Why ‘They/Them’ Insisted on Casting Authentic LGBTQ+ Actors to Star as Its Campers: ‘Nobody Made Them Hide’

·4 min read
Josh Stringer/Blumhouse

John Logan, the Oscar-nominated writer behind “Gladiator,” “Skyfall,” “The Aviator” and more, says his biggest challenge upon making the horror movie “They/Them,” his directorial debut, had little to do with the actual filming but in the meticulous casting of its LGBTQ+ leads.

While “They/Them” is top-billed by Kevin Bacon as the head of a sinister gay conversion therapy camp, the film centers around seven different campers that each represent “different parts of the queer experience,” including nonbinary actor Theo Germaine and trans actress Quei Tann portraying two of the leads, Jordan and Alexandra, respectively. And Logan, who is neither nonbinary nor trans, says he leaned on conversations with those actors and others in creating each character and finding their authentic voice.

“I knew those seven campers were going to be the heart of the film. So we took a long time casting,” Logan told TheWrap, adding that part of that process was about having conversations with “the actors about their experiences [and] my experiences.”

“In a horror movie, you’re putting your characters in really horrific situations, really intense, difficult situations,” the filmmaker continued. “So it was finding actors who I felt had the strength for that and the honesty to embrace the message of the movie, which is very empowering. What’s gratifying is when I see those actors together, they’re playing parts of themselves, and they really take pride in the movie because the movie is about celebrating their uniqueness and their queerness, in a way.”

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Logan also relied heavily on organizations like GLAAD and input from “They/Them” executive producer Scott Turner Schofield, who’s himself a trans actor. Turner Schofield stressed the importance of the film’s casting, emphasizing that making a movie without LGBTQ+ people in these roles should be a non-starter. Together, they aimed toward “flipping harmful Hollywood tropes at every level.”

“It was a gratifying process, for me as a trans actor who has taken a stand for authentic casting, to be able to clarify this debate with some major players,” Turner Schofield said. “This is actually a structural employment discrimination problem in Hollywood: Out LGBTQ+ actors all report getting fewer jobs than closeted actors or straight, cisgender actors. The label hurts us, and it has nothing to do with our talents or skills — as we see in all the great actors who come out after they have established a career.”

The actor and executive producer said that he was “grateful” to be working with production company Blumhouse, who he did “not have to argue this point” with.

“They are really leading with integrity over there — especially knowing that they’ll listen beyond this film,” he said. “So we flipped it. We found the best actors through the audition process, and being out was a plus, not a minus.”

Through that audition process and the actors sharing their stories, the “They/Them” creators learned that many of them felt they had to hide their own identity while working on other projects.

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“No one will argue that their performances in ‘They/Them’ aren’t stellar. And when you can show everything you can do onscreen, you get more jobs,” Turner Schofield posited. “So I hope this process is just the beginning for these actors, where they can go on to play any role and just be actors. Because they have demonstrated pure talent and skill in that regard. Nobody made them hide.”

The title “They/Them” – a horrific double entendre when read aloud as “they ‘slash’ them” – is also significant for how the movie grapples with gender identity as a major point of contention. It’s not just the gay conversion camp counselors challenging the protagonist Jordan’s nonbinary gender identity but also some of the more conservative gay and lesbian characters who question their pronouns.

“There’s no such thing as one queer person. It’s a rainbow flag for a reason,” Logan said. “I wanted to create a set of characters who represent different parts of the queer experience, and not all of it in anyway whatsoever. So of course they don’t all get along.”

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One of the film’s most terrifying scenes in “They/Them” doesn’t involve any bloodshed. Instead, it’s a moment of “psychological warfare” in which a camp counselor calmly interrogates and picks apart Jordan’s sense of identity as a nonbinary person, figuratively crawling under their skin to make them doubt themselves.

Logan said that of everything you see in “They/Them,” much of it was largely inspired by the brutality experienced by queer teens in gay conversion camps, not just “forced marches and sleep deprivation,” but also psychological manipulation designed to enforce gender roles that as Logan says were “designed to gradually take away their sense of self.”

“That is the great monstrous thing that I hope will open some doors to people realizing that these things actually exist,” Logan said.

“They/Them” premieres exclusively on Peacock Friday.

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