In so many queer lives, there is a bar or club where, perhaps for the first time, that an eagerly searching soul found the freedom to be who they are, and be welcomed and even celebrated for it. Gay bars and clubs serve not only booze, fun, sex, and fantasy, but they provide sanctuary, a place to feel at home in your queerness.
In the fictional world of Queer as Folk, Peacock’s reimagining of the landmark British LGBTQ drama, that bar is Babylon. (In the American, early-aughts iteration of the series, which aired for five seasons on Showtime, the crew’s hangout also was called Babylon.) By the end of the first episode of Queer as Folk 3.0, the sense of safety and sanctuary at Babylon will have been irrevocably shattered by gun violence.
It’s a daring way to start the series, and, in the wake of so many tragic shootings in this country, including the Pulse massacre, the show’s creator and executive producer Stephen Dunn knew it was the story he wanted to tell.
“It was actually the idea that I brought to Russell,” recalls Dunn of his initial pitch to Russell T. Davies, creator of the original British version, for a new Queer as Folk.
But, as Dunn is quick to point out, the shooting itself is not depicted. “That was the one thing I knew wasn’t going to be a part of our show: actually seeing violence,” he says. “We hear enough about it and we don’t need the images to go with it, in order to tell the story.”
The aspect of the story Dunn really wanted to highlight is “how a community rebuilds in the wake of something like this, and how they navigate the ways in which to make it like a bigger, better, safer queer space, that’s maybe more inclusive than the one that existed before it.”
Ryan O’Connell, Emmy-nominated creator and star of the semi-autobiographical Netflix series Special, joined the show as a writer, executive producer, and cast member after reading Dunn’s powerful pilot script. “I definitely was like, ‘Oh wow. This is a big swing,’” O’Connell recalls. “But I also knew that Stephen had spent time with Pulse survivors, and it was something that he was very passionate about and it’s all about the execution.”
Key to that execution is a sharp, insightful, even at times mordantly funny depiction of how everyone affected copes with the fallout, while getting on with their lives. “What I loved about it and felt was important,” says O’Connell, “was that in the endless barrage of shootings and tragedy, I feel victims and survivors often become just a number, a statistic.
“I think the media focuses on these events and then they move on to the next tragedy. Very rarely do I see that people are checking in on the aftermath. What does life look like for survivors of a shooting like this? What happens to them? I did not know the answer to that. Stephen did, and I thought that was a really interesting perspective that we don’t see. And I thought it was a great opportunity to humanize these people.”
Those people include Devin Way as series focal point Brodie, Fin Argus as genderqueer baby drag queen Mingus, and Jesse James Keitel as trans soon-to-be-mom Ruthie. O’Connell co-stars as Brodie’s adopted brother Julian, with the ever-saucy Kim Cattrall as Brodie and Julian’s larger-than-life mother, Brenda.
Anchoring this extended chosen family is seemingly stable lawyer Noah, portrayed by Johnny Sibilly, most recently seen breaking hearts as water meter inspector Wilson on HBO Max’s Hacks.
Include Sibilly’s other recent role as Pray Tell’s ill-fated lover Costas on Pose, and the actor is racking up an impressive resumé of queer roles on high-profile series, tackling some of the most challenging issues affecting the LGBTQ community.
On this show, Noah juggles a demanding job, a couple of clandestine relationships, a secret drug habit, as well as the trauma of the Babylon shooting and its aftermath. “I still get goosebumps thinking about it,” Sibilly says of acting out those frightening moments.
“And I got goosebumps on set when we were filming those scenes, because it’s never okay and it never feels right. So I hope that people just take that into real actionable change, because there’s no other way that we’re going to get [gun reform] legislation passed, unless people are pissed the hell off.”
Sibilly confesses he’d like to see his character at least somewhat healed and having an easier time of it should the show see a second season.
“I hopefully see Noah in recovery,” he says. “I hope I see him in maybe one relationship, if not, maybe a throuple or an open relationship. So at least there’s some guidelines of what we’re doing. I just hope that Noah is a little bit happier in season two. Because in season one, he definitely went through it.”
METRO WEEKLY: I’ll start by asking if you have a favorite famous Johnny who isn’t you?
JOHNNY SIBILLY: Oh gosh. Johnny Bravo? [Laughs.] He’s not even a real Johnny. But I remember getting called Johnny Bravo growing up, the cartoon, and I was like, oh, well he’s a stud, so…
MW: There are probably worse Johnny’s to be called. Johnny Appleseed wouldn’t necessarily work for everybody.
SIBILLY: Oh yeah. I got that a lot, too.
MW: Where did you grow up?
SIBILLY: Miami, mostly. My parents were in the Army, so we jumped around a little bit — Texas, Germany — but we ended up in Miami for the most part.
MW: Both parents were in the army?
SIBILLY: That’s where they met.
MW: That seems like a very serious military upbringing. But you’re not in the military. Were you ever, or were you ever inclined towards that?
SIBILLY: Nope. I asked my mom all the time when I was coming up as an actor, “Didn’t you ever have a dream?” And she’s like, “No, me and your father went into the military because we didn’t think about doing anything else. We didn’t have any dreams.” I was like, “Well, I have a dream.” So, no, it was never on my mind.
MW: Well, I’m not going to ask you the whole path to getting here, we’ll just get to the dream, Queer as Folk. On the press junket last week, I couldn’t help but notice the range of outlets covering the show. The interest is really broad, because people come already invested in Queer as Folk. How does it feel to know there’s that audience out there invested regardless of the fact they haven’t seen it yet?
SIBILLY: It feels really nice. And just seeing, over the past couple years, that our stories are no longer niche. In my opinion, they never have been niche. They’ve always been everyone’s stories because queer people are all over, but it is really nice to see a lot of publications that maybe in the past iterations of Queer as Folk wouldn’t have covered, are now interested and wanting to know the stories and wanting to review it. And it’s all very, very exciting, but it also feels very, very right. I don’t want to sit here and be like, oh my gosh, thank goodness they see us. I’m like, no, they should be seeing us. We’re everywhere, baby. You know what I mean?
MW: Generations of people have seen the different versions of this show. Did you watch either version, and at what age did you find whichever one you found?
SIBILLY: Well, I watched probably a little earlier than I should have. I think I was like 12, 13, 14, around that age. I remember being at an aunt or an uncle’s house in their bedroom while everyone else was out in the living room. I was one of those kids that would stay in a room alone because I didn’t want to deal with everyone else. Also a very queer kid. So it’s like the more I’m alone, the more I’m protected.
I remember just flipping through the channels, and I swear to you when I landed on that channel and those men were kissing and having sex, I was so scared, one, because I was like, “Oh my God, if someone walks in, they’re going to see it.” So I had my finger immediately on the back button to the Disney Channel, but then I was also like, “Oh my God, I feel something inside of me that I have never felt before.”
So, it’s interesting, because seeing Queer as Folk onscreen was also an indication to me that I was queer myself. It’s crazy that a TV show could be part of your understanding of who you are. I mean, we hear it all the time, but it really was a changing moment for me.
MW: I can relate. Something else I relate to, that’s captured on the show, is the feeling of finding yourself in your first gay bar. Did you have that experience and what was the bar?
SIBILLY: I think the first gay bar I went to — that I was old enough to go to, because I was a goodie-two-shoes. I never went anywhere I was not supposed to go — was called Discoteca in downtown Miami. Every time I think about it, I get goosebumps, because I was like Dorothy walking into The Wizard of Oz: “What in the hell am I getting into?” And just seeing men kissing, and drag queens performing, I was so enamored. It really felt like an Alice in Wonderland kind of vibe of I can’t believe this exists and I can’t believe I feel safe here. And I can look at men or I can flirt with somebody or dance. And I remember I used to go back every single weekend, and dance on top of the stage because I wanted to be seen and I wanted to be free. I felt drunk before I even had a drink, you know what I mean?
MW: The show’s pilot episode depicts that security and fantasy, and all those wonderful things, being violated really intensely. What did you think when you first got to that part of the pilot? Did you know before you were reading the script, or was it a shock to you too?
SIBILLY: I did not know. I was reading it just like anybody watching. I think people watching have more of a heads up now than I did when I first read the pilot. And I remember thinking, “Oh no, no, no, no, no. No, not this.” And then I immediately was like, “This is exactly how it feels. This is exactly what it means to be queer, to be feeling safe, and then you realize the world is not safe for you.”
The shooting is only one example of how queer spaces are infringed upon. As soon as we get marriage equality, we have legislation trying to ban trans existence. And as soon as we get Biden as a President, we see an influx of people trying to come for trans children and drag queens. Just anytime we have a moment of joy and a moment of progress, in the words of my church upbringing, you see the devil come around and try and take it from you. And that is what I feel like a lot of society does when queer people are experiencing joy.
The same thing with the AIDS epidemic. In the 1970s, the queer community was sex-positive. We were living life, and then AIDS came and you see how society vilified us for so, so, so many years. So it’s just a constant threat to our queer joy. But in spite of that, like you see on the show, we still come together. We still rise up and we still forge on to be happy queer people because we know no other way. We are brought into this world that doesn’t want us a lot of times, and we have to be joyful and happy in spite of that.
MW: About the gun violence, how do you hope people respond to what they’re going to see, including the aftermath of what happens?
SIBILLY: I hope people understand that this isn’t being used as just a dramatic device. This is being used to remind people that our safety is not guaranteed. It’s also, for me, I think, an homage to anyone that has experienced violence in our community, to say that your stories will continue to be told, and that we won’t just remember you one day a year when we have our remembrance posts, and we say, “Never forget.”
We should always keep these people in mind, because if we don’t talk about it, if we don’t look at this in the mirror and say, this is who our society is, then we forget. And then things happen again. And we’re like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is happening!” We have to keep it top of mind. So I understand as a queer person, not wanting to see that, not wanting to hear stories about people dying of AIDS and being thrown out of their homes. But the moment that we stop talking about it, is the moment we forget that it’s actually a possibility for many people still in this country. And not only this country, but around the world.
MW: Not to put you on the spot, but right now, the nation is in a hopeful moment that there can be some kind of meaningful change in gun reform. Do you think this is passing, or is it a real moment?
SIBILLY: This is why I think talking about and doing the stories of gun violence are important too. It’s because when people feel uncomfortable, when people feel angry, that’s when they make their voices heard. When people are happy, they’re not calling their senators and their congressmen to say, “What the hell are you people doing?” So I think it is important that we don’t allow another shooting to happen without being loud and brash about what the hell they need to do to change this shit, because politicians will “thoughts and prayers” you down. And it truly does not matter what party affiliation they are. I mean, obviously there’s a spectrum of evil, in my opinion, but a lot of these politicians need to stop dancing around the bullshit and just come together and say, we are not here for our people dying. Especially our children dying at the hands of gun violence. It’s enough at this point.
MW: There are many other serious issues dealt with on the show, including Noah’s drug use. With that, and with all that the character has to deal with, did you do anything different from your usual process to prepare for the role?
SIBILLY: I did speak to some friends that are addicts, and that have gone through the steps of addiction, and trying to heal and stay sober and things like that. Just to ask some questions and not really take anything for my own character, because I feel like everyone is different.
Just being a gay man, and being on an app at three in the morning, and seeing how many people are doing drugs at that time — not only just the more acceptable drugs, but the drugs that can really take you to a dark place. I just remember some friends that have gone through stuff and made it out, but then there’s also people that have not made it out.
And just knowing that a lot of times when, especially in the queer community, if you hear like, “Oh, she started doing meth and she went off the deep end.” it’s almost as if they’re a boat that is out to sea, and no one’s going to ever see them again. And I’m like, that’s still a human being. That’s still someone’s son. That person went to elementary school.
I think about all the things that these people, that these addicts, have experienced in their life, and then to just be cast off after drug use. It made me think about how we don’t look at these people through an empathetic lens. And so I try to approach the issue with Noah in a very non-judgmental way, because you don’t know what people are going through. Especially queer people. I have a lot of friends, and even myself, that have tried to escape from the woes of being queer, the victimhood of the things that we’re put through, with sex, with partying, with going out and doing things that you’re probably not supposed to be doing. So I think for me, it was more like, let me understand why. It’s not the what Noah is doing for me, it’s the why Noah is doing what he’s doing. And I think with a lot of these characters in the show that’s important to take note as well.
MW: Empathy is a good word to describe the approach throughout the show. Another character deals with an HIV diagnosis, and knowing that you played a ’90s AIDS patient on Pose, the diagnosis means something completely different in 2022 than what it might have meant to someone in 1984 or ’94. What message do you draw from how the show is portraying it now, versus what the AIDS experience was for patients 20 or 30 years ago?
SIBILLY: I think it’s super important because we do have a lot of period pieces that we watch about what it was like back then. And I think that’s super, super important because we should never forget our history. But I think it’s so, so important to see it as it is now, and how people navigate through it now, how their families act now, how their friend groups take to them and make sure that they feel like maybe it’s okay. We have a lot more language, we have a lot more information now.
And I think telling that story on screen — again, without judgment, without fear — is super important because we do have a lot of people in our community that are still living and thriving with HIV. And I think that’s one of the things that they tackle in Queer as Folk.
That’s one of the questions, and it’s so real, but the character says, “Will people still want to have sex with me?” And they’re like, “I feel so stupid asking that,” but it’s a very real question that a lot of people have. And the other character says, “Yes, honey, you’ll still be fucking.” And I think it’s important to show people that you’re not different, just in spite of everything that you go through, you are still you, and you’re still deserving.
So I think I’m really happy that this is being talked about still. Because there’s always people that are like, “Oh, we’ve got to have another storyline?” Yes, baby, because that’s our community. That’s the people that live in our community and they deserve to be talked about and celebrated.
MW: Of course, there also was an HIV storyline in earlier versions of Queer as Folk. There are things that this show obviously does differently. What are some of those things that you’re glad to see that it does differently?
SIBILLY: Well, I am really glad to see that the show is more queer, and it’s not “Gay as Folk.” It’s more queer. We’ve got different gender identities, we’ve got nonbinary characters, we’ve got disabled characters. And it’s not checking off boxes. It’s just really showing the queer community as it is.
There’s plenty more people in the community that aren’t being represented yet, in our version, let alone the past iterations. But I think all of these iterations are just a model of what society looks like at that specific time. So the Queer as Folk [Showtime] American version was only showing you that purview because that’s all society was deeming acceptable at the time. It was already enough that you have a white gay man on screen, but now it’s like, “This is us, this is who we are now.” And I’m really happy that we get to tell a more colorful story, for lack of a better word. But it is bright, and it is just as messy as the last ones were, it just looks a little different.
MW: Speaking of messy and not judging Noah, a part of the conflict with Noah is that he keeps finding himself engaged in romances with people who mean a lot to his ex Brodie. Personally, I think the heart wants what it wants. I think Noah even says that at one point. And adults are responsible for their own actions. But shouldn’t some things be off-limits?
SIBILLY: I know, it’s like where do you draw the line?
MW: Where do you draw the line?
SIBILLY: Well, for me, I remember reading the scripts, like, “Oh damn, okay. Just can’t really go outside the bubble, huh?” But I also was like, that is very queer and very relatable. I know friends that go through the whole friend group and then they’re like, “Okay, next.” So it feels very real, but it also reminds me of a lot of times, especially gay men, how we trauma-bond with people, or we jump from relationship to relationship, because a lot of times people aren’t in relationships because they have a connection, they’re in a relationship because they don’t want to be alone. They don’t want to have to face themselves when they are alone.
Noah says, I think in episode two, “I just realized that maybe living alone in a big house all by myself right now isn’t what’s good for me.” And a healed person, a person that goes to therapy, would be like, no, you should be able to be alone, baby. So I think Noah is just an example of how we, as queer people, outsource our joy and our feeling good, in order to not contend with confronting those demons that are really facing you in the mirror.
MW: Another character on the show discovers their sexual fluidity, and swings in a direction on the spectrum that they had not previously thought about for themselves. What are your thoughts on the portrayal, and the reality, of sexual fluidity?
SIBILLY: I mean, the reality is there. It’s funny because I feel like a lot of queer people, we don’t talk about it as much as we should, because for so long we’re told to identify and to stand in that identity, and you cannot be unwavering in it. A lot of us come out as bisexual at first, before we say I’m actually just gay. But there are a lot of people that are bisexual. There’s a lot of people that are pansexual, but they’re not given the space to understand that or explore it without being like, “Oh honey, she doesn’t know who she wants,” or “Oh, she’s greedy.”
I really enjoy the idea of having characters that are not just one thing, because we are not just one thing. I mean, I couldn’t tell you that I would never have sex with a woman, because that’s just not how I feel. But I do know that I have so much conditioning, because then in my head I’m always like, “Oh, is my family now going to be excited because I sleep with a woman, and all of a sudden they think I’m going to be straight and I have to… No, I have to stand.”
I feel like a lot of queer people put up guardrails around their own lives to not explore. And I really love a character that is like, “You know what, I am going to explore this and I’m going to see what I like. And maybe I like it all.” And I mean, what a colorful world to like it all, you know what I mean?
MW: The show is premiering at sort of a watershed queer entertainment moment, with the movie Fire Island just out, First Kill, a teenage vampire lesbian love story on Netflix, Drag Races everywhere. There’s a wave of queer entertainment, but there’s also, as you were discussing, the backlash to that very visibility. Can Hollywood save us? What can all this entertainment do?
SIBILLY: I think what this entertainment can do is it can save lives. I always use this Madonna quote, “The more you put it in their face, they have to contend with it.” And it’s true. The more we are unwilling to go back into closets, unwilling to act politely in spaces that we are “invited” into. I use invited in quotes because it’s our space to occupy as well. I don’t believe in this idea, “Thank you for allowing us a seat at the table.” No, baby, thank you for keeping my seat warm because it was always my seat at the table. So what this time and space reminds me is that we deserve to be here. That it’s a long time coming. And it also reminds me that there’s still so much room to grow and to go, because there’s so many things on TV, there’s a little bit of something for everyone.
If there’s people that don’t understand the queer experience, they have what I call introductory queer lessons. Like Becoming Colton on Netflix is very suitable for someone who doesn’t understand anything about queerness and is really trying to get their feet wet. And it’s explanations of queerness through Colton’s purview. But then you have Queer as Folk, which is not giving you the ABCs. You have to Google what we’re talking about if you don’t understand it. And I think both of those ends of the spectrum are very important, because we all live somewhere in there even within our own queer journeys.
So for me, the more queer content, the better, I hope to see more queer content of color, more queer content of different types of body types and ethnicities and abilities. Because our show, Queer as Folk, can be for everyone, but it can’t represent everyone, because no one show should ever have to do that. We should have plenty of greenlit projects that have a story that you can see yourself in — you as specific as you are.
MW: Specific to this show is the location, which is New Orleans. What do you think the location adds to the show, and what did you enjoy about shooting and living there?
SIBILLY: New Orleans adds to the show a depth that we haven’t seen on screen because we get a lot of queer shows, but they take place in New York and L.A. and San Francisco, the queer safe spaces that we all know and a lot of us gravitate towards after college or high school.
But there are queer safe spaces, like New Orleans, in places like the South that you hear a bad rap about because of the way that a lot of these states vote. There are queer communities in those smaller towns and those smaller cities. So New Orleans is just a testament to having queer safe space in the South. It’s like Lawry’s for queer people. You know what I mean? There’s some flavor down there that you can’t get anywhere else. And I think of Big Freedia and, “You already know!” And that just reminds me of the queer South. The Southern hospitality when we got there was so nice and palpable, and it just makes me very happy that a new queer space is getting a light shined on it. That’s already been bright, and it’s nice to get an opportunity for the rest of the world to see it.
MW: On the current season of Hacks, we see less of your character Wilson — did that have anything to do with your shooting Queer as Folk, or was that something that was already in the works storywise?
SIBILLY: I think a little bit of both. They were filming at the same time. So I did have to jump back and forth, which I was like, wow, that’s such a Hollywood dream.
MW: So glamorous.
SIBILLY: Right. It felt very that. But yeah, I mean, there was a lot to tell when it came to Jean and Hannah’s characters. And also, I think Marcus needed to experience some things on his own. But it’s funny because watching, I was like, oh I want to be in more episodes, obviously, because it’s an amazing show, but I feel like Wilson came in at just the right time. So I know that the writers wrote it in a way that it felt that way — but I was busy, so I don’t know. Maybe they’re like whenever we can get him, we can get him, but I hope he’s around more.
MW: In terms of queer representation, going just in these last few years from Pose to Hacks to Queer as Folk, you’re doing personally a lot, on your part. What’s your approach to choosing these roles, and what part does gay identity play in it?
SIBILLY: Oh, gosh. I mean, growing up, it’s so funny, being in drama class, I always tried to fit myself into these cis heterosexual male roles, plays that were about the leading man. And I had to like put on this [deeper voice], which is so fun and you know, a stretch in a lot of different ways. But for me there’s a humanity in playing queer characters, because we don’t get that often. I know so many queer people — most of my life is made up of queer people — so anytime a queer role comes across that isn’t one-dimensional or the best friend, which are very important, because we exist in those areas as well. But to play fully realized queer characters is the dream come true.
I remember when Pose first came out, and I had just done an off-Broadway play with MJ Rodriguez called Street Children. I emailed my agents. I was like, “I need to be a part of this somehow.” I’m gassed up to play these characters. Whereas sometimes you get Lawyer on Procedural Show on a major network and it’s like, oh, that’s exciting. That’s work. I would love to try and play a fun lawyer. But getting to play a queer lawyer is just an extra cherry on top, because I feel like, it’s really important for me to see queer people playing queer characters because we need the jobs and we deserve the jobs. So anytime one comes across, I’m like, oh baby, let me be a part of this if I can. So I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
MW: Something I want to get back to that you mentioned, when we were talking about New Orleans — the pockets in the South that despite how their states might vote, are still tolerant or just really embracing LGBTQ people. I’m wondering if your family still lives in Florida and if you still spend time in Florida? How does it feel for you to watch that state progress backwards?
SIBILLY: The way I like to look at it is that, people always ask me like, who are your queer heroes? And instead of saying the famous names that have paved the way, I like to think about the people that stay in states that largely oppress our people. The queer people that stay in Florida, the queer people that stay in all of these red states, because they’re true pioneers and frontline workers, in my opinion, of continuing to show people who we are. Because if we all move to L.A. and New York and San Francisco — and you know, I live in L.A., so I understand. But those people that stay behind, and try to leave an impact on people that might not see us otherwise.
Those people in those smaller communities, that’s who I try and think about when it comes to supporting these states, those are the people I want to support. We have to support them and the resources behind them so they can be empowered, and they have a community where they are.
So if anything, I’m like, “Let me go down to Florida to do some outreach with my queers down there, baby, because we’re not going anywhere.” We’re not moving to New York and L.A., just so that y’all can have the state, and then continue to have legislation and people in power that are going to denounce who we are. Not on our watch!
MW: Last question, an easy one. Who is your favorite Designing Woman, and which Designing Woman best represents you?
SIBILLY: Well, my favorite Designing Woman would have to be Jean Smart, of course. But I feel the one I identify with most is Delta Burke’s character [Suzanne Sugarbaker]. I just remember watching as a kid and being like, “That’s me.” It’s kind of like The Golden Girls, we’re all like, “Oh, I’m a Blanche moon with a Rose rising,” and things like that. So yeah, I would say I’m a Delta Burke boy.
Queer as Folk is available for streaming on Peacock. Visit www.peacocktv.com.
Hacks, seasons 1 and 2, are available on HBO Max. Visit www.hbomax.com.
Follow Johnny Sibilly on Twitter at @johnnysibilly.