The sex and politics of “Fellow Travelers”: On set of Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey's sultry, sweeping romance

Fellow Travelers
Fellow Travelers

Ben Mark Holzberg/SHOWTIME Matt Bomer's Hawkins Fuller and Jonathan Bailey's Tim Laughlin in 'Fellow Travelers'

Time works differently on the set of Fellow Travelers. It's not what we typically think of as linear. It's as if the past, the present, and the future are all unfolding simultaneously. That sensation feels most apparent one particular Wednesday afternoon in Toronto in early November.

Magic Mike's Matt Bomer and Bridgerton's Jonathan Bailey, the two stars of Showtime's decades-spanning love story, prepare for a scene that plays out in 1950s Washington, D.C. The backdrop is the Lavender Scare, Senator Joseph McCarthy (Chris Bauer) and chief legal counsel Roy Cohn's (Will Brill) purge of homosexuals from government jobs. It's deep into the relationship of Hawkins Fuller (Bomer) and Tim Laughlin (Bailey), two closeted men on the Hill whose private lives are consumed with intoxicating sex and fluctuating power dynamics. Tim, marked by his signature full-rim glasses and a polka-dot short-sleeve button-up, is packing a suitcase in his practically doll-sized apartment, ready to leave town and never look back. Then Hawk, fedora in hand, knocks at the door and…

"It smells like soup," Bailey remarks in between takes. Bomer can't seem to smell anything, but his costar insists the savory aroma is there. "Is that what's on my fingers?" Bailey wonders, slipping back into his British accent as he thrusts his hands underneath his scene partner's nose. Bomer doesn't flinch, but promptly takes a whiff — a sign of the immense comfort and intimacy the two actors have developed while making this period piece. As it happens, chicken noodle soup is the very meal Hawk and Tim share on their first date, which was shot in the same apartment set on which the actors now find themselves. Does the smell actually still linger days later or is it a sensory echo? "Déjà vu. Chicken noodle soup," Bailey remarks — and then the cameras roll for their fourth take.

While Fellow Travelers begins with Hawk and Tim falling for each other during a terrifying time for queer people in America, the limited series, told over eight episodes, tracks their waxing-and-waning relationship through pivotal moments of queer history, such as the Harvey Milk era of the '70s and the AIDS crisis of the '80s. "It becomes difficult not only for the actors, but the directors to keep track of everything," admits producer Robbie Rogers, who says the crew worked across three-to-four different stages on any given day in their Toronto studio. As we speak, another star, M3GAN's Allison Williams, dressed in a '50s-era tartan dress and pearl necklace, is running accent drills off in another set designed for a '70s-style San Francisco apartment. "Because we shoot out of order, and there were times in which we were shooting multiple decades back to back, they did rely on me to keep track of where they were in their lives," adds series creator and showrunner Ron Nyswaner, the Oscar-nominated scribe of Philadelphia.

A story like Fellow Travelers feels somewhat revolutionary, even now in 2023 when it can seem as though history is repeating itself. (Former President Donald Trump, whom Nyswaner refers to as "the antichrist," considered the late Roy Cohn as a mentor, and the two share similar rhetoric.) Inspired by Thomas Mallon's 2007 novel of the same name, the series offers an unflinching look at gay relationships at a time when they were forced into hiding. Yes, that includes some of the most erotic depictions of same-sex sex ever put to screen on a premium television network at a time when politicians are once again trying to tell LGBTQ Americans to keep their "lifestyles" behind closed doors. Says Nyswaner, "Our goal was to really tell the story from an LGBTQIA perspective of what happened in the '50s and then to take it past the '50s."

A love for the ages

Fellow Travelers
Fellow Travelers

Ben Mark Holzberg/SHOWTIME Hawk (Matt Bomer) and Tim (Jonathan Bailey) steal away a moment by the beach in 'Fellow Travelers'

Nyswaner deviated from Mallon's book quite a bit, incorporating the other decades to the piece, but he says the essence of Hawk and Tim came directly from the source material. "It haunted me for years," Nyswaner says of the novel. (The creator spoke with EW in August for an interview coordinated through his personal PR team in accordance with WGA strike guidelines.) The writer sat with the concept for years, only returning to it with the help of Rogers after his work on Ray Donovan and Homeland, so it's not surprising that Nyswaner thinks of Fellow Travelers as a hybrid of both those shows, part "fixer thriller" and part "political thriller."

Daniel Minahan, who directed a pivotal bottle episode of Ray Donovan, sees a similarity between Liev Schreiber's performance and Bomer's Hawk. "They're both fixers," he says. "Ray's someone who has his own moral code and is immoral. Hawk has his own moral code, but it's very specific to being a closeted gay man." Hawk, a war hero, exudes a classical man-about-town image as an always-suited, charming State Department official courting Lucy Smith (Williams), the daughter of a prominent U.S. senator. In his private life, he discreetly prowls for other gay men in dark-cornered cruising grounds to satiate his hunger for sexual dominance.

"I find sometimes that gay characters are made too clean," Nyswaner reflects. "They're made too noble. I'm just tired of that. Hawkins Fuller certainly is a very complicated, sometimes unlikeable antihero. I'd marry him in a second and then regret it probably in a few days, but there's something fascinating about watching someone who is in charge and you don't like him, but you kind of enjoy it. I think that helps us get away with a lot."

Fellow Travelers
Fellow Travelers

Ben Mark Holzberg/SHOWTIME Allison Williams' Lucy Smith in 'Fellow Travelers'

Chris Bauer as Senator McCarthy and Will Brill as Roy Cohn in FELLOW TRAVELERS, "You're Wonderful.”
Chris Bauer as Senator McCarthy and Will Brill as Roy Cohn in FELLOW TRAVELERS, "You're Wonderful.”

Ben Mark Holzberg/SHOWTIME Senator Joseph McCarthy (Chris Bauer) and chief legal counsel Roy Cohn (Will Brill) in 'Fellow Travelers'

Bailey's Tim is more gentle and naive than Hawk, especially when the Irish Fordham University graduate and devout Catholic first arrives on the Hill. Rogers met Bailey on his past project when filmmaker Michael Grandage was scouting for the role of Patrick opposite Harry Styles in My Policeman, a part that ultimately went to David Dawson. "Things didn't work out for a number of reasons, but I remember being really interested in him as an actor," the producer says. There's an inherent delight in now seeing the Bridgerton heartthrob play someone a few shades geekier, complete with a fondness for milk that Tim will order at bars without shame. "Jonny's character in Bridgeton is a little bit like Hawkins Fuller. He's kind of ruthless and he's in charge," Nyswaner points out. "Jonny's version of Tim is so vulnerable. You just don't know if you want Tim to get away from [Hawk] or stay with him and change him."

The two stars got together over Zoom for a chemistry read. Bomer (already attached as an executive producer) called in from L.A., Bailey from London, and Nyswaner from Toronto. The showrunner remembers, "It was electric." The pair were reading Hawk and Tim's first proper meeting: flirting with each other on a park bench in the days after clocking eyes at a political soiree. "I got a text from one of the executives who said, 'Well, that's the first time I've cried in a chemistry read.'"

Fellow Travelers
Fellow Travelers

Ben Mark Holzberg/SHOWTIME Jelani Alladin as Marcus Hooks and Noah J. Ricketts as Frankie Hines in 'Fellow Travelers'

There are two other core relationships explored in Fellow Travelers. One is Hawk and Lucy, both hiding parts of themselves from each other. The other is one Nyswaner developed just for the series, another gay couple entwined in the lives of Hawk and Tim: Marcus Hooks (Jelani Alladin), a Black journalist covering the Senate beat, and Frankie Hines (Noah J. Ricketts), a drag performer working at the Cozy Corner underground gay bar.

On the set in November, Alladin offers a tour of Marcus' San Francisco apartment in the '80s setting. The character's story is reflected in the props that adorn the space, from the Jean-Baptiste painting on the wall to the writerly awards spotted on the shelves. "He goes from this closeted man, not loving himself, to completely in love and embracing not only Black culture, but the fact that he's a homosexual man," the actor says.

It's "that struggle of, where is my loyalty? I have to be a Black man first because that's what is needed and expected of me from my community," Nyswaner adds. "Jelani and I had conversations where he would read to me from his journal that he kept in the voice of Marcus. Sometimes I would say, 'Can I put that in the scene?' So, that was a really beautiful collaboration."

Marcus remains in stark contrast to his love, Frankie, who, according to Ricketts, is all about being authentic to oneself at all times. "What I love about Frankie is that sometimes he feels like putting on a jacket and being butch and going out into the world, and other times he feels like painting his nails and letting his hair out," Ricketts says.

And, the actor notes, "every drag queen has a drag mother." For him, that would be costume designer Joseph La Corte, who's been Emmy nominated for work on Fosse/Verdon, Boardwalk Empire, and The Sopranos. "Joseph was the one who taught me how to hide and tuck and get rid of everything that I needed to discreetly put away."

The politics of sex

The first glimpse the public saw of Fellow Travelers came unexpectedly in September 2022. It was another ripple in time: Bailey, sporting a '70s stache, flaunted his pronounced pectorals alongside Bomer on the shores of Lake Ontario, which doubled for the waves of Fire Island. Rogers says they had to shoot those scenes first by necessity as winter wasn't far off. Little did they know, paparazzi were hiding out nearby. Rogers was admittedly stressed at first when photos of the scene spread online. "My first reaction was, 'Is this gonna affect shooting going forward?' I had that experience with Harry Styles in England when we did My Policeman. So, maybe I was traumatized," he recalls, laughing.

The leak ended up being the best thing for Fellow Travelers. People couldn't help but thirst over two shirtless Hollywood hunks in their prime, gleefully wrestling with each other in the water. A cheeky Nyswaner agrees, "It was not a bad thing that those images came out." Even now, however, the series is going to prove sexier than some might be prepared for. In one scene that occurs early on, Hawk is prepping for a party thrown by Senator McCarthy. Tim, letting his partner's hand linger over the hairs on his chest, wants to go but doesn't have an invite. "I'm your boy, right?" Bailey's Tim says, already working his seductive magic. "And your boy wants to go to the party." Regarding what happens next, let's just say, if Ben Shapiro doesn't go on a three-hour diatribe afterwards, it will be a shock. (Watch the clip in the video below.)

Minahan speaks of this specific moment from the breakfast nook of his Gramercy apartment in New York City, where a plump peach sits on a dish among croissants and morning sweets — an appropriate image given the subject matter. "What sets these sex scenes apart is that they are moving the story forward," he explains. "The way they're moving the story forward is by the transference of power that happens between [the characters]."

There were many rules on the set of Fellow Travelers, particularly when it came to sex, which involved intimacy coordinators and lots of rehearsals. Nyswaner quotes the great queer poet Oscar Wilde, who said, "Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power." That was one rule. "The other rule," Nyswaner continues, "was that we wouldn't do the same sexual act more than once, or the same combination." That proved to be harder than they all realized. "I remember when we were writing episode 8, my co-writers and I said, 'What haven't we done?'"

Minahan, who directs the first episode, ended up setting that tone for the whole show. "What I was going for in those first two hours was this idea of Tim, who's not particularly sexually experienced, having this almost transcendent experience with Hawk which imprints on him," he says. "He becomes almost obsessive about his attachment, but whether Hawk's in love with the power that he has over him or actually has this love for him is part of the tension of the piece. His life and sexuality is so compartmentalized. It's like, this is when I do sex, this is when I'm at work, this is when I have my girlfriend."

This kind of material meant that Bomer and Bailey were going to be in each other's personal spaces for a significant part of filming. The pair have previously spoken about finding that trust and comfort with each other as scene partners, and Rogers could feel it. "They were gonna be there for each other the whole production and keep each other safe," he says. "It's actors finding that with each other and feeling safe on set, feeling safe with us. Whatever the cut we present to the studio and network, we have their best interest and the show's best interest in mind."

Ripples through time

Fellow Travelers
Fellow Travelers

Ben Mark Holzberg/SHOWTIME Matt Bomer's Hawk and Jonathan Bailey's Tim in one of their more intimate moments of 'Fellow Travelers'

Rogers knows viewers will pay a lot of attention to the sex on Fellow Travelers for obvious reasons, but he says it wasn't their goal to be "too salacious," noting, "It's quite an emotional and powerful show."

All three of the producers who spoke with EW, including Minahan and Nyswaner, felt the weight of time, and more specifically history, while making the miniseries. Rogers, a former international soccer star, formed a deeply personal connection to the material, having come out as gay in 2013 when few professional athletes were doing so. "If your secret was revealed, your life could be ruined. I slightly felt that way in my past career," he recalls.

Minahan's connection, meanwhile, came from growing up gay through the '80s. "I think we put ourselves in things in ways we don't even know," Nyswaner remarks. "I came of age in the '60s and then as a young teenager in the '70s, moved to New York in 1978, came out, really enjoyed some of that celebration of being liberated in a limited way, and then, of course, the cold shower of the AIDS crisis."

Nyswaner lost friends and loved ones to the disease over the years, including his nephew, for whom he would write 1993's Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. He felt similarly compelled to include that time period in Fellow Travelers. "Since it's a part of my life, I just couldn't let that go," he says. But the drama feels richer for expanding well beyond the '50s setting of Mallon's novel. Nyswaner adds, "If you have a chance to tell a story like this, I wanted to tell as much of it as possible."

Perhaps he'll get the chance to tell even more. Both Nyswaner and Rogers confirm they are already talking about the possibility of turning the miniseries into an anthology series that would track different queer fellow travelers across history. The current Hollywood writer and actor strikes, however, are putting those early talks on hold.

"How about if I just say...? Yes, I think that there are many stories to be told, and Robbie and I have spoken in detail. Because of the strike, we haven't spoken to any of our studio executives about it. When the strike ends, that'll be a conversation that I hope to have immediately with them. Even maybe taking one or two of the characters from this season who weren't [featured] as prominently as Hawk and Tim."

That seems to be yet another rule of Fellow Travelers.

Fellow Travelers premieres Oct. 27 on Paramount+ with Showtime.

Actor interviews were conducted on the set of Fellow Travelers in November 2022, before the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Make sure to check out EW's Fall TV Preview cover story on Gen V — as well as all of our 2023 Fall TV Preview content, releasing through Sept. 21.

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