The Eastsiders creator-writer-star opens up about what the show means to him, why queer stories matter — and his dream to become "the gay male Phoebe Waller-Bridge"

By Jeff Nelson
May 05, 2020 03:20 PM
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Kit Williamson
Kit Williamson
| Credit: JB Lacroix/Getty

Kit Williamson is the future of LGBTQ storytelling.

You might recognize him from his stint on Mad Men, but over the past seven years Williamson has amassed a cult fan base thanks to Eastsiders, the queer dark comedy he created, wrote and starred in.

Williamson created Eastsiders as a bare-bones web series in 2012. At first, his costars were mostly friends — including his now-husband John Halbach and Crazy Rich Asians star Constance Wu — and the production took a look at the queer relationships between characters in Los Angeles' Silver Lake and West Hollywood neighborhoods.

Kit Williamson
Constance Wu & Kit Williamson
| Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Before she went on to star in Fresh Off the Boat and Hustlers, Wu joined the Eastsiders cast to be "able to work with friends," she says. "Kit is a good friend. I made Eastsiders because it began with heart. It taught me that I'm happiest when I choose heartfelt projects over flashy, lucrative, spectacular ones. So I've let my heart guide my career [and] character choices ever since, and that's been key to shaping it."

Over the years, the show's following grew, and Netflix eventually acquired the series, which welcomed everyone from Drag Race alumni Willam and Katya to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Jai Rodriguez. Eastsiders came to an end with season 4 back in December, but its impact on queer representation in the media lives on.

Here, Williamson opens up about Eastsiders, LGBTQ storytelling and what's next.

How did you know it was time for Eastsiders to end after four seasons?

I feel like good stories have endings, and it really felt like the right place to leave the characters. I may not be done with the characters forever, but I'm definitely done with this format in terms of a large ensemble, six half-hours produced independently. It's all-consuming; it takes so much of my time and energy. I'm ready to move on to some other depths.

Eastsiders started as a web series and made its way to Netflix. What were the defining moments along the way?

We didn't have any expectations going into this when we put it on YouTube back in 2012. We launched the first two episodes and they went viral, which is something we just weren't prepared for. We really set out to make something cool and have that be the point, to finish something and make something that we want to watch.

So from really, really humble beginnings, it just kind of kept growing and snowballing and then finally landing on Netflix. And having the languages doubled in our third season to more than 30 languages really unlocked this global fan base that we hadn't experienced before. That first month when season 3 was released, we got messages every five minutes from around the world for over a month.

Kit Williamson
John Halbach & Kit Williamson
| Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty

And on top of that, your own star has risen along the way as well. When did you start to get recognized out in public?

I would definitely say season 3, which is interesting because we definitely had this cult following before that. My husband and I were on our honeymoon in Europe and we were getting stopped on the street all the time in France, in Amsterdam, in Berlin.

How has your life changed since the show began?

It's created a lot of opportunities for me professionally, particularly as a writer, and it's really helped me narrow my focus in on what I really want to do in this industry. I've always kind of done a little bit of everything, and while I would love to continue doing a little bit of everything, the ultimate end goal for me is to be a showrunner.

I'm really inspired by Lena Dunham and Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy — showrunners who have a lot of different stories being told at once and people who combine their skillsets, too. I want to do it all. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is especially inspiring to me; I would love to be the gay male Phoebe Waller-Bridge someday, to have a show that I write and star in — like Fleabag  —going at the same time as the show, like Killing Eve, that she created. That's just such an amazing double-edged sword that she's wielding, that she can do both of those things.

Kit Williamson
Kit Williamson
| Credit: Santiago Felipe/Getty

What shows or books made an impact on you growing up as a gay person?

The theater was always my first love. Tennessee Williams — I just feel such an affinity for and a connection to both of us coming from same beat, and I feel like I've just been chasing his ghost all over this country from Key West, to New Orleans, to Los Angeles, to New York. I'm obsessed with is his story and the stories that he told. There's so much to learn about the queer experience today from his writing. The same is true with Edward Albee, who is a huge inspiration to me. My cat is named after Edward Albee [laughs].

As far as like filmmakers, John Cameron Mitchell. I love how unabashedly queer he is and his work is. Hedwig and the Angry Inch was really formative for me. That was the first time I really saw drag represented in an era before RuPaul's Drag Race. Growing up as a little gay boy and seeing something as radically queer as that was really mind-blowing to me. I couldn't believe what I was watching.

Your show has really become a staple in queer culture, too. Aside from [HBO’s] Looking, there really haven’t been any other big gay shows in maybe the last 10 years or so.

When we started the show in 2012, which was two years before Looking, according to GLAAD's “Where We Are On Television” report, 2.9% of characters in network television were LGBTQ. Now that number is above 10% and the most recent report.

There was very little representation — and the representation that we got was really flimsy; characters weren't really allowed flaws and complexities and an inner life. You usually it didn't go home with them. They sort of disappeared into their perfect lives and never really got to participate fully in the story. They never got to change and grow as characters. By and large, it was very, very rare that an LGBTQ character was a fully fleshed-out human being.

We're seeing that change. We're being invited to the table of mainstream storytelling and that's so exciting. But I still think we need to carve out space to tell our own stories, to tell stories about our community. It's kind of like, what's the queer version of the Bechdel test? It's not just enough to have a woman in an ensemble: To pass the Bechdel test you need to have two female characters with names talking to each other about something other than a man.

That's a gap in our media and our representation that a show like Eastsiders is trying to fill. What's it mean for queer people to be in communication with each other? To not just tell stories about relationships, but stories about friendships and communities. Almost every actor in Eastsiders identifies as LGBTQ, and as the ensemble has grown, we've tried to represent as many different kinds of queer people in relationships as we can. That's something that's been really important to me.

Why is it important to you to represent queer stories?

Growing up in Mississippi, I didn't know any openly gay people. I was, for a time, certain that I was the only person in the world who was like me. And when you feel that way, it's very easy to believe the lie that you will never be happy because that's all you see. That's all you hear about. Growing up in a conservative Christian community, all I heard was propaganda as a kid that the gay lifestyle was a miserable one that ended in loneliness, heartbreak and disease. That was the only option available to me. Gay people were painted as kind of miserable pariahs without a tribe, without the community.

I have found the f—ing opposite to be true. I was deceived as a little kid, and it nearly killed me. And I think that's not an uncommon story. But then seeing queer characters on television opened up my world beyond my small conservative Christian community, and it really saved my life. So if I can give back in any small way, if I can do that for other people, if I can reach people in countries where it's illegal or dangerous the way that the show has been doing, then I'm incredibly grateful for that opportunity. I take it really seriously.