With ‘Queer as Folk’ and ‘Hacks,’ Johnny Sibilly keeps ascending to new career heights
By Chris Azzopardi
If you think you’ve heard the name Johnny Sibilly, you have. Or at the very least you’ve seen him, whether on FX’s groundbreaking trans-focused series “Pose,” where the 34-year-old actor had a three-episode stint as Costas Perez, or on HBO’s “Hacks,” appearing alongside Jean Smart in one of last year’s best new shows. That series is currently in its second season (and still just as deliciously queer).
But the show guaranteed to give Sibilly’s profile a generous boost is his role on the reboot of “Queer as Folk,” where he plays Noah, a smoke-and-mirrors lawyer. Groundbreaking when it premiered in the U.K. in 1999 and then in the U.S. in 2000, the show was one of the more authentic representations of LGBTQ+ life when it premiered, spotlighting important political and cultural LGBTQ+ issues alongside frank depictions of queer sex.
Peacock’s new “Queer as Folk” understands what the show was then and what, in 2022, it has to be now. So, naturally, there’s sex. And lots of it. Orgies, toys, full-view anal. Sex that looks real enough for it to appear to be unstimulated.
But this self-proclaimed “reimagining” also knows that being a queer person in our modern day means, in some ways, what it did in 2000: homophobia, fear and acts of anti-queer violence so horrific they hurt your heart. The trailer doesn’t hide the fact that the first episode is a hard, gutting and emotional watch: reminiscent of the Pulse nightclub tragedy in 2016, there’s a shooting at Babylon, the local gay club.
Here, Sibilly talks about the importance of threading that hard-to-watch narrative into this reboot, the detailed conversations the “Folk” crew had about queer sex onset, and why he’ll continue to play queer characters.
How have you been doing? You’ve been really busy.
Yeah. With the pandemic and everything, and being so busy, it’s been truly a blessing. I’m so happy to be working and to be doing this. I’m really grateful.
During the beginning of the pandemic, were you afraid of work drying up?
It’s funny. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was like, “Ha, now the rest of the world knows what it feels like to be an actor or an artist, where your job isn’t guaranteed.” And then, after a while, it was like, “Oh, wait. OK. What’s going on?” But then, I remember I got the call for “Hacks,” the first season, and I was like, “Oh, yes. Yes, we’ll do this.” [I filmed] that in the height of the pandemic, and then “Queer as Folk” when things were tapering down. But then, all the variants were another journey, but here we are.
It sounds like the producers of “Hacks” just called you. Or Jean Smart personally called you.
[Laughs.] She’s like, “I don’t know who you are, but I think you’d be great.” Yeah, no. “Hacks” was interesting, because it wasn’t… I auditioned for it, but it was a Sunday night [when] I got a call asking for my availability, and they asked if I could put something on tape that night to film on Wednesday that week. And then, we got a call on Monday that said I got it. It was pretty quick. “Queer as Folk,” not as much…
What was the process for “Queer as Folk”?
For “Queer as Folk,” for me, the process in my head started when I found out that there was going to be a reboot made. Back in 2018… I always tell this story, but I put out a tweet when I found out that they were maybe doing a reboot, and I was like, “Who do you guys think they would cast in the reboot?” People said names like Billy Porter and a lot of the actors that are known in the community.
Flash-forward to the actual thing getting launched and the auditions happening, and I messaged my team, as I usually do when I see something that I really like. I was like, “I got to be a part of this somehow.” The audition came through, and it was funny, because I was sick with a cold when it came through. I was like, “Oh my gosh, can we push it a day or two?” And they were kind enough to do it.
But yeah, it was that same thing, where you audition, and then you get the call back, and then you do the chemistry session. But it’s a month to two months of your time just waiting to know. And for me, as an actor, I’d rather know right away if it’s a yes or a no, so I can, in my head, deal with that rather than waiting and waiting. Because you build up all these things like, “My life could change,” or, “This would be so exciting.” But it worked this time.
When I watched “Queer as Folk” as a teenager, the big draw for me then, as a closeted gay kid, was watching guys on screen have sex. And clearly, that’s still a big part of the show. Is gauging sexual chemistry an important part of the audition process?
The sexual chemistry, not so much. My only chemistry read was with Devin [Way], who plays Brodie. And it’s funny, because when I saw him pop on the screen, I was like, “That’s him. That’s the one,” whereas he did a couple of chemistry reads with a couple different Noah’s. But it is interesting, because we were doing it on Zoom, too, so you’re not in the room. You don’t feel the vibes of what it would feel like.
But I’d seen Devin before somewhere, and I was like, “I know this guy, I just don’t know where to place it.” And, come to find out, it was years before. He had come up to me on the street and told me that he liked my Instagram videos, because I used to make character Instagram videos. When he told me that finally, I was like, “That’s where I know you from.”
But anyway, it was just such an easy little flirty scene, that, when you meet a new gay, you’re just like, “Hmm…” We clicked, and I guess that’s the point of a chemistry read, because I’ve done chemistry reads before where I was like, “Oh, this isn’t really clicking.” But it clicked with Devin and I.
What has it been like to be a part of “Hacks” knowing that it treats its queer characters so matter-of-factly?
It’s a dream, because the show itself is very much queer-coded, in that there’s a strong female character that is rich. So many things that we grew up loving [about] strong female characters, and then to add in the queer characters, not only the ones that worked with her, but just peppering the universe of “Hacks” with these characters was super exciting and important. Because maybe years ago, if a show like this was made, that wouldn’t have been the case, but it feels like a very real world.
I feel like Deborah would have queer people around her, and it’s been so exciting not only to play these characters in a way that feels real and authentic, but not just feel also like we’re just thrown in because they needed to fit a quota, or because a lot of things these days get called out for being too woke, or whatnot, which is crazy in and of itself. But I do love that this show feels like a reflection of what the world looks like.
What’s your earliest memory of wanting to be an actor?
I was always a little rascal, I will say. I loved doing impersonations. When I used to watch “Forrest Gump,” I used to go around the house and be like, “My name’s Forrest, Forrest Gump,” and whenever we’d go out, my mom’s like, “Do the Forrest Gump. Do it.” And she’d always push me to do it.
I remember one year, I was signing up for classes for seventh grade, and she’s like, “Why don’t you do drama?” And I was like, “I want to do French,” because all the cool kids were doing French. And she’s like, “Yeah, but you’re always doing characters and things. You should do drama.” And I’m glad that she said that, because it really took me to a place that I needed to be, especially at that point in my life, when sexuality started playing a role in my confidence. I was a very vibrant little kid, and then as I started realizing I was queer, I became the shy kid. Acting and drama really allowed me to spread my wings and show myself in a way that didn’t feel like I was attached to my sexuality and hiding that anymore.
Did you find yourself finding a community within the acting and drama worlds?
100%. I never was that kid that played in the street with friends. I was in my room watching Joan Rivers on the red carpet, and I knew everything there was to know about celebrity culture, but I wasn’t one of these kids that played hide-and-seek in the neighborhood. Drama really offered me a place and a space to create friendships and camaraderie and family with people that were like me. Not only queer people, but artists as well.
Where did you go to drama school?
I did a little bit in college. I grew up mostly in Miami, so I did all of my drama club and theater stuff in middle school and high school. And then, in college, I was like, “I don’t really need to have a degree in order to be on TV,” so I did two years of college in Miami, and then I moved to New York City at the end of 2012 and started just hitting the pavement, doing extra work, all those reenactment shows that you see on Discovery. It was just a steady climb, for sure. It wasn’t an overnight “Here’s the keys to the kingdom” kind of situation.
If you look at your Wiki page, it’s like an episode here, an episode there, an episode here, and then three episodes on “Pose.”
“Pose” was funny, because I had just moved to L.A. and they called me back to film the three episodes of “Pose,” or two episodes of “Pose” in the first season and then one in the second. But that was my first big thing. It’s so nice that my first big series regular role is also another queer show, because a lot of times, as queer actors, people are like, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to pigeonhole myself…” and I’m just like, “Oh, thank god we have more opportunities to play gay characters.”
It seems like you might be happy playing queer roles for the rest of your acting career.
For the rest of my days. Because, if I do get to play queer characters for the rest of my days, that means that there are queer characters being written and created. The whole point of this thing is to continue to move the needle forward, because three, four years ago, we were all fighting for it. It’s nice that they’re opening space for us.
I always think, when I interview a queer actor who plays queer roles, what it must be like to connect with your younger self, thinking, “What would this have meant to 14-year-old Johnny?” Do you ever think that way?
All the time.
And what’s that like for you?
I was watching “Heartstopper,” and I just had a moment where I had to pause it, and I was like, “Wow, if I would’ve had this as a kid…” Because it is also a very child-friendly show about sexuality, whereas there hasn’t really been a lot of that. “Love, Victor” is one of them, but usually, a lot of queer shows are sex-forward, and that’s important, because that’s part of the community as adults. But I do definitely think about that 100%, especially with “Queer as Folk.”
I remember being petrified of this even being on TV in front of me, and now, I am so unafraid, and so unwilling to go back into the closet in order to present art, that I am very excited to even think about where I started versus where I am now in telling these stories. And I can only hope that, by me being onscreen, whoever is watching can be like, “Oh, yeah. I’m absolutely unafraid to be myself after this.”
Did you watch the original “Queer as Folk” growing up?
I watched it in hiding. I wasn’t an avid, weekly watcher when it was on Showtime, or before, when it was on in the U.K. But I did go back and watch a lot of it after the fact in 2018, when I found out it was getting rebooted. And then after, when we finished wrapping our season that we just shot, I went back and started watching the Showtime episodes again, because I missed it. I missed telling the queer story, so I was like, “What can I watch that’s going to bring me that same kind of feeling?” And it just happened to be “Queer as Folk.”
What were the conversations you had with the cast and crew about how to honor the show’s legacy while also moving the needle forward?
I can’t really speak for anyone else, but I think it was important for me to acknowledge how important “Queer as Folk,” both of them, were at the time that they came out. I think it’s also important to honor the actors that portrayed these characters at a time when it was not popular, or sometimes even safe, but it was also really important to separate myself from all of that, because even online, when it was announced that we were going to be the cast, you have a lot of pushback from fans of the first two original shows that are like, “Why would you redo this? It’s perfect the way it is.” And a lot of times you read the comments, you’re like, “OK, I don’t know if ‘perfect’ is the word, but I understand your love for this show.”
But I think it was important to put all of that aside, to know the legacy that it has, and to also be willing to create something new that hasn’t been seen before. There’s definitely Easter eggs, and little things here and there, that people will be like, “Oh, he’s like this character, and this character, and this character combined, if they were one character,” which is what I love too, because it is throwing it back to the older versions. But these are queer people that exist in this time, in this space, and I think it’s important that we honor the legacy of other queer people, but also showcase that we still very much exist as a very different kind of people now.
With Noah, who would you say that he would most identify with from the original series?
I’d say Noah has a little bit of Michael from the American version. He’s got a little bit of Brian in him in certain respects. He does feel a little bit like all of the lead male characters, except for Peter Paige’s character, because he is a little more fun, and Noah’s getting there, but I feel like Noah’s a little more of the daddy of the group.
Even now when I see queer sex on screen, I’m still marveling at the fact that it exists. I definitely watched this and had a lot of appreciation for the fact that they didn’t shy away from the sex. What was it like knowing that you were signing up for a show that would mean that sex was pivotal?
You see “nudity required” in the breakdown for the audition, and as an actor, I think it’s important for me to push myself and move out of my comfort zone, but I also think it’s important that we tell authentic queer stories, and queer people have sex in those stories, just like if we were to watch “Euphoria” or any other show on TV that has cis, heterosexual people.
It’s very sex-heavy, and we should be able, and have the space, to do the same. And also, doing it in person, and choreographing it, and filming it, it was very important for me, and Stephen Dunn, the creator, and all the directors we’ve worked with, to show queer sex in a way that felt authentic and real, even so much as, lube was a conversation. Would we have enough time for lube in this? Would we use spit in this? And I am so grateful that we’re having this conversation, because there’s been times where I see queer sex onscreen, and I’m like, “Mm, OK. I don’t know if that’s how we get down, but…” It was really nice to have a collaborative situation when it came to that.
Yeah. I still don’t know how Jack and Ennis were able to do it with just spit in that tent.
[Laughs.] Yeah. I’m sure it was very dry in those mountains.
As you know, the whole show is centered on a Pulse-like shooting at Babylon. And for me, admittedly, it was really hard to watch, though I have a real understanding that it’s dealing with trauma and working through that. What did it feel like when you got to that part in the script?
I remember when I first read the pilot, I was shocked. I was like, “Oh my god, I did not know that this is where we are going.” And then, the more I thought about it, the more I thought how important it was to show something like that. One, because I think there is a responsibility for us as queer people to acknowledge the things that our community has been through, whether it be HIV/AIDS or all of the [other] things our community has been victim to.
I think it’s important to present that as truth, and I also think it’s super important that we show stuff like that now because we are still undergoing a lot of fire from not only legislation, but bars getting broken into and potentially burned down. We are under attack, and I think it’s important that, while we celebrate a lot of queer representation, we also take a moment to understand where we still are in this time.
I really am grateful to the creators for creating space for this story, and not only in a way that shows the tragedy as it is, but also makes it about so much more than the tragedy: makes it how queer people are incredibly resilient and come together in times of strife, as we always have and always will.