Every now and then, you stumble upon a movie that you just can’t stop thinking about. For the past several months, that movie for me has been Spiral.
I first saw Spiral at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival in 2019, where it made its North American Premiere (read my review here). Directed by Kurtis David Harder, the film follows Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), an aspiring writer with a traumatic past who, along with his partner Aaron (Ari Cohen) and stepdaughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), moves to a seemingly picturesque small town seeking a better quality of life. But all is not as it seems, and Malik soon starts to suspect that their outwardly friendly neighbours harbour sinister plans for him and his family. Unfortunately, no one will believe him—and time may be running out.
While Spiral’s poignant social commentary and mounting sense dread are likely to appeal to horror fans across the board, the film will cut especially deep for members of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalised groups. It’s a challenging but important film, packing a surprisingly emotional punch that will leave you feeling bruised for days to come—due in large part to the phenomenal lead performance from Bowyer-Chapman.
To celebrate Spiral’s release on Shudder, I caught up with Bowyer-Chapman fresh off his stint as a judge on Canada’s Drag Race to discuss the film’s message and themes. This interview contains spoilers, so be sure to check out the film before diving in.
SCREAM: Queer horror is having a moment right now, which is really exciting—and hopefully it’s going to be more than a moment. Do you think that audiences are just more open and receptive to this kind of content now and that’s why we’re seeing more of it?
JEFFREY BOWYER-CHAPMAN: I can’t even say truthfully. To be totally honest, horror is not something that I have spent a lot of time indulging in. I’m so highly sensitive—I was just so traumatised by, in my youth, my older siblings watching A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th and everything from Alfred Hitchcock films to the newer Wes Craven films, the Screams and all of those things—that I just really stayed away from it. I think that being a black, queer person in the world where I grew up, a very small, very white, very racist and homophobic community—my real life was a horror story. I didn’t need to go to sleep and have nightmares about it as well.
I don’t know why people seem to be more open or receptive to it at this point. But I do know that as an actor, having a platform or a place or a genre where I can go, and other people who are like me and like you—queer people, other marginalised individuals—can go and have our stories be the main narrative, where we can be the protagonists, where we can be the heroes, where we can be the ones who are solving the mysteries and saving the day… That’s rare. It’s not something that I, as an actor, have ever really got to experience in other capacities. I’ve been relegated to the gay best friend or the sassy black sidekick or whatever it may be. So to have a place where we can go and tell our stories in a much more authentic, grounded, and humanising way is a gift. And I think that the level of authenticity wrapped up in that is just going to be universally relatable. So maybe that’s why people tend to be drawn to it and attracted to it more so now.
You know, it’s interesting, because I saw this film for the first time at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival last year, and I didn’t know going in that it was a queer horror story. I got so excited two minutes in when I realised.
It’s not that I necessarily hope that the masses aren’t aware that it’s a queer film, but I just think that it’s such a good film that I don’t want the queer aspect of it to stop people from even opening the door or pressing play in the first place. I think it’s so wonderful that we have a film like this that exists, but I hope there are more stories like that where people just stumble upon the film, ready and open and willing to be immersed in this world and have a good time, and then discover that it just so happens to be a queer-centric film.
It’s also a heartbreaking film at times, and your character bears most of the emotional toll. Was it challenging to take on such a heavy role?
Yes, it was. It was very challenging. I had done three quite dark projects back to back; I had just come off of Unreal, then went straight into American Horror Story, then went straight into Spiral. And like I said, I’m such a sensitive person that it really was hard to stay so immersed in those dark narratives for so long and not have it affect me—partially because my character on Unreal was written after me, so I had to bring so much of myself to that part.
And then for Spiral, we just so happened to be filming in a small farm town in Alberta, Canada that was an hour away from where I was raised in a very small, white farm town. I was adopted as a baby. I was raised by an entirely white family; I grew up in white spaces; I was the only identifiably queer person and the only person of colour in my family, in my school, in my town. I experienced an abundance of homophobia, emotional abuse, physical violence, racism. So I left at a really young age—I left when I was like 16 years old and started modelling, and I only did that because I knew that it was going to be an out, an escape from that world for me. Throughout my twenties and my early thirties, I did a lot of therapy, and I got to work through a lot of that stuff.
But going back to the scene of the crime, it brought up so much of it. So many of the traumas and the triggers were just so immediately there. And I couldn’t really compartmentalise. I was there in character all day, every day for 20 of the 21 days that we were filming. As soon as we would leave set, I would be driving through the same country roads where I grew up feeling so small and so oppressed and so hurt all the time.
So it took a lot. It took a big emotional toll on me. And then I came back home to LA after filming and it was still really lingering with me. But because I was so raw after coming back—I was so aware of what could remain in my life and what could no longer remain in my life because anything that was even remotely painful to me prior to going and filming this movie was unbearable when I came back—it was an opportunity for me to kind of revamp my whole life. I ended a long-term, very emotionally abusive relationship that I had allowed myself to stay in. And after having the parallels of experiencing what the character Malik experienced with Aaron, and being gaslit and having his traumas and experiences minimised, and then coming home and being with a white partner who had done the same for years and years… The pain and the weight were too much to bear. So as challenging as it was, it ended up being a personal evolution that was necessary.
That’s good to hear. You touched a little on the intersection of race and sexuality, which is very present in the film. Malik is mistaken for Aaron’s gardener at one point; he’s the only person of colour in the entire town. He’s doubly “Othered,” making his experience so much harder than Aaron’s, which Aaron doesn’t seem conscious of at all. Was that always part of the script, or was that element woven in after you were cast?
John Poliquin and Colin Minihan are the writing and producing duo behind this film, and John—JP, as I call him—has been one of my best friends for over 10 years, and Colin’s been a good friend for the past several years as well. They brought me the script just to read it and give notes, just to hear what I had to say about it. I wasn’t intending to do it; I don’t think they were intending for me to do it. But my one note was that the character of Malec (as he was named at that time) was white. And I said, this character should not be white. It doesn’t matter what colour they are, but just add in those intersections of Otherness. Bringing the element of race into it can really be told from the perspective of any person of colour, but it would just be that much more interesting.
So I gave them those notes, and then a few days later, they called me and asked me if I wanted to do it myself. I was hesitant to do it, because at that point they told me where they were going to be filming it, and a lot of shit came up for me knowing the location. But ultimately, I knew that I trusted these two very much and that they’re extraordinary storytellers and they would be with me every step of the way. So I jumped on board.
All that I was truthfully aware of while filming and while working out who Malik is was his trauma. To me, it was like a family drama. This younger guy moving in with his older partner and teenage stepdaughter, moving to a small town and trying to create a better life for themselves, and all the shit that he was experiencing and keeping to himself because he wanted to create a foundation of safety and a fresh start for his family, and he didn’t want to be the dramatic shit disturber that so many black people are accused of being whenever we bring up our experiences of implicit bias or micro-aggressions or just blatant racism.
So between that perspective of it being a family drama, and then recognising that it was a story of a young black male who had experienced some really violent trauma in his youth, and how the effects of that have carried on into his adult life, and him trying to work through what are triggers from that original experience and what is actually real in front of him today that he’s experiencing, trying to separate the two or make sense of it all—that’s where my mind was focused. It was like a psychological tale of what happens when these horrible things happen to you as a marginalised individual and the people who were meant to love you the most—whether your family or your partner—minimise your experience and don’t believe you when you try to bring those experiences and those traumas and that pain forth. That’s something that black people experience all the time—having our experiences minimised—and something that I could just relate to inherently.
That’s the perspective that I was coming from while filming this. I didn’t even really pay attention, truthfully, to the horror aspects or the social commentary; that wasn’t my job—that was Kurt [David Harder] as a director to handle the visuals, and John and Colin to handle the storytelling. And John and Colin were there every step of the way with each of the actors. I can attribute the phenomenal performances across the board to the involvement of John and Colin: they were there holding the hands of each and every actor through each and every scene and really explaining the nuances and the intention behind each scene. They both know how to speak to actors in a way that is just so easy for us to be able to digest and then translate and manifest into something interesting on film.
The relationship between Malik and Aaron is especially interesting because it feels very real. They have those little moments, just a glance, or that kiss in the kitchen which is beautifully handled. How did you work with your co-star and with the writers and director to bring that nuance and that sense of backstory to the characters?
I don’t even know honestly! That scene in the kitchen where Mailk and Aaron kiss—Ari Cohen, who plays Aaron, he and I met like two hours before. I had spent the first week of filming entirely by myself; I filmed all of Malik’s solo scenes that week, so I basically had no dialogue the entire first week of creating this character. And then that scene with Aaron and Malik in the kitchen was the first time that I had spoken as Malik.
Ari is a really accomplished theatre actor, so he pays such incredible attention to detail. And I’m not an actor who’s trained, so just watching him and seeing how he worked and just trying to go with the flow of what he was doing was something that I had to be mindful of. But I think that their age difference and our age difference was something that added to the dynamic that comes across on screen—just the difference in generational perspective I think was something that we held onto naturally and brought into our characters.
The dynamic between Malik and Kayla, played by Jennifer Laporte, was something that just seems so natural and organic. I really fell in love with Jenn from day one. I mean, she’s a 25-year-old woman playing a child, a 16-year-old, so we could have very detailed, in-depth conversations about who she was to me, and who was a reflection of her in my own life. And that to me was my niece Winter, who was 16 years old at the time as well. Looking at Jenn, I just saw Winter, and then Jenn did the same thing, attaching someone in her real life to the character of Malik.
I don’t know how it happened. None of us did any chemistry readings together; none of us had spent any time behind the scenes together or off-camera, because I was there filming all day, every day. I didn’t get to spend any time with everybody else when they were going to drag shows and dance classes and yoga and stuff together—I was just on set. So I don’t know how it happened. Sheer luck. But once again, it just comes down to the extraordinary ability that John Poliquin and Colin Minahan have to have created this world and then be able to translate their inner vision to the actors in a way that we just got it. Those two are just such brilliant powerhouses in that way.
You really captured lightning in a bottle. And you mentioned Malik’s relationship with Kayla—I loved that touching scene where he tells her that one of the bravest things you can do is to live your life out and proud. And then when he later takes it back, when he tells her you have to hide who you are to stay safe… That’s possibly the most heartbreaking moment in the whole film. What was it like delivering that line, especially being back in the place that had made you feel that way?
I think you just laid it out right there. It was because I was back in the place where I once had to hide that I recognised the truth in what Malik was saying. It absolutely depends on where you are in the world and who your community is and what you’re surrounded by that lends to your relative level of safety. You know, being a queer person living in New York City is completely different than being a queer person in Alabama. I’m in LA, and being a queer person and a black person in Orange County is a completely different thing. You have to navigate your way.
It’s code-switching. It was Malik essentially laying out code-switching in a very blunt and direct and brutal way. It was coming from a place of survival; it was coming from a place of desperation and really just such love and care for this young girl. He knew his Otherness was something that put him in constant danger, and his love for this person made him feel so tremendously guilty that because of who he is and the way that he is viewed in the world that would put her in danger.
So yeah, it was really heartbreaking. The movie was set in 1995, but today in 2020, it’s still just as relevant and applicable. Even today—even as an openly queer public figure—wherever I go as Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, I have to be aware of my surroundings, and I have to engage in an unfortunate amount of code-switching.
This film has been called the Get Out of queer horror, which is obviously a big compliment. The one area that I think they differ most is in the way they end—Spiral’s ending is such a gut punch. What was your reaction when you first read the ending, and was there ever a moment when you almost wished Malik and Aaron might run away together or something instead?
No. I don’t even remember if that was the original ending of the script, post Malik being in jail where it jumps forward 10 years and it’s a Muslim family coming in. But I think it was true to the era. It was true to the theme of the film as well—that nothing in this life is linear, that it’s all cyclical, that history is doomed to repeat itself. I mean, the entire basis of Malik’s understanding of what was actually going on was based on the fact that it had happened to a lesbian couple 10 years before him. And then 10 years after him, it was going to be another group of marginalised individuals who were easy to fear and therefore easily vilified. There’s such truth in that. So I think that finding a happy ending wouldn’t have served the film necessarily. The gut punch is the part that makes it, for me, so impactful.
I think that Malik going with Aaron, if he had gotten out of jail at the end of the day and all that begging had worked and somehow changed Aaron’s mind—it would have been far too reminiscent of the Jeffrey that, for three and a half years prior to shooting the film, was in an emotionally abusive relationship with a white man who manipulated me and gaslit me and would push me away and pull me in and made me emotionally dependent on him and took away all of my power. It would have been too reminiscent of that horrible abusive cycle. So if the story had continued on with that and shown how awful Malik’s life continued to be with Aaron with that dynamic between them—that would have been something.
At the end of the day, Malik being left where he was… I can relate to that. I can relate to both things—I can relate to him desperately wanting his greatest love which is also his greatest oppressor to save him in that moment, even though him being where he was in prison had so much to do with the choices of his greatest love and greatest oppressor. I can relate to wanting to cling to that for the sense of safety and comfort and familiarity. But truth be told, feeling gut punched and left completely alone and abandoned is something that I could relate to on an equal level, as a queer person and a person of colour.
Absolutely. But wow… It’s a difficult watch. I cried even on the rewatch.
It was so hard watching it with my mom! She was crying so hard. She’s like, I just want them to rewrite it! I want them to reshoot it so Malik is saved at the end.
At least it’s almost a happy ending. He leaves clues for the next family, so there’s hope.
Precisely. And hopefully to empower a young woman of colour to then take it on and be the protagonist and be the hero and solve this mystery. Once again, that’s giving the lead narrative to a marginalised individual in this genre world to help tell this story and shine a light on the insanity and insidious nature of white supremacy and all that goes with it. So I would love it if they would do a sequel to Spiral starring that girl, or starring whoever comes after her if she didn’t figure it out.
I would watch the hell out of that film.
So what’s next for you?
Well, I have my podcast, JBC Presents: Conversations with Others. I love, love, love doing it. That came from me doing RuPaul’s podcast What’s the Tee? and then that producing team offered me this platform for me to do my own show. It’s a show that I’m so, so proud of. This past week’s guest was Jameela Jamil, but I’ve had just such extraordinary individuals on the show that I’ve had such a blessing and pleasure of chatting with—everyone from Laverne Cox and Karamo Brown to Susan Sarandon and Aubrey Plaza and Michelle Visage and Julio Torres and Tatiana Maslany and Brooke Lynn Hytes. Just amazing, amazing people, some of whom are in my life and are friends, some of whom I’ve just admired from afar for quite some time. But essentially, each episode serves as an audible memoir of each week’s guest showing who they are, the journey they took to becoming the person they are today, and the wisdom they learned along the way. And each guest embodies some element of Otherness, whether that’s queerness or being a person of colour, or even just being a female—that in itself is a marginalised individual.
So my podcast is something that I love so much and I’m still working on. I’m also in the midst of producing a new film; I don’t even know when we’ll go into production because of COVID, but hopefully sometime in the spring. It’s a queer vampire love story, so that will be interesting. To stay in this genre world—it’s a great opportunity for me and people like me to be able to tell stories that have never been told before from our perspective. And hopefully Canada’s Drag Race comes back for a second season. So anything’s possible, but those three things are what I have coming up next.
That’s awesome. It’s been such a delight speaking to you—thank you for taking the time to chat with us.
My pleasure, thank you for all of the support!
Spiral is now streaming on Shudder in the UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)