Nico Tortorella Wants to Be ‘The Future Man’

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UNICODE Photo: Amy Lombard/Vulture

Nico Tortorella is beautiful, and he has the ease of someone who knows it. In front of the camera, there isn’t a hint of hesitation or self-doubt. He does headstands, takes off his shirt, and hangs upside down from a tree branch during our photo shoot (all his ideas). After requesting a box of Lucky Charms so he can feed the pigeons, Tortorella hops the wrought-iron fence at Tompkins Square Park and plops himself on the grass, espadrilles kicked off, beside the flock of birds. They scatter at first, but soon begin to bob their way toward him as he tosses rainbow-colored marshmallows into the air. “I don’t want to leave!” he says, laughing, after the photographer says she has the shot. “I found my people!”

Tortorella, 28, currently stars on TV Land’s Younger — a Darren Star production now in its third season — as Josh, a tattoo artist and the young boyfriend of Sutton Foster’s Liza, a 40-year-old woman pretending to be 26 to regain entry into the publishing industry. Like his character, the actor and former model loves love; he exudes a vibe that’s part hippie, part manic pixie dream boy. He’s Huckleberry Finn if he had grown up, packed his bags for Los Angeles to study business at Loyola Marymount with dreadlocked hair, only to drop out to work at a raw-food restaurant (yes, he did all of that). He’s impish and charismatic, and has that intensity that comes with people who are formerly addicts, where if he’s going to do it, he’s going to go all-in.

Interest in Tortorella has grown ever since the New York Post reported earlier this year that he identifies as “sexually fluid.” While it’s become more common to hear female actors discuss their sexuality, as Miley Cyrus, Ruby Rose, and Rowan Blanchard have done, it’s still rare for male actors to speak so candidly about the idea that their sexuality could be fluid — something changing and dynamic, as opposed to a fixed orientation. But he says that wasn’t exactly accurate. “I never labeled myself as sexually fluid,” Tortorella told me a week prior to the photo shoot. “I like emotionally fluid more than sexually fluid.” We’re drinking cans of seltzer at the bar in the back of the Museum of Sex, a serendipitous last-minute spot we wandered into after a first café was too crowded, and the Evelyn hotel asked us to leave their lobby. “This is very fitting. We’re going to talk about sex the whole time,” he says, laughing, as we pass tables of bright silicone vibrators and penis molds.

For Tortorella, sexual acts or desires don’t necessarily line up with specific identities. Just because you have sex with a man, for example, it doesn’t make you gay. Tortorella realized he saw sexuality differently after his first sexual experience with another man in high school: One of his best friends was gay, but had a hard time accepting it. “This is going to sound fucked, but I knew that he was really struggling. And I was like, Look, if I hook up with him, maybe it will make things easier for him,” Tortorella remembers. “We hooked up. There was no assplay at all. It was just dick-to-mouth here. He was shaken up about it and I was like, ‘It’s fine. What happened last night doesn’t make you the person that you are. Why are you putting so much weight on it?’ And when that happened, I was like, Oh, I’m thinking about this differently than everyone else is thinking about it.”

Tortorella’s interest in love and sexuality form the basis for his podcast, The Love Bomb, where he stages intimate conversations about gender, sex, and relationships with people he loves, from drag queens to his exes. “One of the biggest comments on this podcast right now is people are having a really hard time separating love from sex,” he says. “I’m trying to be a voice to separate the two.” He feels there’s a presumption that since he’s interested in sexuality, he’s promiscuous. “I’m not this grrrr sexual person that is on the prowl. I never have been,” he explains. “I think I’ve had, like, two one-night stands in my entire life.”

On the first episode, he talks to an ex, a woman named Bethany Meyers. The two are deeply in sync, even though they never made their relationship “official.” In fact, that’s probably part of why they’re still close. “I don’t like labels, just like you, my dear,” she says on the podcast, when he asks how she identifies. “The hardest thing for you and I to do is put ourselves in a box and stay there.” He wonders, “What do you think that actually stems from? Is it just an insecurity in ourselves that we can’t commit to a word, or is it actually because we don’t need it, because we’re more evolved than that? I keep going back and forth in my head.”

How does Tortorella identify, then? “The more I’m having these conversations, the more comfortable I am identifying as bisexual,” he says. “I’ve been so hesitant about using the word for so long, because it does have a negative connotation in our generation. People fought for so long for that ‘B’ in LGBT, and I refuse to be the person that’s going to throw that away because I think I have a more colorful word.”

While he might not identify as sexually fluid, he’s clearly still enamored with the idea of freewheeling in a space where human sexuality isn’t constrained by labels, rules, or doctrines. He has toyed with the idea of creating a “sketch-based” TV show called Nico Nico Nico that would explore various gender and sexual identities, if only to break down their boundaries. “Each episode was a different label,” Tortorella says, explaining that he might play a trans woman in one episode, a lesbian in another, and so on. “So there was the gay episode, the straight episode, the bisexual episode, the cisgender episode, the asexual episode. I was playing all these different characters, so you could see how one person could be all of these different things in all of these different relationships.”

“I think all of that is okay to play with,” he continues, when I ask if he’s worried about potential criticism. “The only way to move to a genderless, raceless society is if everybody, across the board, (a) stops being an asshole, and (b) stops being so fucking sensitive.” Where the current frame around identity politics is to claim, label, and protect certain spaces, Tortorella inherently believes that these categories should be more descriptive than prescriptive. At the same time, he seems to gather that maybe he can think this way precisely because he’s afforded the privilege as a cisgender white man. “I could never feel what it feels like to be anything else,” he says. “I’ll never know what women’s issues are, at a core level. I’ll never know what it feels like to be a black man. Asian. Anything, really. White men are genderless and raceless because they’ve never had to think about it.”

Sexual transcendence, then, the ability to be undefined, appeals to him as an almost higher state of existence. “Way beyond definition: not this, not that. Define me, try, because sometimes I can’t,” Tortorella says in the spoken-word introduction at the top of his first podcast. “I’m going to make it work no matter what you have between your thighs. I’m not trying to hide, people. I’m trying. This is me, this is us, this is we, we are you, just more evolved and free.”

Or, as he tells me, “I am the Future Man.” 

Tortorella grew up on the North Shore of Chicago in a big Italian family that owned several bars and delis in the area. When I ask him about his childhood, he says he has a much better relationship with his mom than with his dad, who left when he was younger.  As it would become increasingly clear over the day, he isn’t afraid to be vulnerable when it comes to his personal life. “I have not-so-great relationships with the men that raised me. I’ve just been constantly let down by men in my life,” he says. “My dad left. My uncle, who was my best friend in the entire world, who raised me, who taught me everything I know about what it is to be a man, he left, too, without telling anybody. Just one day disappeared. The women in my life have always been there. Always. I’m a thousand times more connected to women in general than I am to men.”

He says it’s why he sees himself with a woman even though he has dated men, and why he identifies more with the feminine than the masculine. In that way, his identity is less flexible than he’d like it to be. “Ultimately, in my fluidity, at the end of the day I never could see myself marrying a man,” he said. “I could never see myself having kids with a man. I don’t even like hanging out with dudes for the most part.”

We’re on our way to a Reiki healing session, a form of healing with Japanese Buddhist roots that has been appropriated by New Age culture along with yoga, ayahuasca, and kombucha. The goal of Reiki is to clear the blockages you have in your energy circuitry to help with both physical and emotional healing. Bethany, the aforementioned ex, recommended he try it out after she did a session to help her get through a particularly nasty breakup. And if there’s one thing about Nico Tortorella, it’s that he’s game to try anything. “I have no idea what we’re getting into at all,” he tells me, when I ask him about it. (Another activity Tortorella suggested was a kambo ceremony, where you absorb Amazonian leaf-frog poison and vomit as a way to restart your system.)

It’s a bright, warm day on the edge of the fall — a few days before the equinox and a day before a lunar eclipse — and the perfect time for something like this. “We’re in retrograde, but it’s shifting tonight,” he says. “There is something syncing up in the universe right now.” For Tortorella, that includes the actor he’s currently seeing, Olesya Rulin, flying from Los Angeles to move into his apartment in Brooklyn. The two met during the filming of the unaired pilot for MTV’s Eye Candy, in 2013, but it wasn’t until recently that they started dating. Before the move, he gave her a “pre-engagement ring” set with a diamond and a sapphire, one representing her and the other him, “depending on the day.” “I was like, ‘Hey, look. I'm going to give you a bunch of rings for the rest of your life. This is just the first one,’” he recounts. “She was like, ‘Okay.’”

In an uncanny coincidence, his old apartment is across the street from the Balance Arts Center, where we’re headed. “This is the apartment where all the bad shit happened,” he says, pointing out the building to me as we wait for the crosswalk. “I get so anxious even being on this street.” When Tortorella moved to New York to shoot The Beautiful Life, a short-lived 2009 CW show based on Ashton Kutcher’s time as a model, he started going on drug and alcohol binges. “Once you’re blacked out, there’s not enough cocaine in the world that can take you off it,” he recalls. “There was one point where I was so fucked up, I woke up hung-over, I called the IV doctor to come to my apartment, and I hooked up the drip for like an hour. As soon as it was done, I bought a bag of coke and had a handle of fucking whiskey and started all over again. Living the Hollywood dream.”

His drug use ended up affecting his relationship with Kutcher, which blew up in a fight at a premiere party at the Top of the Standard, in New York. “We’re at the Boom Boom Room, and it was literally Demi, Bruce, Ashton, and a handful of other very, very famous people,” Tortorella recalls. “Someone was shoveling coke into my face in the bathroom. I come back out and Ashton calls me out in front of everybody and gets in my face. And I’m loaded on a bunch of coke and 21 years old, and so I got in his face and we started pushing each other back and forth. In hindsight, embarrassing. I wish that had never happened.”

Although he doesn’t say it, I get the feeling Tortorella wished Kutcher had been more of a mentor to him. Leading up to that incident, he’d asked Kutcher for one piece of advice, which, not incidentally, was “Don’t ever put anything up your nose.” “Obviously, there was an issue, but he should have fucking handled it better than he did,” Tortorella says. “He shouldn’t have called me out in front of all those people. He was my boss. He would have sat me down if he really cared about me.”

“I definitely got into the underbelly of Hollywood,” Tortorella continues. “When you’re living the celebrity life and not working at the same time, shit can go dark real fast.” He went through bouts of abusing, quitting, and starting again, and he’s been sober for about two years now. It was a decision he made at the end of the first season of Younger, when he realized he looked like a mess from nights out. “I was drinking almost all day, every day, and hurting people that I love. I knew I was going to die at one point,” he said. “I wanted to die at one point, and that was what made me turn around.”

We reach the Balance Arts Center, tucked behind a nondescript door and up a creaking staircase, and meet Jessica Brodkin, a former CIA analyst turned Reiki healer. She takes us to a spacious room where Tortorella lies down, face up, on a massage table draped with a white sheet. There’s a shock of greenery near the windows, a model skeleton in one corner, and pile of jewel-tone yoga mats and blocks in another. Both of them take deep breaths as she holds her palms over various chakras. She rubs lavender and wild-orange oil on his wrists and begins a series of questions: “Have you let go of a lot of anger recently?” Yes. “Family stuff? Dad?” Uh-huh. “Did you feel like there was something out of your power?” Yeah.

She goes back and forth, arranging crystals on his body: a large, pink merkaba crystal on his solar plexus, bars of quartz scattered around him. Her observations are reminiscent of much of what we talked about earlier: She tells him not to be afraid of tapping into his masculinity, as repressing it has thrown him out of balance. Maybe he could take up martial arts, she offers?  “Your father and your uncle are keeping you from your masculine energy,” she explains. “The left side is the feminine. And this one is the one that’s overused.” She asks him if he wants to do “a cord-cutting exercise” — what she calls “spiritual surgery” — which would release him from the negative feelings he holds toward his father and uncle. He does.

Together, they imagine a cord, thick and grayish-orange, that ties him to his uncle. He feels it in his throat. She asks him how she should cut the cord — with scissors, a knife, or a sword. They decide that it must be the sword. (It’s all imaginary.) She begins to count aloud: “One. Two. Three.” On three, he lets out a deep exhale, and she does too, knifing her hand through the air. They do it again, and then one more time.

“Are you ready to forgive him?” she asks. He lets out another exhale, spittle and all. A tear trickles down his face and into his ear.

“If you’re not, that’s okay,” she says softly.

“No,” he says, his voice breaking. “I am.”

She has him recite a “nondenominational forgiveness prayer” for each person he’s seeking to free himself of. “I forgive you for anything you may have done to hurt me in thought, word, or deed, in this or any other lifetime,” he repeats, “across all dimensions and realities. You are free, and I am free.” Over the next hour, she cuts more ties — to his father, and then to someone else he didn’t want to talk about, who he says took him to a bad place. She rests her chin in the crook of her arms as she presses her hands against his temples. As his tears stream out, she wipes them away with a tissue. “It’s really good to cry,” she says. “I cry all the time,” he says, and laughs.

Tortorella’s body accumulates a mass of crystals as the session goes on: He’s holding round, orange citrine crystals in each hand, and a small banded amethyst and white quartz rest on his forehead, as though they’re growing out of his body. The mood of the room becomes lighter and chattier after the forgiveness prayer. Nico mentions the years of drug and alcohol abuse; she asks him whether he believes in past lives. Of course he does. “Do you think you’re a new soul?” she asks. “I think I’ve been a woman for so long,” he responds. He shows her the tattoo across his clavicles that reads “Not this, not that, beyond definition,” flanked by the male and female gender symbols.

But there is an experience he wishes he could have in this body and in this lifetime. “I would give it all up just to be able to give birth,” he says. She jokes that maybe he wouldn’t say that if he were a woman. Maybe, he says. That’s the tricky thing about transcendence: It’s more of a goal than a state of being. Like running toward the horizon. Tortorella, too, is bound by his body, his anxieties, addictions, childhood traumas, and misunderstandings, as much as he might want to be free of them.

We reach the end of the session. “I feel like you’re clear,” she says. “How do you feel?”

He opens his eyes, rejuvenated. “Fantastic. Thanks,” he replies. He lifts his legs up, stretching out his hamstrings.

“All the stuff you’re dealing with is just normal human stuff,” she reminds him. “Alcoholic, whatever. Heartbreak, heart-make, success, failure, up, down.”

“Human.”

“Just being human,” she continues. “It’s just the process of being alive. You chose this incarnation. You chose your body. You chose your circumstance.”

Then, he asks a purely Nico question, grinning: “How do you be nonhuman?” He gets up, and crystals clatter around his body.

Styling by Melissa Dezarate for Exclusive Artists Management using Chanel Ultrawear Foundation.