Nico Tortorella would like me to take some of the “likes” out of his quotes. “Make me sound smarter,” he jokes. But as the openly bisexual Younger star chats, it becomes clear that intellectual retouching won’t be necessary. Tortorella is a thoughtful guy—he describes himself as “a seeker”—and he’s made a name for himself in the past few years by talking openly and passionately about gender and sexual fluidity. Meanwhile, his character on the effervescent TV Land comedy is a bit adrift, having ending things with the show’s problematic leading lady Liza (Sutton Foster) at the end of last season. We’re only halfway through the show’s fourth season and twenty-something Williamsburg tattoo artist Josh has already made his way through one rebound fling. And, spoiler alert, on Wednesday night’s episode sparks seemed to ignite between him and Liza’s friend and colleague Kelsey (Hilary Duff). Tortorella called up Queerty recently to talk about his character’s journey, the responsibility he feels to his sexuality, and his greater project of learning about the ways that people love each other.
So, your character’s story this season is all about Josh without Liza.
I almost think that this season is about Josh without Josh too. I think that there’s a giant hole left in his heart from this relationship. He is really trying to fill it. He’s reaching and he’s reaching and he’s throwing shit inside of it that obviously isn’t right. We get glimpses of the Josh that we know when he tells Maggie [Debi Mazar] about Montana [Search Party’s Meredith Hagner]. But I think this is the most fucked up that we’ve seen Josh. But Josh does a really good job of hiding it behind that smile of his.
Were you excited to get to flesh the character out on his own terms a bit more?
Oh, yeah, totally. For sure. I mean “Josh without Josh” like…That’s exactly what it means: he’s trying to search for who this new Josh is, post-Liza. I think it’s just this journey that he’s on. Yeah, of course it’s been great to explore Josh outside of Liza—and also see Liza outside of Josh. But at the end of the day we have 22 minutes to hash out seven series regulars’ storylines, and to be honest there were scenes in Episodes 4 and 6 that, just because of time, didn’t make the cut. But I always want more. I’m that type of person. I think that Josh is such a layered human. He comes off just as an idiot sometimes, but I think he’s actually a lot smarter than…not necessarily how he’s written, but how he comes off onscreen.
I’ve enjoyed getting to see you interact more with other characters this season. Obviously something has been brewing between Kelsey and Josh. Did that come out of…
Nico and Hilary?
Yeah, Nico and Hilary. Your real life dynamic.
Yeah, honestly I’ve been saying it since the first season: I think that it would be silly to not have a storyline with Hilary and I. Our relationship is just riddled with sexual tension! And it obviously comes off like that on camera too. I love Hilary. She is one of my favorite people, let alone celebrities that I have ever spent time with. She’s just such a humble human being. I don’t know, she represents something that’s a lot more traditional than I do and we have a good time getting under each other’s skin in a safe sparring manner. And I think that’s what this relationship on camera looks like. But obviously it will be very problematic to have Josh and Kelsey together in any sort of way because the show is so female friendship-driven.
Do you think fans of the show are shipping those two characters?
I think there’s a split. I’ve heard both arguments. But I think just like the Josh and Liza and Charles [Peter Hermann] and Liza…people go back and forth. There’s a fluidity, if I may, to all of this. It all depends on the episode.
Funnily enough, what happens with Josh and Kelsey in this season, I was like, “Darren, don’t be silly! You know the second that you see Hillary and I on camera, you’re gonna want to fucking write more!” And he was like, “I don’t know…” Two days later, he came up to me after he watched the dailies and was like, “Nico, you were so fucking right! I don’t know what we’re doing here!” But that happens a lot on a show like this. The writers don’t have the storylines completely mapped out, they’re not married to anything. They’ll watch what happens and the chemistry that brews in all of these relationship and they’ll manipulate the storylines accordingly.
Well, that’s like life, isn’t it?
Oh, yeah. Right? That’s like God. [Laughs]
So that kiss by the lake…
I’ve been waiting to kiss Hilary Duff for a long time. I think that should be the opener of this story!
Well, they decide not to pursue their attraction any further. So, is that it for Kelsey and Josh?
Yeah, honestly I think for now it is. The chemistry that they have is not going away, and I think that they really are honoring their friendship right now. And they also live together, right? This situation could get really messy really fast and hurt a lot of people. So, I think for right now, that’s enough.
It also reminds me of that old When Harry Met Sally thing, you know? Can a man and a woman just be friends?
But that’s also not a relationship you ever see on television. You never see two straight people, a guy and a girl, just being friends. I think that it’s actually really progressive to see the two of them kiss and for them both to be like, Maybe this isn’t the best idea, and we can still be friends. And there’s not stupid, drunk, hyper-male toxicity either. I think Josh totally gets it. Josh is a really nice representation of masculinity on television. I don’t know where that comes from… [Laughs]
Ok, well that segues nicely to my next question: Josh shares a lot of your characteristics. Not all, but there are similarities. Do you feel like your public profile has influenced the character?
That’s an interesting question. How do I want to answer this? I think that I am a seeker. I am a seeker of truth and an explorer, right? And I think that that inherently lives in Josh because of who I am. The way that the show has been written over the years, nobody really knew who Josh was after the first episode—or even after the first season, really. I think that even if you look at the way I’ve progressed over the last four years in my personal life—I got sober after the first season and really started taking my life seriously. And I think that Josh really had a transition after the first season that in one way or another mirrors that. So, Josh is a tiny, tiny piece of what I represent in my own world, right? And I think that future projects will showcase this so-called message and lifestyle and spreading of acceptance and love across the board of sexuality, gender identity, religion, race, color, creed, the whole situation.
Do you think Josh is the type of guy who would or has ever…
Sucked a dick?
…hooked up with guys?
[Laughs] I wouldn’t put it past him! I think that Josh is curious, but I think that Josh really loves women. We don’t have a lot of backstory from Josh at all. We don’t even know his last name! In my head, I think Josh has mommy issues more than daddy issues, and that leads him to be more inclined to search for the perfect woman. I think that he’s in touch with his feminine qualities, which is also what he loves in women. But it’s funny, you don’t even ever see him having a conversation with a guy. Josh is never next to another guy on the show. Josh is one of the girls! [Laughs]
Is it important to you, as an actor, to play straight characters?
Yeah, I think it’s important for me to play the spectrum. To play in the spectrum. Honestly, what makes me different from maybe other people in the community, or even straight people, is that I do that in my waking life all the time. I play on the sexuality spectrum, I play on the gender spectrum, sometimes on an hourly basis, just in my own head. It’s really not even for other people. I can wake up and feel super hyper masculine, super straight one day and then wake up and be a big ol’ queen the next day. It’s equally important to play those roles.
The show is full of really funny women—and they’re funny in a lot of different ways. Have you learned anything about comedy from your costars?
I would say that it doesn’t have to be one specific thing. There are such layers of comedy from the different women on this show. I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that question really. The way that the writers attack the political landscape on such a simple, almost under the radar type of way, is just genius to me. The more that you can get a message across without hitting the nail on the head constantly, the more powerful it’ll be. Like if you can enter the subconscious, you’re winning the game.
You’ve said that you feel a responsibility to talk about your sexuality, about gender identity. That kind of rare for handsome leading men, it-boy types. How did you develop that sense of responsibility to talk about this stuff?
Well, I think it goes back to the idea of being a seeker. Once I realized that I had a journey in front of me and that I was never going to be completely satisfied or comfortable, and that every single day was a learning process and every single day I have to do the work on myself, I started to really notice it in other people—the lack of work that people are putting into their lives. I think true happiness really derives from doing the work. As soon as I started talking about this community—even just the B in LGBTQ+—I realized really quickly that nobody does. Nobody has. There’s zero positive representation in the media, outside the media, really anywhere. The bi-phobia that exitis is everywhere. I will have queens rant on Twitter that I am not a real person, that my existence isn’t valid.
Yeah, you’ve said recently that you and other bisexuals get a lot of flack from within the LGBTQ community for being bisexual. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. Any type of phobia is your own self-loathing finding this outward projection. It makes me really sad. I don’t get angry at these things. It truly makes me sad that whatever is going on in someone’s life that they’re unhappy about, the only way they can get it out is to tell somebody else that their lifestyle or their beliefs are wrong. That transcends sexuality and gender identity. That goes from religion to race to what type of juice somebody wants in the morning. [Laughs] Everyone always has a fucking opinion about everything. The biggest problem we have is other people telling people how they should behave and that their lifestyles are wrong. As long as you’re not hurting somebody, as long as you’re not hurting yourself, I can support your choices, no matter what.
You mentioned doing the work of talking about the spectrum of gender and sexual identities, and you have to admit it really does feel like work sometimes. I’m thinking about the conversation you had with the hosts of The View recently. Is it every exhausting to you, having to explain gender and sexuality to people kind of from the ground up?
Yeah, when you have Joy Behar sitting next to me on The View saying, “Back in the day we used to say bisexuals like gay men and straight men,” that’s funny and that’s cute and all, but if you actually think about why I’m here and the message I’m trying to get across…I’m not coming onto this show to just share my white, privileged perspective. I’m coming on the show to share my platform with amazing people who are literally changing the landscape of gender and sexuality every single day. This is not my story. I’m a conduit of sorts, to give people platforms that do not have them. Honestly, there were a few hosts that said some problematic things. But, granted, that show runs really fast. It’s hard to get a word in. Everybody has an opinion. There’s obviously some massive generation gaps.
But it’s not unique to The View. Those conversations can be frustrating just in daily life.
Right, but the fact that that segment existed on a national television show on a major network—in the morning for that matter—is the most humbling experience that I have had in this industry thus far. The fact that you had six queer kids across the race and gender spectrum telling their stories? Come on! I broke down. I still get emotional thinking about it now. And that, for me, is progress and it’s part of the future that I really want to be a part of. Really at the end of the day, that’s my responsibility. And it’s not just for sexuality and gender expression. It’s for the way that people love each other across the board, in any type of relationship. It stems from how you love yourself and how we express our love for other people.
You explore the way people love each other on your interview podcast The Love Bomb. What has that project taught you?
Well, the podcast is a safe space to have these conversations. Very rarely in your life do you set up a time to sit with somebody and talk about the essence, the fabric of life in such a way—let alone go back and listen to it! When you can listen to a conversation that you’ve had about something so important—or even something not that important, really—you hear how you communicate with somebody else. You can hear how you’re thinking. You can hear how your thoughts turn into words, and that in essence is doing the work. If you take time and just study yourself—happiness and love only come from yourself, first and foremost. If it’s not there to begin with you’ll never get it from another person.