The Queer Actor At The Heart Of “Love, Simon”
“I realized the thing that I thought was my biggest weakness — in my music or my acting or my life — was actually my greatest strength,” The Flash star Keiynan Lonsdale told BuzzFeed News. Warning: SPOILERS!
Warning: This story contains SPOILERS for Love, Simon.
It's difficult to talk about Keiynan Lonsdale's pivotal scene in Love, Simon without spoiling the movie's most delightful surprise, but it's helpful to know that performing it also changed Lonsdale's life.
In the film, Lonsdale — best known as Wally West, aka Kid Flash, on CW's The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow — plays Bram, one of three possible love interests for Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a closeted gay teenager who stumbles into an anonymous online flirtation with another closeted gay teen he knows only as Blue. Throughout the film, Simon keeps using the scraps of biography Blue has dropped during their email correspondence to sleuth out who Blue could be, and Bram, a friend of Simon's, becomes his first romantic suspect — until Simon sees Bram with a girl at a party, and moves on. (Warning: SPOILERS start here!)
As is so often the case in teen movies, the film's climax arrives with a huge romantic gesture by Simon, asking Blue on a public message board to meet him on the local ferris wheel and come out once and for all. Naturally, half the school gathers to see if Blue will show, and just when Simon and all his friends think Blue has stood him up, Bram suddenly appears and jumps into Simon's carriage. They kiss. Their friends and classmates cheer. And a quiet but powerful landmark in Hollywood history — the first same-sex teen romance released by a major studio — reaches its happy ending.
“I'm playing this love story between a man and a man. And here I am, still afraid.”
The scene also became a landmark moment for Lonsdale. Since he was 13, he's known he was attracted to women and men. He'd come out privately to Greg Berlanti, the film's openly gay director — as well as the executive producer of The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow. But as he sat up in that ferris wheel shooting a swoon-y moment of same-sex romance, it hit the then-25-year-old that he still hadn't come out to any of the actors surrounding him in the scene.
“I walked onto that set feeling really nervous, and for some reason I hid it day one, and then I felt like I couldn't tell them after that, because I'd already not said it,” Lonsdale told BuzzFeed News while hunched over a glass of pineapple juice at a Los Angeles diner. “Part of me was disappointed in myself, because I was in this film, and celebrating this moment, and I wasn't even championing it for myself. … I'm playing this love story between a man and a man, and everyone is here because they want to honor this beautiful truth. And here I am, still afraid. I'm still not comfortable enough.”
At the wrap party for Love, Simon, Lonsdale finally came out to his fellow actors. And a few weeks later, he came out to the world.
In 2018, an LGBTQ actor declaring their sexuality publicly isn't the monumental event it was 10 years ago, or even five years ago. Still, the fraught and painful path Lonsdale took to get to that moment makes plain how profoundly meaningful this sweet, uncomplicated coming-of-age movie could be for its audience — and was for one actor in particular.
Love, Simon isn't the first time Lonsdale has played a gay character. Raised in Australia, he got his first major break as an actor on the local TV series Dance Academy, as Ollie, a cocksure young dancer and one half of a beloved same-sex couple. Lonsdale, however, was nothing like him.
“When I was doing that show, I had never even kissed a boy before,” he said. “I was very frightened to do that role.”
For years, Lonsdale had come to believe that his own attraction to men as well as women set him precariously apart. “I think from a very young age, because I was quite feminine and I danced, I started to pick up that I was different, and that I wasn't like the other boys,” he said. “After a while, that just really affected me. It made me truly believe that it was wrong to be this way.”
It wasn't even that Lonsdale recalled hearing anyone explicitly tell him he shouldn't be attracted to men. It was more just a conviction that he'd absorbed from the world around him. “I didn't have anyone to look up to who was openly themselves and was black, showing me that it was possible,” he said. “I was just, like, at a very young age, Oh, these are the rules. This is how it is. I didn't even think, Oh, I could change that.”
Lonsdale had attended a performing arts high school; he’d known plenty of LGBTQ people openly embracing their sexuality. He just couldn't see himself doing it. “Even though some people would say, ‘Oh, it's not wrong,’ it would just seem like, Oh, that sucks,” he said. “It seemed like you got the short end of the stick or something.”
With his ambitions to become a successful actor and musician looming in mind, Lonsdale said that at 13 years old, he made a pact with himself. “I was like, I can either be myself and be happy,” he said. “Or I can go for my dreams, and not be myself.”
“I didn't have anyone to look up to who was openly themselves and was black, showing me that it was possible.”
He chose the latter. “I decided I was going to work on the way that I walked, the way that I talked, the music that I listened to, what I wore,” he said. “It became a daily thing. I would record myself, and hear it back. It was my whole life.”
Lonsdale's façade slipped a few times. He confessed his sexuality to some close friends, and he told his mother when he turned 20. But the rigid grind of denying who he really was had chipped away so much of himself that after he finished his last season on Dance Academy, and at the urging of one of those confidants, Lonsdale sought out a psychiatrist. “I came to him and basically was like, ‘My dreams are the reason why I can never be myself,’” Lonsdale said. “And he was like, ‘Actually, your dreams are the reason why you can be yourself, and why you should be yourself. How do you ever expect to be a pure artist if you are lying, if you're not creating from a space of fearlessness and honesty?’”
They were the right words at the right time; soon after hearing them, Lonsdale came out to his full circle of friends. But just a few months later, Lonsdale landed his first major role in an American movie, opposite Shailene Woodley in 2015's The Divergent Series: Insurgent, propelling him onto what felt like a vastly bigger stage, and into a much brighter spotlight. So he went back into the closet.
Lonsdale's decision didn't spring from any overt suggestions from an authority figure, but from the received wisdom of his peers. “I'd heard things just from other actors and other young people, that you couldn't be a leading actor if you were open about your sexuality,” he said. “Like, casting directors, producers, audiences — they're just not ready.”
So as Lonsdale began his first steps into Hollywood, he decided on his own to remain silent publicly about his sexuality. “Everything was too overwhelming anyway, and that was the last thing I wanted to think about,” he said. “It was just easier to do what I had always been doing my whole life, which was pretend.”
By the time Lonsdale first heard about Love, Simon, he had at least stopped pretending for people in his own life. He was out to the cast of The Flash, and, more importantly, to his representatives, who sent him the audition for Bram like any other potential job.
It helped that the director was already familiar with Lonsdale’s particular appeal. “He just embodied Bram,” Berlanti told BuzzFeed News. “He embodied the spirit of it. There was an all-American [quality], even though he's not American, and a sweetness he has as a person that comes through in the characters he plays.”
The film shot through March and April of 2017, with Lonsdale zipping to the Atlanta-based production from The Flash's Vancouver sets. The bulk of Lonsdale's role involved that fateful ferris wheel, and a massive Halloween party Bram throws at his home, where he and Simon engage in what seems to Simon like some serious flirtation.
“This movie doesn't just say, ‘Hey, it's OK to be this way.’ It's saying, ‘No, it's fucking great.’”
It was the first time since moving to the US that Lonsdale had shot a scene of same-sex physical intimacy. “It didn't feel abnormal, I guess is what made it feel surreal,” he said. “Like, it just felt totally chill. I was like, Oh, this is what we're doing. We're here to make this normal, because it is.”
The ferris wheel scene also happened to be the final day of shooting on the film, and Lonsdale recalled trying out several different tones to get the moment just right. “I played a lot with Bram's feeling of being uncomfortable and exposed, because it's his coming out,” he said. “But at the same time we wanted to focus on just that connection with him and Simon, and it just being about that. It was a happy ending. I'm glad that we did that.”
As groundbreaking as Love, Simon will likely be for LGBTQ audiences, the film proved to be equally momentous for Lonsdale's conception of his own sexuality. “This movie doesn't just say, ‘Hey, it's OK to be this way,’” he said. “It's saying, ‘No, it's fucking great. This is normal. You did nothing wrong. You didn't get the short end of the stick. Everyone's good. We're all good.’ That's what I needed to hear.”
Lonsdale's realization that he hadn't come out to the Love, Simon cast until the last possible moment, coupled with the subtle power of playing scenes of same-sex romance in a major studio film, really did a number on the young actor. “I just started to think about a lot of things,” he said. “I remember saying to my mom, ‘I think I'm going to come out this year. I don't know how, and I don't know when, but something in me is just like, I'm ready.’”
He couldn't sleep, staying up until 3 a.m. every night writing pages and pages of jumbled feelings on his phone's Notes app, pouring out the past decade-plus of confusion and shame and repression and self-discovery. Then on May 12, 2017, just as Lonsdale was about to go to bed, he looked again at his digital stack of coming-out missives, deleted them all, and started writing again.
“I like to change my hair,” Lonsdale wrote. “I like to take risks with how I dress, I like girls, & I like guys (yes), I like growing, I like learning, I like who I am and I really like who I'm becoming.” He wrote about how learning to accept himself saved his life, and about how he'd hit “a new road block” and it made him feel lost. He wrote about “not faking shit anymore, not apologising for falling in love with people no matter their gender.” He wrote about being inspired by so many young people being “their best / truest selves,” and asking himself, “so what have I been waiting for?”
Five minutes, 211 words, and one heart emoji later, Lonsdale grabbed a photo he'd already pre-selected and posted what he'd written to Instagram.
“It was everything I needed to say,” said Lonsdale. “I didn't feel like I was really explaining anything. It was just like, ‘Here it is.’”
Even a cursory scroll through Lonsdale's Instagram feed since he's publicly come out makes plain how much that one moment has changed his life. His wardrobe, for one thing, has exploded into a delightful medley of bright colors and patterns — including for this interview, for which Lonsdale wore a brand-new pair of kicky, flowing pants adorned with a vivid flower print.
“It's definitely being like, Oh, I can wear whatever I want, and I don't care what people think,” Lonsdale said. “If people think, Oh, he looks gay — well, sure! Do I? Great!”
He's also started recording more original music. Last October, he resurrected an untended YouTube page — which he'd used for brooding covers of Rihanna, Kanye West, and Ed Sheeran hits — to post an exuberantly colorful music video for his single “Good Life.” (Sample lyric: “Cars, money, so what / We just want real love / All that fake shit, blow it up / You know they can't control us.”)
“I guess, before [I came out], I spent the majority of my time and my thinking power on how to navigate away from my sexuality,” he said. “A lot of time that could have been spent on creativity, on self-expression, wasn't there. There was no time for it.”
“If people think, Oh, he looks gay — well, sure! Do I? Great!”
Now that Lonsdale's wrapped for the season on Legends of Tomorrow (his character jumped over from The Flash in late 2017), he's focusing all that newfound creative energy on recording an album. His next single, in fact, will be about a crush on a guy — which he wrote after seeing one of the Love, Simon trailers for the first time. “It's the song that I wish I could've heard my favorite artist sing when I was younger,” he said. “Because then I would've known I could've been just like him.”
And now there is small but prominent assortment of queer role models in film, TV, and music that Lonsdale can look to for inspiration and encouragement. “There could have been room before, you just needed people to make the room,” he said. “Troye Sivan, Frank Ocean, Sam Smith — they broke a lot of barriers just by doing it. … When I found out that Ezra Miller identified as queer, and he played the Flash in Justice League, I was like, oh, that's cool! He is playing a superhero, and he's being himself, and it's no issue. That's the power of representation. That's the power of someone choosing to be themselves and being unafraid.”
Over the past 10 months, as Lonsdale has grown freer and more fearless with how he presents himself to the world, he’s become exactly the kind of person the younger version of himself needed so desperately. “I realized the thing that I thought was my biggest weakness — in my music or my acting or my life — was actually my greatest strength,” he said. “We grow up, and we're like, Oh, [a happy ending] is not real. I'm just starting to realize, maybe it can be real, if you allow it to be.”
Additional reporting by Kate Aurthur.
The credits for two of the images in this post have been updated.