By Lawrence Ferber
Raging hormones barely explain the behavior of Sequin, a gay 16-year-old high school student who wears a shirt embossed with glittery discs while hooking up with anonymous guys in the director Samuel Van Grivsen’s audacious, erotic and suspenseful feature debut, “Sequin in a Blue Room.”
Played by Brisbane-raised bisexual actor Conor Leach in a fearless breakout performance, the secretive Sequin lives with his well-meaning, patient single father (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor) while screwing strangers on a strict one-time-only basis (once out the door, he deletes their respective profiles from his hookup app). Yet when Sequin’s invited to a sex party, he connects with a young Black guy (Samuel Barrie) on a level he hasn’t felt before and finds himself wanting seconds. This leads Sequin to break his cardinal rule and meet again with B (Ed Wightman), an older man who can lead him to the mysterious hottie again but soon proves manipulative, dangerous, and determined to keep Sequin for himself.
At least in conversation, Leach, comparatively loquacious and well-adjusted, is nothing like the enigmatic Sequin. The actor earned a theater degree at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts in 2017, scored an agent through a graduate showcase, and will next appear in the Aussie TV miniseries “New Gold Mountain.” Here, Leach chats about the film, hookup apps, and the status of that sequin shirt.
The film’s been called a “coming-of-age thriller.” Do you agree with that description?
Yeah, I think that’s pretty accurate. In the end, it’s a film about someone trying to find their way out of loneliness. In that way, it’s “coming-of-gay.” It’s funny because we filmed so much material that didn’t make it to the final cut that made it more of a drama. But seeing it for the first time I was shocked by how much of a genre film it is. It’s a thriller through and through and amazing to see a queer story told through those conventions.
Can you elaborate on the material that was cut out?
Sam cut out a whole storyline, actually, that aimed to give a little more context around the character. I remember he said he edited the film back to how it originally was in the first draft, which was a thriller, quick and fast, to shock the viewers. Some of the scenes that didn’t make it were beautiful and, in a way, it’s unfortunate they didn’t make it. But the final product, I think, is better for it.
Hello, Blu-ray extras! How are you most like Sequin?
I struggle with this question because I get asked how I relate to the character a lot, but I think part of acting is [thinking] nothing that this human [I’m playing] does is alien to me. If I was in these circumstances, I would do these things. But what I related to most was he just fears loneliness and a lot of us are afraid to admit that. I look back on who I was when I was 16, and I needed connection and love and we all still do, and I also wanted to appear strong and resilient. He wants to appear he has everything under control, and I definitely wanted to seem that way.
Conversely, how are you most unlike Sequin? Clearly, you’re not as economical, shall we say, with your words!
Yeah, I was watching the film thinking, “Sequin just does not speak! Use your words!” I’d say I’m more of a rule abider. I don’t like to rock the boat. On the surface, I’m much more subservient to authority, and I can’t see myself doing anything as reckless as Sequin when I was 16.
I assume that means you weren’t trolling the apps during high school, either.
No. I was a goody-goody. I was a teacher’s pet! On the surface, I was very different.
Why does Sequin cut people off, both the guys he hooks up with and even his own father, whom he keeps in the dark about what he’s up to despite the guy’s clear desire to love, understand and protect his son?
While we were shooting I developed a detailed backstory that shined a light on how Sequin became like this. I wanted to know what happened and what motivated his actions. I genuinely can’t remember too much now, but I think Sequin loves the power it gives him. The sense of being desired after the encounter. You see that in the scene with B, when B says, “I’d love to see you again,” and Sequin says, “I don’t really see people twice,” and B asks, “Is that everyone or just me?” Sequin gets off on that, and it’s exactly what he wants. The sense of power and control it gives him — the sense of power that’s been robbed of him in other aspects of his life, I guess.
I read that Sam had his own idea of Sequin’s backstory and you compared notes after shooting and they “differed wildly.”
Sam never actually talked to me in too much detail about his vision for the character’s past. My imagining of Sequin’s upbringing was quite different in terms of the amount of privilege he had, his relation with his mum, even what his real name is. He gave me that creative license. I remember explaining my ideas to him after the film and he was like, “Oh my goodness, I would have been worried if you expressed all this to me before the shoot!” But that’s all work the audience doesn’t need to see. That’s for the actor. So I was very thankful we didn’t need to speak of it during the shoot.
To prepare for the role, did you spend a lot of time on hookup apps or ask friends about their crazier app experiences?
Yeah, I definitely looked into it. Oh goodness me. I heard some absolute doozies.
Would you be amused to learn that someone had a profile with your photo and Sequin’s name on Grindr now?
(Laughs.) Power to them. You do you.
You’re wearing a nice ochre-toned sweater today, Conor, but I’ve got to ask: Where’s the sequin shirt, and do you ever pull it out on occasion?
I did _not_ keep it. Sam kept it and lost it — for a little while, it went missing — but it was so smelly and rancid. I cannot stress enough: It was rank because it couldn’t be washed! It was meticulously sequined and lined; it was so stinky. But Sam keeps it hidden away so people don’t convulse, I guess!
Sequin gave off a mermaid vibe, almost, by wearing that shirt. And there’s even a bit where B discovers one of its “scales” left behind on the bed. What was the intent?
It’s kind of an abstract choice that asks the audience to have their own associations and resonances. I very much developed my own backstory of how he might have come across this shirt or made it, but I don’t think I regarded it in quite that abstract associative way. They had it made for the film, though. It was still being finished on day one of the shoots! It took ages!
Has the film caused any controversy in Australia because the character is 16 and already has a prolific sex life? After all, the country has seen waves of moral panic about teenage sexuality over the years, notably some specifically over the work of acclaimed photographer Bill Henson.
I don’t think it’s caused controversy. I know there are people in Australia who wouldn’t like it. But we’ve been thrilled with the response it’s had in Australia. The conversations it’s started are amazing. Festival screenings are incredible. When I read the script, I thought, “I haven’t read something this bold and ambitious, let alone in Australia.” There’s still deep, deep conservatism here, so I’m very proud of how the film addressed something that needs to be addressed. “Sequin in a Blue Room” is available to stream on Amazon Prime.