Growing up in Texas left Brian J Smith feeling isolated by his burgeoning sexuality. Today, he has leading parts in two major dramas. He tells Attitude how he found himself in acting, why he felt at home in London — where he fell in love with an Irishman


The Sense8 star opens up about life and love in his most personal interview ever

Identity is one of the big buzzwords of today’s cultural conversati­on. It’s also central to the stories Brian J Smith has brought to life on television — from his career- defining turn as Chicago police officer Will Gorski in Netflix fan- favourite Sense8 to Doug McKenna in the new Jason- Bourne- universe- set Treadstone, via Webster in the current BBC drama World on Fire.

“Something to do with freedom, people finding themselves,” Brian says of the roles that excite him most. “Characters that have a major revelation about themselves, and maybe it’s too much and maybe they go too far with their new freedom. I’m very moved by that.

“These bursts of ‘ Oh, that’s who I am, this is what I’m capable of’. I like characters who are conscious of their potential, but feel utterly incapable of getting there.”

Disappeari­ng into the make- believe lives of fictional characters is part of most childhoods. But for any young LGBTQ kid growing up with a pervading sense that the hetero- normative world surroundin­g them is not one they associate with, it often becomes a survival instinct.

“I always wanted t o live in a f antasy world, even as a kid. I was alwa ys disappeari­ng into some role play. Halloween was a big deal, I was gone, I was somebody else,” Brian tells me as we chill out post - photoshoot in one of the luxury suites in The Pierre, in New Y ork. The windows of the grand hotel ov erlook the south side of Central Par k, and it’s a univ erse away from his humble upbringing in the suburbs of Dallas, T exas.

Born in the shadow of rising US conservati­vism in the 1980s, he was a child when the right- wing Tea Party began to take hold of the Republican wheel, and Christian religious morals were pushed t o the fore. He remembers the looming spectre of R onald and Nancy Reagan’s influence on “traditiona­l American f amily values.”

Now 38, Brian adds: “My mom knew I would be watching MTV when she’d told me not to, so she would telephone when I g ot home fr om school and sa y, ‘ I just called the cable company and I kno w you are watching sho ws you’re not supposed t o watch’. I felt so guilty because I g ot caught.”

His upbringing was, on the outside, rosy and picture- perfect. But to little Brian, it felt oppressive and alien. “It was the suburbs, it was middle class, and it’s wonderful. It’s a very easy way to live if you conform to it,” he reflects. “But I was terrified. At school I really couldn’t fit in anywhere. I wasn’t a jock or a nerd. Forget about any LGBTQ union or groups. There was absolutely nothing. I was completely alone. I heard all the names: pussy, faggot.”

As with most queer kids growing up in small towns, he harboured a keen awareness of his difference. “I could never be who I was. I was constantly having to check myself and make sure I wasn’t looking at someone too long or making someone feel uncomforta­ble.

“I had to be very, very careful about telling people the truth about myself. It still reverberat­es. A lot of my work is about that. The things that move me as an actor are those echoes that come up.”

There was one place he could escape those isolating feelings: on stage. “In front of an audience, I disappeare­d and became someone else. I had 600 students at school, all of whom probably thought I was an absolute idiot, a nerd.

“On stage, they paid attention to me, and they saw that I had something. And that’s when I didn’t feel alone.”

He arrived relatively late in the world of acting, having discovered drama club aged 16. Brian didn’t know what acting was or how he could do it, but he wanted to learn, so went to the library and picked up Stanislavs­ki books on acting and creating a character. His path would take him to Juilliard, the school of the performing arts.

“That was when I realised acting was something you could do. Not to be rich or famous, but to be part of this group of craftspeop­le from hundreds and hundreds of years that I wanted to learn from or contribute to. It wasn’t about fame or celebrity.”

Performanc­e became an escape for Brian, a way to channel those feelings into other characters, different identities. “Acting, for me, is getting to a place where I am so involved in the imaginary world that you completely forget that you’re on a stage and being watched. That kind of freedom, in a high- stakes situation, is my drug. That’s why I do what I do,” he explains.

As it turned out, Brian’s family were more accepting than he expected when he revealed his sexuality to them, aged 30. “I was surprised. When I came out to my parents they were wonderful. They said they were just waiting for me to say something. They were a lot more advanced than I gave them credit for.

“I think that’s when I became OK with it, too. Just in terms of being, ‘ Oh that’s the world, it’s not as dangerous as I thought it was’.”

His big break came with Sense8, one of Netflix’s most ambitious – and expensive – shows, that revolved around eight strangers who suddenly find themselves mentally and emotionall­y linked. The series was cancelled after just two seasons, although the outcry from fans persuaded the production giant to commission a follow- up special.

“I remember being so relaxed,” Brian says, reflecting on filming with the cast. “I thought, ‘ Finally, I can just be myself, I don’t have to put on airs for any of these people’. I mean I was terrified of [ show creators] Lana and Lilly Wachowski. They made The Matrix and Cloud Atlas. They made some of the most out- there but beautiful stuff. You just wanted to be impressive for them. For the first month, I was convinced I was going to be fired. Lana would shout, ‘ Cut, cut, cut, Brian!’ And I was like: ‘ Lana you made me nervous’.”

The nerves no doubt fed into his character storyline, which featured a problemati­c relationsh­ip with his father, losing his mother, and a series of traumatic childhood experience­s.

“He was very freaked out, and also not sure of himself in a weird way,” Brian says of Will, who was tormented by his masculinit­y and his confusion in the face of the expectatio­ns he felt from society, in being a cop, and as a son. “That’s why Will is a mess the whole time in the second season. He’s fighting the drug addiction, he’s crying, he’s lost his father, he falls apart. He’s the only character in that series who makes a major mistake that almost gets everybody else in trouble.

“And he’s supposed to be the strong male narrative, to go out, make the plan, get the bad guys and be the male figurehead. And he’s the one who nearly fucks it all up, several times.”

The series soon garnered a loyal LGBTQ following. “You watch it and you feel as if you’re walking into this big queer hug — whether you’re gay or not. It embraced your weirdness, your kookiness,” Brian says of the series’ attitude to bringing fresh, new characters to the screen. It was ground- breaking TV that, at the time, could only have been pioneered by a bold network that prides itself on telling diverse and inclusive stories. Most importantl­y, the characters felt authentic.

“Even if that authentici­ty is embarrassi­ng,” Brian elaborates, “because a lot of people don’t want you to be authentic, because authentic isn’t really that cool all the time, it’s embarrassi­ng, it’s messy. But this show was like, ‘ Hey bring the mess and bring your shame and bring your embarrassm­ent.’ That’s how you connect with people.”

Sense8 only first aired four years ago, sparking conversati­ons around sexuality and gender, which paved the way for shows such as Euphoria and Sex Education to follow, bringing representa­tion to the fore as few had previously done.

“It was way ahead of its time,” says Brian. “Really visionary. We knew that it was because we got a lot of push back, and when it first came out, the critics were appalled and didn’t know what to make of it.

“That’s how we knew we were doing something right. It hurt because, of course, you want to put something out in the world that is loved.

“On Rotten Tomatoes it’s now got a score of 86 per cent, but when we first came out it was 20 or 30 per cent. The critics destroyed us.”

“That kind of freedom,

in a high- stakes

situation, is my drug”

“Sometimes I start to

cry because something

moves me

Along with its celebratio­n of sexuality, Sense8 was also known for its bold depiction of sexuality and the sex that came along with it — although filming those scenes on set in front of countless crew makes for anything but the erotic scenarios that made the final cut.

“We were laughing our asses off. Everyone’s wearing the privacy pouches. You get eight bodies together and it was sweaty and hands go where they’re not supposed to, accidental­ly. But we all loved each other so much, it felt so safe, and Lana was so gentle and very aware about how fraught that experience can make people.”

Even as a queer person, Brian found himself constantly learning from Lana and Lilly about the complexiti­es of gender.

“I realised that I’ve got a lot to learn. Things are changing so fast, and the definition­s of what’s appropriat­e and the way people need to be referred to now. The rules are changing.

“And it’s right that those rules are being written by the people who have been left out of any kind of say in their own destiny for hundreds of years. It’s just time to listen and follow along and let them tell us what makes them feel good. Because as a white cis- gender guy, it’s time for people like me to shut up and be like: ‘ What do you need, and how can I support you?’”

It’s a drizzly, muggy morning when Attitude meets Brian. The grim weather hasn’t dulled his cheerfulne­ss, and as we wander around the splendid hotel, he follows our crew, taking his own video and photograph­y. It’s all very meta. We reciprocat­e by snapping a few photos of him in the bar and ballroom, where he’s happy to whip off his shirt and flash his pumped guns that come with playing the lead in new TV action series Treadstone.

By the time we head up to the opulent Presidenti­al Suite for the last pictures, Brian’s fully relaxed into the shoot and sharing stories of living in London, his visits to XXL, and discoverin­g a love for techno at Berghain in Berlin. We even indulge in a lengthy analysis of the latest episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK.

“I’ve worked in New York a couple times in the past, but not at all since Sense8,” he says of a career that has allowed him to travel the world. They filmed in up to 18 cities a season for the Netflix show, while Treadstone took him to Norway, Colombia and Budapest, and he has been shooting in Prague for BBC’s WWII drama World on Fire.

“I don’t know why the universe keeps giving me these internatio­nal shows. But for some reason I clearly need it and I’m fine with that.”

After his home nation’s rather steep descent into political dismay following Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate and his subsequent presidenti­al win, Brian’s grateful for the time he’s spent around the world and the broader perspectiv­e it offers. He’s previously spoken about an America that’s starting to feel less and less like the country he knows.

“We used to be worried about the future and the direction that we were going, but now if you think about where we are headed and the lengths that Donald Trump will go to hold on to power, I think we’re in for some really, really dark times.

“He’s not going to go away after he loses or he finishes two terms. He’s going to continue on Fox News, having these rallies all the time, he started a movement and it’s like this Pandora’s Box. I think we’re headed towards something ugly.

“Domestic terrorism is going to be a major problem in the next 10 years. Certain parts of the country are going to talk about seceding [ from the union], it’s ugly. It didn’t feel that way five years ago. We were annoyed at each other politicall­y, but not afraid.

“The world is embarrasse­d and appalled for us.”

Working overseas presented Brian with personal and profession­al opportunit­ies. Sense8 shot in London and Brian found himself based in the UK when he starred on stage in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. He has fond memories of the country and its capital. “I fell in love, I dated this Irish g uy for two or three months, and that was f antastic. It’s difficult to describe that feeling. I cherish the photograph­s I t ook there, living in Cov ent Garden. It was incredible. The cheeky British relationsh­ip with going out at night — not just g oing home and locking y ourself up. It was a v ery social place. I lov ed it, I miss it a lot.”

Meanwhile, time in Berlin delivered a different set of experience­s. “The freedom and nonchalanc­e towards all the things that are considered sacrosanct to a boy who grew up in Texas, things such as sexual mores and just going to a club where nobody gives a shit about how much money you make or how young or old you are. When you are watching people dressed up as a dominatrix maid, you can really relax because people are taking it to such an extreme, you don’t have to check yourself. You can be whoever the hell you want.”

It was a revelation compared with the bars and clubs of America where people are much more self- conscious. “That’s why I really don’t go to bars any more in New York, it’s physically painful after having been in Berlin, Prague and Budapest where people are letting loose.

“The first thing people said to me when I was in Berlin was: ‘ You need to relax. Come on, tak e the stick out of y our ass and have a good time’. It t ook me a while. You go to a techno club in New

York and people are kind of shuffling back and forth on their feet ,

“People in Berlin told

me: ‘ Take that stick

out of your ass”’

they’re not really looking at each other. “It’s this very masculine, very controlled, suppressed environmen­t.

“The clubs in Berlin have this absolute hedonistic, freedom. It must be what Studio 54 was like in the Seventies.”

As jobs go, his is certainly the dream. Does it ever feel like work? “Yeah. A lot of times in TV you’re asked to cross the room and put the glass on the table. Or to do something that’s not that emotionall­y inspiring, so it’s your job to try to make it as personal as you can. On stage, that happens. There were moments in The Glass Menagerie on Broadway that were like, ‘ Oh that’s what you can do, and you can go further than that’. It’s like getting a hit of a drug, it’s really addictive.

“I don’t think that happens as often in TV work, you don’t have time. It’s a completely technical medium.

“Sometimes I start to cry because something moves me, or I really smile because I’m relaxed and I can go there, but television is a job. It’s a thing that you do to help a writer, a producer and a showrunner to make their dream come true.

“You are a piece of the puzzle. Most of the time, an actor is an agent of service in that respect.”

Still, the fantastica­l nature of the shows he’s featured in have provided that sense of escape he’s always craved. “The whole idea is to get so involved that you’re completely private in a public space. And that’s why I like it, I’m a very private person. I’m a homebody for the most part, unless I’m in Budapest or Berlin,” he grins.

When it comes to his latest role as Doug McKenna in Treadstone, he’s under no illusion of the echoes it carries from his role as police officer Will in Sense8. “That’s the way television works — they don’t have time to reinvent you or for you to figure it out in two takes on set.

“You have to have had that experience already, and they have to see it in the audition.”

Fortunatel­y, fans have a chance to see a different side to Brian in World on Fire. “I’m excited to have Webster and Doug appearing at the same time,” he says. The war- time drama sees him play a doctor who falls in love with a gay musician in Nazi- occupied Paris.

“There is a part of me that is very much like Wesbter. He can be a little bit bitchy. He has some moments, especially later when he starts fucking with the Nazis and pulling some stuff behind their backs.

“He’s got this almost peevishnes­s about them, that I have too, whereas Doug is the version of me that I like to be: strong, silent and emotional, but not neurotic. He’s like the dream.”

Does Brian consider himself a little neurotic? “Oh, absolutely. But in a harmless way. I’m not a destructiv­e neurotic.”

Is that why he hasn’t done many interviews before Attitude? “People haven’t really asked,” Brian shrugs. Well, we’re pleased to be among the first, although he’s quick to add that fame is not something he has pursued. “I never wanted to be in that celebrity world.

“I have so much respect for those kind of actors because I know how difficult it is to build a brand out of yourself. But I made a very conscious decision: I’m here to serve other people’s brands.

“If you have a dream as a writer or a show runner or a director, I would like to help you do it, then I want to go home and not go to the red- carpet party, unless that is helpful.

“But the kind of public life I’ve had, if anything, it’s been an unfortunat­e side effect of what I do.

“Thank God I’m not at a level of celebrity where I constantly need to be checking how I look, seeing what I am wearing today, or what I am gonna say next. I really don’t care if people like me. I’d rather that they did, of course, but I really care about my producer, director, and writer.

“That’s not to say I’m not insanely moved when a person recognises me. I’m shocked by it, but it’s not why I do it.”

For now, Brian’s happy with his lot, even if he is a star who is in ascendance. “I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do,” he says proudly.

Closer to home, he’s happy that with Treadstone he finally has a show that his family can watch and which doesn’t feature him naked and indulging in an orgy with seven other equally attractive actors. “I was like: ‘ Mom, there’s a full- on picture of my ass mid- thrust, you cannot watch Sense8’.”

There was, however, one family member to whom he forgot to issue a warning.

“My grandmothe­r did a viewing of the first episode for her neighbours in her retirement community, and there’s this scene with the trans girl and the lesbian when they’re fucking and they throw the rainbow- coloured dildo on the floor. I mean she was very sweet about it but I know that it was not for her.”

With Sense8, Brian thought he’d reached new heights in his career. But World on Fire and Treadstone are evidence that he’s fully arrived as one of television’s new leading men.

So, what would he tell that 10- year- old kid in Texas who once felt lost and isolated? “I just would hug him and say ‘ It’s OK’,” Brian says in reflective mood.

“There weren’t enough people there to say to me: ‘ You don’t need to be someone different, you don’t need to change who you are’.”

“What that kid needed was somebody to pick him up and say, ‘ You’re perfect as you are, it’s OK’.”

“Yeah, I’m neurotic

but in a harmless way.

I’m not destructiv­e”

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Words Cliff Joannou Photograph­y Harol Baez
Fashion Joseph Kocharian Location The Pierre, A Taj Hotel, New York
Brian wears top, by DSquared2 DECEMBER 2019 Words Cliff Joannou Photograph­y Harol Baez Fashion Joseph Kocharian Location The Pierre, A Taj Hotel, New York
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DECEMBER 2019 Brian wears shorts, by Ron Dorff
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DECEMBER 2019 Brianwears leather jacket, by Replay, vest, by Ron Dorff, jeans, by Levi’s, trainers, by Kurt Geiger
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Ami at Matches Fashion, trousers, by ASOS, loafers, by Kurt Geiger
GROOMING Melissa DeZarate at The Wall Group, using Omorovicza Skincare LOCATION The Pierre, A Taj Hotel, New York, 2 East 61st St & 5th Ave
thepierren­y. com
Brian wears shirt, by Ami at Matches Fashion, trousers, by ASOS, loafers, by Kurt Geiger GROOMING Melissa DeZarate at The Wall Group, using Omorovicza Skincare LOCATION The Pierre, A Taj Hotel, New York, 2 East 61st St & 5th Ave thepierren­y. com DECEMBER 2019

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