Jordan Gavaris Explains It All

I first met Jordan Gavaris during a press junket on set in Toronto when he was shooting the fifth season of Orphan Black. We were sitting in a conference room at the soundstage and he came in wearing a gray sweatshirt and Adidas sneakers with a rainbow spatter on the sides. From interviews and watching panels, I knew he was a smart and well-spoken person, particularly when it came to discussions around sexuality, but that he hadn’t talked about it in a personal capacity. So, I asked, and he answered: Yes, he’s gay.

With that out of the way, we were free to expand the conversation further: Gavaris talked about the importance of playing Felix Dawkins, the tough and loyal brother of Sarah Manning on Orphan Black, and how the character, who is gay, allowed him to explore and better understand his femininity. We talked about misogyny, Hollywood’s obsession with masculinity, whether he is afraid of losing work after coming out, and the interview process itself.

After that initial interview, we ended with the promise to talk again. So we made time for another sit-down in a far more comfortable setting, downstairs at the Nomad Hotel in New York where he was doing press alongside his castmates ahead of the final season. He felt more assured this time around — confident, but still voluble — and we dove deeper into the politics of coming out in Hollywood. We also touched on his love of acting, celebrity, and how he met his partner, fellow actor and writer Devon Graye.

An edited, condensed version of both conversations follows.

Toronto, February 2017

Tatiana Maslany and Jordan Gavaris in Orphan Black. Photo: Orphan Black IV Productions Limited

When you were first building Felix as a character, did you focus on physicality?
Physicality was one of the things that came first; he was a cat. Sometimes animal exercises can help you get in touch with parts of yourself that you don’t access day to day. In my day-to-day physicality, I’m a little bit like a terrier. I’ve always been described as a dog. I’m kind of goofy and a little dopey looking sometimes. But that wasn’t right for this character. I knew I had to go to a different part of myself, which for some reason, I was certain that the cat was going to access — it did. It was precise, it was fluid. It was a bit ballet — something poised and postured. And then it started to make sense. You start with one thing and then you build and go, “Does this make sense?” He’s someone who is probably oppressed and has been victimized multiple times throughout his life. He’s always posturing. It’s how he moves through the world: in a constant state of defense.

You started Orphan Black when you were 22. Do you feel like there’s less of a safety net for younger actors coming up in the industry?
I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve been employed for the last five years, but I know our unions, bless them, as much as they do work hard to negotiate on our behalf, the daily rate has gone down considerably. There’s more pressure to have more representatives, so you end up with less money after all your commission’s been deducted. I’ve never really had an issue with paying taxes, but there’s this pressure that a lot of studios face now to hire names. I mean, movies are the worst, because the movie business is failing terribly and they think they have some amazing model that’s going to fix it all, and it all involves hiring a girl with 2 million Instagram followers. Hasn’t worked yet. And then in television it’s the same thing. Parts are offered to these YouTube sensations.

There was a guy in Canada who created this set of YouTube videos called “Shit Girls Say.” It was super sexist and a little odd. YouTube gave him $13 million to go produce a television called Coming In about a gay man who wakes up one day and realizes he’s straight. Like, what the fuck? I think he’s an openly gay actor, but that doesn’t necessarily negate the stark politics of a decision like that. That doesn’t negate the fact that the show is offensive and he’s just terribly unfunny. So you have these people in positions of power with all this capital, handing it over to somebody who has no experience running their own show, no experience writing in long-form narratives, and giving him a television show because their YouTube video got 8 million hits. So that is how the freelance paradigm is affecting actors and content creators, where then you have other actors who spend years toiling on working their craft and perfecting what it is they do, and they’re losing jobs to people like that guy, or to people like Bella Thorne, or whatever. Who are these people? They’re who’s. I sound like such an asshole because I’m sure they’re nice people and I’m sure they’re very talented, but I wouldn’t put money on them if I was in a position of power. I would never invest in those people. There’s not enough there. Not to say Bella Thorne couldn’t be a fantastic actress or that she’s not tremendously talented, but there’s not been enough investigation. There’s not enough of a commitment. And I just wouldn’t feel comfortable if I was the one investing money in someone like that. If you put her and someone like Tat Maslany side by side — so, you’ve got $13 million, who do you want to invest in? I’m going to invest in the other girl.

Have you taken a chance to reflect on what the past five years have meant to you?
I’m 27 and I started this when I was 22. Your 20s are already this wildly formative decade where you meet yourself. You meet yourself for the first time, whether it’s in relationships or in the workplace or just as a person — it’s an opportunity to really come to grips with who you are. All of your character flaws and the parts of yourself that you’re resistant to admit are there. I’ve learned so much about myself through the character. I’d never really explored my femininity before Felix. I mean, I had a sense of it. I grew up with two older sisters and my mom is awesome and was very present, and I think one of the biggest things I learned was that I need to carry what I’ve learned about femininity with me to other characters that don’t walk or talk like Felix. In the same way that we’re celebrating women playing characters that have a lot of masculine qualities, I think we need to start also celebrating and writing more characters that are much the same. I’ve [learned] so much about my activism and my sexuality … probably in another life if I wasn’t actor, I’d be working for the ACLU. Especially now.

What is your sexual orientation?
Oh, I’m gay.

I wasn’t sure.
Nobody ever asks me. I’ve never been asked. Like, the whole course of the series.

I guess that’s where I’m at in terms of coming out publicly: I had this position when I started on the show that it shouldn’t matter. And I believe that. I hope that one day, the world gets to a place where you don’t need to politicize your sexuality any more than someone needs to politicize their race — that we can just act and we can exist in this Zeitgeist, telling stories about one another. And that no one’s afraid, maybe, to come out. But also that no one’s really hyperobsessed with knowing whether or not someone’s gay. That would be an amazing world to live in, where people don’t feel the need to protect themselves and other people don’t feel the need to launch an inquisition.

Well, there’s also a real fear of losing work. I was talking to Noah Galvin, who was the star of The Real O’ Neals
Oh, yeah! Noah, I don’t know him. But after reading the article, I looked at my partner, and I just said, “He’s very young and he does not understand.” His paradigm will shift as he gets older, and he’s a very smart kid. He’s hyperintelligent. But what struck me the most and what was troublesome about his interview was the amount of cynicism. That made me nervous because I don’t often see that from young people, myself included, as a young person. I am full of optimism. The world hasn’t beaten it out of me yet. And I’m going to work very hard to make sure that they don’t. But I just saw tremendous cynicism in him. Just struck me as very odd. And I hope he realizes now why what he said was a problem. Which, I don’t know if he does.

Do you think you’ll have fewer job opportunities as an openly gay actor?
Ultimately, the answer is probably yes. This is a tricky thing to say and I’ve never actually said it out loud before, but I do believe that jobs will be lost and I do believe jobs will be gained. Maybe not even for the right reasons. There’s been a lot of conversation in the industry about hiring openly gay actors for gay parts, and I think that’s really important. But frankly, I’m not interested in doing any kind of work where I couldn’t bring myself in totality to the character. And if that would mean that I am ultimately not the right fit in terms of casting, then I probably shouldn’t play that part anyways. That’s not to say that’s an open license to discriminate against openly gay actors. There’s a big distinction. It’s just that if whatever somebody sees as gayness, whether it’s femininity or hypersexuality or whatever they’ve decided constitutes being gay — if those parts are not right for their character, chances are I don’t want to work with those people and I probably don’t want to play that character. I’m much more interested in playing characters, even hetero characters, where I can bring all of myself. All of my sexuality. Everything I’ve learned about my own femininity and my own gender fluidity, I’d be interested in playing characters that explore that. And I think we’re going to start seeing more of them.

I just read for an attorney this morning. He’s not a gay man. There’s no reason I can’t play this person, being a gay man, in that our experiences are not dissimilar. And all it means is that I’m bringing everything I know about being oppressed, being an outsider, being an alien, feeling weird about myself. I’m bringing all of that to this other character and reappropriating it. We’ve created this association between femininity and being gay and it’s not real. It’s just a loose, ridiculous association. It has nothing to do with anything.

In general in our culture, feminine men have been villainized.
Yeah, and it’s so stupid because it’s actually misogyny. It’s not even about femininity and men, it’s about the idea that men hate women so much.

You can see that in the gay community too.
Oh my god. No femmes, masc-only. Give me a fucking break. And it is frustrating because I’m someone who spends a lot of time thinking about these things. I actively investigate them; it’s part of my job if I want to understand people. I know you; I understand what’s going on right now. I understand what’s happening while your arms are crossed. I know what you’re actually feeling. I know what you’re doing right now. Very aware.

What am I doing right now?
Let’s see. There’s some manipulation happening. There’s some excitement brewing. There’s some fodder for a really great interview that maybe I’m not even aware of, but I probably am aware of it and that’s why I’m saying it. You’re protecting yourself with your arms crossed right now. If you uncross your arms and then kind of sit, it’s scarier, because then you’re immediately more open. And it’s weird because as soon as I got more excitable and aggressive, the arms got crossed because that’s just a natural thing to do. Needless to say, I’m aware of all this stuff in myself, therefore, I’m aware of it in other people. How did I get started on this? What was your question? Fuck.

I think originally we were talking about misogyny.
Oh, women, that’s right. And I don’t want to say that all men hate women; I don’t think all men hate women. But I think that we have a culturally systemic subjugation of feminine attributes. And those things are being emotional, being vulnerable, and as a result, you see with a lot of actors in leading parts, there’s an addiction to cool. There’s an addiction to a facsimile of maleness, of masculinity: I’m unaffected by things. I’m not an emotional person. I don’t have to be vulnerable. I’m cool and collected and suave and I do this thing and it wins me Oscars. And it’s a problem because there’s so much more there. And it’s not real. They’re aspiring to a set of attributes that doesn’t really exist. And that, I take issue with. It’s a problem.

What I like about Orphan Black is that it’s about female relationships and all of their complications: They can be contentious, beautiful, aggressive, loving, nurturing. It reminds me of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels.
Women have always been incredible. They’ve always been amazing. For thousands of years, people have written about these iconic and powerful women. In polytheism, they had goddesses that represented all the different sides of women, like these weren’t just secretaries or moms. These were women who, for all intents and purposes, had a lot of male attributes. Thousands and thousands of years ago. These were icons for women to look to for spiritual guidance in terms of how to investigate and develop themselves. And I think women are having a moment right now, because a bunch of men noticed in the last 20 years that women are interesting and incredible. And I think that’s something that working on this show and working with Tat and watching these women develop as characters, it’s showing me, Oh yeah, women have always been great.

While shooting the show, were you worried about how your butt looked?
Yeah, I’m a human person. I was of course worried about how my butt looked. I was very vain. I grew up always feeling a bit like an alien. Not just because I was gay, although I’m sure that played a part. I just always felt like a weirdo. I was an artist and my dad’s an immigrant. He came from Greece. I had a bit of second-class-citizen syndrome happening by way of inheritance. And it was my own doing. I could’ve stopped that, but I wasn’t in a place that, at 15 or 16, to know how to get out of myself or get out of my head or get out of my ego. So, yeah, I was self-conscious and I think I was just worried about being told my butt was ugly. And that I was ugly by consequence — I was ugly and I was unworthy and people wouldn’t like me. And that I had to have a nice, pert butt in order to be liked by people, which is just not true. And I did realize that after shooting, and it was a great lesson for me. Like, you’re not going to win more love just because your butt looks better than somebody else’s, and if you do win more love because your butt looks better than somebody else’s, it’s not real. It’s not real love. But it’s seductive love. It’s very seductive, that kind of attention.

It is seductive. It has power that people recognize that you can turn into value.
Yes. There’s a currency there that you can trade in. And ultimately, I think many people are faced with that quandary at some point in their career. Especially the people that are born just with the natural biology that lends itself to that. And they can make the decision to trade in that currency or not. I’m glad I look the way I do. I look like a normal person.

Mm, you’re an actor.
I mean I’m glad my features are just slightly asymmetrical. Maybe I will be faced with that one day. Maybe I’ve already been at that intersection, but knowing that the attention and value that you can get from that is just not something that I’m interested in. I want the other thing: I’d like to be valued just because I work hard at what I do and I can maybe even move people. That would be incredible.

New York, June 2017

Gavaris in Orphan Black. Photo: Orphan Black IV Productions Limited

So where did we leave off? That particular day I was very excitable, I don’t know why. Most of the journalists that cover the show are, not paint by numbers necessarily, but they have a list of questions, and they just ask those questions. I get asked the same thing about 20 times, so I think I was surprised by you.

Is that a compliment?
Absolutely. I was surprised by your candor and your intelligence. You’re challenging, and I really like that. Do you find that in journalism you like to have conversations instead of …?

I’m assuming that you get to know the person. Does that affect your portrait of them?

Certainly. I try to be the best listener I can be. Generally, I have the great fortune of talking to people I think are actually interesting. And my goal is to get into it with them, whether it’s about craft or politics or biography.
And you enjoy challenging them too, right?

And have you ever come up against someone obstinate, or someone who’s offended by your prescription?

I try to be diplomatic. Disagreeing with someone shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing, but it generally doesn’t happen in this dynamic.
Yeah, I do this all the time in interviews — I’ll be less aggressive, I’ll be less confrontational, I’ll be less of a son of a bitch. Not that I’m a son of a bitch all the time. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, the difference between kindness and niceness. Because to be kind, it’s a very authentic thing, it’s very genuine to be kind, and I’ve come across a lot of very kind people who are not nice at all. They’re passionate, they’re outspoken, they’re firm, they’re fiery — sometimes off-putting — but very kind. I’ve encountered a lot of nice people who I mistook to be kind, and then was disappointed in the long run. I feel like that’s a journey pretty typical of anybody in any industry. And maybe just something that’s very typical of being in your 20s and starting to delineate the true types of people.

Do you have an Instagram?
No. I have Twitter, and everything I put out there on Twitter is public. I don’t hide anything. I don’t intend to hide anything. I’m comfortable with everybody going back and seeing what I’ve written to people, and I’ve written some pretty inflammatory things.

I see that you get into it.
I do. And sometimes, I’ll be in a particular mood, and someone will say something I normally don’t reply to, but there will just be something that really grinds my gears. Especially when the contrary argument is so obvious. But what I’ve come to realize is that a lot of these people really do believe what they’re writing. I think I was in disbelief of that. That’s part of why the election in the United States rattled me as much as it did, because it shattered my world. I knew racism existed, I knew homophobia existed, and I thought it was probably bad in towns no one had heard of in the middle of nowhere. I had no idea to the extent that it existed all over the United States — California included. I was quite shattered, actually.

I wasn’t expecting when you asked me that day in that interview, I had no idea, I wasn’t expecting to have to answer that question.

Whether you were gay or not?
Yeah, whether I was gay or not. I’ve had opportunities to talk about it before, and I said nobody has ever asked me. There was one journalist in a radio interview in the second year of Orphan Black who asked me. I knew why he was asking. I knew he just wanted a sound bite, and I thought it was really unfair. I evaded and that was the only time I had ever done that. I didn’t say no. I just said I didn’t want to talk about that. I felt bad afterward, not for him — I couldn’t give a shit about him. I felt bad because I thought, “I had an opportunity and I didn’t take it.” It wasn’t the right time. I look at myself at 22, when I first started doing this show and I first started playing this character.

I came out at 19, and my family knew I had been out in the industry always. I have never hidden anything. I think about what I knew at 22 versus what I know now and how aware I am of how little I know. I don’t know very much. I just think 22 is not old enough to start talking — not unless you’re some savant. I would have regretted some of the things I would have said. I was too much of a totalitarian. I didn’t have enough experiences with other people. I wanted to make sure that I would represent well and I would say something thoughtful.

I’m sure on a deeper level I was just scared. I think one of the scariest things to do is to stand up publicly and to say, This is who I am. Probably no one is even going to care or think about it. Maybe half the people already assume I am and the other half couldn’t give a shit. It’s just me; it’s not about other people. It’s just a scary thing to have to own who you are publicly. I think that’s largely why I waited. I always kind of knew if somebody asked I would start talking. I was comfortable with you, and obviously I knew a bit of your background. I just think right now it’s time for myself. I wouldn’t make that decision for anyone else.

What was coming out to your family like for you?
Scary. My mom and dad are wonderful. We grew up nonreligious. We grew up just outside of Toronto, right on the cusp of this suburban pocket, Brampton. I knew gay kids in school. I went to an arts high school. I don’t think it was until university that I even started to feel comfortable with myself enough to tell my parents. I didn’t fear I was going to be kicked out of the house. I didn’t worry about strange questions. It was emotional and awkward. It’s like confessing to them that you want to be romantic and have sex with other people. There’s the sexual component. There’s the romance component. It’s a vulnerable thing to confess this to your parents. At 19, I thought it was gross. I was like, “Oh my god, this is gross. I have to tell them this thing and now they’re going to know that I’m interested in these guys and I want to date these guys and I want to sleep with these guys. This is so weird. Now they know I’m sexually active.” There’s this whole other thing that comes into play that makes it awkward no matter how nonjudgmental or liberal or supportive your parents are, and mine were and are very supportive. They love Devon [Graye], my partner. They acclimate very quickly and it becomes the new normal. It just was never a question. I never doubted my parents love for me, and I never doubted that there was anything I could do short of something truly heinous or criminal that would ever cost me their love. But [it was] still awkward. I’m sure it was just awkward for everybody.

How did you and Devon meet?
We actually kind of met on Twitter. He was a friend of Tatiana Maslany’s. They had worked on a show together years ago. He wrote her something and I saw it and attached was a photograph of himself. I started stalking a little bit and I was like, “I think I have to know this guy.” I wrote him some cheesy line over Twitter. Thank god he found it funny because he wrote me back and we started messaging. We organized a time when I was in L.A. to get together, and I was 45 minutes late and he waited. I got to Intelligentsia in Silver Lake and we started talking, and within about ten minutes I was like, “Oh boy.” I was half seeing somebody else at the time, just casually, and I had to break that off after our first coffee date. Then the next morning we met up before I went to the airport, and we only had an hour to talk on that coffee date, and it felt like no time. We talked and talked and talked and talked about life and family and relationships. He was just so thoughtful and challenging. Then I left on my plane to go back home because I had to work. I was just starting the second season of the show. We talked every day, and he sent me a gift on my birthday a week later, and then I think we were exclusive a week from when we met. We did a lot of it long distance. Skype saved us. Then I moved to L.A. as soon as the second season of the show wrapped and I got an apartment. This September will be four years.

Since it’s been awhile since we first talked, have you thought about the impact that your official “coming out” might have?
Yes. Then of course, my brain comes in and says, “Well aren’t you arrogant for thinking it would have any impact.” The worst part of me is angered that I could be arrogant enough for thinking anybody is paying attention, but then the better part of me knows, “Yeah, but there are people paying attention.” Maybe I wouldn’t have the same impact as someone like Colton Haynes or Gus Kenworthy or something. But even one person who feels more comfortable, who sees themselves represented in some way — that just started to be more important than protecting myself. Of course, there’s the selfish liberation as well. You always feel like, “Now I feel like I can really talk about all of the things that I want to talk about in terms of gay rights and politics.”

Did you have a conversation with your professional team?
I did. I talked to them all and they were nothing but supportive. I have a really amazing team. Again, I had the incredible fortune of accidentally falling in with people that were really encouraging of me being my authentic self. There was no emphasis on how to make myself a product or brand. Ultimately, it’s entirely inconsequential. When I go to love my scene partner onscreen, I bring what I know about loving my partner — it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman at all. If it were true that gay men have no chemistry with women, we would have been in trouble in Hollywood a long time ago.

Rock Hudson wouldn’t have had a career.
Precisely. I’m pretty sure that those people have obliterated this illusion. I truly believe that the smart people know that that isn’t the case. I think the concern is maybe in this idea of not being able to sell movie tickets. I think it’s probably a financial decision, which, you know, okay.

What do you think of the state of LGBT representation on TV?
I think we are still stuck and preoccupied with legitimizing being gay on television, or legitimizing gay couples. There’s still a lot of coming-out stories. There’s still a lot about a struggle with what it means to be gay in a homophobic world. There’s nothing wrong with those stories. I love those stories, but we need other stories, too. I appreciate shows like Looking that examine nontraditionalism, like polyamory, open relationships, because that is a cross-section of the gay community. I’m really interested in stories, like mysteries, for example, with gay protagonists. Why not? Their preoccupation is not with their coming out. The story is not about their sexuality. London Spy touched on it, which I really loved, regardless of whether or not the show was good. My partner and I started talking — I was offered a show after Orphan Black was over. It was a comedy. They’d been given $13 million to do this comedy. [Editor’s note: Gavaris clarified that this is not the same $13 million TV series he mentioned earlier in the conversation.] It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I didn’t understand the writing, and it was a lot of money for a comedy. I just looked at Dev and said, “This is crazy that they’ve given someone $13 million to write this. Maybe it will find an audience, maybe someone will think this is great. I think this is boring television.”

What was the character?
He was gay, and he was coming home to his family and reintegrating himself into his family unit, and they’re all a bit dysfunctional. I felt like the characters weren’t developed enough. I felt like they need another year in the incubator. I knew there was something there and that’s what intrigued me, but ultimately I just thought, “No. I can’t do this. It’s not there yet. If it goes to camera as is, I fear it’s going to be really bad.” I wished then all the best. Maybe it improved in development.

To return to Orphan Black, what was the last day on set like?
Weird. I don’t really know how I felt. I didn’t cry. I think I cried a few times before that at different moments. I’d just get teary-eyed and kind of wistful. It was out of body really. I don’t think I really absorbed what was going on until later. You go through the five stages of grief because these characters become very real. It’s strange because the relationships with these actors that I’ve formed over the last five years have been through the conduit of the character. I know them more intimately and we’ve shared more intimate things as our characters. I’ve shared more with Tat as Sarah and me as Felix than I have as Jordan and Tat. It’s a strange thing to feel like your relationship with somebody exists almost in an ether, another world. And then you get to know each other outside of these characters when it’s all over. That has been a strange, discombobulating process. As a character, you share so much of yourself, and then I feel the reflex to close, or sometimes to disconnect. It’s not anything I’m going to do, but it’s interesting. I’ve clocked it and been like, that’s interesting, that I want to protect myself from being known as Jordan to this group of people when I’ve spent so long being known as this character.

Are you wary of being known as Jordan to a wider public?
Yeah, I am. Not for any crazy reason, other than I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. There’s the fear of, if I show you who I am, inevitably, some people are not going to like it. There’s this fear of being confronted with the fact that not everybody likes me, which I already know, intellectually, is not real. Of course not everybody likes me. To think anything other than that would be completely asinine — but being confronted with the reality of that is scary.

Jordan Gavaris On Why He Waited to Come Out