By Dustin Shrader
Renowned Broadway actor, writer and director Kit Williamson is on top of the world these days. The uber-talented thesp said goodbye to Mad Men and its final season, got engaged to his long-time partner and is gearing up to launch the second season of his popular web series Eastsiders. While visiting his hometown in Mississippi, Kit took the time to discuss his whirlwind year and the endless possibilities for the future.
David Atlanta: Where did the idea for the show originate?
Kit Williamson: I really wanted to tell a story with complicated, flawed and fucked up gay characters. I feel like too often we see a squeaky-clean representation of gay people, and as a fundamentally messed up person, I just don’t identify with it. I wanted to dig into those characters and just have it be a lucky coincidence that they were all gay and in a gay neighborhood. I lived in Silver Lake for many years with my fiancé John. I’d also never really seen that neighborhood and, I should say, that gayborhood represented on camera. It’s such an interesting, cool, incestuous community of people who all know each other’s business. I wanted to have the neighborhood be a character in the show as well.
DA: Did you always envision Eastsiders to be a web series?
KW: I had modest goals for it when I first started out. I’d never gotten to play a gay character before.
KW: Not even in college. Nobody would hire me to do that.
DA: Is that something you always wanted to pursue at some point?
KW: I really did. I was curious as to whether or not it would feel any different. Turns out it doesn’t. I think that’s great, but I do want to add my perspectives to LGBT storytelling. I’ve always been drawn to writing gay characters. When I first started out, I just wanted to finish something and put it online. I had no idea what it would become. I shot the first two episodes for literally no money. I self-financed the first two episodes. I want to say I spent, $1,500. Everybody involved pretty much volunteered his or her time and talent. It was so just overwhelmingly affirming that everybody wanted to be a part of it. I think that people maybe responded to that energy, that everybody was involved with it for the right reasons.
DA: That’s definitely a testament to it considering how well the Kickstarter campaign for the second season went.
KW: I was so blown away by the response to the Kickstarter campaign. This is a weird, unusual little story that wouldn’t get financed by a studio or a network. It’s definitely amazing to see that there is an audience for it and to prove that there is an audience for it. I think that that’s what the Kickstarter campaign did.
DA: What was that transition like — I know you had a theater background — from going from theater to screen and then to this web style of shooting?
KW: It can be daunting because they’re such different worlds. Obviously, all of your training from theater, everything in your background helps you with film, but it can also be a little bit of a hindrance at first. Just as an actor, I found that I was making broad choices and playing to the back of a 1,000 seat house when I should have just been focusing on the person in front of me and trying to react as spontaneously as possible. I would say that doing the show really helped me understand that in a new way because theater is very much an actor’s medium, where you are really in control of your performance. In film, you can give an incredible performance, and it might not cut together with what the other actor did on their coverage. It’s really your performance is a collaborative effort in film. I think that there’s something really amazing about that. You’re not totally in control. You have to give up that control when you’re acting for film and just be in the moment.
DA: Since you have a much bigger budget for the second season, what will we see that was not touched on in the first?
KW: It’s, yes, a much bigger budget. We utilize that to tell a much bigger story. It’s a large ensemble cast, and it’s exploring a lot of different kinds of relationships, some new, some stagnating and some that are being redefined. I think that that’s … If I could sum it up, that’s the crux of the second season is how we try to connect with other people and the challenges in that because you’ve always got to constantly reconnect with people and relationships. It’s not a one-time thing. Just because you’re on the same page now doesn’t mean that you will be tomorrow. It’s about growing in the same direction.
DA: And Willam Belli is joining the cast?
KW: I knew that I wanted to write a character who was exploring becoming a drag performer and the challenges that that might present in a relationship. I knew that I wanted the character to be a love interest for Quincy, played by Stephen Guarino. Stephen had just directed Willam in a stage show in Los Angeles called Showgirls Live, where Willam was playing the Nomi Malone role. I was struck by how great Willam was. I’d been a fan of Willam’s on Drag Race and also on Nip/Tuck back in the day, but I was just really struck by how effortless she is as a comedic actress. Then, when I got to meet Willam, while I was writing the season, I met with Willam, and I was struck by how interesting he is out of drag as well. One of the first things that he did was teach me about butt chugging, which is apparently when you put a Cape Cod in a funnel and put it in your butt. My very first meeting with Willam was not an in person tutorial but just an explanation of what that was. I thought, this is just such a uniquely irreverent, clever, quick-witted person. He was such a pleasure to write for both in and out of drag.
DA: It was such a historic year for our community. Will gay marriage be broached in season two?
KW: We definitely play with, we incorporate gay marriage into the storyline of season two. When we were shooting the season, it was, of course, before the Supreme Court decision came down, but the lesbian couple in the series played by Brea Grant and Vera Miao have been together for eight years and have two kids together and had really resisted the idea of getting married up until that point, at first because it was illegal and then because it wasn’t … When you’re so committed to another person already, sometimes it can feel redundant to try to change your title, as it were, and to find meaning in that. It really wasn’t until the tides started turning with gay marriage nationally that I really realized how much it meant to me and how it could be significant in my relationship because my partner and I have been together for eight years.
DA: As a fellow writer — you’re a writer and playwright and stuff — I always wondered where you drive your inspiration for your stories from.
KW: Gosh. I guess I usually start with a character rather than a story. I try to let the characters tell me what the story is, which sounds cliché, but I think that once you really start to understand a person, then you start to understand what they’re struggling with in their life, what they want and what their obstacles are, and then you have a story because I think that all stories are based in conflict. It’s about somebody who wants something that they can’t have. We all want things that we are struggling to achieve or that we are being denied, and how we grapple with that is the story.
DA: Where do you see the next year bringing you and taking you? Are you thinking about slowing down, or are you just revving up to do more?
KW: I would like to think I’m just revving up because while I’m in Alabama, I’m interviewing people living with HIV and AIDS for a new project that I’m working on. Yeah. I’m also going to go into production on this feature film about the free clinic system and the cost of HIV medication. I have a bunch of other projects in development, but I also don’t know that I’m done with Eastsiders just yet. I’m excited to see where the story takes me.
DA: Are you thinking ahead to season three?
KW: Who knows? Who knows where the story goes?