Doing press for “Fire Island” has been quite an emotional experience for James Scully, who plays Bowen Yang’s love interest in director Andrew Ahn’s new queer rom-com written by and starring Joel Kim Booster.
“I have had these out of body moments where I’m like, remember when you thought you were going to have to pretend to be straight your whole life?” Scully tells me. “Remember when you thought that you were just going to have to find a really patient woman and marry her and just do the best that you could to make it work?”
“Fire Island” is an LGBTQ take on Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” The all-queer cast also includes Matt Rogers, Margaret Cho, Conrad Ricamora, Tomás Matos, Torian Miller, Nick Adams and Zane Phillips. It takes place in the titular getaway, a vacation spot outside of New York City that has been a haven for the LGBTQ community since the 1920s.
Scully first visited Fire Island just before they shot the film. He was nervous to make the initial trip after he spent a day at the gay-friendly section of Will Rogers State Beach — nicknamed Ginger Rogers — in Santa Monica. “I was very publicly bullied for keeping my shirt on multiple times,” he recalls. “I texted my boyfriend being like, ‘Isn’t this what Fire Island is going to be like? And instead of four hours on a beach it will be a week of my life.’ I went anyway, and I’m so glad that I did.”
But then there was his first underwear party, a weekly bash — recreated perfectly in the movie — where a crowd of mostly gay men strip down to their skivvies for a night of dancing at a nightclub. “I was handing over the bag of my clothes to the clothes check… and they looked at me and were like, ‘Are you okay?’” Scully says. “It was very transparent that I didn’t want to be there. But then I just looked around at everyone else and I realized that every queer person, we’re still in that place where inside there is this wounded child who was conditioned to believe there was something wrong with them for such a long time.
“Being in that room, everybody just with their bodies out, it wasn’t about individual pecs or stomachs or thighs or butts anymore. It’s about all of us being there together,” he continues. “We’re not stripping down to our underwear even as an exercise in like sexual attraction. It’s more about just peeling it all away, taking away all of the things that the world outside has put on you and just being you in a jockstrap or whatever you choose to wear.”
For the record, Scully said he wore “sensible boxer briefs.”
When I remark that it must be surreal in some ways to be an out actor talking about starring in a studio movie like “Fire Island,” Scully begins to tear up.
“If I step back and think if a movie like this had been available to me when I was 12 or 13 and starting to figure out that I was different than the other boys on the playground, it would have been really invaluable,” the 30-year-old actor says, wiping away tears. “It’s groundbreaking in so many ways. It’s going to put us in a position to connect with queer youth in a really meaningful way. I still haven’t wrapped my head around it.”
Scully, best known for playing Forty Quinn on the Netflix thriller series “You,” remembers the mixed messages he received from Hollywood when started in the business. “They were like, ‘It’s fine for you to be out and gay, just don’t really act too gay and we’ll be good,’” he says. “That was like, a weird line to try and straddle to be telling young queer people that they should be themselves, but then feeling like I was kind of trying to split the difference on my personality because I needed to be pitching myself as a ‘leading man.’”
Scully recently joined the cast of the DC show “Titans” for its fourth season. Details of his role are being kept under wraps, but he definitely wants to pursue even more superhero universes in the future. “I’m a big comic book boy,” he says. “I would love a queer ‘Avengers.’ I would love a superhero team where everyone is queer. They’ve all been straight, so why can’t we have an all-gay superheroes movie?”
“Fire Island,” from Searchlight Pictures, is available on Hulu.