The Queerty Interview

How Josh Feldman of ‘This Close’ got his queer show about deaf characters to TV

Shoshannah Stern as Kate, Josh Feldman as Michael. Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/SundanceNow

Showbusiness has a habit of attracting extraordinary people, though few are as extraordinary as Josh Feldman.

Feldman made history in 2018 with the release of This Close, a Sundance TV series he created with writing partner Shoshanna Stern. The show follows best friends Kate & Michael (played by Stern & Feldman, respectively) as they try to navigate life and love in Los Angeles. Like the actors that play them, both Kate & Michael are deaf, which adds another layer of complexity to their lives. The acclaimed comedy also stars Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, Lisa Rinna, Cheryl Hines, Nyle DiMarco, Stephen Weber and Margret Cho in recurring roles.

For Feldman, creating, writing and starring in This Close marks a remarkable first: he’s the first out-gay actor to play an out-gay character as a series lead on television. Queerty managed to get some time with Feldman to chat about the show, his character, and the future of deaf people in media. This Close begins its second season on the Sundance Channel September 12. It also streams on AMCPremiere.

So I’m now totally hooked on your show. I think it’s in part, because it’s a love story between Michael and Kate as friends. Where does that come from with you and Shoshanna?

Shoshanna I met about five years ago here in LA. I was already writing and trying to break into the business as a writer. Shoshanna had been acting for a while. Both of us felt frustrated in one way or another for various reasons in our careers. We became friends and we made a connection with each other, as if we’d been friends forever. Like I said, I was at a very important point in my life where I was creatively frustrated. Socially, everything was going really well. I was having a lot of fun with my life, but that balance—I was really struggling with that until I became friends with Shoshanna. Then we really felt inspired by the partnership we created. She forced me to start acting. I forced her to start writing. We really pushed each other. It’s really beautiful.

That’s really lovely.

We both have things in common. One of those things in particular was in your 20s, the friendships that you have tend to last longer than your relationships.

Yeah.

And it’s those friendships that you lean on in tough times, when trying to go through those difficult days. Often times the love stories we see on TV are focused on relationships. So while the friendships are really love stories on their own as well, we just don’t see it as much. So that’s where the idea came from: highlighting the love of friendship.

Josh Feldman as Michael, Lisa Rinna as Priscilla. Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/SundanceNow

Awesome. Now wait a second though, you had never acted before?

I had never acted professionally, ever before. This is my first credit.

That is impressive. Now, the series doesn’t shy away from dealing with issues that result from deafness, or from queerness, but the show really isn’t about that. It’s all very matter of fact. Do you ever worry—or did anyone ever tell you—that the show was too gay, or too…deaf? Is that even a thing?

The queer aspect, no. We didn’t get rejected on that alone. We encountered a lot of resistance in meetings because people didn’t understand why the characters needed to be deaf. They needed a reason for that, so that actually caused more problems than my character being gay. People just don’t understand. Often times, most of the hearing people that I encounter in my life, I’m the first deaf person they’ve ever met.

Really?

More often than not. I’m the first deaf person they’ve ever interacted with. Whereas, I’m sure people have met far more gay people than they do gay people. So they are much more familiar with gay culture than deaf culture. When we were pitching the show before we were able to sell it, people would often say “I don’t understand why the characters are deaf. What’s the point?” So that’s why we had to make it ourselves, first through Kickstarter, to show them why.

What was the transition from web to Sundance TV like?

When we decided to do the show, we decided to film a pilot. We did that all on our own. Then we started the Kickstarter from there, and we got a lot of attention from that. Super Deluxe, that studio was able to find us from Kickstarter. They wanted to work with us from there. So they really helped us produce five webisodes from the Kickstarter. We showed those episodes at the Sundance Film Festival, and from there that’s where AMC & The Sundance Network was able to find us. From there, we had the opportunity to pitch the web series as a full TV show.

Related: TV dramedy “This Close” shines a spotlight on the lives of queer, deaf characters

Michael’s relationship with Ryan, his husband, is so interesting. Just when I think I have them figured out, something happens to give me pause. Ryan is superficial, but I get the sense he really does love Michael. How do you see them?

I think Michael and Ryan are in love with the idea of each other.

Interesting.

They’re hoping this next version of their relationship will be the one that really works out. And I’ve done that before in my personal life where you break up with someone, you get back together, you think you’ve grown from your experiences, and this time it’s going to work because you’re different people. And you keep trying and trying hoping that maybe it will work the next time.

In that regard, the Ryan-Michael relationship really fits with the idea of the series as a love story. It’s also about Michael and Kate learning to love themselves. Particularly this season, as Michael struggles with his own demons, I see him as a man trying to love himself, and trying to numb the pain of loneliness in his own skin. Is he fundamentally just trying to love himself?

Michael has a very complex family history. Since he was a child, he’s always felt that he had to seem strong, that he had to put on a face. He’s had this mask on for so very long, that he’s now finding in his adulthood, as he gets older, that this mask is not enough for him anymore. It’s not working.

Ok.

Especially the people around him—his best friend, his husband—they’ve never seen Michael’s true self, what he looks like without that mask on. A lot of that has to do with the fact that he’s an addict. He’s using drugs and alcohol to cover up his loneliness.

Shoshannah Stern as Kate, Nyle DiMarco as Ben. Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/SundanceNow

That was my favorite element of the season: not because I enjoyed watching him fall apart, but because you treat a very serious subject with proper respect.

That I love to hear.

One thing I love about the characters on this show, not just Kate & Michael, is that they are all self aware. They realize when they make dumb or self-sabotaging choices. How do you find balance in that—illustrating the contradiction?

The great thing about having a partner like this is we are able to sit down together and have a conversation. So, if Michael is saying this, how is Kate going to react? It’s almost psychology in a way. We’re trying to really get into these characters’ heads and figure out their natural responses to a situation, and figure out if that’s enough for TV, or if we have to amp it up in some way. A lot of the conversations we’re having go along those lines, what the possibilities are and which avenue to go down. We try to figure out what feels more authentic to us. We have a lot of back and forth conversations to really get into those characters’ heads.

When I talk to a lot of writing partners, they describe the partnership as being a lot like a marriage. Billy Wilder said that about Charles Brackett when they wrote Sunset Blvd. With you and Shoshanna, how do you complement one another? How does she challenge you?

[A beat]

It’s definitely like a marriage. Shoshanna will often say the show is like our child. We’re co-parenting a child together.

That makes sense.

It always feels that way. For us, the way we complement each other… For example, if I’m having a bad day, Shoshanna will make sure she’s having a good day, and vice versa. The that we work, we ask questions to each other. We get the other person thinking. So if I’m writing solo, I’m not going to ask a question Shoshanna is going to ask me. I’m just going to keep going. With a partner, Shoshana will say what about this? What if we try this? So we create more possibilities by asking those questions than we would be working on our own.

How do you settle disagreements in that case?

We do have disagreements, but that’s pretty rare. When we do, we talk it out. By the end of that one of us has convinced the other to go one way or another.

Shoshannah Stern as Kate, Josh Feldman as Michael. Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/SundanceNow

That’s a good marriage.

[Laughter]

It is a good marriage.

So I have to confess: watching the first episode I thought this show would be perfect with Marlee Matlin. So I was very happy to see that she’s a recurring character. She’s a marvelous, beautiful actress.

Love her.

Obviously, she’s amazing. Marlee though is still the only deaf actor to win an Academy Award. There’s such a discussion about representation, particularly for gender, for racial, for queer and for people with disabilities. Do you as an actor feel like deaf characters should always be played by deaf actors?

I strongly feel only deaf people should be playing deaf characters. For me, as a deaf person, when I see a hearing person playing a deaf character, it is painful. It is hurtful. There is never—there is no way the way that actor could play that person accurately. They will never understand the experience of what it means to be deaf. Unless you’re deaf yourself, you cannot understand. It doesn’t matter how well a character is written, or how good an actor you are. Hands down, it just will never be a good portrayal. Period.

That’s a good argument. Now that you are an actor, obviously you can’t hide your deafness very easily. Were you ever advised not to be an actor? That you’ll not work enough?

I think I’m in a unique situation. The first thing I ever acted in was a character explicitly gay, and obviously very deaf. So it’s already out in the world. In a way, that makes it easier for me: I don’t have to listen to anyone else tell me I can’t be this gay or I don’t need to be this deaf. It’s already pretty obvious. I put everything out there in this show.

What’s the biggest challenge been for you in doing this? Obviously, you’re taking on a huge amount by writing and acting in the show.

Big question.

[A beat]

I think the biggest challenge for me would be playing the character of Michael who has a lot of problems he’s dealing with. He’s a very dark person. That’s been the biggest challenge so far: the idea of not taking your work home with you?

Yes…

That’s a bit hard, being in Michael’s head and not taking that home with me. But the experience has also been very freeing. As an artist, I’m so proud that I’m able to write a character like Michael: a deaf, openly gay character who has problems, but is still successful. He has his highs and lows. As an artist, it feels very freeing to do something like that. I haven’t felt restricted in this experience.

So what are your future aspirations? Do you want to keep writing? Acting? Working with Shoshanna? Try working alone?

All of the above. I’ve been writing a lot of pieces on my own. I’m hoping to do a movie next. We’ll see what happens from there.

Are you writing the movie for yourself?

Yes.

What can you tell us about it?

I don’t know that I’m ready to say anything about it yet.

[Laughter]

What’s your dream role?

I haven’t written it yet.

This Close airs Thurdsays on the Sundance Channel. It also is available on AMCPremiere streaming.