doctor is in

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman on representing his chosen family in ‘Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.’

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman in Doogie Kameāloha, M.D.

The doctor is in.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman has nabbed his meatiest—and arguably most important—role to date on the Disney+ sitcom Doogie Kameāloha, M.D., launching November 10.

Doogie Kameāloha, M.D. reimagines the classic ’90s sitcom Doogie Howser, M.D. as the story of 16-year-old medical genius Lahela “Doogie” Kameāloha (played by Peyton Elizabeth Lee), a medical doctor struggling to balance life between her practice at a Hawaiian hospital and her own coming-of-age woes involving boys, family, and looming adulthood. The show casts Bowyer-Chapman as Dr. Charles Zeller, an openly gay doctor who guides Doogie in the workplace.

Bowyer-Chapman made a conscious decision early in his career to primarily play roles dear to his chosen family—a very queer chosen family. Bowyer-Chapman has consciously sought out parts that would bring honor and visibility to his community, be it a gay character in a film (The Skinny, Spiral) or television show (The L Word, American Horror Story: Apocalypse), or his stint as a host during Season 1 of Drag Race Canada.

We caught up with Bowyer-Chapman just ahead of the Doogie Kameāloha, M.D. finale to discuss his role, the series, and how playing a gay doctor on a family sitcom pays homage to his own.

So we’re talking just ahead of the season finale. How are you feeling about where you’re headed, and what you’ve accomplished this season?

I feel really good, truthfully. It’s a very different kind of project than anything I’ve ever done before. It’s the most family-friendly character or story I’ve ever told. All I can think of is how I felt every day when we wrapped filming on the set of the show, and how I feel when the credits roll after each episode. I feel so good. Every episode has a very strong moral lesson to be learned. It really is calling back to the kind of shows I grew up watching with my family, like Doogie Howser in the 90s. There’s something wholesome about that.

Peyton Elizabeth Lee, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman & Mapuana Makia

I didn’t ever see myself working in this genre. It feels really special to be a marginalized individual—a black queer person—celebrated on a show that is a cultural phenomenon, and to be fully embraced for it.

Because you’re playing a doctor here, tell me what kind of prep work you have to do for your role? Do you have to shadow actual doctors?

Do you know what’s funny? I had the same questions coming into this myself. I had tons of bizarre outsider presumptions. I assumed we would have been put through some kind of boot camp of singing, acting, dancing, improv. And if you’re playing a doctor, medical training. But we were just thrown into it. I think part of that had to do with filming during COVID, so there was only so much we could do. And they really protected us on set.

Going into this project, I didn’t necessarily feel well versed in medical terminology, but we were lucky to have a doctor on set with us every day that was with us to guide us through logistics. Literally, just basics: how to put on gloves, how to hold a scalpel, helping us with terminology. If you watch the show, you’ll see that most of the medical jargon is left to Doogie. Most of the rest of the story is about relationships, and this 16-year old girl dealing with coming of age. All of us were pleasantly surprised to find out this wasn’t E.R. or Grey’s Anatomy.

You’ve said before how personally valuable it is to you to play a gay character on a Disney sitcom. It’s also intriguing to me that Charles is very much a moral voice in the series. He’s a guide to Lahela. Tell me about the responsibility of that. Do you feel pressure?

I don’t think about it, to be honest. I don’t think I can. I recognize how blessed I am to be playing a queer character, and how important that is. I think back to my childhood and how I didn’t have that privilege of seeing queer people in television and film. But it’s not something I think about. I just focus on bringing all of myself to the table. The writers really wrote to us as individuals. I think they really analyzed the actors behind the scenes and who we are, then really wrote to our strengths. It was similar to my experience on Unreal where my character, Jay, was written for me. He was also the moral compass of that show. I get it speaks to parts of my own character and who I am.

Charles is also a full gay character—he’s flirty and makes references to his ex-boyfriend. Is there any conversation about how flamboyant or sexual he’s allowed to be?

No, we didn’t. When I talk about working with the writers on the show, we have something I’ve never experienced before. For each scene, we have a scripted version of the scene we are given a week in advance. When we show up to shoot the day of, they also have five or six alternative jokes for us.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Mapuana Makia

Oh, that is interesting.

So we shoot the original scene as scripted, then if we have an extra 10 minutes, we shoot alternate jokes. All of them are different flavors of each character, so it is a process of exploration on the day. Watching the show is so lovely because I never know what joke they’ll keep in the final edit. Many of the conversations I had with the showrunner, Kourtney Kang, who also developed it, about character, about LGBTQ representation, about the essence of the show, were all basically in post-production once we’d wrapped. I think she was just interested to know what my experience was. Charles’ storyline is that he is a newcomer to the island, and he’s learning all about the customs and traditions in his area of the island. I relate to him in that respect. I learned about the history and culture of the island as well.

Oh wonderful.

And I shared what I learned about the LGBTQ experience with Kourtney, and she was very excited to integrate elements of that into the new season of the show. Trans representation is something very important in Hawaiian culture. The word for transgender people is mahu, and they are held in high esteem. Mahu people have been hula teachers and spiritual leaders for centuries in Hawaiian culture. There’s beautiful respect played to the two-spirit nature of these people. That wasn’t something we explored in Season 1 of the show, so it is something I hope we explore in Season 2.

As a gay actor playing a gay character, do you ever worry about typecasting? What do you hear from agents, managers, lawyers, execs? Do they ever tell you you won’t get parts because you’re out? Or that you have to play certain parts?

I’ve experienced all of the above. I’m lucky that I’ve been with the same reps for over a decade in Los Angeles. When I started my career in Canada, I think I was very much misunderstood. There wasn’t a lot of space for black or queer representation, and when you intersect the two, there’s very little space for me. People just didn’t know what to do with me. I remember from the time I booked my first movie at 21 years old, and I played a gay character, I told my agent at the time in Vancouver that I only wanted to play gay.

Really?

My agent laughed and said “Good luck.” You know, there were a half dozen gay characters, and those were all going to gay names in Hollywood. But it was important to me. Part of why I wanted to be an actor in the first place was to fill the void of LGBTQ representation in TV and film. I really enjoy playing queer characters. I don’t enjoy playing straight characters. For a lot of gay actors, there is a lot of trauma that comes back because of code-switching: having to masculinize our voice or mannerisms. A lot of times gay men have to do that for survival throughout their lives. So to go back into that, to put on straight drag again, it’s not something I enjoy. My team for the past 10 years has been very understanding in my only wanting to play queer characters. It’s never been about fame for me. It’s about the stories we are telling and the impact of these characters.

Mapuana Makia, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman

Wonderful.

I spent many years of my teens and 20s modeling as well, knowing that I wasn’t always going to swim in an abundance of queer characters. So it was a choice I made until I got the point I could continuously play queer characters, and to be myself, to do more personality-driven jobs.

Tell me a bit about life in the public eye. How do you keep work separate from your private life? How do you survive with your mental health intact when you also have to suffer attacks on social media?

I don’t think about it.

No?

No. It’s funny, my partner said to me a couple of weeks ago—someone recognized me on the street. And he said, “It’s so funny. I don’t think about that side of you. You’re just Jeffrey.” And I’m the same way. I don’t think about it until somebody brings it to my attention. I didn’t even think about the fact that I was queer or black until somebody brought it to my attention. I really just work hard on integrity. Part of that is integrating all aspects of my life into one. I spent a lot of time compartmentalizing. It’s something that seemed natural for me to do. I think it came from seeing people in this industry let their public persona become all that they were.

It’s unsustainable. I saw how it changed people. I saw how they put their worth on their followers and their work. In this industry, we put our well-being in the hands of other people. I don’t want to put my worth or power in the hands of others.

I know after you left Drag Race Canada you had to delete your Twitter account. When you go through a negative experience like that, what do you learn? What wisdom do you gain?

Social media has never been a big part of my life, truly. Instagram is just about my only social media platform at this point, and I share so little of my life. I never have. It’s not something I want to do: to let strangers into my most intimate details. Letting go of that was not a challenging decision.

Mapuana Makia, Ronny Chieng, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman

That’s good.

I go back to the lessons of the people who really shaped me and helped me to figure out who I want to be, Maya Angelou, being such a huge influence. One of her most famous quotes is, “They’re not talking about you. They’re not talking about me. People can talk about actors or celebrities or singers and come up with all these stories of who they are, but at the end of the day, they’re not talking about the truth of who you are. They don’t really know you.”

That said, I’m always curious to know the reality of who people actually are. It’s one of my favorite questions. It’s a question I ask in every episode of my podcast when I talk to celebrities. Stripping away the layers of celebrity is going to be the common factor to help people see themselves in others. I don’t know, I don’t focus on things that are shallow. I try to go for things that fill my heart and soul with joy.

So do you guys have a green light for Season 2?

No, we don’t. I have obnoxious optimism that we get Season 2. I think we’re in a pretty good position.