The Long Path to My Life-Changing Role

The activist and 'UnReal' star writes for Playboy about the power of compromise

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” I remember reading these words by Joseph Campbell nearly two decades ago. I was a 13-year-old queer boy, born into a biracial body in an overwhelmingly straight, white world. I was raised in a small farming community in the prairies of Canada, after being adopted as an infant by a Caucasian family. Although my inherent Otherness was apparent, I was never fed messages that I couldn’t do or be anything I chose because of my biological predispositions. I was spared many of the deeply damaging narratives that so many queer people of color in America internalize and shape their existence around, forever playing small to appease the status quo. I believe it was this start in life that filled me with the unwavering belief in myself that I could achieve anything I imagined. And so, my imagination was where I lived and consciously created my reality.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve always known I would grow up to be an actor. I didn’t have any idea how this dream would come to fruition, but I held strong to the vision as I navigated myself toward the goal. After spending my later teen years modeling, I found myself setting up shop in Vancouver in the early 2000s where, as a secondary market to Los Angeles, there was a thriving television and film industry, and not many people who looked like me. I knew that was something I could use to my advantage. I just didn’t know how. Contrast in this world was what allowed me to be clear about what it is that I did and did not want in my life and career. All around me, I witnessed my peers studying and training to learn to be 1,000 different people to the best of their ability, while I was far more interested in learning to be the best version of myself. As they were studying the works of Stanislavsky and Meisner, I was immersing myself in the works of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou.
With Joseph Campbell’s words ringing in my ears, I needed to find a way to have the freedom and privilege of being myself while honoring the art of acting, and breathing life into characters who only existed as words on a page. I wasn’t sure how to blend those two desires into one, but my intuition told me there was a way. One day in my early 20s, while reading a biography on Gandhi, I came across a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that from that day forward I have used as a daily affirmation and meditation: ”Use me, God. Show me how to take who I am, who I want to be and what I can do, and use it for a purpose greater than myself.” Something shifted within me. I was discovering myself, and it felt fantastic. I held onto that feeling and allowed the energy of that to propel me into what was to come next.

At 21 years old, I booked my first film, playing a queer man in gay-conversion therapy. What a gift to have my first role be representative of what I had never had the privilege of seeing as a young viewer. On my last day of filming, the director pulled me aside, held my shoulders and said, “There is a void in this industry, and you are here to fill it.” I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant at that time, or how I could possibly have a hand in making an impactful difference. I was a naive 21-year-old boy who had only done one movie, and no idea how to navigate myself through the industry. But I chose to believe him.

The following years, I continued to work as an actor, slowly but surely building my résumé with small guest-starring and recurring roles. I was certain that I was only interested in playing gay and queer characters. There was power in it. There was the opportunity to be of service to an entire audience of young queer-identifying people out there who were ravenous for positive representation in media. Also, there was a large segment of people out there, many of whom I had grown up with, who to their knowledge had never had any interactions with a gay person, which troubled and quite frankly frightened me. When we have an idea of “otherness” in our species, it’s easy to marginalize and often exhibit hateful behavior borne of ignorance. When you look me in the eyes, it’s harder to hate me. So it became my mission to look millions of people across the world in their eyes, and display the humanity of queerness.
I booked the UnReal pilot, playing a straight character named Jay. But this time, I did things differently. Behind the scenes, I was unapologetically queer, authentically myself. It paid off.
I couldn’t help but be aware that all around me, my peers who were playing straight roles were leaps and bounds ahead of me professionally, constantly auditioning and working. Many of them had years of a head start on me as well, having began working as child actors. I knew I could fall into the trap of jealousy—or instead use the inspiration of what I saw was possible for them, and harness it into a way that could work for me. I vowed to myself that because I was wielding the power of source energy, of the universe, of the magnificent flow that fueled me into existence, and was asking daily to be used for a purpose greater then myself, that I would one day be more successfully fulfilled than each one of my counterparts. That vow didn’t come from a place of ego or ill will toward them—I simply knew that if I didn’t fill myself with thoughts of unwavering faith, I may not have had sustainable strength to carry on in my mission.

And at times, I did not have that strength. As my bank account dwindled, I had to find supplementary work as a waiter to pay my rent, with months going by without auditions for gay characters. I struggled and called everything I thought to be true into question.

The journey was not always easy. Immediately following my announcement of my desire to play primarily queer roles to my team, I was met with warnings, fear and doubt. Ancient examples of actors who had been outed and never worked again. The lack of quality material being produced to satiate my appetite for Otherness. The blatant and oftentimes well-disguised homophobia that I would encounter from my peers, and those who held the keys to the proverbial castle. Much to my dismay, they were right. The roles that were coming in were far from Star-Making turns.
As I witnessed straight-cis whiteness being rewarded, I was baffled as to where I could fit in. So I diverged. After two years of playing someone else’s game and never being quite clear on the rules, I stepped off the path of acting and began working as an assistant to the modeling agent at my agency. I felt in control of my own path again. After six months of assisting, I was promoted to a new position, being the youngest-ever booker and scout of the international modeling division. The remainder of that year, I sent friends of mine—whom I had spent my teens and early 20s traveling the world with, working as a model myself—off on jobs all across the planet, helping to make their dreams come true, while my own had been safely tucked away in incubation, awaiting the perfect moment to reemerge. As happy as I was for my friends-turned-clients, I was deeply missing that passion that fueled me to become who I knew I was meant to be. So, I quit my cushy job at the agency and decided to play the game yet again—this time, I would go against myself and try it by the rules set in place by the industry.

Within weeks, I had booked a role as a straight military character on a series that would busy me for the next two years of my life. My finances were flowing, but my soulful passions were not. I could find no great purpose that I was being used for in that position, and so I left the show and moved to South Africa, where I began modeling yet again as a means of income. Upon returning to North America, I relocated to New York City and spent every dollar I had on legal fees to my immigration lawyer, so I was able to legally reside in the United States. After months of waiting for the paperwork to be processed, I was broke again. I was living in a rundown apartment in Queens; sleeping on a futon mattress on a floor crawling with cockroaches; not able to afford more than one meal a day; some days unable to pay the $2.75 subway fare, having to hop the turnstiles to make it into the city. I was depressed and felt so lost. One day, while moaning on the phone to a friend about the plights I found myself in, she said to me, “One day, you will look back at this experience as the most pivotal time in your life. Imagine how boring your story would be if you came to New York and conquered within weeks. You’re becoming who you are meant to be.”

I had momentarily forgotten my own power. It’s the power that my queer ancestors who had lived and died years before me had infused me with by forging a path for myself and my LGBTQ family to exist upon. There was an entire generation of kids out there who were ravenous for representation in media. I could help fill that void for them! Another two years passed, and I found my way back on my feet again with the strength to continue on. One day, my team sent me a script for a new series called UnReal, co-created by a woman I had aspired to work with since I was a teenager, Marti Noxon, a known Champion of Others. I booked the pilot, playing a straight character named Jay. But this time, I did things differently. Behind the scenes, I was unapologetically queer, authentically myself. It paid off. When the show was picked up to series, Marti and the writers rewrote Jay to be a gay man. I had hoped and dreamed of this moment from the time I was a child, and now that dream was my reality.

This role has built the foundation of a platform for me to be used for a purpose greater than myself, and for that I will be forever grateful while carrying on in this mission. The messages I get from LGBTQ-identifying people young and old fill me with tremendous joy! The impactful conversations I’ve had with straight people about the spectrum of sexuality and gender were only possible because they had the opportunity to look someone who is queer in the eyes and see our commonalities. They see our mutual humanity through Jay and each subsequent queer character I’ve had the honor of bringing to life because of Jay’s impact. The lessons I have learned on this incredible journey have been countless, the most important of which being that when I live in celebration of myself and all that makes me unique, the world lives and loves in celebration with me. When I go against myself and what I know to be true for me, I suffer great unease, when we are all meant to live in great ease. And so if I can leave you all with one thing, it’s this: Celebrate yourself, and love each other. I’m JBC, and I love you. 

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman currently stars on UnReal, which premieres its third season on Hulu on July 2. He hosts the podcast Conversations With Others.

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