Meet the breakout American actor bringing authentic bisexuality conversations to the screen.
If there’s one program you watch in 2021, make it Generation. The brilliant new HBO show, under executive producer Lena Dunham, charts the lives of a group of queer friends battling the expectations of themselves and others in the hope of finding love and happiness. Think of it as a scrapbook entry from the youth so many of us wished we had back when going to school meant dodging boys and bullies.
This fresh look at sexual and gender identity might seem told, but cancel any idea of what Generation is like thanks to 19-year-old creator and genius Zelda Barnz, who pens out flawed, unsure, and deeply likable faces battling the odds in a world that previously would have seemed outside of touching distance.
Led by actor Justice Smith, this group of teenage classmates and their support circle enter into battle with disapproving religious parents, unexpected pregnancies, and that little ol’ thing of simply growing up to form a first-half series of eight episodes – each around the 30-minute mark. And enjoyably, very little tragedy occurs. Yes, this is a queer story with joy centered at its heart – a first for mainstream depictions of our lives – as actor Uly Schlesinger who plays Nathan reveals to us from his home.
“It was the first time I’d really seen these bisexual characters not used as tropes, they were people. Real people with problems that weren’t so directly related to their sexuality. They’ve problems like anyone else has in their lives,” he tells.
“I got a message from a kid saying they’re a queer bisexual boy growing up in India and the show is like therapy to them. It was really, really beautiful and kind of why I do this whole acting thing. It’s amazing that these stories can touch so many different people across the entire world.”
Having just wrapped filming for the second release of episodes that follow this initial eight, the pivotal level of visibility cast out from this show isn’t lost on Uly and his proudly openly bisexual character, adding: “Almost all of the characters here are queer. This is that amazing thing that you really don’t see on TV with that being at the forefront of them all.”
We speak to Uly Schlesinger about bringing bisexual stories into the mainstream on Generation without crippling tragedy, finding his chosen family on set, and why there isn’t one way to be bisexual… so stop writing characters that are just one thing, damn it.
Congratulations on the authenticity of Generation. In your own words, why is 2021 the right time for a show like this? Gosh, I think it’s a little overdue. We’ve needed to have this level of representation for queer stories for a minute now. Something I’ve found so amazing about playing Nathan is that I’ve never seen such good bisexual male representation on TV, period. Granted, I don’t watch that much on telly, but it’s been necessary for a long time. Zelda Barnz, the creator of the show, is 19 and of the generation that stepped up to the plate and knew this needed to be told now.
It being generational is a key acknowledgment here as this one of the first times we’ve seen queerness through the lens of Gen Z.
Yeah, and it’s really incredible because of the weird disconnect for me like I’m in this middle ground being 24. I grew up always hanging out with older people so this space between Gen Z and Millennial. What’s so inspiring about Gen Z is their ability to talk about themselves authentically, which is personally impressive.
Speaking to the usuality of queerness in a way that doesn’t ‘other’ it.
And it is nice to see kids living their lives. Yes, the stories do involve queer romance but I loved that Nathan had the family dynamic there. It was fun to explore far outside of my realm of understanding. There’s so much complexity there when you’re a child who has a family that doesn’t accept them and puts all these pressures on them.
What was your reaction to the unapologetic nature of this material? It had people to represent and points to make, and it made them.
I don’t think I was surprised as I knew the gist of the show as it was to have open conversations about sexuality and gender, but I will say that I was always impressed every time I’d get a new script. The specificity of the raw truth of it all was there.
And the word bisexual is used throughout unapologetically, something that’s rare if not totally unseen on screen.
It is and it was the first time I’d really seen these bisexual characters not used as tropes, they were people. Real people with problems that weren’t so directly related to their sexuality. They’ve problems like anyone else has in their lives. Their thing was they just happened to be queer characters. Almost all of the characters here are queer. This is that amazing thing that you really don’t see on TV with that being at the forefront of them all.
Walking around specifics to avoid spoilers but episode seven is worth mentioning as it gives an honest explanation about direct allyship. That felt like an almost unseen storyline.
Ah, yes. It was amazing and it’s a really, really sweet scene. The way the actor plays it is beautiful and I love him to death!
And they’re also all flawed characters with people who don’t love them back. They’re both succeeding and failing in the real world.
Speaking from personal experience, Nathan has so much going on and all of these different dynamics. He’s been an absolute joy to play and find that vulnerability. And there’s that thing of being a teenager where everything is always so intense all the time. It’s dramatic and so episodes seven and eight were turbulent ups and downs to play. He has so many relationships with different people and that’s a joy to play.
What were attitudes like towards queer people when you were at school?
I went to this small arts school in Rhode Island and almost everyone was gay and open about it. It was accepted and talked about, certainly never an issue. But it can be a real fucking problem for people in high school where they can’t have those open dialogues – I’m hopeful this show helps with moving things forward.
What’s the reaction been like from your character’s relationship with his religious mother? He tries to understand while not conforming to what she wants.
To be quite honest, I haven’t spoken to too many people about the reception of the show as I’ve hidden in a hole since it came out. (Laughs) It helps that we’re working on the next eight episodes now but I do look at my Instagram DM’s and it’s the sweetest and most heartwarming thing when you get a message explaining this storyline helped somebody. I got a message from a kid saying they’re a queer bisexual boy growing up in India and the show is like therapy to them. It was really, really beautiful and kind of why I do this whole acting thing. It’s amazing that these stories can touch so many different people across the entire world.
Let’s talk about Nathan as a person. He’s very likable. Messy, but likable.
I’m glad he’s likable. What I thought was so amazing about Nathan is he is questioning and discovering himself, but he isn’t questioning his sexuality. He is so sure of his bisexuality and his problems come from other people not being able to accept that. It was amazing to see a kid, only 16, so sure of himself in that way and struggling against other people not being able to accept that part of him.
It’s almost like his sister has more of an issue with it than he does.
Yes, the whole family is not great about it, to say the least! (Laughs)
I was worried he’d fall into the awful trope of straight to bi to gay, which ruins bisexual stories.
I don’t know… I am worried about spoilers but no, he is very sure of himself and that was always something that was important to the creators is to have these actual present bisexual characters or trope-y stories of testing the waters. He and others are so bi and authentically bi.
Have you watched the whole of the first episodes back?
I have watched it all back now… twice.
How was it watching back that kiss?
(Laughs hysterically) Honestly, it was such a funny scene to film because everyone has a great relationship with each other so we’d die every time they’d call cut. Again, without giving anything away, there’s a lot of scenes that are interesting to watch back. (Pause) I’m just going to spoil… my very first scene was me jerking off in the bedroom. My very first scene in the pilot. I remember telling my family that they really might not like it so probably skip ahead in that episode…
How are you watching yourself back?
Being on TV is a strange thing so when you see yourself doing these explicit things, it’s funny. It’s fine, but it’s funny.
How was it getting to do the scene in the shower where she walks in?
It was really fun to do but… oh, the first take. I had the shower on and the door closed so couldn’t hear anything. I was going to hop in the shower so I was getting undressed, I didn’t hear them call action, the door springs open and the cameraman is just standing there. We had to reset! (Laughs)
Many of the scenes are seen from a different character perspective. How would you explain how this plays out?
It’s an interesting thing as I remember shooting the pilot and didn’t know how it was going to look. We shot the same bit over and over again with some slight variations. It highlights that you never quite know what somebody else will take something from a situation and everyone has their own little perspective. It’s a beautiful look into how each character views the world and the people around them. You get in their head and there are such beautiful moments where they’re looking at another person with closeups of lips and hands and stomach. You get the yearning and where their mind is at.
Have you thought about the audience reaction once the show goes to an international audience?
It’s been a balancing act for me so far. I’m not somebody who enjoys the spotlight or attention all that much, but what makes it worth it is those conversations and messages. Having people see it and it means something to them is always a gift. That’s the thing about doing television and film is that it just exists in the world forever. Somebody can watch it in 50 years and find me somehow and tell me it meant something to them. That’s a really beautiful thing.
Did filming Generation teach you anything new about yourself?
I learned a lot as an actor and artist. As a person, it was real empathy and caring about other people. The kids all care so much and are so okay with being vulnerable and it becomes this chosen family. As an actor, this is the most time I’ve spent with a character and learned stuff on set every day. It was fun to watch and work with them. It was an amazing experience.
And finally, does seeing the Gen Z generation being authentic make you hopeful for the future ahead for LGBTQ people.
Yes, absolutely! Gen Z is so headstrong and sure in their beliefs to make these sacrifices. To protest, make noise, and be loud and I think that is exactly what we need. What we need is that at the forefront of the movement. They are part of every movement and I think it’s incredibly hopeful. I think the show expresses that hope in a lot of ways. Yes, absolutely hopeful for the future!