Why Jay On 'UnREAL' Is So Important To LGBTQ Representation, According To Star Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman
The reality TV producers wear a lot of hats behind the scenes on UnREAL's Bachelor-type show-within-the-show Everlasting. From empathetic best friend to devil on your shoulder, they take on all kinds of different personalities to get the most entertaining drama out of their contestants vying for the Suitor's heart. But when Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman first landed the role of Everlasting producer Jay on UnREAL, the character was a lot different than he is now — and it wasn't just an act. The out gay man was actually as straight as can be, almost to an unsettling degree.
"When I auditioned for Jay and booked the role, he was a completely different character: he was this straight hustler womanizing douchebag," Bowyer-Chapman tells Bustle. "I played him that way for the pilot and then the show got picked up and some rewriting had to be done."
UnREAL creator Marti Noxon, who Bowyer-Chapman calls his idol and credits as the reason why he wanted to be a part of Lifetime's first scripted series, was the one who decided that Jay needed to be reimagined. "She called me up and said, 'We want to write Jay after you, starting with making him an openly gay man,'" Bowyer-Chapman says. "Everything really fell into place. It was very literally a dream come true."
As an out gay man himself, Bowyer-Chapman couldn't believe his luck. "I set an intention very early on in my acting career that I only wanted to play queer characters and thoughtfully written gay characters because in the early 2000s there weren’t many characters like that being written," he says. "So I knew my best shot at that would be having people writing characters for me. I could have continued to listen to the fear-centered thoughts that the industry feeds queer actors all the time that you have to play straight, you can't be openly gay out in your personal life or on set because then the audience is only going to see you as one thing and you won't be sellable or desirable to middle America or women."
Bowyer-Chapman definitely "felt those pressures in years past" and on other jobs before landing UnREAL. "So when playing Jay straight in the original pilot, I could have made that choice to keep to myself and not let my true personality be known behind-the-scenes when the director called cut," he says. "Instead I made the choice to drop the character and be myself and have conversations with the producers and the writers and director and Marti and get to know each other on a deeply personal and vulnerable level. In doing so, they got to know me and felt that I was far more nuanced and interesting than the character they had written."
He made the right call, not only for himself but also for LGBTQ representation in Hollywood at a time when the industry should be highlighting these inclusive roles the most. Just by being himself, he was able to help shape his character into a more realistic and all-around important role.
"Playing Jay, an openly queer character on a show like UnREAL, has brought me into the many living rooms of middle Americans that may not necessarily have had exposure to a black queer man before," he says. "So introducing a black queer man to the masses is an incredible blessing. And having the press opportunities that come along with playing a queer character have been incredible because as much as representation within the entertainment industry is important to me and is a deep passion of mine, I can only do so much with playing a queer character. I can only represent so much when I'm speaking someone else's words."
But in interviews like this one, he notes, he gets to express his own passions and beliefs. "I can voice what I feel is important and the changes I think need to be made within the industry in regards to representation of the LGBTQ community and otherness in general," Bowyer-Chapman says. In fact, he's launching his first podcast, "JBC Presents: Conversations with Others," which has been a goal of his from the very beginning of his career.
"I get to highlight and celebrate the stories of celebrities who fall under the umbrella of otherness, people who walk in the LGBTQ community openly, people of color, women in badass positions of power," he says. "That's been the biggest blessing and the biggest impact from playing a queer character like Jay."
He hopes his podcast helps to "continue to fill the void of representation of LGBTQ people in the entertainment industry" by finding common ground through many different people's stories.
"We are so conditioned to place stories of a white straight cis-ness as our be-all, end-all, as our primary storytelling formula," Bowyer-Chapman says. "So we see that as the norm and ideal, and that leaves out the majority of people on the planet. By telling stories of people who dance in the margins of otherness and celebrate themselves, it provides an opportunity for people within the status quo to look at this from a different perspective and celebrate us."
Bowyer-Chapman is also looking forward to the premiere of UnREAL Season 3, as it brings in an interesting wrinkle for Jay. Since the show-within-the-show decided to bring in a female "Suitress" this year, Jay is now surrounded by gorgeous male contestants who are vulnerable and desperate to do anything to win. "Jay has 25 male contestants to play with this season and as a gay producer… you can use your imagination and guess where that could possibly go," he says.
Jay has always been the moral center of the series, doing his best to keep the other producers in check when they go too far with manipulating the contestants. But now it's Jay's turn to dance with temptation, and he'll have a hard time resisting.
"It was so much fun being able to step into the dark side with Jay. I see [UnREAL stars] Constance [Zimmer] and Shiri [Appleby] do it all day every day," Bowyer-Chapman says. "So being able to play in the bad kids' sand box was such a dream come true."
And Jay's descent into darkness isn't out of character for him, the actor argues. "As much as he is the moral center and wants to save his own soul in this dark environment of Everlasting, he's constantly seeing people around him excel above and beyond him where their bad behavior is being rewarded," Bowyer-Chapman says. "He is at the point, after working on the show for four seasons now, if he wants to get ahead he's going to have to play dirty too. And he sees results very, very quickly, which only tempts him to keep going further into the darkness."
But he warns that no matter how easily the producers seem to be getting away with their bad behavior, "their karma is pretty automatic, I'll say that. None of them are able to escape the karma of the poor choices they've made," he teases. And given UnREAL's penchant for twists and turns, we can be certain that Everlasting's cast and crew have a wild ride ahead this season.