East of Eden

Kit Williamson on the shocking final season of ‘Eastsiders’: “I like how loud gay sex is”

Kit Williamson

 

Dressed in a black turtleneck, Kit Williamson is sitting at a popular Silverlake coffee shop, sipping ice coffee. As the creator/writer/star of the popular series Eastsiders, Williamson has long made Silverlake and its residents the subject of his series.

Season 4, the final one for the show, finds its characters struggling to adjust to adulthood, as usual. Cal (Willamson) and his longtime boyfriend Thom (Van Hansis) wonder if it’s time for marriage. Quincy (Stephen Guarino) and Douglas (Willam Belli) also plan to get hitched, if they don’t kill each other first. Hillary (Brianna Brown) and Ian (John Halbach) toy with the idea of having a child, while Jeremy (Matthew McKelligon) and Derrick (Leith M. Burke), decide to foster one.

Eastsiders explores issues surrounding the ever-evolving queer identity with no shortage of dramatic and hilarious detours. Traci Lords, Hailie Sahar, Tom Lenk, Jake Choi and Jai Rodriguez also make cameos in recurring roles.

Queerty sat down with Williamson to discuss the final season of Eastsiders, premiering December 1 on Netflix, and what’s next in his career.

Did you ever think you would get this far?

Every season I wrote thinking if this is it, let it be satisfying. I tried to give a sense of finality to each season, while allowing threads to keep the story going. It feels like an organic time to end the series. We get to have all the storylines come to a head. I’m so grateful that we were able to get so many of our actors back for the show. Everybody is getting super successful.

Which is a good problem to have. But Stephen Guriano, Constance Wu—they’re doing big-name stuff now.

We couldn’t get Constance this season. ABC would not release her from her contract.

Really?

That sucked, but I feel like we left her character in a really good place in Season 3. There’s a button on that story. I have so many different versions of these scripts because of actor availability.

Van Hansis and Kit Williamson

How are you feeling?

I feel really good. We are really bootstraps, we have do to everything. Promoting the show is more than a full-time job. You work it from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to bed.

Did you always intend to end at Season 4?

It’s the way it broke down. We started on YouTube in 2012 with really modest expectations. I just wanted to make something cool and get it out there. I didn’t have a plan for a season, necessarily, let alone four. When caught on and we did a whole first season, I worked to make it a self-contained story. Every season I tried to do that. And, every season I said we’re not doing more. But I figured if I announce it this time, it’ll be true.

Well, we’ve heard this from shows before. Will & Grace. The X-Files. Full House. So doors open.

Yeah, and I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily done with these characters forever. But I am done with this format. It’s a little bit too much of a herculean task to produce six half hour episodes of an independently-produced TV show. It’s a huge undertaking.

How do you go about structuring a season?

So we kind of settled on the six, half hour format in Season 2. Season 1 we were short-form, 15 minute episodes. But we settled on the format because you could tell a nice, self-contained story in that without feeling like you’re just adding filler. This season worked a bit differently because we had a writer’s room.

Oh awesome.

The first season I wrote and directed every single episode. This season we have two additional writers who are also actors on the show: Stephen Guarino and Brea Grant. So Steven wrote Episode 2 and Brea wrote & directed Episode 4. It’s our first time having a guest director.

When you’ve done three seasons on your own, and you have to hand the proverbial keys to someone else, is that stressful?

I felt very taken care of. I’d trust Brea with my life. She’s incredible. She can do anything, and she’s been involved since the first season. So I wasn’t at all nervous, but it was a strange feeling.

There’s a big shift between the end of Season 3 and the start of Season 4. Three ends with your Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf scene. Lots of booze, arguing, suppressed anger and sexual tension.

Thank you for calling it that! That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said…

I don’t know if that’s what you’re going for, because I find Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf disturbing.

My cat is named Edward Albee.

Ah, ok, well. I call ‘em like I see ‘em.

[Laughter]

Season 4 kicks off with a lot of comedy and whimsy with a wedding. It’s very silly. Was that a conscious choice to switch out of the pensive mode? If Season 3 is any indication, you build to the pensive stuff.

Don’t worry. It gets dark.

Matthew McKelligon and Brea Grant

Ok, fair enough.

I always describe the show as a dark comedy, sometimes dramadey. It’s a drama with funny people in it. The humor comes from the characters; it’s rarely sitcom circumstances. If they’re in ridiculous circumstances, it’s because they are ridiculous people.

Season 4 does a really good job at bringing everybody together. It’s much more ensemble, rather than jumping from character to character as in Season 3.

That was out of necessity for the actors’ schedules. It’s always out of logistics. Season 4, we decided to say f*ck it. There’s a huge element of risk to that, because we have over 100 actors this season. Any one of the core 10 could have destroyed the production at any moment with the best of intentions. Not because they hate me, but it was inviting the possibility of disaster into your life. I’m a person with a lot of anxiety in general, so to open yourself up to that, to make yourself vulnerable, is really nerve-wracking.

Sure.

But one thing I’m really proud of this season is the expansion of the ensemble this season, having these interlaced storylines and a really inclusive cast. And we’ve never had a casting director on this show. Ever. So to bring together this group of people is something I’m so proud of.

One of the major themes this season is indecision. Thom can’t decide if he wants to propose. Ian doesn’t know if he wants kids. Quincy and Douglas don’t know if they can get through the wedding. This also speaks to issues of commitment. Is that a statement about their youth? Their being artists?

I think of this season as a dialectic on love and relationships. I’m trying to deconstruct things we sort of allow to have universal meaning. What is love? What is a commitment? What is a relationship? What does marriage mean if you’re queer? These questions, as queer people, we have to decide what these things mean. They’re not just laid out to us in an obvious path to follow. I find that really liberating.

You don’t find it frightening?

It’s both. Ultimately, once you push through the fear and the idea that you don’t have a paved road ahead, you have so much freedom. It’s the chosen family trope. You get to decide what marriage means to you.

That makes sense.

These are also characters that kind of live on the outskirts of society. They just define these things for themselves. That’s the journey of this season: all of them deciding.

Leith M. Burke and Matthew McKelligon

The wedding storyline is crazy, the pregnancy storyline…I don’t want to play spoiler, but I have a feeling, even as a gay man, that a lot of straight men experience similar feelings when it comes to pregnancy. I’m sure it’s different for women.

Yeah. Just knowing that Ian & Hillary [played by John Halbach and Briana Brown] are in their late 30s, you know. So what does it say if they don’t go through with it? It means they may never.

I dunno. Janet Jackson just had a baby at 51, so I think sometimes that panic is a bit much.

If you’ve been together two years and you live together, and you’re not ready to commit, what are you doing?

Sex plays a huge role in this show.

Yeah.

I see a lot of indie content that is only sex, and there’s no real story. What’s the fascination with showing your characters have so much sex, and how do you balance it with a plot?

I was very mindful in Season 1 of not being exploitative in any way. It’s a show about love, sex and relationships, but we didn’t have sex scenes in the first two seasons. It’s all pre or post-coital, very deliberately. Interestingly, I think a lot of people think there was [a lot of sex]. In 2012, when the show started, I think a lot of people were not even sure what a web series was.

Creators were finding their footing with it for sure.

Yeah. To the common viewer outside the industry, it was a new concept to watch a narrative on YouTube. So I was very mindful that being LGBTQ content, the assumption that it would be exploitative or softcore. I was deliberate in not putting that out there. Now, in Season 4, I feel like we’ve proven ourselves, and there’s no reason not to explore sex. Sex is part of relationships. You look at a show like Insecure or Fleabag, and there’s just as much sex as there is in this show. Sometimes we have a tendency—gay sex is just louder somehow.

Related: WATCH: Preview the final season of ‘Eastsiders’

What do you mean by that?

We notice it more, even as gay people. We’re like whoa!

Got it.

I like how loud gay sex is. I like that it makes viewers uncomfortable, even gay viewers. Starting in Season 1 we had a lot of pearl-clutching comments from gay people who don’t want “stereotypes.”

I want to talk about that in a minute. But before we stray: Orson Welles hated sex in movies. He said it was like watching someone pray—it doesn’t advance a plot or reveal anything about a character.

I agree, by the way.

Really?

And we have no sex scenes, really.

There is a montage…

There is a montage. But by and large, I’m interested in what happens before & after sex.

Van Hansis & Kit Williamson

Cal and Thom have something of a torrid relationship, particularly this season, with both of their artistic ambitions—and that unfulfilled feeling—eroding not just their relationship with each other, but with everyone else. Is that something you relate to, as an artist?

I relate to Thom a lot. This season we really see him grow up and move past some of his pretentions. A lot of us are “The Most Special Boy in the World.”

What do you mean?

It comes from a think piece I read that said gay men are often “The Most Special Boy in the World.” We have this overachiever quality. The velvet rage speaks to this in a great way: the idea that we’ve got to be successful and earn our right to exist in the world.

Interesting.

Thom has been working through some sh*t. We’ve never seen Thom’s writing in the show. I don’t want to do that—it’s a bit too meta for me. But I like the presence of a writer in the show. I like to think that he’s talented. He had early success in Season 1 where he wrote an essay that detonated his relationship get published in the Paris Review. Val, his mom, [played by Traci Lords], sent it out to everybody in the family and mortified her son. In a way, that’s the inciting incident for all these characters. It predicted this non-traditional relationship that Thom & Cal evolved into. In Season 1, Episode 4, Val asks if their opening up their relationship.

And talk about meta. Having Traci Lords, given her past, her sex-positivity, playing the role is a statement. And she’s a fine actress, for the record. It’s a great part for her.

Wait until you see Episode 5. It’s a love letter to her.

I’d also be remiss not to notice that your character Cal, (who also has a ca-ca sounding name) is an actor. Lived in NY and LA. Queer. Travels a lot. The point is, there are parallels. How much of this comes from your own life?

I always find it really funny what people assume is autobiographical in the show. It’s often not what people expect. Obviously, as a writer, you have to draw from your life and write what you know. As a micro-budget filmmaker, you write to individual resources. I wrote Season 3 in part because I wanted to move back to Los Angeles. So in some ways, Kit & John are on a similar path to Cal & Thom, but we’re very different people. I’m not Cal. John is not Thom. If anything, I think of Cal & Thom as two sides of me.

Willam Belli

Is that a conscious choice? How aware are you of adding elements of yourself to your characters?

That’s an interesting question.

[Long pause]

In Season 4, Jake Choi’s character says to Thom that he’s an exhibitionist in his writing. I think that’s an interesting concept. Is all writing a form of exhibitionism? Because when you’re opening yourself up and putting yourself out there, whether something is autobiographical or not, you’re still putting yourself on display. Inherent in that is accepting judgment and critiques of others.

Does that make it harder to accept criticism of the show?

I’m generally pretty good about accepting criticism of the show except when it comes in the form of ignorance about the constraints that we work under. We have less money for a whole season of our show than Looking had for five minutes. So get the f*ck out if you want to complain about my production quality. As far as the writing and acting, I’m secure enough to take criticism.

Do people ever call you on anything in the show? Do they say oh, that’s you.

I mean…I’ve never received that as criticism. I’ve never had the experience of anyone being upset because they thought they were [a character in the story] or pulled elements from their lives. Ultimately, if you want to be a writer, it’s as simple as writing something. Anything. Write something.

Do you think of your characters as healthy people?

Ooh. They’re complicated people. They’re messy, with flaws and vices. They’re people who have a lot of growing up to do. In Season 4, I like to think you see a lot of growth. They push through and navigate a lot of those big, burning questions. They have complicated relationships with alcohol, or with sex. That’s a lot of people that I know.

That’s fair.

That’s a lot of people in the gay community, and I’d rather not shy away from it. I’d rather run into the blaze and tackle things that make people uncomfortable. But I also like to think the show doesn’t judge the characters.

There’s a line this season where one character maligns another for embarrassing the community with his stories about open relationships, promiscuity, drugs, alcohol, all of that. The mess of it all. I have a feeling that maybe be based on personal experience…

That might be me allowing the character to voice something that’s stuck in my craw, sure.

Have you been accused of embarrassing the community with the show?

You know, it’s often people who haven’t even watched the show that levy that kind of criticism. If you follow their logic to its inevitable conclusion, you remove all conflict from the story. Not to get too crafty, but I believe that as a playwright, approach character and plot through conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no story. I like to put my characters into every kind of conflict I can all at once, internal and external.

Yes.

Ultimately, the way I see the criticism is wanting the characters to have no flaws or conflict with one another. It’s wanting the characters to exist in a vacuum as Ken dolls that always get along and stand in plastic smiling. Save that for Instagram!

Van Hansis & Jake Choi

You guys started in 2012-2013. How have changing feelings toward queer people affected your approach to the story?

I approach this as a queer show. Not every LGBTQ writer or filmmaker wants to accept that sort of moniker. But I embrace it. I think of it as a queer show. That’s part of what makes it special. That’s the need it fulfills that other shows don’t. It’s a queer worldview and perception.

Has the show changed as the community as changed?

I just think it’s a really good thing that we have more LGBTQ representation than ever before. I did not envision as a little gay kid in Mississippi that we would have marriage equality and LGBTQ characters living their lives as characters on television. None of that seemed possible. So I stand in awe. As a storyteller, I just think about what I can offer that larger conversation.

How has doing Eastsiders elevated your career?

It’s helped in a lot of ways. I’d say it has not helped my acting career.

Really?

Sure. I can say that I never went out for gay roles prior to this show. One of the reasons I wanted to make Eastsiders was to create an opportunity for myself to play a gay character. Since the show has taken off, I get exclusively called in for gay roles. So I won’t editorialize too much, but I’ll leave that to whatever it says about the gatekeepers of the entertainment community and their lack of imagination when it comes to LGBTQ people. Things are changing but still, most of the people that you see—gay actors—broke through and had their success and then come out.

I see.

As a writer, it’s been really good for me. I’ve developed with a lot of great studios and networks. I wrote a pilot for CBS that didn’t go. I have projects in development now, so it has afforded me the ability to make a living as a writer for the past few years…working on projects in the shadowy underbelly of the entertainment industry called development. I’m really eager for one to breakthrough. I had a project in the Sundance Lab last year that I’m really excited about. It’s very close to moving forward, and it’s the queerest thing I’ve ever written. It’s a new series.

Eastsiders is one of the great success stories of web series. You start on YouTube and got picked up by Netflix. What’s the best advice you can offer aspiring directors, writers, actors about doing a digital series? So many can’t even cobble together a whole season.

Just start making things. Your first project probably isn’t going to breakthrough. Develop a skillset by making things. I, like a lot of people, had another web series that never saw the light of day. It was shot before Eastsiders, and I made the evaluation that it wasn’t good enough. So it didn’t go out into the world, and that was a few thousand dollars thrown into the mouth of the beast. But you have to accept that potential risk. I have so many friends who have asked me out to lunch to pick my brain because they have a project they’re passionate about. But then they’ll sit and worry about that project for a year, two years, three years. Or maybe they’ll edit it and sit on it for a year.

Right.

Get it the f*ck out there! What are you waiting for? Growth is incremental. Just do it.

Eastsiders returns to Netflix December 1.

Disclosure: Kit Williamson is married to Queerty’s director of video and social media, John Halbach.