Warning: Light spoilers for Netflix’s Daybreak ahead.
Who would you be after the world ends? In Netflix’s Daybreak, the high school students of Glendale, California — including Austin Crute’s Wesley Fists — undergo quite the transformation after the apocalypse turns everyone older than 18 into ash or zombified versions of themselves. Originally a bully that ran the halls of Glendale High School, Wesley ditches his mean streak (and his jock friends) and becomes a pacifist samurai attempting to make amends for his adolescent sins. And while Wesley’s out of the closet, it’s soon revealed that he’s romantically involved with fellow jock Turbo (Riverdale’s Cody Kearsley), the quarterback-turned-violent leader of the jocks post-apocalypse, which causes its own set of problems for Wesley as he tries to do good in the world, or what’s left of it.
With just a few acting credits, viewers might remember Austin from his supporting role in the 2019 high school comedy Booksmart. But in Daybreak, Austin gets to show off just how charismatic and dynamic of a performer he can be. After graduating from New York University in 2014, the pilot script for Daybreak eventually made it into his email inbox. He auditioned and got the part, using his own experience of growing up a pastor’s son and surviving high school in Norcross, Georgia to build out the character of Wesley. His time in church and being around people with strong beliefs was particularly useful for Wesley, who follows the samurai’s Bushido code on his road to redemption.
“There was no talk of anything that wasn't Jesus and love and peace and conservatism,” Austin tells Teen Vogue. “I took the spirit of the jocks that I had hung out with because I was a little cliques chameleon. I would go to the drama kids. I would go to drama class, and then after drama class, [I’d tell them] I'm not staying with y'all anymore, I'm going to basketball and soccer kids. I channeled the jockness of the energy that I had to keep up to survive, to be honest with you, and a little bit of my religious upbringing.”
Survival is the most important thing in Daybreak, and most of the groups from the high school stay with their pre-apocalypse cliques in order to do so. Hyperbolic cliques are a trope that we’ve seen in various iterations throughout pop culture, but it’s particularly fun to see how they’re portrayed in the new Netflix series. The golf team is a lowly subgroup of the jocks, a gaggle of yapping teen boys looked down upon by the former football players. The Cheermazons are armor-clad former cheerleaders who somehow are able to pull off amazing beauty looks even with Glendale now being a wasteland. There’s a number of other groups, but Wesley finds himself teaming up with Josh Wheeler (Colin Ford), another lone survivor looking for his girlfriend, and Angelica Green (Alyvia Alyn Lind), a 10-year-old troublemaking genius with a flare for fire and cutting comebacks.
About halfway through the first season, Turbo and Wesley’s secret relationship is uncovered. After the apocalypse, Turbo became more manipulative of Wesley than ever and pressured him to do violent things he didn’t want to do — so that’s why Wesley deserted the jocks and turned toward peace. It’s chaotic to watch, and Austin brought some of his own real-life strife to portraying this on screen.
“I had recently just gotten my heart shattered into a million motherf\*cking pieces before we started filming this. It was my first ever, ever, ever time falling in love with a man,” he says. “It just did not work out because we were both in situations where we are not able to fully express our queerness, and we are both learning to communicate romantic things in a non-heteronormative way. In that, I was able to channel that into Wesley's relationship with Turbo. Because the thing is, even though they're out, they're discreet about it.”
Prior to Armageddon in Glendale, it was easier to deal with the stigma of being two men together. Austin explains that once everything goes to sh*t, he sees Turbo’s own personal conflicts and vendettas as that much direr because the stakes are higher.
“Especially when the stakes [have] risen, people are dying, Wesley has done some things with Turbo that he's not proud of, he's able to develop the confidence and the internal compass to navigate himself out of a toxic situation,” he says. “It is a very interesting relationship to be portrayed in media, because you don't really see raw stuff happening between two queer characters a lot of times. A lot of times it's a gimmick. Turbo is insanely loyal, up to the point where it's like weird and gross and why are you this loyal to me? Please back up.”
Wesley and Turbo’s romance is clearly not supposed to represent a healthy queer relationship, but Austin does acknowledge the fact that he’s been able to play two queer characters this year, the other being his role as Alan in Booksmart. Pop culture still lacks nuanced queer characters, but Austin has been lucky enough to bring two of them to life.
“Showing that difference, that disparity between different types of gay people, especially black gay people, is important,” Austin says. “I, personally, had never seen anything like that growing up, so it is like the best make believe, the best play, the best opportunity that I could get awarded, to just play and live freely in a world where I'm accepted, or my character is accepted completely for who they are, regardless of how they live their personal life.”
If Wesley was trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world himself, he figures he’d be in a similar situation as Wesley, clique-hopping and having a “freelance agreement” with the different groups. Also, he has a pretty good idea as to why we love continuing to see shows about the end of the world, whether it’s zombies or the rapture.
“I think we all know that we're heading to the end of the world in real life,” he says with a laugh. “We all know that if we don't get it together, it is a possibility, so we are obsessed with pondering what would the result be. There are a lot of cultures, and ancient cultures, that talk about the dead coming back to life at a certain time and things of that nature. I think that humans just have a fascination with death that when you mix in apocalypse and the undead, it's just a moneymaker.”
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue