The You and Fire Island star breaks down his role in the hit Netflix series and his next steps.
“People in high school were always telling me to join the musical theatre programme,” shares James Scully, “they were basically saying you’re obnoxious and you should channel that into something,” laughs the actor who was brought to our attention through Netflix’s blood-thirsty but creepily addictive thriller, You. Since the high-school taunting, Scully has found his knack for playing characters that are awkward yet instantaneously likeable, characters with plenty of charm to spare – and given how our meeting rushes far past its end time, charm seems to be something Scully and his characters have in common.
The success of the show thrust Scully into the limelight, and he was met on the streets with the sound of “Forty!” or “Are you that guy from You?” – recalling this he smiles as he says, “It goes without saying, but I’m never going to get tired of hearing that. That’s the aim of the work I do. Especially for a character like Forty, as sad and complicated as he was, I just wanted to make people laugh so I’m glad I accomplished that. The moments I had with people touching on Forty’s relationship with his parents and drugs and when I get to have a little bit more of an interaction with somebody who’s watched the show, is the gift that keeps on giving. I’m reminded of this wonderful experience and how lucky I was to be a part of it.”
Admittedly it hasn’t been a plane-sailing ride for Scully, he was met with the onslaught of waiting and rejection that is the unspoken and overlooked part of the craft. We talked with him about fulfilling roles and the anxieties about the queer representation on screen – something which he is eager to change.
Lucy Vipond: What are some of the biggest challenges of the entertainment industry?
James Scully: The arbitrary rejection is very routine. After I booked Heathers, I was initially thrilled because suddenly the number of auditions that I was entertaining every month went up. But after a couple of months of not getting anything, I turned around and was like, Oh, my God, that means I went from being told no, once or twice, to being told no 60 times in the last four months. I can’t look at it like that or I’ll go insane. That’s not motivating. That’s not the encouragement you needed to hear to get to where you are.
LV: On the flip side of that, You was huge, what was it like to experience that kind of exposure?
JS: I had already worked on one or two jobs that people predicted would be successful but weren’t. This was a necessary realignment of priorities for me. But for You, it was guaranteed, especially because I got the job while the first season was blowing up on Netflix. There was all this added pressure of following up the first season’s success with a solid second season. I couldn’t believe it. It was like an out-of-body experience for four months, especially when people started stopping me on the streets.
LV: Forty returned for a bit of a cameo in season three, how was that?
JS: Being invited back was such a compliment and very affirming for me as an actor. They were like, “We already know you’re great at this so just get in the bathtub and have a good time.” You rarely get an opportunity where somebody is like we so enjoyed what you did, we’re going to do like a narrative rigmarole to bring you back from the dead.
LV: Fire Island comes out this summer, can you tell us about the project?
JS: It’s like somebody went into my dream journal and pulled out a gay Jane Austen adaptation. If you’re familiar with the original intellectual property, I am the contemporary counterpart to Mr Bingley. He’s just a sweetheart who is maybe not as suave as he would hope to be.
LV: It must have been wild filming Fire Island actual on Fire Island.
JS: I truly think it’s a mythical, magical place. Every gay person we know wanted to hear it was the most wonderful time we’d ever had, which it was. But while shooting we were all living in a house together and going to work every day, there was no escape. Onset, pretending to party all day and then after it was like, do we want to go to a real party? Do we want to live this life that we spent the past twelve hours satirising? For a lot of people, there was a weird inability to distinguish between the drama onset and just living our lives in that environment, in a fun way and also in kind of a spooky, existential sense. But I will go back on vacation.
LV: What makes a role fulfilling?
JS: At the moment in American politics the right is regressing us back 30 to 40 years, any story about gay joy and queer people loving each other publicly is going to do a lot for young people. We have to move on from this obsession with the wound of being queer and spend more time exploring the realities of queer relationships because there’s so much to learn. We’re in the infancy of understanding ourselves as a community and the way that we can interact and uplift each other. Hopefully, Fire Island is going to put me into direct contact with a lot of young queer people, so I can say, here’s a community waiting to accept you and love you. I don’t think I’m reaching into people’s chests with the glowing hand of my talent, but even now the number of kids that reached out to me on social media like I think I might be gay. Anytime I get to have those conversations I’m very glad for the platform that I’ve been afforded.
LV: Can you tell us about the untitled Julio Torres directing debut project you’re going to be in?
JS: It’s a difficult film to explain because Julio is very fantastical. It’s a tale about a young man discovering his resilience and learning to ask for what he deserves. Julio, who’s an immigrant from El Salvador, has created this insane career for himself. It’s very much autobiographical. It’s so much fun, when has Tilda Swinton not shown up and destroyed all of us with her performance! But Julio loves her so much that the whole movie revolves around her inhabiting this batty, delicious and wonderful character. She is a true artist. We would have these rehearsals, which are usually just a meet and greet, but she was pitching ideas and changing the script to make it more rich and nuanced. It was so cool getting to watch Julio interacting with one of his heroes, and the absolute magic that they were able to make together. It was a little bit like Julio was a cult leader, the movie was the cult and everyone fully drank the Kool-Aid.
LV: Lastly, what is something that keeps you optimistic?
JS: While I was doing the editorial photoshoot for this issue the stylist assistant was this young straight, painfully chic, gentleman. He touched briefly on what it’s like to be a heterosexual man interested in fashion. He thinks very critically about the way he presents himself aesthetically and the assumptions that people make about him. I’m not closing this interview by saying that the best work on behalf of queer people is being done by straight men or they’re our greatest allies. But, listening to him and young people in general talk about sexuality and gender identity, they’re quickly outpacing the rest of us in our understanding of what’s possible, and that gives me a lot of hope.