Getting 'Head'

“I was told playing gay would hurt my career” Justin Xavier & Damian Quinn talk ‘Road Head’

Writer Justin Xavier on the set of ‘Road Head’

We’ve seen Justin Xavier naked.

Then again, so has anyone familiar with the cult holiday comedy Shared Rooms, about four queer couples falling in love on Christmas. Xavier appears as an actor in the film, and spends most of his scenes showing off his assets.

Never one to show fear of artistic risks, Xavier has also added the role of screenwriter to his resume. His first film as writer, Sick For Toys (in which he also appears on screen) gained a cult following on its 2018 release. His follow up, Road Head, sees Xavier venturing into the world of horror again, this time, with a very gay twist.

Road Head follows a gay couple, Bryan and Alex (played by Clayton Ferris and Damian Joseph Quinn) along with their friend Stephanie (Elizabeth Grullon) on a road trip gone awry. What starts as a min-vacation to get a tan and smoke some weed takes a violent turn when the group discovers decapitated heads in the desert…and a sword-wielding executioner hot on their trail. More than that, we can’t reveal here, except to say Road Head takes some very homoerotic twists, and does so with a very dark sense of humor.

We meet Xavier–who now sports a mohawk–at a fashionable Burbank coffee shop, where he greets us with a smile. Road Head‘s out-gay star, Damian Quinn, also joins us to chat about the film, its queerness and the satire of masculinity & sexuality it jabs with. Road Head has its world premiere at the 2020 Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival in San Jose, CA on March 7 before hitting the festival circuit this year. The film is currently seeking distribution.

This movie is all kinds of bonkers. Where did you start with the premise? A dark horror road comedy about a gay hero, his girl bestie and a weird homoerotic cult?

[Damian laughs]

Do you ask him this?

DQ: Well, I know already.

Then why not enlighten us.

JX: The idea initially started when Jon Paul [Burkhart, executive producer] pitched to me the title. He just wanted to make a horror-comedy called Road Head, and would I be interested in writing something like that? And I said “Yeah, but what’s the pitch?” And he just said, “I have the title.”

[Laughter]

And he said I could do whatever I liked with it. I said, “Are you ok if they’re gay?” And he was fine with that. He was really cool with whatever. So I took it from there.

Director David Del Rio (far right) on set

Ok.

JX: When he initially pitched it to me, he was trying to shoot it for a very, very low budget with a very small cast. So I had to keep it cheap. And we built from there. We expanded [the story]; I worked with DDR [director David Del Rio], he had notes and suggestions. And it slowly morphed into the very bizarre film you see.

As far as what I was feeling at the time I was writing it: ultimately, it’s a dark movie in it’s themes. Not it’s tone, but the themes are heavier than the tone. I was writing in late 2017, at the end of the first year of the Trump Presidency. So I was feeling down on the world and on the LGBTQ place in it. So the initial concept was that all the heroes would by LGBTQ characters, and all the villains are incels.

Interesting.

JX: So that was the initial version. It’s taken many turns.

You mention the tone. Finding the right tone as a writer or an actor, between absurdity and terror is very, very tricky. You have these scenes of intense horror punctuated by slapstick comedy. How do you go about doing that as a writer, and then working with a director and your actors to make sure everybody is on the same page?

JX: That was really hard. I think everybody had a kind of slightly different idea as far as what we were going for. So it is a mishmash of a lot of ideas. I think the darkness of the themes was there from the beginning. The level of cartoon comedy we added on set. The cast brought a lot of that. DDR inspired that. Maybe that’s a better question for you…

DQ: For me it was almost the opposite. I think am more drawn to drama, but my resources really lend to comedy. I can play music. It involves different emotional prep work. Ultimately our direction was into finding the real root of what’s going on—the real anxiety. For my final scene, I was on my hands and knees hysterically crying. Then I’d get in the car, we’d shoot, and I’d continue to scream and wail until we shot it again. But the script naturally lends itself [to comedy]. It’s a great break. It’s a great break for us too: shooting in the desert for two weeks ripping our hearts out. We needed a lot of goofiness. But DDR’s vision was always truthful. He wanted us to find the emotional truth.

And this is your second feature film.

DQ: Yeah. I’d done about ten shorts and a web series.

Damian Quinn & Elizabeth Grullon

So you have to carry a lot of the movie by yourself. That’s very tricky for someone who doesn’t have a lot of feature experience, especially with something that has such a specific tone. How did you prepare?

DQ: I was more nervous to audition. I remember DDR pulled me out and said “If I need you to cry in the desert, can you do it? We’re going to go back in and I want you to cry.” That was really stressful. And I did break out with a fever blister before shooting, so I was definitely nervous.

[Laughter]

DQ: I was nervous about how to prepare. But ultimately, meditation and trust work worked well. I graduated from Tish [school of the arts, at New York University]. I’ve been acting my whole life. So this is my calling, my purpose. And it really felt like a family from day one. No ego.

Because you’ve been acting so long, if mostly on stage and in shorts, what’s the biggest difference for you in your approach to a character when acting in a film?

DQ: Stage is my world. The director might nudge me a little bit, but it’s my play. I can listen to an audience and paint a picture with them if they’re into it. On camera is totally different. I might get two words in on set before someone calls “cut.” It’s a hive mind, and I just put in one piece. It’s an ensemble.

I see a lot of Texas Chainsaw and Mad Max’s influence, certainly in terms of the aesthetic.

JX: That is true. I never thought about that, but yeah, the second Mad Max has a similar aesthetic. It wasn’t anything I really discussed with anyone. The look of the film was more DDR and Ryan Verbell [cinematographer] working together. That’s their vision. What we discussed was more my intention behind the characters, their motivations, and the tone I was going for.

In a weird way this is a movie about the unpleasantness of road trips: getting sick of each other, dealing with unknown surroundings, local weirdos. It also strikes me as venturing into sexual kink. The leather, the chain mail, the weird hierarchy of it all. Where does that come from?

JX: The kink, I think stylistically in the wardrobe and whatnot, came from DDR and our production designer. In terms of the plot kink and the weird interactions of the characters, I drew upon real relationships I know. The characters aren’t based on people I know, but the relationship dynamics are. In terms of the cult, a lot of that is because I was in one for a while.

Oh my.

JX: Yeah. That’s something I’ve talked about elsewhere and don’t want to go into. It was traumatic. But in terms of the actual way the cult functions, and the interactivity of people in one, that’s based on first-hand experience.

That’s crazy. There’s also odd homoeroticism about the villainous cabal—they’re men who just want to use women for sex and to breed, but otherwise, just kind of want to have sex with each other. But they don’t strike me as gay. You also draw a big contrast from you gay hero and these villain characters. What’s that about? You’ve said that that’s influenced by Trumpism. So are the villains meant to be Trump or his supporters? Or incels?

JX: Before I can answer that, I have to talk about the development of the film. Originally they were very much incels. They were self-hating people who had decided they no longer had a place in society and wanted to go make their own. The joke of the cult was a combination of the fact that they are so staunch in their beliefs until something benefits them, that hypocrisy. The joke is that they are saying what they are doing is wrong, and they do it anyway. Then when we got into casting, people wanted a lighter tone rather than these very dark, toxic guys being awful. So I ended up rewriting the entire cult based on our cast to match what we had found.

Ok.

JX: So some of that balance was found on set. Some of it was found in rewrites, in casting. It’s hard to talk about without giving away the plot.

Right. We don’t want that. But on the subject of sex and sexuality which is very key here—Justin, you’re straight. Damian, I’m not sure how you identify…

DQ: Oh yeah, I’m very gay. It’s great.

Quinn & Grullon with Clayton Ferris in Road Head

Well both of you have played gay characters. When you are associated with a gay character on screen, do you worry how that will affect your career? What have your experiences been? Were you ever advised against playing a gay role, particularly where you have to do nude scenes?

DQ: In some ways I’m really lucky to be who I am today, because it’s a lot safer to be queer. I use the word “safer” also knowing that Burn in Hell F*ggot is written on my apartment. I know I’m perceived differently by the general public because of who I am.

Sure. Safer than it was, but obviously not safe for a lot of us.

DQ: I play straight characters mostly. But I think it’s a funny time with identity. It’s almost like the actor behind the character on Instagram or whatever and the life they are nursing is more prominent than the characters they portray. I really love the characters I play, but there is a whole marketing tactic—when convenient—of hey look, a queer actor!I’m also at this weird point where I’m not diverse enough. I go out for a lot of queer roles and I’m not diverse enough, even though I’m queer and on the gender spectrum. A lot of networks don’t even see being queer as a diverse thing anymore. Casting directors will even say “You can’t play straight, but straight guys can play you and it’s really great.”

Related: Director Carter Smith rings in the New Year with gay horror in ‘Midnight Kiss’

That’s infuriating.

DQ: It is super infuriating. But part of what I love about my work is working as a chameleon. One of the short films I did is about to “bros”–and I mean bro bros. My character gets hit by a car and breaks his neck and can’t move. And he asks his friend to jack him off, but says “Don’t be a f*g.” So I can straight pass, and I love to play themes that talk about fragile masculinity. But when it comes to the queer part, I love it, because I play so many different things. When I play straight, [the characters] are so much more constrained.

Is that because of you and the way you present, or is that because straight people are generally more constrained?

DQ: Maybe it’s a bit of both, but generally straight people are more constrained. It depends. There are a lot of guys that you meet where you think that guy’s gay, right? And no, he’s straight. Fortunately, we’re getting to a place where gender and sexuality conversations are really opening up. The industry will be 10-15 years behind, but it’s an amazing time to pioneer queer storytelling and be publicly out. Most of the talent we know and love are super gay, but it’s still risky to come out. I would be disappointed if I wasn’t able to play a role because of who I am, but it has happened before.

Justin Xavier (left) in Shared Rooms

So Justin, what was your experience doing Shared Rooms [where Xavier appears naked as a gay character in very sexual situations]?

JX: I was definitely told playing gay would hurt my career, especially early on by acting coaches, by casting directors, by my parents—a lot of people. I was told it would hold me back. I just didn’t see how that would happen. I thought if there were repercussions, they would be repercussions I would be happy with. Oh no, I’m not going to work with people who are homophobic?! That doesn’t sound like a bad thing. People will know I’m an ally, and [queer people & allies] are the people who are creating the kind of art I like anyways. I am much more interested in storytelling that breaks ground and pushes the boundaries of what has been done before. Gay storytelling has been on the rise, which is very exciting. I’m seeing stories that, growing up, were not available to me. That’s part of the reason I wanted to make the characters in Road Head gay. We’re not making a “gay film,” but gay people exist and can have adventures like everybody else.

Amen.

JX: In terms of acting in Shared Rooms, I went in looking at the nudity as a challenge to see if I could do it. I was definitely nervous about it. I was scared that I would end up on some website…and ultimately, I am.

[Laughter]

But it hasn’t had a negative effect on me. I’m very lucky. There isn’t any hatred or discrimination to come my way because of it. And I get recognized at the gym.

We won’t ask where in the gym.

[Laguhter]

JX: When I took the role and called my parents to tell them that I was excited about a movie I had been cast in, my dad said he hoped it would lead to a real role. And I was like, what is not real about this role? So I came into that feeling like I needed to prove that it was real, and that I needed to do a good job. If I did a bad job of portraying a gay male, that’s even worse than not taking the role at all.

So let me ask you this one: when you’re approaching something that will have lots of homoeroticism and a gay couple at the center, when kind of research do you do to get it right? There’s so much conversation about proper representation right now.

JX: I have a few trusted people I can ask for notes. I call them my “beta readers.” I ask if its accurate to someone that they know. There’s no universal way to portray homosexuality that pertains to everyone. Bryan and Alex aren’t based on actual people, but I do know a couple on the east coast named Bryan and Alex. Bryan loves horror, is a horror writer. He mentioned to me that there’s a lack of representation of gay people in horror. And I asked him to name the character after him. He was so excited. So he was someone that I trusted to ask about what I was going for.

So what’s next for the two of you?

DQ: I’m playing Roy Cohn in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which shoots next week. I have another short film shooting Monday. I’m on the waitlist for The Groundlings writing lab. It’s an exciting time for me. I’ve had a great couple of months.

What about you Justin? Writing? Acting?

JX: I think my ambitions lay more on the writing/directing side of things than with acting, which is where they were before. That’s surprising. For a long time, acting was the only thing that made me happy. But I’ve found more fulfillment in writing, in creating characters. I have a script that I’m very interested in directing. I’m still developing it. It’s called Pain, and it’s a horror movie about a young Catholic boy who gets infected with a demon in a small town. Everyone goes about trying to fix him in unhealthy ways. I have a media company with my partner, Amber-Tiana doing social media management. We have podcasts we produce. I’m just looking forward to moving forward in storytelling in whatever form that takes.

Road Head has a world premiere March 7 at the 2020 Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival in San Jose, CA. The film is currently seeking distribution.