How ‘Mad Men’ star Kit Williamson made his own gay soap opera

The Daily Beast

November 26, 2017

The problem, says Kit Williamson, is that EastSiders—the Emmy-nominated LGBT soap opera he created in 2012—almost shares a name with EastEnders, the well-known BBC soap opera currently in its 32nd year.

And so when Williamson recommends people check out his drama about handsome LGBT Los Angelenos living, loving, screwing up, and doing what people on soap operas are wont to do, they end up “going down totally the wrong rabbit hole” on YouTube, and finding instead a group of East Londoners doing their own variation of the same, if at a much louder volume.

My recommendation: Watch both.

Season 3 of EastSiders, released on Nov. 28 digitally and on DVD, takes the shape of a cross-America road trip, complete with stunning skies and endless horizons, beginning with Douglas/Gomorrah Rey (played by Willam Belli) having a blow-up row in full drag and 116-degree heat beside the side of a highway, as his boyfriend Quincy (Stephen Guarino) tries in vain to pacify the situation.

Belli’s heels melted in the heat, and Williamson, 32, directed the action clad in cooling wet towels. “The glamor of independent web TV,” he says, laughing.

Williamson’s character, Cal, and partner Thom (Van Hansis) are heading back west after their sojourn in New York City, and have an encounter with a drifter played by model and porn star (and Donald Trump supporter) Colby Keller. Also returning for the third season are John Halbach, Williamson’s real-life husband, and Constance Wu, Williamson’s longtime buddy, as straight couple Ian and Kathy. (To confuse you even more, a leading mother-son duo in EastEnders is called the same.)

“I wanted to create characters that I didn’t really see on television,” Williamson, who played Ed Gifford on Mad Men, told The Daily Beast. “I think you see a lot of cautionary tales in LGBT representation and then hyper- morally-upright representations. You’re either in a couple, living in the suburbs with 2.5 kids, or you’re a drug addict in the 1980s. It’s rare that LGBT characters are allowed to operate in between, like all human beings operate.”

Williamson is heartened by the growing diversity of representation in the TV shows of Shonda Rhimes and on cable, and hopes his EastSiders characters “have flaws, make messes, and pick up the pieces,” just like straight characters on TV.

EastSiders has been mostly financed through Kickstarter funding, raising $250,000 across three seasons. The third season is also partially funded by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and Impulse Group Global, and the show incorporates both organizations’ safer sex messaging.

“It’s incredibly moving,” says Williamson of the public’s generous financial support for the show, which makes him even more determined that the show does its fans justice. EastSiders aims to be as culturally mixed as a small cast and limited number of episodes can allow. “Inclusive storytelling should be everybody’s goal,” says Williamson.

If Williamson has a dream, it is that one day television will be able to sustain having two LGBT-themed shows on at the same time; or even that there will be LGBT lead characters on TV, whose sexuality or gender identity is part of their identities, rather than defining them.

Until that rainbow shines, we have a smattering of characters and shows like Queer as Folk, The L Word, and Looking, which flicker into life, cause their controversies and debates, then go. The capriciousness of LGBT representation on our screens is down to the capriciousness of mostly straight-run broadcasters.

Hansis himself found fame as Luke Snyder on CBS daytime soap As The World Turns, as a landmark gay character whom fans clamored to be allowed to kiss his boyfriend, Noah (Jake Silbermann). (Oh, have you seen their horsing-around towel wrestle? You must see the towel wrestle.)

EastSiders refers geographically to the parts of East Los Angeles—Silver Lake, Los Feliz Echo Park, DTLA—where the characters live, a boho-y, very different sort of vibe to the muscle boys of West Hollywood, although (as their social media accounts reveal) the extremely handsome and charming Williamson and Halbach look just as hot as any WeHo guy.

Some scenes in the show are filmed at the men’s home, and looks attractively ruffled and laid-back, filled with vintage furniture, mismatched cushions and twinkly lights.

Williamson had problems getting straight actors to play gay when EastSiders first began, even though there were no sex scenes in the first two seasons. “Any show with gay content is immediately presumed to be exploitative,” Williamson notes.

The road trip of Season 3 was filmed on the road itself, with cast and crew starting out in Woodstock, upstate New York, and ending up in Los Angeles, trundling across the vast expanse of America in a vintage camper trailer and another vehicle.

It took two weeks, with an extended stay in Idaho to scout locations and shoot scenes. “It was exciting, invigorating and harrowing,” says Williamson, laughing. “It’s no small undertaking taking two carloads of people across the country, and making sure they’re in bed at a reasonable hour.”

The team ran afoul of a runaway tire that put a dent in the camper early on. They were snowed out of Yellowstone National Park. They shot on the fly, and in some places permits allowing them to film were withdrawn when it was revealed that it was a gay-themed TV show.

“We started telling places where we wanted to film that it was called Go West, and just said it was about two friends driving across the country together,” Williamson says.

The Black Hills of South Dakota were especially breathtaking, he says. “You owe yourself ten minutes off the main drag to see the Badlands (National Park in South Dakota). I could have explored it all day if I had the chance. I am a huge lover of mountains. Even though it was terrifying driving that fucking camper trailer up and down mountains it was still breathtaking, even if I nearly killed everybody two or three times.”

Williamson concedes that he is biased about California where he lives, but recommends “the eastern part near Nevada for that big sky feeling, and that moment you get to the coast after weeks on the road to arrive at the Pacific Ocean and put your feet in the sand. It felt like a cool homecoming for the characters and the crew.”

Williamson himself grew up in Mississippi, where the country’s most anti-LGBT law, HB 1523, has just taken root. He is surprised as to how little attention the law has garnered nationally, compared to the outcry over similar laws in North Carolina.

“I think a lot of people write off Mississippi as a lost cause,” says Williamson, who emceed a Pride celebration there two years ago. “I understand why, but it’s still sad to me as a person who grew up there. I really want people to understand there are great people living in Mississippi fighting for their own rights and fighting for their neighbors.”

There was a lot of homophobia when he was growing up, says Williamson. “It was a really challenging place to grow up gay, and I also grew up very religious which didn’t help matters. It was definitely a challenge for my family to understand me.”

His whole family are employed in the area of law, and he surprised all of them by wanting to act. “They were supportive of me, even if part of them thought ‘He’ll get over this eventually and enter the family business.’ I tell them, ‘One day I’ll play a lawyer on TV. That’s all I can guarantee.’”

As a boy, Williamson was “a big nerd. I read a lot of fantasy novels. I had a mullet. I was very socially awkward, and it was difficult at school to be friends with other people. It was really hard for me. I knew I was different, I didn’t know why. I was savagely bullied as a kid, people were terrible to me.”

Williamson’s older sister modeled herself on the cult animated character, Daria. “I thought the way you handled bullies was being sarcastic and funny,” he says. “It didn’t turn out well.”

He and Halbach once compared notes on childhood bullying. “I was ‘Gay Kid’ and he was ‘Gay Boy.’ We both had really unoriginal bullies.” Williamson laughs softly. “Little did they know that ‘Gay Kid’ and ‘Gay Boy’ were going to get together.”

“I didn’t really think growing up that it would be possible we’d have gay marriage nationally,” he adds. “To be able to take advantage of it as a citizen”—he and Halbach married last year—“has been so incredibly moving to me.”

Williamson and Halbach met in March 2007. Williamson was then a bartender at NYC theater-land hangout Angus McIndoe, and the men were introduced by a mutual friend who told each of them separately, “He’s single and not crazy.” It was a perfectly judged match. That night, the men stayed talking until the bar closed.

Williamson had underplayed the significance of marriage equality because the possibility seemed so far off, he adds. “When the Supreme Court ruled, it hit us both. We’d been denying ourselves something that we really did find meaningful. I’m so glad we did it.”

Williamson has worked successfully as a filmmaker and actor for years. Making Mad Men was “a masterclass,” he says, watching both those in front and behind the cameras. The sexy pictures on his Instagram account are in service of promoting his work and LGBT rights, he insists, adding with another laugh, “and in shamelessly promoting ourselves. Instagram is a tool for good and evil, and we try to use it for good, for the best of possibilities.”

Williamson chuckles that the idea was to use social media to direct people to EastSiders and the men’s other work, promoting fashion and fitness influencers and LGBT destinations, but now people recognize him and Halbach from social media itself.

How EastSiders’ fans respond to the inclusion of Colby Keller remains to be seen. His scenes were shot before he revealed his support of Donald Trump.

“I was really surprised and caught off guard when I saw that,” says Williamson, who, a Hillary Clinton supporter, had been shocked when Trump triumphed in last year’s presidential election. “I was driving to Idaho when the gay blogs erupted in fury over his (Keller’s) political leanings. We did make the choice not to replace him. I haven’t talked to him about what happened.”

When it came to keeping Keller in the season, Williamson asked himself whether he would work with Susan Sarandon, another Clinton naysayer who backed Bernie Sanders.

“I think we’re living in really, really divided times, and I don’t want to do anything to add to that divide,” says Williamson. “I also don’t think we should be ‘casting people out of the village.’ It’s complicated. A lot of my family members support Trump, not for ideologically pure reasons beyond really liking the guy and what he stands for.”

Keeping Keller’s role in EastSiders intact presented “an interesting dilemma, and I don’t have the answer to it,” Willliamson admits.

I ask, had he known that Keller was a Trump supporter, would Williamson have still signed him up?

“I don’t know. When we were planning the season we were 99 percent sure Hillary Clinton was going to be president. Faced with the reality of working with an active Trump supporter right now in 2017 my answer would be ‘no.’ It’s just too much of open wound for me, and friends I know who are afraid of being deported. I do think it’s a very serious situation.”

Williamson recently posted on social media his experience of sexual harassment when he was starting out in the entertainment industry.

At 18, he was invited to a party at an agent’s house. “He proceeded to tell me not to come out if I wanted to be an actor, to stay in the closet, and then tried to put his hand down my pants,” Williamson recalls. “It was this one, two punch of harassment and homophobia that was a bitter pill to swallow, and it soured me on Los Angeles for a couple of years.”

He did not suffer any graver sexual assaults, as allegedly committed by the likes of Harvey Weinstein “and Kevin fucking Spacey. I think it’s really important we have these conversations. If Hollywood is to have any leg to stand on in shaping the culture we need to own up to the abuses of power that are very real.”

What his experience also shows, again, is Hollywood’s powerful gays seeking to keep the closet intact, part of a history—for Willliamson—of different groups acting as their own morality police and oppressors.

“It’s very sad and true. There’s still not been a gay movie star. Look at a lot of people who have succeeded on television. Most come out after their big break. I’m not here to judge: It’s brave to come out at the height of your success, but in 2017 I think we need to look at the paths other people have blazed for us and be brave enough to walk down them without fear.”

Next for Williamson may come more EastSiders. He is also writing a series about queer thirtysomethings set in New Orleans.

“I’d love to get to a place where the leads of a show can be gay where that is normal and not extraordinary,” says Williamson, “and where the storylines can be both unique to us and more universal in the same breath; where we are allowed to be doctors, husbands, wives, crazy, not crazy, parents, single, slutty, and settled.

“The whole incredible range of human experience should allowed to be represented in LGBT characters, where we are not defined solely by our sexuality.”

The open road Williamson and his crew traveled for Season 3 of EastSiders perhaps says it all.