Charlie Carver has no problem admitting that Cowboy, his character in The Boys in the Band, is a little dated. In Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play, the young hustler arrives at a birthday party where he’s meant to be a gift for the guest of honor. Beautiful, uncomplicated, and essentially unknowable—because, well, the other characters don’t seem to think there’s much worth knowing about him—he’s in some sense a foil to his older, toxically neurotic gay hosts. He’s also a bit of a prop, equal parts eye candy and comic relief; a young, dumb and, presumably, hung kid who should be seen and not heard.
“It’s certainly something interesting to think about and something I’ve thought about,” Carver tells NewNowNext. “How might this character exist in the world that we live in now?”
Carver played Cowboy in the play’s Tony-winning 2018 Broadway run, directed by Joe Mantello and produced by Ryan Murphy. He reprises the role, along with the entire cast, in Netflix’s new film adaptation. Ahead of the premiere, we discussed The Boys in the Band and how he found the humanity in his himbo character.
You first encountered the play in high school. Did you recognize yourself in any of the characters back then?
I recognized myself, and I remember envying that the play was about a birthday party and that these men were gathering together. This was at a boarding school in the Midwest and I had my sights set on New York City and I just thought, Wow, maybe one day I’ll get to be a part of that. Which isn’t to say that the themes of it were lost on me at that age. But that’s just what stood out most.
I read that during the 2018 Broadway run, you thought a lot about the fact that your father, who was also gay, could have been one of the characters in the play. Was there a particular character you associated with him?
Oh, gosh. I think what’s so beautiful about this play is, we can see ourselves in so many of them. They’re sort of refractions of different aspects—yet at the same time, they’re such individual characters. I think there was an aspect of my dad that was a Hank and an aspect that was maybe a Harold. He came from a different time and a different set of circumstances than I did. While I think he had a sense of self-love, I think he definitely had turned his shame into a source of power. He was incredibly funny and incredibly witty and could just take your knees out with a line. There is something familiar about Harold and Michael.
The play is obviously an important work, but it also feels very much like an artifact of its time. What does The Boys in the Band have to offer to a contemporary audience?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking of it as an artifact of that time. So much of the imagination around our own history is about the AIDS crisis, which is hugely important. But going back further to 1968 and thinking about the social climate of that period, it just gives us a sense of where we come from and, I would argue, of an essential queer spirit that has existed throughout time and continues to exist.
When the play came out in 1968, it was before the Stonewall uprising. It was a revelation. No one had seen anything like it before. And by 1970, the gay rights movement was kind of on its feet and there was a real agenda about ensuring that gay was good. And this play ran counter to that in that it showed sometimes mean and imperfect people. And here we are 50 years later. Not only do we have more gay and queer stories, but we also have all kinds of characters who happen to be gay or queer. So, we can now see [the characters in The Boys in the Band] not as representatives of a community, but as individuals. That’s a very humanizing thing and I think a very important thing.
Your character, Cowboy, is very much objectified and dismissed by the other characters—and I think by the playwright. We don’t really get a sense of who he is or what he thinks. How do you approach a character like that?
There was one thing that Mart Crowley shared with me that I thought was really sweet: We talked a lot about what fun was to be had back then, and we talked about Fire Island and how he met a hustler out there who was in a sailor costume who said the famous line at the end: “I try to show a little affection.” And Mart gets very moved when he talks about it. To me, it points to the humanity of this character and what I picked up and ran with, which is the notion of affection. This character, stuff is sort of glancing off of him, and part of that is because he doesn’t understand it. But part of it is just that it’s not what he’s preoccupied with. I think this character probably is just so grateful to be in New York City—as imperfect as that setting was for gay folks in 1968—just to be in a city where he could find any kind of community. So, being in this room with all of these men, even if they’re saying mean things, it’s one of the better nights of his life so far because he has a sense of place. That’s kind of how I found my truth in it.
Huck, your character in Ratched, and the Cowboy are both largely defined by their appearance. Did you make that connection between the characters? Did you think much about how people’s appearance affects the way they exist in and interact with the world?
Oh absolutely. Huck’s way of being in the world, while the wounds come from a very specific event, the way he is received has nothing to do with the person inside. And I think in a funny way Cowboy is sort of the same. I think Cowboy sort of enjoys and makes opportunities out of how people find him attractive. But I always think it’s always important with a character whose looks are commented on to find something else about them. Otherwise, it’s kind of a superficial way to think of a character or another human being.
How would you compare the experience of working on a film with a cast of out gay men and an out director to working on projects where you’re in the minority?
Look, I think Hollywood is generally a pretty accepting place. And I don’t mean tolerant; I mean accepting. At the same time, so much of the journey into selfhood before, during, and after coming out—coming out as an individual, coming out professionally—is about realizing how much you’re accommodating other people’s comfort over your own needs. The point being that working on The Boys in the Band, there was just no accommodation whatsoever. There was just this sense of respect and freedom. I will carry that experience of freedom forward in my career. Because I know what it feels like professionally now. I feel like I can afford to behave that unselfconsciously in any job moving forward.
Did you find you had similar experiences in common?
We talked about the signals that are sent largely around an incompatibility between desirable expressions of masculinity and homosexuality. I think while I have a career that I’m very grateful for and I’m happy about my career, I have to believe that I won’t necessarily be considered for certain parts because I’m gay. That might affect an audience’s perception of the character, or the box office, or what have you. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want my career to be any different. I don’t think we gathered with a sense of shared suffering. I think we gathered with a sense of a shared outlook on life, and I think that distinction’s important.