Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman Talks UnREAL, Being an Openly Gay Actor and More

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Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman Talks <i>UnREAL</i>, Being an Openly Gay Actor and More

UnREAL, the craziest, most addictive show of the summer, returned last month for an even wilder second season. The Lifetime series (airing Mondays at 10PM) follows the behind-the-scenes machinations on Everlasting, a Bachelor-type reality show. Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) will do almost anything to get the show they need. When it comes to making successful television, anything is fair game.

Amidst all the conniving shenanigans is Jay, played by Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, a producer on the show who wants to see his girls win, but also isn’t willing to sell his soul to make that happen.

Paste recently caught up with Bower-Chapman to talk about the groundbreaking series, why it’s important to be an openly gay actor in Hollywood and his love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Paste Magazine: In the original pilot Jay was kind of a womanizing cad, but the series creators changed him to an openly gay character because of you. How did that happen?
Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: In the original, he was a charming but manipulative womanizer. He kind of reminded me of the Donald Faison character in Clueless. I had spent so much time behind the scenes with the writers and the producers while we were shooting the original pilot in Atlanta. When I booked the role I auditioned for it three times. I had tested for it with the studio and the network. So they only ever saw me as the character Jay. But when we were in Atlanta shooting the pilot and the director called, “Action!” I was Jay the charming womanizer. Then he would call “Cut!” and I was Jeffrey, having conversations with them about feminism or gay rights. I think they were more fascinated by that and wanted to explore that. When I’m reading books, I tend to read memoirs. If I’m watching movies, I want to watch a documentary or something that’s based on actual events. I always think the truth is far more interesting than fiction, and I think the writers felt that way while getting to know me.

Paste: You gave a speech last year at the HRC Gala in Seattle and said you wanted to be the “gay face of normality in the land of Hollywood.” What does that mean to you?
Bowyer-Chapman: The way that gay people and people of color are depicted for the most part in TV and film is so inaccurate and so damaging in the long run. Not only were we unable to see ourselves as a reflection, because the characters were so hyper-sexualized or stereotypical, and not only did we feel more alone because we couldn’t relate to these characters, it is really damaging because heterosexuals who see these characters take what the characters represent as God’s word. They put their view of them and their judgement of the characters on any gay person or person of color that they see out in the real world. That’s something that I struggled with endlessly growing up. Being called the “F” word, I knew they weren’t talking about me. What they were talking about was the very negative stereotype that they saw in television and film. When I were called the “N” word I knew they weren’t talking about me. They were talking about the negative depiction they saw of people of color being portrayed in television and film. That story that has been told for so many decades is such a damaging one. It’s up to us to change the narrative and change the story. It is more important than ever that we start telling our story in a way that isn’t going to damage generations to come.

Paste: I always find it fascinating when someone says “I don’t know any gay people” and I think to myself, “No you just don’t know anyone who acts like Jack on Will & Grace.
Bowyer-Chapman: I loved Jack on Will & Grace. Sean Hayes did a phenomenal job with that character. But could I relate to him? No. Could some gay people relate to him? Absolutely. The damaging part of that is some straight people who have narrow views of this world tend to lump all gay people into that category. There are many, many different shades of gay. It’s a really beautiful thing and all of those shades need to be explored.

Paste: What kind of feedback have you received about Jay?
Bowyer-Chapman: The most beautiful feedback that I received was actually from the in Los Angeles. They have an acting studio. They saw the HRC speech and they called me and asked me if I would be interested in having a scholarship started up in my name for LGBT actors of color. That, in itself, was probably the most beautiful affirmation. [The scholarship awards an eight week acting class.]

They email me applications every day, and just hearing people’s stories on why they want to receive the scholarship and why they want to be working as an openly gay actor in Hollywood is such a beautiful thing because it’s so reflective of my own story. There’s an entire demographic and group of people out there that feel the same way that I do about the entertainment industry.

Paste: Okay, let’s talk UnREAL. How is Jay different this season?
Bowyer-Chapman: Going into this season I think he has a much stronger moral grip. He sees everything going on around him on a daily basis. He sees how Rachel and Quinn are willing to destroy and decimate the contestants. It hurts Jay, not only to see the systematic destruction of these women, but also to see the personal toll it takes on you as a producer.

He wants to create incredible television and excel in the work place, but he doesn’t want to end up like Rachel and Quinn. They are very very good at their jobs but they really have put a strong protective shield around their souls and won’t let anyone in.

Paste: Jay still cares about the contestants and treats them as human beings, while Quinn and Rachel treat them like pawns in a game of chess.
Bowyer-Chapman: One of the crew members recently came up to me and said, ‘You know what? Jay is the moral compass of this show.’ Without Jay I don’t think we would feel bad about these horrible things that are occurring on a daily basis.

Jay is the audience. He is the one that asks all the questions that the audience is at home screaming at the television as well. What is going on? Why are you behaving this way? What will the consequences be? These are things he really does ponder.

Paste: This season has already been wild. What’s next?
Bowyer-Chapman: Jay does continue to be guided by that moral compass that’s within him. He does garner a little bit more power than he had previously, but with that power he’s not as quick to judge Rachel and Quinn—because with great power comes great responsibility. Working in the world of Everlasting and having power and having all these people look to you to produce a one-hour television show on a weekly basis, it’s a lot of pressure. Going about it in a moral way isn’t always the easiest or most practical way to get the job done, which is why Rachel and Quinn go about it like they do. At one point he starts to slip down that slope a little bit.

Paste: What about the Rachel and Jay friendship? How will that evolve this season? Will he finally get fed up with her behavior?
Bowyer-Chapman: We continue to play that very fine line of the love/hate, brother/sister relationship between Rachel and Jay. They certainly have many more head-to-heads throughout the season. The way that Jay operates in the world and the way that Rachel operates in the world, they really complement each other well. They challenge each other constantly. As much as I would love Rachel and Jay to be getting along, I love seeing Shiri and I go head to head. Like any family dynamic—one minute you love each other, the next minute you hate each other, the next you’re indifferent.

Paste: Before starring on UnREAL, did you watch The Bachelor?
Bowyer-Chapman: I think I was 14 or 15-years-old when it first came out. My friends and I would get together and watch every episode. I remember really liking, and then not really watching it for 10 years. When I booked UnREAL I did watch a few episodes of Juan Pablo’s season of The Bachelor.

I guess what surprised me most is that I didn’t buy who they had set up to be the heroes—the leading men, the saviors—as that. I didn’t find them interesting. I didn’t find Ben’s season interesting. I didn’t find Juan Pablo’s season interesting. Who I empathized and connected with the most were the contestants. I find it highly entertaining and challenging and cringe-worthy to watch at certain moments because I can see the manipulation and the production behind it now.

Paste: So it’s been eye-opening for you?
Bowyer-Chapman: How could you possibly understand all the machinations that are going on behind the scenes? My mind wouldn’t have gone to the lengths producers go to, to get that soundbite or get that juicy footage. These girls are so expertly cast on these shows. That being said, UnREAL is a fictionalized version. We are very much a fictionalized show, but it’s not that unbelievable.

Paste: You’re a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What is it about that show that spoke to you?
Bowyer-Chapman: I just loved Joss Whedon’s story telling. Kitschy and irreverent, and at the same time dark and stylish. Buffy was a normal girl. There was always Xena: Warrior Princess and things like that, but there was never just a normal girl who had extraordinary abilities. Buffy had to hide in the closet. She couldn’t proclaim to the world who she was and what she was capable of and let her light shine. She had to let her ability shine in the dark of night, which I think is why so many gay people connected to her. We could see ourselves reflected in that. I was always very much the odd one out and all the characters on Buffy the Vampire Slayer were very much the odd one out. That show shaped me during my formative years and really inspired me to do what I’m doing now.

Paste: And now you get to work with Marti Noxon, who was an executive producer on Buffy and is an executive producer on UnREAL. When you met her for the first time, did you totally geek out?
Bowyer-Chapman: I still geek out with her. I love her so much. She’s changed my life so dramatically and she’s such a cool human being, and so down to earth and so chill. I saw her last month in New York at the Peabody awards and I get chills and want to cry every time I see her.

UnREAL premieres Monday nights at 10PM EST on Lifetime.

Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal ®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and Assistant TV Editor at Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter or her blog.