As a gay hustler in the new Tony-nominated Broadway revival of John Guare’s 1990 satire Six Degrees of Separation, James Cusati-Moyer makes a big impression with little stage time. Hired for sex by a scam artist (Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins), he shocks and scandalizes a rich Manhattan couple played by Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey.
The out actor strips down what it’s like to be completely nude on stage eight times a week—sometimes in front of family and Friends.
Did you ever imagine you’d make your Broadway debut without a costume?
[Laughs] No, I did not. But I’m so honored that it is what it is.
Were you asked to take off your clothes during the audition process?
First of all, it was quite difficult for me to get an audition. I knew the hustler was a role that I could really tackle, so I fought my way into that room. Once I got in there, no, there was no requirement for nudity or even being shirtless. They were interested in the storytelling, not the skin, and I was relieved that I could focus on that as well. Because it’s really not about my abs and how many crunches I’ve done.
That being said, has the role made you adjust your diet and gym routine?
Yes, some extra time was spent in the gym, but only so that I could forget about how I look and focus on what I’m doing. The goal was just to feel as confident as possible.
Did you have any hesitations about the nudity?
I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me nervous, but I kept reminding myself that it’s not about my nerves, my ego, or my vanity. It’s about the play and the character. Once I realized that, I quickly found comfort in the discomfort. Honestly, I’ve never felt freer as an actor and as a human being.
How does your family feel about it?
They couldn’t be more proud or supportive. I grew up in a pretty liberal family, so the nudity isn’t a shock to them.
Tell me about your character. Have you created a backstory for the hustler?
I’m telling the story of this young, queer body in 1990, at the height of the AIDS crisis. He’s a sex worker as a form of survival, going from bed to bed, while yearning for acceptance from a society that’s told him he’s ugly and dirty. So it’s about representing those who are marginalized and who suffer injustice.
You make the most of your brief scene with stage business that isn’t necessarily in the script. At one point you lie naked on top of Flan, John Benjamin Hickey’s character. How did you and director Trip Cullman discover those moments in rehearsals?
There was a lot of trust involved. Once we had the basic blocking down, I was encouraged to find my own physical language. With not much text to explore, it was about discovering how this young man would take back his power. Flan tells him, “Go back to sleep in the gutter,” and so many gay men at that time were being told the same thing, by hospitals and from their own families. When the hustler pins Flan down, he also pinning down white privilege and the patriarchal society that’s rejected him.
You also punctuate your exit by smacking your ass.
The smacking of the ass is about giving a sense of justice and worth back to the character, so he doesn’t leave as a victim. These people aren’t just scared of a naked man in their house; they’re scared of sex, of AIDS, of filth on their pristine carpets. That smack is a big “fuck you,” but it’s also about claiming a queer identity in the theater and in our sex-shaming society.
What was it like the first time you did the show in front of an audience?
That was wild. I left the stage in a complete blur, and I don’t remember what happened at all. But after the next couple of previews, I gained more confidence and had more fun. I had to switch my mentality and remember that the audience isn’t holding me captive, because I’m the one in control.
Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer both attended your opening night, so two of the six friends from Friends have seen you naked.
[Laughs] That was very exciting. It is a very funny thing to be meeting celebrities and industry people, thinking, well, you’ve seen me naked, so I guess I have nothing else to hide.
In support of the Ghostlight Project, you defined yourself in an Instagram post as “Syrian. Homosexual. Artist.” You must have some pretty strong feelings about Trump.
Absolutely. I’ve never felt more charged and alive and privileged to be an artist, but it comes with great responsibility. With the current administration’s constant attacks against our basic freedoms, I want to be a leader in my communities—my community of artists, my queer community, the Syrian Muslim community. We must resist.
Were you born in Syria?
No, my grandfather came over from Syria many years ago, and it was my Syrian aunts and cousins who helped raise me in Pennsylvania. To see Syrian refugees being denied entry into our country, and to see pictures of them looking exactly like my family—it’s gut-wrenching. How can I help, how can I contribute? That’s been on my mind every day.
When did you make the decision be openly gay in your professional life?
I came out when I was 14, and I made a promise to myself when I was very young that I was never going to hide who I was or who I loved. There is blatant homophobia within our industry, and I’m ready to face it head-on. I’m not interested in putting a heteronormative glaze over my identity to make other people more comfortable or to get more work. I am a gay man. If doors aren’t opened because of that, I’ll break down a wall.
Has this show affected your dating life at all? I imagine it couldn’t hurt.
No, but I am getting very sweet and complimentary messages on social media. Some messages may take things a step too far, but I’m very appreciative for all those who compliment me about my work.
Six Degrees of Separation runs through July 16 at the Barrymore Theatre in New York.