In Evan Linder’s Byhalia, Mississippi, Jack Falahee plays Jim Parker, a lax, tacitly racist Southern dude whose wife gives birth to their first child — who turns out to be a child of color. To say Jim goes ballistic is an understatement, and Linder’s masterfully-written drama heads into powerful territory, presenting in ways comedic, poignant, and shocking topics that reverberate in society today.
“What struck me was Evan’s ability to write a well-structured, effective comedy that also directly takes on very complex and serious issues, such as family, forgiveness, racial disparity, and what it means to raise a biracial child in the south,” says Falahee. The actor’s performance is guileless, natural, at times explosive, and he’s joined by Caroline Neff, Aimé Donna Kelly, Blake Morris, and the astounding Cecelia Wingate, who collectively blow the roof off the Terrace Theater in the Kennedy Center production.
Falahee’s national star blazed when he took on the role of law student Connor Walsh in ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, recently renewed for season six. “When I accepted the role,” says the 30-year-old actor, who is straight, “I actually didn’t think Connor was gay. I read it as this guy who’s super-overachieving and ruthless, sleeping with a guy in that first episode in order to get information. It’s absolutely symptomatic of heteronormative straight privilege in the way I was reading the script back then.
“Then when we were shooting the pilot, I sat down with [series creator] Pete Nowalk, and he was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no! He’s gay!’ I was like, ‘Okay, cool.’ I later educated myself on the history of ‘gay for pay’ in Hollywood and came to learn about the outrageous double standard of straight actors being applauded for playing queer characters, which is absolutely ridiculous when the opposite isn’t true. There’s plenty of queer actors playing straight all day, every day — or LGBTQ youth pretending to be straight all day, every day.”
At first, Falahee would get famously rankled when the press inquired about his own sexuality. “I felt a little bombarded,” he admits. “That’s the stuff they don’t teach you in drama school, right? ‘Hey, you’re going to play this character that’s going to be a lighthouse for hundreds of thousands of queer people. Good luck!’ So, in the beginning, I took a pretty militant stance and refused to talk about it, because I personally thought it was ridiculous they were only asking about my sexuality and not, say, Matt McGorry, or anyone else on my show.”
He eventually softened, and is a notable straight ally for the LGBTQ community. “I had a conversation with a couple of queer friends and realized that by me having this theoretical dialog about sexuality, and the closet, I wasn’t allowing myself to really be the best ally I could, because every single conversation became about, ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ rather than us being able to talk about the show, the relationship that is portrayed on the show, and representation on the show.”
Falahee is currently learning the ropes of political influence. “I’ve always wondered about the effectiveness of celebrities endorsing candidates. Like, is that helpful? I feel like maybe it could do more harm than good in some cases.” Still, with the prospect of another four years of Trump looming, the Michigan native is “trying to figure out how I can be more politically engaged but in a helpful and non-harmful way.” He won’t commit yet to endorsing a candidate — though he likes Kamala Harris a lot — but he will concede one thing with absolute certainty with regard to Pete Buttigieg: “I’m ready for a gay president. I think it’d be great.”
Byhalia Mississippi runs through July 7 at the Terrace Theater. Tickets are $25 to $89. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.