• written by Jasper November 07, 2023

    Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey for The Telegraph

    Matt and Jonathan did an interview with The Telegraph before the actors’ strike and discussed their show Fellow Travelers. Check out the full interview below! I’ve also added the two photos and scans into the gallery.

    We all know what is meant by McCarthyism. It ­popularly refers to the first half of the 1950s, when Senator Joseph R McCarthy led a ruthless ­campaign to hound suspected communists out of the US government. What’s less well-remembered than the Red Menace is the Lavender Scare: by an executive order from President Eisenhower, McCarthyism also targeted gays and lesbians. “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys,” the senator once told the press, “you’ve got to be either a Communist or a c–ksucker.”

    Thus gay men and women, living closeted lives as they worked for the state, were targeted by sinister-sounding bodies: the FBI’s Sex ­Deviance Investigations Unit, ­Washington DC police’s Sex ­Perversion Elimination Program and the Department of State’s M Unit. All sought to identify ­government employees deemed to be security risks vulnerable to blackmail.

    Popular culture lost sight of the Lavender Scare until it was brought into the light in the US by Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel Fellow ­Travelers. Set mostly in the early 1950s, it told of a tangled romance between two men; Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller, a handsome war veteran and political fixer who steers clear of emotional attachment until he meets Tim Laughlin, a sweet young Catholic newcomer to DC whom he nicknames Skippy and sets up in the office of a Republican senator.

    The novel was not published in the UK. But now it has been adapted for television, and one piece of ­casting in particular feels ­calculated to get the attention of audiences beyond the US: Laughlin is played by British actor Jonathan Bailey, best known as the Regency heartthrob Anthony, 9th Viscount Bridgerton.

    His co-star is the American Matt Bomer, who, like Bailey, professes ignorance of what the New York Times, in its review of the novel, referred to as “the Lavender Hill mob”. “It’s a chapter of LGBTQIA history that I was completely ­unaware of,” he says.

    This is not the first time the novel has been adapted – it was staged as an opera in Cincinnati in 2016. By then it had already caught the attention of Ron Nyswaner, who laboured over bringing the book to the screen for the best part of a ­decade. Best known for his script for Philadelphia, the 1993 Aids courtroom drama which earned Tom Hanks his first Oscar, it was his stint as a producer of Homeland that persuaded Showtime to fund an expensive eight-part decades-spanning drama. “I’m still in ­disbelief that we were able to tell this story on the scale that we were able to tell it,” says Bomer, who is also an executive producer on the drama.

    The scale is considerable. The period detail of 1950s Washington, in both corridors of power and gay demimonde, is lavishly recreated. And as the story progresses it parts company with the novel, which opens with Hawk looking back at the closure of his career as a ­diplomat in Tallinn in 1991. Nyswaner’s script expands to take in other pivots in modern US ­history: the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the spread of Aids in the 1980s, when the now-married Hawk and the dying Laughlin meet for a final reckoning.

    I met the drama’s two stars in London earlier in the summer, before the actors’ strike in ­Hollywood put a stop to such encounters. It was the first time they’d seen each other since the end of the shoot. Bomer, though just off the plane and heavily jet-lagged, exudes a chiselled, blue-eyed intensity. Bailey fizzes with puppyish energy. Both are themselves gay and Bailey in particular sees their casting as a sign of ­progress. “We would not be playing these parts five or 10 years ago,” he says. The highlights of his CV are mix and match. He has played mainly straight characters on ­television in the likes of Broadchurch, Crashing and W1A, and gay characters on stage in the Sondheim musical Company and Mike Bartlett’s play C–k in the West End.

    The career of Bomer, 10 years his senior, looks a little more linear. His most high-profile film role is as an object of ladies’ lust in male-strippers drama Magic Mike and its sequel. But in 2014 he won a Golden Globe playing a closeted journalist in HBO’s adaptation of Larry ­Kramer’s play The Normal Heart. In 2018, he made his Broadway debut as part of an exclusively gay cast reviving The Boys in the Band, a ­portrait of gay life in 1960s New York.

    Earlier on the day we met, ­Stanley Tucci had said on Desert Island Discs that he doesn’t see why straight actors shouldn’t play gay characters. “I think it’s incredibly complicated and nuanced,” says Bailey with a sigh. “You just want to make sure that everyone feels there’s enough space at the table. Everyone who is panicking that they’re never going to be able to play outside their own experience is wasting their energy.”

    Bomer counters that it ought to cut both ways, that gay actors should be allowed to play straight. He speaks darkly of movie ­producers who “wouldn’t hire me because of who I was”, of gay actors who “weren’t even given a shot. A lot of it boils down to opportunity. Was ­everyone given the opportunity for the role? There is something about seeing the most authentic version of who you are represented on screen. It gives you hope.”

    In Fellow Travelers that ­authenticity is portrayed most unswervingly in the bedroom, which the plot requires Hawk and Laughlin to visit often. “I haven’t necessarily really seen gay intimacy in a way that I would want to,” says Bailey. I gently remind him of Linus Roache, who plays a senator in ­Fellow Travelers but, back in 1994, starred in Jimmy McGovern’s Priest as a Catholic priest struggling with his sexuality – graphically so in a central scene with Robert Carlyle. “Oh yeah, that’s true,” he says. “I looked to that a lot.”

    As is on trend for male actors ­nowadays, both leads look ­impeccable with their shirts off in low honeyed lighting. “Hawk is ex-military and he also wants to appeal to people in bathroom stalls,” ­reasons Bomer, who did period-appropriate Royal Canadian Air Force drills and looks no less ­pneumatic than he did in Magic Mike.

    Bailey concedes that Laughlin, who orders milk the first time we meet him, boasts the body of a Greek god for the simple reason that the shoot overlapped with Bridgerton (yes, he confirms, the newly married Anthony is back for the third season). “There’s no way Tim would have had a Bridgerton body, but what can you do if you’re commuting? I was like, I really want to lose weight to tell Tim’s story, but I lost fat and just got really ripped.”

    How resonant is the history ­portrayed in Fellow Travelers to today? It’s easy to play six degrees of separation between now and then. For instance, McCarthy’s ­closeted sidekick Roy Cohn is a lead character (played here by Will Brill). A ferocious prosecutor of both communists and gays, he would go on to be Donald Trump’s lawyer, before dying of complications from Aids. It was Trump’s three appointees to the Supreme Court who this summer enabled a 6-3 ruling releasing businesses and organisations from the obligation to treat same-sex couples equally. The landmark ruling occurred just days before I met the actors, and has been widely interpreted as a ­profound attack on LGBT rights.

    “There is an entire generation of men and women who suffered and struggled and loved under a ­government that felt that its morals were more important than their personal freedoms,” says Bomer. “And that’s exactly what we see happening today. Whether it’s McCarthy or the current Supreme Court justices, are morals more important than freedoms?”