“Straight Up” Star James Sweeney on Coming Out, Bad Dates, and Bi Stigma

The actor-director's witty new rom-com is about a neurotic gay man who gets involved with a woman. How much of it is based on his own life?

The classic Hollywood screwball rom-com—think His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, and It Happened One Night—has gotten an intersectional, queer AF update with James Sweeney’s raucously funny Straight Up.

Briskly paced with crackerjack dialogue (and shot in 4:3 ratio just like those old-timey gems), the actor-director’s new film tracks the relationship between obsessive-compulsive 20-something Todd (Sweeney, above right) and sharp aspiring actress Rory (Katie Findlay, above left). The twist? Todd is gay, but his bad experiences with dating and an aversion to bodily secretions (especially poop) have left him pondering whether a heterosexual relationship might work for him. He initially keeps his queerness a secret from Rory, a move that leaves his friends and acquaintances (including former Heathers stars James Scully and Brendan Scannell) totally bewildered.
 

With hysterical riffs on rom-com movie conventions, Sweeney’s wry yet sweet debut feature—based on his 2015 short, Normal Doors , which he admits “is personal but not autobiographical”—is sure to be anointed as one of the funniest movies of the year. NewNowNext caught up with the Alaska-bred, half-Asian multi-hyphenate to chat alter egos, misadventures in dating, and his own experiences with bisexuality.

How much of Todd is drawn directly from you?

I kind of forget where Todd came from, but I think he’s a hyperbole of myself, an embellishment of my characteristics. He wasn’t a character I was sitting with. He just arose out of my imagination at the same time Rory did.

Todd is… frustrating. Would you want to murder him if you met him in real life?

[Laughs] I would not murder anyone! But he’s definitely persnickety. That’s partially why I say the film is personal but not autobiographical—because I don’t want anyone to think I would be as terrible as Todd. That said, I have a lot of love for Todd, and he has a lot of good qualities that I don’t, like the ability to cook and clean. You take the good with the bad.

Strand Releasing
James Sweeney (left) and Katie Findlay in Straight Up.

So then how much of Rory is you?

A lot! Todd and Rory represent my inner Socratic dialogue, and that’s why they complement each other so well. Certain things she’s said, I’ve said, like the line about “if you shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” And I guess her whole commercial acting arc is how I felt about trying to be an actor in L.A. I was always directing and writing, so I definitely related to her.

Would you be angry if you found yourself in Rory’s shoes and dated a guy who turned out to be straight but hoped the gay thing would work better for him?

I have dated bisexual people, and they told me that sometimes people don’t want to date them because of it. I don’t think that’s fair. If two people are right for each other, they’re right.

There’s bisexual and “bisexual,” though. Which have you encountered more?

Like people who are bisexual but on the way to being gay? I try to take people at face value—if they tell me that’s what they are, I try to believe them. I also think, and we see this a little bit in the themes of Straight Up, that there’s gay as a political identity—you know, where it serves a political purpose. But I know people who are “gay” and afraid to say they still have an attraction to women because they’d be ostracized by their peers. That’s unfortunate—that we have to cling to an identity so much, we’re eating our own.

Was coming to grips with your sexuality a smooth road compared to Todd’s?

I’d say so. I’m probably a late bloomer. I grew up in Alaska, so that says enough. I didn’t have a big coming out. It was one person, then another. I got myself into therapy, read The Velvet Rage, did all the work, and here I am!

James Sweeney.
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Sweeney.

A few other films over the past few years have been using the 4:3 aspect ratio, including Robert Eggers’ homoerotic movie The Lighthouse. Why’d you choose to use it?

In a lot of ways Todd and Rory are living in a box, and you could argue that some of their relationship is taken out of a 1930s Hays Code–era movie plot, which is when that ratio was standard. They conform to the modern ideal but don’t fit, and feel boxed in by that. Thematically that’s where it lands, but it also lends itself aesthetically to a lot of the composition and symmetry we were trying to showcase.

You managed to get a few familiar faces in the film, including redheaded queer actor and comedian Brendan Scannell, who seems to be popping up everywhere lately.

As he should be! My casting director is also a redhead. We talked a lot about the palette of the film and keeping it inclusive and diverse. She said, “Casting gingers is diversity,” which I thought was funny. They are a minority.

Your frustration over being single also helped inspire Straight Up. What’s the most disheartening thing someone has said to you while you were dating? Anything that was an instant deal breaker?

The first thing to come to mind, and I hope they don’t read this, is a date where they had colored contacts. It freaked me out. I can’t date somebody with colored contacts. It was really bad.

How do you usually find guys these days? Through apps? Film clubs?

Oh, it’s just the worst! I’m so cynical but also a hopeless romantic. I’ve been on the apps. Right now I’m trying to focus on other things and hoping I’ll meet somebody organically. If not, I’ll just die alone.

Strand Releasing
Sweeney and James Scully in Straight Up.

Since the film played festivals this summer, has it served as a sort of flypaper for folks who appreciate your wit? Or at least some starfuckers?

No. I think people watch the film and think, He’s cute, but I wouldn’t want to date that. Like, it’s too much! But I could be projecting. That’s what I’d think if I saw the film!

What’s next for you?

I’ve got a feature about twins—a dark comedy that I’m also hoping to direct and co-star in. Maybe we’ll make it this year. I also have a pilot in development. I’d also like to work in sci-fi. I have a lot of ideas that are Black Mirror–esque. And I’d like to do a thriller one day. We’ll see what lands next.

If you had to cast a different actor to play your onscreen alter ego in another movie, who would it be?

I can’t even name a younger half-Asian actor! We tried that with Straight Up. Like, “Who’s a more bankable version of me?” And we couldn’t come up with a name, which is why I ended up playing that role. Who’s a straight version of me? John Mulaney? The two people I’ve been compared to are John Mulaney and Seth MacFarlane. I don’t see it, but I’ve been told that by two or three people.

So where are all the gay half-Asian actors?

I don’t know. It’ll maybe be the next generation.

Straight Up is currently playing at the IFC Theater in New York City and opens March 6 in Los Angeles.

Main image: James Sweeney (right) and Katie Findlay in Straight Up.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.
@LawrenceFerber