!” But it is funny that you thought that! I think I was focused on Dom’s pain. It wasn’t that I was grossed out about putting my hand in him [to extract the sachets], it was more about not hurting my friend and being scared about what these things are. That was still a mystery. I was grappling with needing to do this to save my friend, but I don’t want to hurt him. It was all of that at once. That’s what made it overwhelming. And we shot it for three days!
“Swallowed” asks viewers to consider how they would react in the situations Ben (and Dom) find themselves in. Would you, Cooper, be graceful under pressure or fall apart if you encountered what Benjamin did?
I don’t know. [Shakes head]. But that’s a question I had to ask while we were shooting it and even before we shot it. I had to ask, if this was me, how would I behave in this situation? I’d like to say I wouldn’t crack under the pressure, but I don’t know. I guess I have to get myself into a situation like this to find out!
What observations do you have about the scenes between Rich and Ben? There is a seduction going on, and it’s coming from both sides? But one scene between them is really creepy and Ben has to act and use his body — like in an adult film — to keep Rich from harming him.
All those scenes with Rich were challenging because Ben is juggling his grief, pain, and fear about what am I going to do? I think he had to use his body and his charm and his flirtatiousness to get under Rich and allow him to believe that Ben will do what he says. He had to be strategic about it. He was aware that Rich was doing drugs and “not fully there.” He had that on his side — that Rich was fucked up.
This is your second queer horror film after “They/Them.” What is the appeal of queer horror? Are you afraid of being pigeonholed, or typecast?
I am not in a place where I’m picking and choosing. I’m auditioning. It just happened that these two films came to me back-to-back and they happen to be queer horror films. I don’t know what it is about me. I would like to expand my horizons and be in an indie love story or a romcom, or a sitcom. It’s not that I am specifically drawn toward queer horror, it is just what has come my way. I hope the next project is for me to explore more characters and flip the switch.