Cheryl Guerriero (‘Palmer’) and Jonathan Tolins ('Queer as Folk’) On Inclusive Storytelling in Hollywood
Pride isn’t just about flying the rainbow flag and celebrating only during Pride month. It’s about taking action. -Cheryl Guerriero.
In commemoration of Pride Month, we recently sat down for interviews with Cheryl Guerriero, writer of the successful drama 'Palmer' (Apple TV), and Jonathan Tolins, writer/producer of 'The Good Fight' and 'Queer as Folk', who shared their experiences of working in Hollywood as members of both the LGBTQ+ and entertainment communities, and voiced how we can continue to challenge the industry to create more inclusion in front of and behind the camera, through a more honest approach to storytelling that captures core values of the human condition that we all can connect on.
Why representation matters
When asked how better representation of LGBTQ+ characters and stories in film and television can positively impact society, Jonathan shares this: “When people know gay people they have much more positive attitudes toward gay people. And for people who don't know, or don't think they know gay people in their life, seeing gay characters represented lets them feel like they know them, just like any other human being. In a movie or TV show, what makes it good, is that it feels like real life to the person watching it, and so it automatically brings about empathy and creates allies. And so the more that we are able to tell all different kinds of stories that reflect our lives, the better the world will be for us and for the world in general.”
And Cheryl agrees. “I think a lot of reasons people responded to the film [PALMER] is because it was about humanity" she says. "Nothing was being force fed, or about trying to make the audience love a queer or gay kid. It was about a lot of things that people could relate to.”
She further adds, “when I meet people, maybe you know I’m gay, or maybe you don’t. In the same way, a character isn’t just defined by their sexuality. The stereotypes are of a gay man who tends to be overly feminine or a gay woman being overly masculine, but we identify on a spectrum. And what I write are just characters -- I could write a gay, trans, or lesbian, but they could be a thief or a pastor, but whatever it is -- it’s not just about their sexuality."
Cheryl Guerriero, Fisher Stevens, Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen. Courtesy of Cheryl Guerriero.
Developing stories and characters
Guerriero approaches her stories with the character in mind first and says, “I write not only what I know, but what I get excited about.” She goes on to explain her writing process when developing characters:
“I did a rewrite on a job where a guy was at the bottom of the ocean trapped in a tugboat. He was Nigerian. I’ve never been in a tugboat before, I’m clearly not Nigerian, but as a writer, I just dive into the story. I research, I talk to people, I pick brains, I read every article or as much as I can about how a character thought and felt, and then there are certain things I connect with. This person in particular, was a character who believed in God. That’s something I believe in too. I believe in God. So I find something that I connect with and that helps me.”
Tolins, who found his break as the playwright of 'Buyer & Cellar', which eventually led him to working in film and television, said this of his experience:
“When I started out, almost all gay stories were either about “coming out” or AIDS. Those were the two big issues at the time, and gradually, things started to open up to be about all different kinds of gay experiences and stories. Part of the reasoning being, a burgeoning gay film movement… there was a business that made it possible for us to see more stories and then TV shows started to happen, like a 'Will and Grace' and 'Queer as Folk'. A whole new world began to open up with stories and opportunities for [LGBTQ+] actors and writers.”
Yet, with the growth of LGBTQ+ stories and talent in front and behind the camera, there are caveats.
“We don't want to get in a situation where gay writers and directors are not allowed to do anything that involves straight characters, so I think that we want to open things up and try the best we can, to let work that really feels truthful and speaks to people rise to the top" Tolins says. "The more we open up the conversations and the doors and give people a shot, who have actually had those experiences, the better. I will say though, I'm someone who does not believe that we should be completely strict about these things, because one of the greatest works of art about being gay that I love is the play, 'The Invention of Love' by Tom Stoppard, and he's not gay. Tennessee Williams was not a woman, but I think Blanche Dubois is a great character… there is a danger if we make the rules too strict and we say that nobody can write or act or produce anything that isn't exactly their experience, because we are creative beings, and what the work is to imagine what it's like to be another person.”
Cheryl agrees that talent is key in the business of entertainment and wants to be known for her work and not her gender, “I don’t want you to hire me because I’m gay or a woman. I want you to hire me because you read what I wrote and you responded to it so strongly, and thought, 'this is the person for the job'.”
What comes next?
In the wake of successful LGBTQ+ projects, such as the films 'Moonlight' or 'Carol', there is more that can be done to tell better and more inclusive stories. How is it going to happen? Guerriero offers this advice: “There are people in the elite positions in Hollywood with the money and clout to green light those films that are a bit out of the box, and that don’t have a book or superhero attached to it. Give those stories a chance.”
Despite the challenges, many like Jonathan Tolins share a hopefulness about expanding on more inclusive storytelling. “Hollywood can do better,” he says, “but things have opened up a great deal, partly because of technology and probably because there is so much content now because of streaming. We always have to keep pushing to get the powers that be, and the people who decide what gets produced, to open up their minds to things that are not like something they've already seen. Because when that happens that's when we open another door.”
While there is much to celebrate of how far we’ve come as an industry in providing a platform for LGBTQ+ stories to get made and shine, let’s continue to open those doors for more inclusion in front and behind the camera. Walking forward beyond Pride month, Cheryl reminds us of the story we can write together as an industry -- one that captures her own writing style, “The stories that inspire me are about adversity and the people who faced it and just kept going.”