There’s real history in this week’s fictional gay “Fellow Travelers” series that highlights the political horrors of queer life in 1950s Washington, D.C., and the horrors of the ‘80s AIDS plague.
“Fellow Travelers,” beginning on Paramount+ Friday and Showtime Sunday, is adapted from Thomas Mallon’s book by the Oscar-nominated “Philadelphia” screenwriter Ron Nyswaner. He held the rights for a decade before making this eight-part series.
“I fell in love with the two lovers at the center of Mallon’s novel,” Nyswaner, 67, said in a Zoom press conference of Hawkins Fuller (played by Matt Bomer), a slick if closeted D.C. insider, and the very Catholic, closeted Tim Laughlin (England’s Jonathan Bailey).
“It was the kind of relationship I find compelling: A relationship of opposites. They’re not meant to be together but are powerfully drawn to each other. I was immediately taken with that — and then this is a drama with high stakes. I know about that! I did three seasons of ‘Homeland.’
“In the ‘50s everything — your life, your career, your future — could be destroyed if people discovered you were queer.”
Casting was a no-brainer. Bomer, Nyswaner revealed, “was onboard for three years before we got to make the thing. Matt is so good at what he’s thinking and feeling — without saying what he is thinking and feeling.”
As for Bailey, who like Bomer is an out gay actor, “As soon as we had our greenlight Jonathan was at the top of our list. The only problem was he was busy shooting ‘Bridgerton’ in London” and they needed to coordinate filming schedules.
“Fellow Travelers” highlights the now-infamous Red Scare, led by Senator Joe McCarthy of Minnesota and his assistant, the now notorious Roy Cohn, to ferret out Communists in government. It soon transmuted into the Lavender Scare, a witch hunt for “perverts,” gays and lesbians, in the State Department.
The series is an expansion of the book, including the creation of two major Black characters. Explained Nyswaner, “There are two major changes. We go through several decades, from the ‘50s to the ‘70s and ‘80s — and the book is entirely in the ‘50s.
“To air a show in 2023,” he continued, “with no Black characters didn’t feel right to me. So we went to research. There were a lot of ‘Black newspapers’ and lot of representations of those in Washington. A couple of people came from Black journalism who went to white newspapers and we modeled the character of Marcus (Jelani Alladin) on that. He had to protect his Black identity and therefore has to hide his homosexuality at the same time. We’re proud we made our Black characters as complex as our white characters.”
“Fellow Travelers” streams on Paramount+ Friday and on Showtime Sunday