Vanity Fair spoke with Matt and Jonathan about their upcoming limited series, Fellow Travelers. They shared very interesting things about the show, like how they came on board the project, the epic and sexy romance between their characters, and much more. First look photos have also been released, which you can now find in our gallery!
When Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey first met at a coffee shop on Cumberland Street in Toronto, on the verge of beginning six months of filming for their decades-spanning limited series Fellow Travelers, they made a pact to have each other’s backs. Sounds simple enough, given that they were about to embark on some of the richest screen work of their respective careers. But over Zoom, both actors speak of that introduction now as almost sacred. Watch Fellow Travelers, and you’ll understand why. The Showtime epic depicts an extraordinary intimacy between its lead characters, and asks for true vulnerability from Bomer and Bailey, who deliver without compromise.
Adapted by Oscar nominee Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) from Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers (premiering this fall on Paramount+ With Showtime) examines the volatile, passionate, deeply loving romance between Hawkins Fuller (Bomer), a charismatic if somewhat opaque war hero turned political staffer, and Tim Laughlin (Bailey), a religious idealist looking for his way into the DC grind. They meet at the dawn of the early-’50s Lavender Scare, in which Senator Joseph McCarthy and his chief counsel Roy Cohn purged whomever they deemed gay or lesbian from government roles—dubbing them communist sympathizers—and sparked a national moral panic around homosexuality. The series then builds into a kind of grand chronicle of queer American history, tracing the evolution of Hawk and Tim’s relationship through various eras before culminating in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
The project came to Bailey at a serendipitous moment. For the first time in his life, the breakout star of Bridgerton was in demand and being asked what he wanted to do next. “My answer was always, ‘Well, I’d love to do a sweeping gay love story,’ but my experience actually was that I’d never really seen them,” Bailey says. “Or if I had, I hadn’t seen actors like me and Matt play those roles.” (Both Bailey and Bomer identify as gay.) That dream opportunity abruptly presented itself in Fellow Travelers, which Bailey joined after Bomer had already signed on as both star and executive producer. “The story had been marinating with Ron for a solid decade before I ever came on board,” Bomer says. “Ron had an almost religious zeal about this project, this world, and these characters that just washed over everyone involved, and made it the profound experience that it was.”
Nyswaner had already done considerable research on Fellow Travelers, having previously planned to adapt the book as a film. He had more recently established himself in prestige TV—writing for Showtime dramas like Homeland and Ray Donovan—while continuing to work in movies. His script for last year’s Amazon feature My Policeman introduced him to producer Robbie Rogers; Nyswaner sent Rogers the Fellow Travelers novel, which sparked a conversation about making a limited series out of it. “The ambition of going through the different decades and finding a really compelling story—nothing like that had been done, where it’s an epic gay love story that has this political element that’s woven through it,” says Rogers.
Fellow Travelers leaves no stone unturned, expanding its world beyond Hawk and Tim to fashion an expansive historical tapestry. A core parallel strand of the drama follows Jelani Alladin’s Marcus Hooks, a queer Black political journalist finding a new partner of his own (Noah J. Ricketts), while Nyswaner’s early episodes also dig into the vicious methods of McCarthy (a transformed Chris Bauer) and the appalling hypocrisy of Cohn (Will Brill). “Something like an estimated 10,000 people lost their jobs, and a lot of folks took their own lives,” Bomer says. “That’s the landscape that these people are dealing with.”
But Hawk and Tim are our flawed, fascinating heroes—with Fellow Travelers incisively situating their intense chemistry within a broader political context. The lush, sweeping, deliberately old-fashioned quality of the filmmaking, templated by Emmy-winning director Daniel Minahan (American Crime Story), contrasts sharply with the show’s incredibly specific focus on one couple’s dynamic. That intimate story is largely told, with a surprising and crucial boldness, through sex.
“The nuance of a complicated, volatile queer relationship is the power balance—and that is what is amazing about Tim and Hawk,” Bailey says. “Every single sex scene is a meticulous examination of power.” Fellow Travelers heats up as Hawk gets Tim a job working for McCarthy—and tasks him with spying on the senator for intel on his tactics, and insights into his weaknesses. This give-and-take inevitably moves into the bedroom, the spaces where these two men must grapple with not only their hidden blossoming love, but also the transactional quality of their bond. “There’s a level of trust and intimacy that’s even more valuable when society is against you,” Bomer says. “You keep your secrets together.”
The resulting sex scenes, capturing a range of role plays, will ring as highly authentic to gay men, and mark uncharted territory for mainstream dramatic TV—even on a network like Showtime. “Not that it will be shocking to people, but I hope when people watch it, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow. They really went for it,’” Rogers says. The production made intimacy coordinators available to the cast throughout filming, and Bomer and Bailey felt an intrinsic trust with each other, rooted in that Cumberland Street pact. “I will be so interested to see how people respond to it,” Bailey says. “To me, being queer also is about, as two men, how you negotiate your giving of your body to the other person. That is something that I’ve always yearned to see properly done because I know how extraordinary it is to experience it.”
At one point, Bailey sent Bomer a video of Torvill and Dean’s legendary “Bolero” ice dance. “We’re two ice skaters dancing together—it sort of felt like that,” Bailey says with a laugh. Bomer chimes in: “It was really interesting to find the different types of expression of their love and intimacy over the different time periods,” he says. “It was like opening a Christmas present every time I would see Jonny in a new time period and see what he would bring to the table with it in this new chapter of Tim’s life.”
The show begins by shifting between the ’50s and ’80s, but its latter half shakes up the formula, hurtling into periods of liberation. In Hawk, Bomer charts the expansion of a man who’s compartmentalized a vital part of his being for much of his life. “Love is dangerous—it’s a threat to his very existence, and Tim is really the only person who can challenge that,” he says. Over time, he marries a childhood friend, Lucy Smith (Allison Williams), while continuing to see Tim. The show does not ever cast Tim in a pitiable light, however. “He’s very pure, even though he’s always searching for absolution and truth, and he is fundamentally very clear on who he is,” Bailey says. “I could see who that was.”
The ’80s segment of the show, glimpsed through to the final episode, opens with the characters separated—with their tense, heartbreaking reunion leading into the narrative’s conclusion. Over eight hours, the show ambitiously recreates everything from ’50s DC to ’70s Fire Island to ’80s Bay Area—all in Toronto and somehow, per Rogers, under budget. The final scenes take place at the famed AIDS quilt, with the production designers thoroughly reimagining the iconic National Mall site. They had Cohn’s actual square on hand, and designed some others from scratch. “When you see it, you won’t believe it,” Rogers teases. “You’ll be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this looks like they shot it in DC.’”
By the time production wrapped, Bailey and Bomer faced a fulfilling—if not easy—goodbye. “Just getting to play the character over the course of 35 years—some of the scenes that take place in the last episode for me were such a rite of passage in terms of saying goodbye to the character,” Bomer says. Adds Bailey, “It’s been just the most joyous, emotional, and also informative experience I’ve had on a job. I’ve never grieved a character more.”
Well, kind of. Bailey actually filmed the third season of Bridgerton at the same time as Fellow Travelers. “I had a really weird time,” he says. At the time, he’d regularly commute between Canada and the UK. And for his last day making Fellow Travelers, he worked through an emotionally draining 19-, maybe 20-hour shoot with Bomer. The work bled into the weekend. Bailey finally left the set for the last time. And by Monday, he was back in Regency-era England, transported 200 years into the past, in character as Anthony Bridgerton. “When I say I grieved it, I didn’t actually have any space to,” Bailey says now of Fellow Travelers. “But I still think about Tim a lot.” Understandably—this is a life story that’ll stay with you.Vanity Fair