Arts·Queeries

Queer as Folk, rebooted by Canada's Stephen Dunn, has arrived right when LGBTQ folks need it most

In the face of rising homophobia and transphobia, Dunn hopes his version helps LGBTQ people see themselves represented authentically and unapologetically.

Dunn hopes his version helps LGBTQ people see themselves represented authentically and unapologetically

Pictured: (L-R) Fin Argus as Mingus, Devin Way as Brodie in Queer as Folk. (Alyssa Moran/Peacock)

😝😊😍 Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. 

😝😊😍 When Stephen Dunn was a teenager living in St. John's, Newfoundland, he used to watch Queer as Folk in his basement with the volume on mute.

😝😊😍 "I was terrified someone might walk in and see me — my mom being one of those people," Dunn says. "It was a show that I had to watch in secret."

😝😊😍 Well, last week Dunn and his mother finally got to watch Queer as Folk together. Except this time there was nothing secretive about it: it was at the L.A. premiere of the reimagining of the show, which Dunn himself developed, wrote and directed. It was a wonderfully surreal moment for Dunn — and one that's been a long time coming.

😝😊😍 Five years ago, Dunn first started floating around the idea of making a new Queer as Folk after he found out that the rights to the show had lapsed from Showtime, who had produced the American version that ran from 2000 to 2005, back to Russell T. Davies, who created the original British version airing from 1999 to 2000. 

Stephen Dunn. (Matthias Clamer/Peacock)

😝😊😍 "I was in London at the time, so I was like, 'Oh shit, I'm just going to take a train to Manchester' [where Davies lives]," Dunn says. "I had my reps set up a call with him, and we met the next day. I pitched the tape that I was developing, which was about a community rebuilding. I guess I just came in with a lot of anger and frustration, but also a lot of hope. And that is what he latched onto. So he gave me the rights."

😝😊😍 After coming up against multiple obstacles that nearly killed the project entirely (two big ones being COVID shutting things down and the rights almost expiring), Dunn finally got the call that it had been greenlit by American streamer Peacock in a most ceremonious fashion.

😝😊😍 "It was a little over a year ago and I was high on very strong edibles watching the finale of WandaVision with my Mom while we were trapped in St. John's in her condo because of COVID," he recalls with a laugh. "I had no idea what my reps were talking about because they had skipped the part of the call where they told me that the show was greenlit and just went straight to telling me how I had to reschedule my year. I had to hang up on them and be like, 'I'm sorry, the edibles just kicked in, call me tomorrow,' because I had no idea what they were telling me."

😝😊😍 Once he realized, though, he hit the ground running.

😝😊😍 "It was such a marathon," he says. "I had to start the writers' room virtually from Newfoundland because there was a visa issue that had me stuck in Canada. And so I was doing everything from the cabin in the woods, really. That's when we found the writing team. We had submissions from all over. It was amazing being able to read so much queer talent. And the same can be said for the audition experience. I mean, there's just an amazing pool of queer talent in the writing side and on the acting side."

😝😊😍 A dream team of folks like Roxane Gay, Ryan O'Connell, Punkie Johnson, Jaclyn Moore and Brontez Purnell made up the eventual writer's room, which was entirely queer — with one exception. 

😝😊😍 "Our writers' assistant, Alyssa, who I worked with before on another project, actually had to come out as straight," Dunn says. "It was such a charming moment."

😝😊😍 "But really, the impact of that really hit afterwards because it made us all realize that I was in the first work environment I've ever been in that was almost entirely queer. And the power that that has, and the safety that that has, allows you to be so much more brave and bold with your choices and the stories that you're telling because you're making it with the community that it's about. And I think that's just so important in terms of maintaining authenticity and an unapologetic attitude."

Pictured: CG as Shar in Queer as Folk. (Peacock)

😝😊😍 The show's main ensemble cast was also largely queer-identifying, including O'Connell (Special), Johnny Sibilly (Hacks), Jesse James Keitel (Big Sky) and relative newcomers Devin Way, CG and Fin Argus

😝😊😍 "I didn't set out with this undying mission to cast queer people in queer roles," Dunn says. "But that's where I wanted to start, because as we know, Hollywood is a complex place to be out as an actor. And some people still aren't out. But with this cast, I just started with looking for people who were out and found that there's just so many incredible queer actors that just blew our minds and I wanted to work with all of them. I was really encouraged to see how how easy it was to find great queer talent."

😝😊😍 Dunn also landed two additional cast members who just so happen to be straight: Kim Cattrall and Juliette Lewis.

😝😊😍 "I only dreamed of being able to cast them in the show," he says. "They were the goals, really."

😝😊😍 Dunn met Cattrall at the London premiere of his 2015 film Closet Monster and had been determined to work with her ever since. 

Pictured: (L-R) Fin Argus as Mingus, Juliette Lewis as Judy in Queer as Folk. (Peacock)

😝😊😍 "I was nervous," he admits of when Cattrall first came on set. "I admire her so much. And she was so gracious and kind and just excited to be there creating this new role. And I just was so blown away working with her as she continued, because she's such a character actress and such a comedic genius and an improviser."

😝😊😍 "Her character has a very exciting arc and really like, evolves over the course of the season and just gets so messy, and Kim just dove into that water so deep. She sort of catapults herself into this queer community, whether they have invited her or not. She understood the problematic nature of that character, and she was also able to improvise some of my favourite lines."

😝😊😍 (One of those lines comes in the seventh episode of the season, when Cattrall asks: "Can I say 'bottoms'?" — "as though it's like a bad word," Dunn says. "And that was just her!")

😝😊😍 As for Lewis, Dunn calls her "a mad genius" who "comes into every scene with these impeccable instincts." 

😝😊😍 "She's such a kind and empathetic, loving person," he says. "She knew that her role was loosely based on my relationship with my mother, which is very rooted in unconditional love. And she really wanted to honour that. And I was so grateful for that because she even talked to my mom to try and understand what that relationship was like."

Pictured: (L-R) Johnny Sibilly as Noah, Chris Renfro as Daddius in Queer as Folk. (Peacock)

😝😊😍 Though five years have passed since Dunn first conceived of his take on the show, its themes and subject matter (the season revolves around the aftermath of a shooting at a queer nightclub) remain tragically as relevant as ever. 

😝😊😍 "I absolutely hate that the show is as relevant right now as it is," he says. "[Gun violence] is just constantly happening, and these stories in the media make the headlines for a couple days, and then they go away. And then there's another one that follows immediately after. And it's just this repetition without anything really being done. And unfortunately for the people who experience these events, you don't just move on to the next one — it leaves a permanent impact on your life."

😝😊😍 "I think that's the unfortunate relevance of this story. It might be even more important now than ever for a show like this to come out, because our show is really about sitting with that impact and showing how something like this can affect someone's life, which is the story that you don't often really get to see."

😝😊😍 The show is also coming out at a time where homophobic and transphobic laws are being passed in horrifying succession, particularly in the American South. Whereas previous iterations of Queer as Folk were set in Manchester, U.K. and Pittsburgh, PA (though the latter was entirely shot in Toronto), Dunn's version is set in New Orleans. 

😝😊😍 "New Orleans is a liberal oasis in the south, but it is still where a lot of that prejudice exists, even within the city and certainly within the state," he says. "Our queer rights are under fire in America in a way that is reminiscent of like, 30, 40 years ago. There's so much about this show that has an urgency behind it like that. I'm so grateful that [these stories] are coming out now because there's just been such an influx of negative stories in the media around the queer community. And this show is, I really hope, a source of empowerment." 

Pictured: Kim Cattrall as Brenda in Queer as Folk. (Peacock)

😝😊😍 Back home, Dunn is hoping to bring some of that empowerment with him. 

😝😊😍 "There's an organization called Quadrangle in Newfoundland that's trying to build the first queer community centre," he says. "Newfoundland [and Labrador] is one of the provinces that just doesn't have a queer hub and has limited support for queer people."

😝😊😍 Quadrangle will host the Canadian premiere of the first two episodes of Queer as Folk as a fundraiser in St. John's, with Dunn doing a Q&A with beloved NL actress Mary Walsh after the show. 

😝😊😍 "Our show is so much about the importance of queer spaces and what it is like to have those taken away from you, and how queer people need to rebuild or build those spaces together in order to support one another. And that is what Quadrangle is trying to do. So I wanted to throw the weight of the show behind the importance of having those spaces — you know, to make it a little easier for queer people in St. John's to find each other."

Queer as Folk will have its Canadian premiere at the Scotiabank Cineplex in St. John's on Thursday, June 23rd. It will air on Showcase and stream on StackTV starting on June 26th. In the United States, it is now available on Peacock

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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