One of the many challenges of bringing Dear White People to the small screen for Netflix was finding new actors to fill some of the film’s biggest roles — including the student-journalist wallflower Lionel Higgins. In the 2014 film of the same name, he’s played by The Walking Dead’s Tyler James Williams, but for the TV show, creator Justin Simien cast newcomer DeRon Horton.
The show picks up where the film left off, with Lionel breaking the story on a blackface party hosted by Winchester University’s white-staffed humor magazine. Before the show’s premiere, Vulture spoke with Horton about going deeper with Lionel, playing a black gay nerd, the backlash to the show, and the truth behind those masturbation scenes.
Did you go in blind when you read the script for the show, or had you seen the original movie?
I read the script first and because I was going to audition for it, I decided to watch the movie. But the character Lionel didn’t have too big of a part in it, so I was kind of confused about how he was to be played. I came in with my own ideas about him.
Tyler James Williams famously wore an exaggerated Afro wig for the part, but on the show, Lionel’s ’fro is much smaller, though still crucial to his identity. Was that your hair grown out?
It was also a wig, but I’m glad it looked more like my hair than the movie did. I did have an Afro for a very long time — until one day, like Lionel, I was like, “It’s time to get rid of it.”
The film doesn’t really explore Lionel’s sexuality like the show does. Were you surprised to see how Lionel’s story took shape?
In the film, it surprised me when he had his little kiss at the dance. Tyler did a great job, but in the TV series, you get to see all these fantasies and things that go through Lionel’s head. It was done in a much better way in the show by being expressed and explained. We’re exploring the idea of the mind a lot more in the show than Justin did in the film.
In Lionel’s episode, there’s a scene where his roommate Troy (Brandon P. Bell) allows his friends’ homophobic remarks to go unchecked, which might trick the audience into thinking he’s also homophobic. But when Lionel comes out to him, he’s comforting. What did you think about the way that scene?
It was done really well. The setup was beautiful. The thing is, Troy didn’t really make homophobic remarks. He was just [engaging in] misogyny, because he takes women so seriously. Trying to get Lionel some ass, basically. He’s trying his hardest to be super-masculine about that. But it’s easier for Lionel to tell Troy. He’s his roommate, so he feels like Troy cares about him a little bit. Showing your sexuality at all when you’re in your youth is tough. It’s tough for anyone. They don’t know who to tell or who to trust with this information. Hopefully, seeing how easy it was for Lionel can make it as easy for whoever watches the show.
We see Lionel masturbate to Troy having sex in the other room. It’s shown as a split-screen where the wall comes down in Lionel’s fantasy, but how was that scene actually filmed?
[Laughs.] I don’t know if I wanna tell Justin’s artistic genius! But, yes, I was watching Troy have sex at the same time as the masturbation was occurring. It’s very funny.
Did that make it harder for you to concentrate?
I guess at first. With me masturbating, they tried to make it comfortable by having a closed set. Sometimes it was just me hearing the sounds and having my facial expressions. But sometimes, the curtain was pulled and I was able to see what was going on on the other side of the room.
In the show, Lionel is more sure of himself and that makes him funnier. You have a particularly humorous scene involving an attempted threesome with two other students, a man and a woman, whom Lionel meets at a party — though he clearly only wants to be with the guy.
It was so funny because I knew that scene was coming, but I didn’t know how we were gonna film any of the episodes. That was my first day. I was like, “Wait, whoa.” There was no talk about it, no preparation. All my anxiety about being in a threesome scene was just thrown out the window. Not that I was nervous, but any kind of sex scene, you wonder how it’s gonna be. Is the person’s breath gonna stink? You just never know. It was early in the morning, 7 a.m., and I was just thrown into the fire. But the people I was with in the scene were all very comforting and creative. We tried to make it as honest and genuine as possible. It was a pleasure. [Laughs.]
For as closeted as Lionel had been, he’s quick to out the guy in that situation. Lionel tells him to drop the act, even though Lionel’s been acting with everyone else, even his gay editor.
I think he has a great eye for realizing what other people are going through before they even do, but struggles turning the mirror on himself and knowing what he wants.
We haven’t really seen a character like Lionel on TV: a black gay nerd who cosplayed as Geordi La Forge in high school. Was it refreshing to have the Lionels of the world be seen?
I actually played a nerdy character right around the time that I was cast in this show, so I had been exposed to it. But in college, I wasn’t playing the nerdy kid. It was more love interests or the Troy characters. I’m not good at playing characters with so much testosterone. It challenged me more as an actor to play something I’m not usually cast in. I fell in love with Lionel. It’s so funny to see myself onscreen as him.
You also star in Netflix’s Burning Sands, another project about the extremes of campus life that involves black fraternities and hazing. Was your own college experience this intense?
It wasn’t like either of the characters I’m playing at all. But it’s cool because I took my college experience and used it to help me with Lionel and feeling semi out of place. I went to an art school, something like a [predominantly white institution], but it had a lot of diversity. I was used to that from growing up overseas. You see race and ethnic differences from both sides and different angles. It wasn’t an Ivy League school, but I had the best of both worlds.
When the first trailer for Dear White People dropped, alt-right sites accused the show of being racist to white people. What’s your reaction to people who think this show is anti-white?
That’s funny. They were saying it’s “white genocide.” But trying to educate a certain group of individuals about a specific topic doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be racism. That was a 35-second teaser and no white people were killed, so … Remain ignorant as long as you want, but the rest of the world is gonna try to progress.
This interview has been edited and condensed.