We talk a lot these days about not having to choose between your career and living an authentic life, but this is a relatively young concept–as viewers of the new Showtime series Fellow Travelers are bound to learn.
Adapted from Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, the series follows the story of two gay men who meet at work at the State Department in the 1950s. Matt Bomer plays Hawk, a sophisticated, jaded insider who knows how power can be used and abused in Washington, D.C.; at an election night party, he meets Tim, played by Jonathan Bailey, a patriotic young idealist who comes to the capital to serve the greater good. The two begin an intense, closeted relationship that is shaped (and warped) by the times. It’s the era of the McCarthy witch hunts and the so-called Lavender Scare, the period during which an estimated 5,000 civil servants were fired from government jobs because they were suspected of being LGBTQ–and, therefore, of posing some sort of national security or blackmail risk. Executive producers Ron Nyswaner, best known for writing the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Philadelphia, and Robbie Rogers, who recently produced the Harry Styles film My Policeman, spoke with Fast Company about their historical series–and why it is strikingly relevant in 2023.
Fast Company: So between you, who first discovered Thomas Mallon’s book?
Ron Nyswaner: I was a fan of Thomas Mallon’s work and so I found the book about 11 years ago. And I had my management company option it for me. But, you know, developing things into a television series is free work usually.
Fast Company: There was a strike about that recently.
Ron Nyswaner: Yes, so I hear! So I needed a paycheck and I was very happy to accept writing and producing jobs on two iconic television shows, first Ray Donovan for two years and then at Homeland for three years. And during that time, I kept thinking about Fellow Travelers. Then I met Robbie and asked him to read the book.
Robbie Rogers: And I fell in love with it. I think we talked the weekend after he sent me the book, and I think I said, if you don’t make this, then I will.
FC: Why did a story about McCarthyism in the 1950s resonate so strongly with both of you?
RN: I’m first and foremost a dramatist and I care about story. And that part of LGBTQ history–I’m speaking specifically of the purge of homosexuals from the government–was somehow a storyI didn’t know much about even though I’ve been an out gay man and active in politics since the 1970s. So it was powerful to learn about it from Mr. Mallon’s book, and then also through additional research, and what we learned was that it was far more devastating, had far more devastating consequences for people, than the Red Scare, the anti-communist purge that happened at around the same time. There were thousands of designated ‘sexual deviants’ purged from government work for the rest of their lives, and the damage to people’s lives was huge.
FC: So many movies and TV shows about gay characters feature straight actors, so it’s notable that this series has openly gay talent–Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey–in the lead roles. Can you talk about the casting?
RR: I’ve known Matt for some years now. He is obviously incredibly handsome and charming and has all those characteristics that we think of when we think of the character Hawk. But I also knew his qualities as a person–the depth to play the softer side or Hawk and the other parts. And then with Johnny, everybody knows him from Bridgerton, but I had met him on another project and knew he could play the youthfulness and nerdiness that would be perfect for Tim. And once we had our chemistry read, every single exec who saw it was extremely excited. And for two gay men to be playing these parts, I think it was just really meaningful to them, you know? They went to extreme lengths to research and figure out what it was like at these times for these characters.
FC: Fellow Travelers is also pretty boundary-pushing in terms of the sex scenes.
RN: One of my rules in the writer’s room was that every scene in the show should be about power, and especially the sex and love scenes should be about power. And the actors really embraced that because it gave them something to play in the sex scenes rather than just ‘we’re having sex because they wanna see our bodies.’ And another rule was every sex scene has to move the story forward. Something has to change between the characters in that scene. And we also decided that every sex scene had to portray a different sexual act. So, actually, there was a point when we got to episode eight, we were kind of stuck and weren’t quite sure what we were going to do, but we figured some things out.
FC: We all know that companies like Target and Bud Light have faced boycotts for stuff as innocuous as selling a Pride t-shirt, and there are book bans that censor LGBTQ+ books. What’s it like to be putting out a series like this in an environment that’s, in many cases, overtly hostile to this kind of story?
RN: It’s so important and moving to me and Robbie that our corporate entities who made the show love the show, and they never ever suggested that we hold back on or soften anything–that we would take out a sex scene, that we would take out an expression of love, or take out anything political. There was zero artistic interference in the creation of this show. And I really want to thank Showtime and Paramount for that.
FC: The book is set as a flashback from 1991 to the ‘50s, and the McCarthy era–the series has a different timeline, with episodes set in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s as well. Did you see that as a creative risk?
RN: I don’t know if it’s a risk. It’s just what I wanted to do. I was not an adult living through the Lavender Scare in the ‘50s, but I was born in the mid-’50s. And, you know, I came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and then the AIDS crisis is very, very important to my life in so many ways–artistically, obviously because of Philadelphia, but just also because of my personal experience with it. And there was something about the idea of wanting to tell a story of a multi-decade, turbulent, on-again, off again love affair. It just seemed like a really fun thing to create. And we were encouraged by Showtime specifically that said, lean into the time changes although that’s a challenging way to shoot. There were days when there were at least three decades being shot in the same day.
RR: It was a little scary, you know? We shot in Toronto and there is one episode that takes place on Fire Island in the 1970s. Most days on Lake Ontario, and especially when we went to scout, it was flat and looked exactly like a lake. But on the day we shot, Matt jumped into the water, and swam through those waves, and there was a gust of wind that made waves and the sun was bright and it made it feel like a beach on Fire Island in the ‘70s.
Fellow Travelers is streaming on Paramount+ starting October 27 and will premiere on Showtime on October 29.