In the sixth episode of Spinning Out, Netflix’s new figure-skating drama series, Gabe, played by real-life Olympian Johnny Weir, tells his friend that the show they’ve been practicing for is just another chance to size each other up: “You know as well as I do, it’s a cutthroat preview of competition season.” If anyone knows, Weir does.
After competing in the Olympics twice and winning a bronze medal in the 2008 World Figure Skating Championships, Weir became one of the best-known figure skaters of his generation. The 35-year-old has since parlayed his charisma on the ice into a career as a television personality and sports commentator, and now, with Spinning Out, a recurring role in a Netflix series. Spinning Out follows Kat (Kaya Scodelario), a talented skater struggling to find her balance after an injury who links up with the rink’s resident golden boy, pair skater Justin (Evan Roderick). Weir plays their peppy, formidable opponent, and he and his partner Leah (Kaitlyn Leeb) are their biggest competition. Weir spoke to Vulture about his foray into acting, learning to pair skate, and what those skating moms are really like.
You’ve done some acting in the past, but this is your first regular gig on a TV series, right?
Yes. I had a brief moment in Zoolander 2 that ended up on the cut list, and I’ve done some small things here and there, but as far as being a recurring character in a TV series, this was the first time for me. And I felt a lot of pressure going into this process, even though it’s about figure skating. Even though it’s not so much of a stretch for me to play a gay ice skater, I still was terrified.
How did you get involved with the show?
Well, the creator, Samantha Stratton, is an ex-figure skater herself, and she had approached my team early on in the process to say, “Hey, would Johnny act in this show?” And part of being in the public eye is that people get so used to seeing you do one thing, they can be very critical when you try to do something else … So, I just kept telling my team, “No, no, no. I’m not an actress, I’m not ready for this. You know, I’m so busy as it is with touring and commentating and doing all this other stuff, I don’t know when I’ll fit it in.” And they said, “Johnny, just try.” And they actually said, “Just effing try [Laughs].”
What was it like shooting the first scenes as Gabe?
Scene one was with Kaya, this big-deal actress who’s leading the show, and Evan, who as I understood, was an up-and-coming heartthrob and had worked as an actor pretty seriously, but this was his first big breakout, so I knew he’d be coming guns blazing. But luckily for me, the first scene was shot on the ice, so I at least had that medium where I could feel comfortable. But I was so, so, so scared. It’s really nerve-wracking. And I’ve been in some big situations. I mean, for the Olympic games, we’re in 60 million American households during the games and it’s live, and that’s pretty scary. But to jump into something else when you really are an amateur in every sense of the word and have to perform, kind of a “dance, monkey, dance” situation … I just felt a huge amount of pressure going into that first scene. But they made me feel so at home, and Kaya was so lovely.
The fear of falling plagues the skaters throughout the series. You posted on Twitter that you fell walking onto set the first day.
Oh yeah. I fell getting out of the car walking up to set the first day. I’m a two-time Olympic figure skater and ice is my life, and to step out on the first day of school, essentially, and just wipe out getting out of the car, I just thought, Great. Is this whole project cursed now? Like, What am I getting myself into? But it’s kind of awesome that that happened because I was able to be less nervous because I’d already completely embarrassed myself on arrival.
Maybe it’s like when it rains on your wedding day, it’s a good luck kind of thing.
I’m kind of mystical. I’ll find something like that for any situation, so I love when it rains on New Year’s because it cleans away the dirt of the year before. I love when it rains on my birthday because of the same reason. I love falling right away because then you don’t have to worry about falling on the ice, which I did not do at all during filming [Laughs].
We don’t learn a ton about Gabe’s background in the first season, but he’s been second to Justin for a long time. With Leah, it seems like he stands a real chance at beating him. Did you have a sense of where Gabe is coming from?
I tried to find out as much as I could about his backstory. But Samantha has done such an incredible job with this series because a lot of the time with figure skating, whether it’s The Cutting Edge or Blades of Glory or Ice Castles, whatever figure skating thing is out there, it’s really easy to go over the top, because our world, from the outside looking in, can seem quite ridiculous. I mean, grown men in velvet onesies with rhinestones all over them holding teddy bears … But, she did a great job of making it real, so I didn’t feel like Gabe was really any different, as far as the trials and tribulations of being an elite athlete, than me. But basically the broad strokes I got were, Gabe’s very good, he’s very flamboyant, everyone loves him.
Was pair skating a difficult adjustment coming from a solo background?
It was. Luckily, Kaitlyn has a lot of skating experience and she has pair experience as well, and I have very limited pair experience from when I was young and just learning to skate. And when you take somebody even with experience, like Kaitlyn, she prepared for months before I actually got up there … So it was an adjustment for me because she, despite having experience, was a beginner again in a lot of ways, and also, I had to learn to share the spotlight.
How much of the skating we see in the show was done by the actors?
Well, we had a lot of doubles because it is a television program and we have the ability to teach people about skating, but it can’t go so slow. Like, you can’t see Kaya out there struggling around the ice, because she’s already supposed to be quite established in the series, right? So, there were a lot of great Canadian skaters who were a part of our filming process that were doubling, but a lot of the cast had skating experience. And if we are lucky enough to have a season two, I think Gleah [Gabe and Leah] themselves are going to have to start doing a lot more pair elements, the overhead lifts and throws and things … So, I would probably even need a double to do some of the pair elements, because I’ve never done them before.
The skating moms were one of my favorite parts of the show. Some of them are pretty scary at times. How close is that to real life?
Skating moms are a very real thing, and it can be for better or for worse. So, in my case, my mother, she loves figure skating. She loves the sport, and I’ll still catch her watching figure skating on YouTube because I don’t travel to compete anymore and she’s very curious about what’s going on, or watching some of my old performances. Like, my mom is a legit skating fan. And she kind of let me make my own decisions about coaching, choreography, costumes, and all that kind of stuff. But there are crazy ones … I’ve seen them throw skates into trash cans. I’ve seen screaming matches.
The season ends right before Kat and Justin skate their long program at Sectionals, and Gabe and Leah skated a really incredible program. What do you think the odds are that Gleah will win?
Well, Gleah is phenomenal. And we have the edgy character, great music, awesome side-by-side jumps, a beautiful connection with one another on the ice. I don’t know how much as a viewer you can see the connection that Leah and I have pretty much in everything that we do onscreen. It’s also offscreen, but I really feel when I see the two of us skate that we’re both in it to win it. The eye of the tiger. I mean, we both had that in the last performance … I would put my money on Gleah. I think we’re real special.