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‘Fellow Travelers’ finale: How sex evolved from power to intimacy

That sex scenes in Showtime’s “Fellow Travelers” would be plentiful and explicit was always a given. That sensual motif is baked into the source material: Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, whose same-sex romance is set against the 1950s, anti-queer Washington, D.C., of Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn and the Lavender Scare.

It also permeates the eight-episode TV adaptation — which magnifies the story through the ’60s and ’70s into the AIDS-ravaged ’80s — from creator and showrunner Ron Nyswaner, Oscar-nominated for 1993’s “Philadelphia.” The final episode of the series is now streaming and will air Sunday on Showtime.

“Sex is really important to Hawkins Fuller,” says Nyswaner, referring to the main character, played by Matt Bomer. “It gives him a great deal of pleasure, and part of his charm and power is that he can continue, in this very repressive time, to have sex. He’s gonna protect that because that is his source of joy.”

But clearly, there was a way to film the series without being so visually frank. “You can certainly drift off the bed and toward the window with the billowing curtain,” says executive producer Daniel Minahan (“Halston,” “The Girl From Plainville,” “American Crime Story”), who set the look and tone of “Fellow Travelers,” alongside cinematographer Simon Dennis, by directing the first two episodes. “But we wanted this to feel immediate. We didn’t want it to feel like we were making a fake Douglas Sirk movie from the 1950s.”

And so, in episodes such as “You’re Wonderful,” “Hit Me” and “Your Nuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” there is plenty of partial and full-frontal nudity as bathroom sex, sex club sex, rough sex, kinky sex, threesome sex and group sex is depicted alongside tender lovemaking.

In the finale, tender scenes like this one between Tim (Jonathan Bailey) and Hawk (Matt Bomer) permeate the series.

(Ben Mark Holzberg / Showtime)

“The fear of exposure was so real,” continues Minahan. “When Hawk goes to the public bathrooms in Lafayette Park, that’s a very dangerous thing to do, but he’s compelled to do it. And when he has sex with Eddie in the bathroom [in Episode 1] and then goes home with him, it’s a part of the story. We didn’t want to tell this story without dramatizing that.”

But Nyswaner and his creative colleagues didn’t want these scenes to seem gratuitous. Ground rules were therefore established both in the writers room and on set. “Every sex scene would be different in some way,” explains Nyswaner, “and the sex scenes were about power. No actor would be asked to do something that wasn’t moving the story forward. The story told us what the sex would be.”

“It was really important to me that the sexuality, which is what’s at stake in this story, really had a beginning, middle and end,” adds Minahan. “A progression, so that it told a story rather than just provide hot shots of these attractive guys.”

To pull off this provocative vision, the network’s blessing was required, which Showtime provided, imploring Nyswaner to not set limits in portraying sexuality.

As for the cast members who would bring flesh and bone to this bold concept, Bomer committed to the project — as both star and executive producer — early. “We met at the San Vicente Bungalows, and I said, ‘Oh, well, Hawkins Fuller just walked into the room,’” recalls Nyswaner. “Just so Matt gets the credit he deserves, he came on before there was any deal anywhere. Before anyone was willing to spend any money. He spent three years waiting and waiting. There was a lot of faith on his part.”

Jonathan Bailey then expressed interest in playing Bomer’s younger and initially more innocent lover, Tim Laughlin. “That was thrilling for everybody,” recalls Nyswaner, adding that the pair’s chemistry read, with the actors Zooming in from different countries, was so stirring it led some to tears. “Those two men had to be together.”

For the pivotal roles of co-starring couple Marcus Gaines and Frankie Hines, legendary casting director Avy Kaufman (“Succession,” “Nyad,” “Rustin”) introduced Nyswaner to Jelani Alladin and Noah J. Ricketts, two Broadway performers who had worked together previously on the “Frozen” musical.

Two men sit on a bench outdoors, looking at each other.

Noah J. Ricketts as Frankie and Jelani Alladin as Marcus in Showtime’s “Fellow Travelers.”

(Ben Mark Holzberg / Showtime)

Every actor — including supporting and minor players — was told the level of literal and figurative nakedness that would be required of them. “No surprises,” says Kaufman. “You have the discussion, they read the material, they speak with the creatives, and then everybody agrees.” Though she says there were some actors who passed due to the forthright nature of the piece, those ultimately cast were completely invested. “I think everybody was full force — ‘Whatever you want.’ I don’t remember any restrictions. I don’t remember any actor going, ‘I’ll do this, but I won’t do that.’”

It should be said here that all four principals are out. While Nyswaner says that was his “strong preference, but not a requirement,” Kaufman feels differently. “Who am I, you know?” she says with a chuckle. “But in my little box, it was a requirement because they’re gonna tell the story in the purest way. It’s close to the bone.”

Kaufman is thankful Hollywood has evolved in the nearly 25 years since she cast “Brokeback Mountain.” Now the industry has numerous out actors, some of whom are bona fide stars. “It lets honesty seep into life. It’s just the way it should be,” Kaufman says. “It’s the proper way to cast. And I would almost assume — what a gift for them.”

“Avy is right!” Bailey wrote via email about his role. “The parts of Tim and Hawk were a gift. A precious gift to us as actors, but also — and crucially — a gift for the viewer at home and the future queer roles that follow in their wake.”

Certainly, that these actors live gay lives made it easier to accomplish work brimming with authenticity.

Uta Briesewitz (“The Wheel of Time,” “Stranger Things,” “The Wire”) is a former cinematographer who now works as a director, helming Episodes 6 and 8. “I acknowledged [to Matt and Jonathan] that it would be ridiculous for me to step in, as a straight woman, and tell them how to perform a gay sex act,” she offers. “They understood and they laughed. But I followed up by saying, ‘I will make sure we shoot it beautifully.’”

Indeed, Briesewitz did. One of the most exquisite sequences in the entire series is in Episode 8, “Make It Easy,” when Hawk and Tim share a particularly affectionate post-coital moment. “When we were shooting Matt and Jonathan dancing naked in the sun-streamed room, I was deeply moved. I was close to tears,” recalls Briesewitz. “I was thinking, ‘This is one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever been part of creating.’ I felt privileged to witness it. Just seeing two men in a tender embrace, dancing. It was absolutely gorgeous to me.”

Tim and Hawkins embrace in bed.

Uta Briesewitz directed “Make It Easy,” the finale of “Fellow Travelers,” saying she “was deeply moved” while shooting the episode.


Throughout the shoot, Canada’s first-ever intimacy coordinator Lindsay Somers — whose previous work includes Episode 3 of HBO’s “The Last of Us,” titled “Long, Long Time,” in which Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman play lovers — worked with the cast.

“Lindsay’s very enthusiastic about sex and sex scenes, which is what you want,” Nyswaner says. “She’s not there to dampen things down or to make anybody feel uncomfortable. She’s there to protect the actors. She’s the buffer between them, the showrunner and the director.”

The role entails documenting and choreographing intimate scenes, and in an email interview, Somers says she was “all in” on the process of bringing the stories to life. “‘Fellow Travelers’ did have a large number of supporting players who were involved in scenes of nudity and/or simulated sex, which were all choreographed,” she says. “There was a lot of organization and preparation around the larger simulated sex sequences. Many spreadsheets!”

About the main cast, Nyswaner adds: “I do think that, as we all got more comfortable with each other — week after week after week, sex scene after sex scene — there was a point at which my relationship and the directors’ relationships with our actors became very, very close. We’d become family. I think they felt they could communicate directly to us without someone in between.”

“Matt and Jonathan just took things into their own hands and, together with Ron, choreographed what was right for the scene,” Briesewitz says.

“Matt and I had a really brilliant and frank conversation at the beginning, which was simply a commitment to having each other’s back,” says Bailey. “You develop a really clear second language, but ultimately it’s just checking in. If you can feel it’s both of you working together as the primary, and that the environment around you is then supporting that, then it’s brilliant. And to have directors and an intimacy coordinator who can make sure that everyone around you feels comfortable too, then it’s a win-win.”

Surrounded by shirtless men, Hawk and Tim dance together.

Communication was key for actors Matt Bomer, left, and Jonathan Bailey. “You develop a really clear second language, but ultimately it’s just checking in,” Bailey says.

(Ben Mark Holzberg / Showtime)

Sharing the spotlight extended beyond the filming of intimate scenes. “This was an experience where it touched people in a way that is deeper,” Nyswaner says. “It was just, ‘This is bigger than us, and let’s just do our best.’”

“Every series and every film you do is an opportunity to create a family, and I feel like we really created this loving family,” Minahan says. “I’ve worked on a lot of shows where people didn’t necessarily want to be there. This cast and crew were so devoted, and that was the most rewarding thing to me.”

“It was personal for everybody,” Briesewitz says, “so people gave it their sweat, blood and tears — everything.”

Briesewitz was offered “Fellow Travelers” via a personal note from Nyswaner. “What I wrote in the letter was how personal the show was for me, that it was my life’s work, which I consider it to be,” he says.

Struck by the beauty of Nyswaner’s missive, Briesewitz wanted in. She then turned to a gay friend, telling him about the sex scenes, calling them graphic, honest and courageous. Should she do this?

“My friend responded with an enthusiastic ‘Yeah,’” she recalls. “The way he said it, I could just tell there was a need for this. I realized I would be excited to be part of this project of courage, to not shy away from what it really means when two men love each other passionately.”


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