Q&A with genderqueer ‘Stay awake’ actor Fin Argus

Wyatt Oleff (left) and Fin Argus (right in "Stay Awake."
Wyatt Oleff (left) and Fin Argus (right in “Stay Awake.”
Alejandro Mejia

Genderqueer actor Fin Argus delivers a sensitive performance as the son of a mother dealing with substance abuse in the involving and affecting drama, “Stay Awake.” Expanded from writer/director Jamie Sisley’s short of the same name, this modest, absorbing film has Derek (Argus) and his younger brother Ethan (Wyatt Oleff) — they are a good physical match — caring for their mother Michelle (Chrissy Metz), who is in and out of rehab. 

Derek acts as the linchpin of the family, supportive of both Michelle and Ethan, and stuck in a rut in their rural Virginia town. Whereas Ethan plans to head off for college, Derek has put his dreams on hold, working at a bowling alley to earn money when he is not doing local commercials. Derek also helps with his mother’s mail order business when she is in rehab.

Argus, who starred in the recent ill-fated reboot of “Queer as Folk,” and is currently appearing in “The Other Two” talked with Gay City News about their new film.

How did you see Derek’s character? He tries to hold his family together, as unhealthy as that may be.

This is not a direct correlation to Derek’s experience, but for me, I was raised in a very religious environment, and I became a people pleaser. That’s the main part of Derek’s character — he is learning to say “No,” and put his own health and well-being first. That was something I struggled with too. I was raised on almost self-destructive altruism. It took me a lot of time and effort and therapy to get out of that headspace, so to see that story represented in a character like Derek, I was excited to bring some of my own truth to Derek’s experience.

Derek sacrifices himself for the greater good of the family, but that will exact a cost. Is he pathetic? 

Since he was a child, Derek had to be the parent for his own mother. That’s not a switch that is easily flipped back. In trauma response, he became the caretaker of the family. He is not only a brother to Ethan, but a father figure to his own mother. When you meet Derek and Ethan, Derek is maybe even too far gone to put himself first. All he’s ever known is taking care of mother and putting her health and safety first. Ethan has a different experience. He is ready to live for himself and set that boundary with his mother. Derek has been almost brainwashed into not accepting that possibility. You see this push and pull between Ethan and Derek. While Derek is theoretically being selfless, it comes at a cost not only to him, but his other loved ones. 

What did you think about the decisions Derek makes? 

It’s this emotional tightrope walk. You can have a glaringly obvious choice in front of you, but still, fear of emotional implications outweigh making what some might say is an easy decision. Prioritize your own dreams and happiness. But that doesn’t erase the emotional implications. Derek is afraid of the pain that might come from letting go of his mother and facing the grief. He wants to hold out as long as possible to make it less real to subdue the pain. I don’t think his decisions are selfless. He’s protecting himself by shielding his own eyes from the grief that is already affecting him and his entire family.

What experience or knowledge do you have with addiction and how did this film help you better understand the impact it has on families?

There are people I love that have struggled with addiction. It’s way more common than people realize, especially because people keep their cards close to their chest. It’s a personal and vulnerable thing people deal with, and they don’t want to talk about people they love. People experiencing addiction hurt people they love because their own lives are out of control. I’ve had conversations with myself — at what point do I cut off this relationship? And, am I doing a disservice by sticking around? Sometimes, the best thing you can do is set boundaries. That’s a part of caring about someone — set a boundary and stand by it so they can help themselves. And that applies to more than addiction recovery.

Given that Derek works in a bowling alley, I am curious if you are a good bowler? 

[Laughs] I’m highly competitive. But I’d say best case scenario, I get one strike per game. I’m not afraid to ask for bumpers. Bowling is not my strongest sport. 

What is your strongest sport?

I grew up playing competitive baseball. It was my whole life. I thought I was going to be in MLB. That was my big dream as a kid. I still love sports, but that environment had a lot of machismo and homophobia. I didn’t feel comfortable in that environment. It wasn’t fully within my abilities to stick it out, but I liked expressing myself more in acting. That was a big shift in my life from sports to creative endeavors, like acting and music. The tools that make you a successful athlete or actor are very similar — it’s about stamina and perseverance. Acting is a very competitive field as well. There is a lot of loss and rejects and you have to take it in stride.

“Stay Awake” is not a queer film. Can you talk about playing both queer and straight characters, and how you are positioning yourself as an actor?

I have no problem playing a straight character. There was a period in my life where that was the exact performance I was giving — playing a straight, cis guy. As a queer performer, I know there is all this emotion underneath the surface. I like finding those moments of nuance and vulnerability. The characters in “Stay Awake” hold back their emotional experience, so when it does bleed through, it hits harder. I was drawn to the pressure of masculinity and this role of being a caretaker. I relate to that. I do love playing queer characters and I want to see more and more of them. And I’d love to see incidental ones. “Stay Awake” implies Ethan might be attracted to his male classmate. I appreciate it when a movie has a queer character involved in a storyline. I want to see more of that, and participate in more stories where queerness is not the point but is present in the story.

Do you have other LGBTQ projects in mind?  

I’d like to play genderqueer or lean more on the feminine end of the gender spectrum. There is pressure to maintain a certain malleability as an actor, and when you are openly queer, that does affect the type of roles people will see you for. I hope to keep opening doors and expanding the type of characters I play in regard to queerness, gender, and character types. 

I just played a gay character in “The Other Two” and was thrilled to be a part of that show. It was nice to do comedy as well, as I’ve not really tried my hand at that. I’ve done a lot of very heavy dramas over the past few years. It was scary to do a silly, outlandish comedy. Over the season, I play eight different people, which will make more sense as people watch it. It was a dream character and very queer and way more than just that. 

It’s tough being a genderqueer actor because there are not many roles written as genderqueer, so I’m working on a film where I can play a character that is more similar to my experience of gender, and I don’t think it’s story I’ve seen depicted. I’m excited to bring that story to life. I’m writing it and playing the main character as well.

“Stay Awake” | Directed by Jamie Sisley | Opening May 19 at Film Forum | Distributed by Marvista Entertainment.