Speaking about both the top-rated television series and the hugely successful full-length feature film it became, Darryl Stephens, who plays the title role on LOGO Channel’s Noah’s Arc, dishes in pairs. Stephens talks with Gay Life about both the social responsibility and the financial reality of being an actor, the triumphs and the challenges of representations in the media, and the intersections of black culture and the gay community.

Noahs Arc (Left to right) Chance (Douglas Spearman), Eddie (Jonathan Julian), Noah (Darryl Stephens), Wade (Jensen Atwood), Brandon (Gary LeRoi Gray) and Ricky (Christian Vincent) pose for a picture. (Photo: Michael Tompkins, ©2008 Copyright Logo Features)

Speaking about both the top-rated television series and the hugely successful full-length feature film it became, Darryl Stephens, who plays the title role on LOGO Channel’s Noah’s Arc, dishes in pairs. Stephens talks with Gay Life about both the social responsibility and the financial reality of being an actor, the triumphs and the challenges of representations in the media, and the intersections of black culture and the gay community.

What was it like working on the show?

It was different every time. It was scary and exciting for the first season. Then we had a lot of ideas about what did work and what didn’t work after we saw the first season. The second season was an opportunity to get things right. By the time we got to the movie, because it was ostensibly the last time we would see those characters, it was kind of like do or die, throw it all into it and just go.

If you could change anything about Noah, what would it be?

Noahs Arc DVD Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom

Noah was very specifically Patrik’s (Patrik-Ian Polk, writer/producer/director of Noah’s Arc) vision and he had a really specific intention with creating that character. From my perspective, gay characters in a lot of films and television shows have become these sort of replications of straight men. The means of integrating gay characters on television was to make them basically indistinguishable from straight characters. I think that he was very deliberate in making Noah a specifically gay character with a very real sensitivity and a very real comfort with his own masculine anthem inside. His sense of fashion was undeniably his own. I think Patrik wanted to stop making these so-called “sissies” of our culture the dirty secret and allow them to also be the hero and the love interest.

Personally, I felt like Noah, at points, was a little reactionary because the character didn’t really take a lot of control over his own life. I think a lot of things that happened to him were sort of thrust upon him and he accepted them and learned to deal with them rather than him taking initiative himself or taking responsibility for his own actions. But, by the time we get to the movie, he has come into his own in that regard and he’s actually taking control and making decisions for himself. Noah’s arc—his character arc—is actually played out kind of nicely from the first season to the film.

I want to go back to what you said about Patrik’s struggle or attempt to bring these images into mainstream media. How do you judge that attempt and do you think it’s been successful?

For example, Six Feet Under had characters who were very specifically and very believable gay characters, but they didn’t really challenge the audience in ways beyond accepting, “Okay, these two characters are gay.” There’s never a point when you’d look at David and his lover and think, “Okay, if they’re walking toward me on the street, I would do a double take and go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that guy wore that on the street.’” But, if you see Noah walking down the street in his thigh-high boots and his half-top, that’s sort of a moment when you’re challenging the audience to make sense of what they’re seeing, but also challenging them to accept this character as human…accept him the same way they would accept Will on Will and Grace, who is essentially a nice straight guy who happens to sleep with men.

Particularly since the show was about black men, it was challenging [to mainstream representations] on a lot of levels. What was interesting about the show and the audience as it developed is that a lot of straight black women followed the show. I feel like it was the first time a lot of straight black women were introduced to men who were living this shamelessly and openly and fearlessly, because there’s been a lot of press about this whole DL phenomenon, in the black community in particular. I think that that was something else Patrik was responding to. Not all black men who sleep with men are living in shame or in the closet. Some are living fearlessly and let’s get to know them as well. I would guess that that’s why a lot of black women responded to the show so enthusiastically because they wanted to relate to these men and they got to see these men.

I did watch the movie and I was completely transfixed by the images, the visual aesthetic. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that’s had black men visually represented in that way. It was really exciting to see that.

I think that was what was interesting about the show as well. The show at times and even the film had campy elements and some of it was a little soap operatic and over the top with the comedy or the melodrama. But, at the heart of it, it was really sort of an attempt at a depiction of these people we’ve never seen on film before. I thought Patrik got a lot of it right. Not everyone loved all of the story lines or all of the characters or the acting, but just seeing all of these men interacting, loving, supporting themselves in these ways was revolutionary.

Was there a difference in making the film as opposed to making the show?

Yeah. With the show, there’s definitely a different pace. Every episode took a week or five or six days to shoot, whereas we had 15 days to shoot the entire film. Had we not worked together for four years at that point, it would have been a much more challenging feat to pull off. We were really lucky. We were such a well-oiled machine by then. We shot in Nova Scotia so it was freezing; it was very low-budget, so there were not a lot of amenities. We were literally shivering outside while we were shooting. But, if we weren’t so comfortable with each other and didn’t know how to interact with each other in a comfortable way, it would have been a more difficult shoot. I’m pretty proud of the movie and I think a lot of it has to do with the love that the actors have for each other and the love we were able to put into those characters.

To move away from the show and the film, obviously you indentify as a black actor. Do you feel a particular responsibility to the black community that informs your work and the roles that you’ll play?

I feel a personal responsibility to the black community and I’d say that’s something I’ve learned to take on. When I first got into acting, I definitely didn’t feel a responsibility beyond myself. It was really about a paycheck. Can I feed myself this week? Will my car start if I have an audition? As I’ve gotten to interact with more people with response to the characters I play, I do feel more of a responsibility to the black community and the gay community as well, not that they’re not mutually exclusive, but those populations as they intersect…or as they don’t. While I do feel a responsibility to those two communities, I also want to keep challenging myself as an actor to take on roles that are not necessarily all savory and not necessarily as positive and uplifting as Noah happens to be. I don’t mind getting into darker characters and playing men who are not as self-realized as Noah ended up being. I think that one of the beautiful things about being an actor is that you get to explore all of those dangerous and unsavory aspects of yourself and other people.

With all this Prop 8 stuff in California, there’s been a lot of backlash. What’s your perspective on that and particularly this “Gay is the New Black” campaign?

You know what’s interesting about that—the “new black” has always been in reference to fashion. Let’s, first of all, put that into perspective. We’re talking about “Navy blue is the new black this season.” To say that something is the “new black” is a reference to “black culture.” Black is still black culture. All of the struggles that black people are going through, they’re still going through. We have a black president and we’ve made strides in that regard, but I was just at the MLK parade this January in LA and it was striking to me how the black community in LA is still struggling with a lot of the same stuff…many of us are still living in poverty, we are dealing with drugs, we have sons and fathers that are incarcerated…all of these issues are still present. To say that something is the “new black” is ridiculous.

With regard to gay folks now having this very clear notion that the rest of the country is not necessarily in support of their lifestyle, I think for a lot of young gay folks who have not lived through the Jim Crow era or have not even been exposed to racism or discrimination first-hand, the only thing that they can associate with this new reality, or this reality-check, for them, is the Civil Rights Movement. I would say that gay marriage is a civil rights issue, but it’s not the same as a civil rights issue of the 1960s that had to do with African-Americans. I think that there are many civil rights issues and each one should be respected for what it is. To say that one person’s struggle or one group’s struggle supersedes another group’s is really only buying into the divisiveness that the power structure creates to keep us acting like crabs in a bucket. Everyone who has been discriminated against in America should have some empathy for everyone else who is discriminated against. In that regard, to say that this struggle is the new other struggle is silly…. When you take away the rights of one group of people you open the door to take away the rights of another group and I think people need to recognize that.

Are you active politically?

Absolutely. Before Prop 8 passed, I was active. And, after it passed, I got even more active. I think that people who watch the show and are fans of Darryl Stephens, the actor, are of a specific demographic. A lot of what came about with the passage of Prop 8 was this notion that black people don’t support gay people…and that the populations don’t even intersect. I felt like it was my responsibility, as someone who is connected to both populations and who has the ear of a lot people, to attempt to bridge the gaps of those communities and to inform people who didn’t necessarily understand why this struggle needs to be understood from both sides.

A lot of black people are raised in the church. I think that it was honestly an issue of religion, not race, as to why Prop 8 passed. It was more an issue of people who are being raised with these archaic notions of what God wants from people and what the Bible says people should be doing with their lives. I couldn’t sit by and let the rights of a group be taken away and have the misconception or misperception that black people were to blame for that.

I wrote on a number of blogs about religion and black people and about how gay people are in our families and are no more or no less responsible for our community. If we stop acknowledging that there are black folks in our church and black folks in our families, then the idea that gay folks don’t deserve rights can be conceivable. But once you get real about the fact that gay folks are everyone, you honestly can’t feel okay about taking away their rights.

So, I did get political with it. I made a speech at one of the rallies downtown addressing the fact that there are black gay people and the black community needs to start acknowledging their gay brothers and sisters, but also that the gay community needs to start acknowledging their black brothers and sisters.

What does success, in terms of your career, look like to you?

What it will look like, hopefully, is that I have the opportunity to continue playing varied characters. Money is obviously nice and it helps pay bills and maintain a lifestyle, but I didn’t get into this to get rich. But, I would like to continue working and playing different characters and doing what I can to illuminate humanity in its different forms. As a black man who has a connection with black culture and gay culture, there are a lot of perspectives that I can offer that not everyone is attune to. It will be exciting to see if, as an actor, I will be allowed to continue doing that. I would say Noah’s Arc has been great in a lot of ways and challenging in a lot of ways. People who don’t even know the show that well know that it’s about 4 black gay guys and that it’s got a little of a campy element. There’s been a response to the actors who are on the show that has been lukewarm at best from casting directors in LA. And, with the success of the film… the coverage in Variety and all these trade papers, you would think people in the industry would say, “Hey, they have a following! Let’s see what they’re doing now?”

I’m also writing my own material. I think part of this process of being an actor who started off in gay material will probably be writing material for myself that will allow others to see me play different kinds of characters. To be able to do that will also be an element of my own success. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years.

The DVD, Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom just hit shelves on February 3.

Tags: Noah

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