Metro Weekly

Joel Kim Booster Talks ‘Fire Island,’ Margaret Cho, and BFF Bowen Yang

Joel Kim Booster heats up Hulu with "Fire Island," his stunning queer movie about pride, prejudice, and the bonds of friendship.

Fire Island: Joel Kim Booster — Photo: Taylor Miller

Somewhere in the Fire Island Pines last summer, while throngs of gay men and friends flocked to the island’s sandy shores seeking sex and paradise, a film crew was out stalking deer. “I really wanted a deer in the movie,” says Fire Island director Andrew Ahn of his search for the Pines’ fabled wild fauna.

Directing a fabulous cast — including Bowen Yang, Conrad Ricamora, Margaret Cho, Matt Rogers, Nick Adams, and the film’s writer, producer, and star Joel Kim Booster — Ahn, known for the acclaimed gay coming-of-age feature Spa Night, had only a few weeks of shooting on the island to grab all the footage they needed. “I sent the camera crew out, and I was like, ‘Please just find a deer,'” he says. “Because I find that such a funny part of the Fire Island experience.”

Definitely, deer grazing peacefully alongside the boardwalks that wind through the Pines are a signature element of the island’s natural beauty — just as much as the ravishing, nearly naked crowd at each week’s underwear party.

Ahn, Booster, and crew sought to capture all the unique details that lend this sun-kissed strip off the coast of New York’s Long Island its air of genuine escape from the everyday world — the sunsets and wildlife, and sex, drugs, and wild nights.

“I wanted to show sex in the film,” says Ahn, “and show sex in a way that felt really organic to the environment, to the culture. I never wanted to sensationalize it. I never wanted to make it feel like a spectacle. It’s just there, it’s natural, it’s human, it’s gay.”

The island’s history as an LGBTQ enclave and safe space also was essential to the filmmakers. “It was important for me that we show older queer people,” Ahn notes. “It was important that we see the architecture that’s been there for decades, the music. I didn’t want a modern song at the end, I wanted ‘Last Dance.’ I wanted something that gave us a sense of the island’s legacy and queer history. There are so many aspects to the island that I wanted to celebrate, pay homage to, and definitely critique.”

Fire Island: Bowen Yang, Tomas Matos, Matt Rogers, Torian Miller and Joel Kim Booster — Photo: Jeong Park / Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Richly established onscreen, the seductive location serves as the perfect race- and class-conscious backdrop for Booster’s modern rom-com adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Booster’s busybody Noah offers a take on Lizzy Bennet, with Ricamora’s icy Will a spin on Mr. Darcy. Their combative romance plays out as Noah, his best friend Howie (Yang), and their chosen family of friends enjoy what might be their last trip out together as a group.

For Booster, a booked-and-busy comedian with a stacked list of television credits, Fire Island‘s June premiere on Hulu represents the triumph of crossing the finish line with one of his own productions. “This is my first movie,” he says. “I’ve mostly worked in TV.”

Indeed, he’s been consistently stealing scenes in supporting roles on TV comedies like Shrill and Sunnyside, while working to create his own show. “I had a pilot that was at FOX, then was at Comedy Central, that then, after years of development, died. I’ve taken other shows out that have sold or been in development, and then died…. It’s been a long time coming to see any of my work actually on the screen.”

Success was seemingly destined for Booster, whose standup put him on the map a decade ago. Often recalling his growing up gay, Asian, and adopted by a white family in Illinois, his jokes can be as insightfully honest as they are funny. And he continues to break down barriers on his new Netflix standup comedy special Joel Kim Booster: Psychosexual, debuting June 21, within weeks of Fire Island.

But first, Booster can relish that he and his Fire Island fam made the film they set out to make, despite the enormous challenges of shooting on a stretch of island a few miles offshore from another island. “It was a logistical nightmare,” he says, recalling how they had to ferry in the crew and the equipment every day, and then ferry them out again.

“There are no cars on the island, or anything like that. The cast stayed there in a house together, which was fun. It was like summer camp. But the island is not made to shoot a movie on, and we were up against the elements, too. There were several days where the weather really screwed us, and we had to change course, and flip flop days of what we were shooting. But we got it done, and the community, for the most part, was really excited and supportive for us to be there.”

And now audiences around the world, as well as on the island, seem ready to embrace the film.

“This movie’s a love letter to the island, and most of the business owners on the island have seen the movie, and are really pleased with it,” he says. “That really makes me happy, because it was not a given that they would let us shoot there, and I had to really make a promise to honor the island with this movie. I accomplished that, because I do love that place so much.”

Fire Island: Bowen Yang, Tomas Matos, Matt Rogers, Torian Miller, Joel Kim Booster and Margaret Cho — Photo: Jeong Park / Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

METRO WEEKLY: As a producer, writer, and star of the movie, are you chill about a big project like this dropping, or are you freaking out?

JOEL KIM BOOSTER: No, I feel insane, it’s a lot, but I’m very happy with the response so far. It’s taken a long time to get this made, it’s been a long time getting anything of mine made in this industry at all, so it feels very gratifying. I’m really grateful.

MW: Let’s take it to Fire Island, a place I love. Although, just like the characters in the movie, I recognize that it can be toxic, too.

BOOSTER: It is complicated.

MW: When was your first time in Fire Island, and how was it?

BOOSTER: I went in 2016 for the first time with Bowen, and we were sort of apprehensive, obviously, because we knew the reputation that the island had. But we had a really great opportunity for a room that was in our price range — we were both very poor at the time.

We wouldn’t have a lot of other opportunities like this, so we jumped at it. It was really kind of life-changing in a way. It was the first time I think I had ever been to a place for an extended period of time where there were no straight people. I think that we don’t realize as queer people how much weight we carry around with us when we’re navigating a completely heterosexual world.

Then when that weight is suddenly lifted, even in spite of anything that we might have been experiencing, in terms of discrimination or anything like that, it was so freeing to be able to just fully embrace our queerness and just have fun. Like I say in the movie, “We were just able to be gay and stupid,” for what felt like the first time. You experience flashes of that when you’re with your queer family, out in the wild, at a gay bar, or at an event, or something like that. But to be able to just fully dive in and immerse yourself in it for a week was really wonderful.

MW: I think the movie captures many things about the Fire Island experience, but one thing, especially, was that sense of freedom that starts on the ferry, where they’re just like, “I’m finally here.” As a location, why did you want to set an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice there, as opposed to say P-town or Palm Springs or somewhere else?

BOOSTER: The inspiration for the movie happened that first trip, because when I went out to Fire Island for the first time, Pride and Prejudice was the book that I brought as my beach read. I remember reading it on the beach, and just putting it down and turning to Bowen, and being like, “This is so incredible how relevant what she’s writing about is to what we’re experiencing now on this island,” just in terms of the ways in which people communicate across class lines, and the sort of artificial rules, and laws that people put in place for their class structures, and stuff like that.

I don’t know, there was just something about the close quarters and the atmosphere of the island that reminded me so much of what she was writing about. I’ve been to P-town, I’ve been to Palm Springs, I’ve been to Puerta Vallarta, I’ve been to many gay destinations since. I’ve done an Atlantis cruise, I’ve done it all. But nothing felt quite like it distilled all of these artificial classes that gay men create for themselves quite like on Fire Island, I think.

MW: I haven’t been to P-town, but I’ve been to a couple other places, and Fire Island is unique as a microcosm of all those things that we experience out in the gay universe. But regardless of what the characters go through in this movie, a lot of gays will see it and be even more excited to go.

BOOSTER: Yeah, I hope so.

MW: How do you feel about the movie sort of promoting tourism for Fire Island?

BOOSTER: Well, it’s interesting. [It’s been] such an iconic pop culture joke for so long. It’s been synonymous with gay culture for so long, and it’s sort of been a punchline for a lot of straight people for a long time, I think, as a gay place. But it’s never been really depicted very often outside of the beginning of The Normal Heart, or something like that, which is tragic, and I really wanted to show the joy in that place, and the wonder, and how visually arresting it is, too. Which I think [director Andrew Ahn] did such an amazing job of capturing. I just think it’s going to be really exciting.

I’ve noticed in the last couple of years that I’ve been going a sort of demographic shift. You’re seeing it shift from being just a gay space to slightly more of a queer space. You’re seeing a lot more diversity heading out there, and it’s this ethos that Bowen and I have always had when we go out, but it’s young queer people of color and of many different gender expressions saying, “Yes, this island is a stronghold for white muscle gays. But if we let them have it, if we cede that island to them, then they win. And it’s such an amazing place. It belongs to all of us.”

So, I hope that bolsters that sort of attitude and people figure out a way to go. I mean, it’s economically unfeasible for a lot of people, which is such a bummer. My hope is that someday I become rich enough that I can buy a house on the island and create a scholarship program — like a gay birthright trip to Fire Island. Just airdrop young, poor queer kids from different parts of the country into Fire Island so they get to experience it. But yeah, my one big fear is that [the film is] going to only add to the sort of mad rush to get houses on the island every summer.

Fire Island: Joel Kim Booster — Photo: Jeong Park / Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

MW: You mentioned Andrew Ahn. How did he get hooked up with this movie, and, for you, what was the significance of having an Asian director?

BOOSTER: Well, I loved Spa Night. I remember when Spa Night came out, it really was sort of a huge paradigm shift for me. I had never seen anything like it, in terms of representation, especially. And I slid into his DMs, and we got coffee, and we met. Because there’s not a lot of gay Asian creators working in this space. So that’s how we met, and we stayed friends.

When we were hiring directors, when it was at Searchlight, it was really important to me to have not only a gay director, but a gay Asian director, because I think there’s a shorthand there. He understood on an intrinsic level what I was trying to say and what I was trying to accomplish, and, specifically, the journey of Noah and Howie. He saw it so clearly on how to render it, and it made the whole process so much easier, just having someone there who got it on a really personal level.

MW: What were some of the specific details about Fire Island that you absolutely wanted to capture? For one thing, you have a queen complaining, justifiably, about the prices at the Pines Pantry. That’s something you have to have in a Fire Island movie. What are some other things you felt you had to have in there?

BOOSTER: I think one of the things, one of my favorite parts of going, as a tradition, is watching the sunset from the dock. Speaking of things that we almost didn’t get. I mean, we really lucked out, because we had two different days where we could catch the sunset on the dock. If it was cloudy, if it was raining, if something happened, we wouldn’t get it, and so that was a really important sort of iconic thing to get, the sunset. I think for Andrew, too, he really wanted to get one of the Fire Island deer, which we did. So we were really excited about that.

MW: Something else obviously that the movie captures, and this is on the more toxic side, is that as much as any environment filled with gay men, looks are a leading currency on the island. Do you think that gays on the island, or elsewhere, construct too much of their identity around sexual attractiveness?

BOOSTER: Yeah. I think that our community really does put a premium on being attractive and physical beauty in a way that I think we get wrapped up in a little bit too much. And I think that we connect our self-esteem to it in a way that’s not always healthy, including our self-worth. And I think that for a lot of people, the first step towards really embracing and finding happiness as a gay person is extricating yourself from that aspect of gay life. And it’s hard because we all like have to sex. But it’s important work that we all have to do.

MW: In the movie, your character, Noah, sort of sets aside his wanting to have sex to play wingman for Bowen’s character, Howie. Are you that friend? Do you like playing wingman? Or do you prefer to stay completely out of other people’s situations?

BOOSTER: Oh, no. I am such a meddler. There are a lot of things that make me dissimilar from Noah, but that is definitely one of the things that makes me very similar to Noah — I am the person who is constantly trying to get my friends laid, in any way possible that I can, Bowen included. That is ripped from the headlines of our friendship, me trying to get Bowen laid as much as possible. He doesn’t need the help anymore, I have to say. But it was, at the time, really fun trying to find boyfriends for Bowen.

MW: There’s a good title, Boyfriends for Bowen.

BOOSTER: Yeah, exactly. A new charity.

MW: The bond that Noah and Howie share in the movie is something special apart from the friendship between the entire group. How would you describe yours and Bowen’s relationship in real life?

BOOSTER: It’s really incredibly special. We met at a time when we were both starting out in this industry as comedians. And I think conventional wisdom up until that point — there was a lot of Asian men and gay Asian men that I met in this who were doing what we were doing — and there was a lot of competition, I think, because there was this idea that there was only room for one of us.

And with Bowen, we connected pretty immediately. I think we made a conscious decision that we weren’t just going to see each other as competition, and that we saw in each other something really special and wonderful in what we shared, in terms of what we were facing. And so I think for us, it was a conscious decision to say, “No. We’re not going to play that game. We’re going to support each other and help each other up. We’re not going to pull the ladder up behind us.” I think so much about the friendship rendered on that screen is pulled directly from my relationship with Bowen.

MW: The story deals with those two characters, specifically, feeling that on Fire Island, gay Asians are either treated as invisible or they’re fetishized. We get a character who exemplifies the latter. Did you have to get good at recognizing that kind of dater, the rice queen?

BOOSTER: Yeah. Absolutely. I think it can be just as insidious, in terms of racism, as people who reject you because you’re Asian in a sense. I think that anytime someone only sees you for this aspect of your identity, it can be damaging. And it might feel good, especially, I think as an Asian person navigating a community where you are so often rejected out of hand because of your race, finding somebody who loves you and is attracted to you because of that. It can seem really appealing at first. But I think that, for me at least, it’s just a bandage, it’s not a cure for feeling less than. So for me, it was really important to show the two ends of the spectrum of that kind of racism, both what I think some people consider benevolent racism in fetishization, and the outright racism that people face.

MW: Besides the interracial dynamic, something that’s cool about this movie is that the main love story is played out between two Asian men. Can you talk about the significance of that? Because I don’t know how many more films I’ll see this year which feature a romance between two Asian men.

BOOSTER: It’s funny, I didn’t write the part originally as an Asian man. And we searched. Mr. Darcy, the Will character, was one of the hardest parts in this movie to cast, because they have to do a lot of different things, and they have to be unlikeable at the beginning and then you have to fall in love with them by the end. We auditioned a lot of guys, and Conrad almost immediately… I remember there was some question of, will this part work if he’s Asian? And as soon as he walked out of the room when we did our chemistry test together, I turned to Andrew and I said, “I can rewrite this movie for this man.”

I think it made the movie even better. It wasn’t something that I had initially anticipated, but he’s just so good. And I think it’s a real indictment on the industry that Conrad Ricamora hasn’t played a leading man more often, because he’s so excellent at it. And I think just seeing two Asian men fall in love onscreen in America — there’s certainly international movies where that’s happened — but in America, it’s still quite rare to see two Asian people in general fall in love onscreen. So I’m really happy that I got to do that, and especially proud that I got to do it with Conrad.

Fire Island
Fire Island: James Scully, Nick Adams, and Conrad Ricamora – Photo courtesy Searchlight Pictures

MW: Was Margaret Cho somebody that you looked up to coming up as a comedian, or even before that?

BOOSTER: Oh, my God. She changed my life. And that’s not an exaggeration. I can draw a straight line from All-American Girl, her sitcom, to Fire Island. I was very young when that show came out and it really blew my world wide open in terms of what I thought was possible for myself. I had never seen anything like that show. I had never seen myself reflected in such a way. And I think at that time, any Asian that you saw onscreen was a martial artist and that was not me.

And so when I saw Margaret’s show, it really did signal to me, “Oh my God, I can do that, too. I can be funny on TV.” And that really changed the course of my life in a huge way. And you know, of course, when I was older and I fell in love with her standup, that affected me as a standup. Being able to work with her in this way, and have her be sort of my de facto mom in this movie was so full-circle and wonderful. She was a complete delight to work with. It was so surreal to have her ask me for notes. It was just like, “You’re Margaret Cho, you can do whatever the fuck you want.” Yeah. She was really, really wonderful.

MW: I also watched All-American Girl as a kid, and it was really only just because I thought she was funny. You joke in your standup about realizing you were gay before you realized you were Asian. So how did your Asian-ness first occur to you?

BOOSTER: Well, I was at a family reunion in Alabama.

MW: There’s a moment? Okay.

BOOSTER: Yeah. Because I was home-schooled and in my young mind, every family looked like mine. It didn’t seem weird or strange. My parents did a wonderful job of making me feel like any normal kid. And I think it really didn’t hit me until I was at that family reunion in Alabama, and I looked around and suddenly realized, “Oh, I look different than everybody here.” It hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ve known since I had a conscious thought that I liked boys, so that was always very much ingrained in me. The racial realization came much later.

 

MW: So now we’re talking about the gay stuff, I wanted to ask you about this. [Holds up an LGBTQ magazine cover featuring Booster in a crop top and short shorts posed suggestively on a tree limb.] So you’re a sex symbol. Are you comfortable with that position?

BOOSTER: It’s a little strange to me. There’s a big part of me that’s still that scrawny, awkward, uncoordinated kid embarrassing himself on the basketball court in high school. I don’t think anyone expected this from me. I really had to talk myself into believing it for so long, because when the world doesn’t tell you something, when the world says that you’re one thing based on what you see in the media, and being the butt of jokes for time immemorial, it really does take a lot of self-work to really believe that you are that person.

And still to this day, even seeing pictures like that, I get embarrassed. It doesn’t always click for me, and I have to remind myself that, no, I am worthy. And I am just as worthy of being on the magazine cover and being a sex symbol or whatever as anybody else. And I think it’s touched upon in the movie. But you can’t reverse engineer self-confidence. You really have to believe it and then it will come. It can’t come and then you believe it. So it’s constant work that I have to do on myself, and with my therapist, but I’m getting there.

MW: Obviously, self-confidence is needed to get on stage and do standup. Is sex appeal a valuable tool at all as a comedian?

BOOSTER: The thing is I think you have to address what’s in front of the audience, and it started for me well before I ever believed it myself — it started as a joke. Because Asian men aren’t seen as sexy. They’re not seen as attractive. And so when I would get onstage and say, “I am hot,” people would laugh because people didn’t believe it. And it became this thing where I would say it, even before I believed it, to make a statement and to make a point and to draw jokes out of that. And I’ve had to back off of that now, because now that people do believe it, it’s not funny anymore. It was funny before.

One decision that I made consciously in my standup a long time ago was, when I first started out, I would do jokes of, “Oh my God, I’m so un-dateable. I’m so ugly. I’m so undesirable.” And people would be really on board with that. And I really had to make a decision to be like, no, I’m not going to play into those tropes. I’m not going to play into those ideas about Asian men for my mostly white audience, because I don’t want to be that person for the community. And that’s when I decided to change the way I talked about myself on stage. And after I started changing the way I talked about myself on stage, it really did change my own self-conception. I didn’t believe that I was hot when I was saying I was hot onstage, and it took a long time for me to catch up with myself, to catch up with the act and believe it.

MW: Something else that you mentioned in your standup was your older brother also coming out as gay. Did you guys have to come out to each other, or did you always suspect or know?

BOOSTER: You know what? I always had my suspicions. I think it was probably pretty clear to my brother that I was, because I was a very flamboyantly gay kid and it was very hard for me to hide it. He, on the other hand, is very much more straight-passing, I would say. So it was a little bit more of a shock. We never came out to each other. My mom told me before he did. And we’re very different people. I think we are a study in contrasts, in terms of the diversity that can occur within our own community. He’s much more conservative than I am. He is not wild and crazy, and doesn’t do the party scene, and is not necessarily keyed into “gay culture.” But we love each other and we respect each other. We’re very different kinds of gay people.

MW: Are you now, or have you ever been a wild and crazy gay partier?

BOOSTER: Yeah, I am, and continue to be, I think. I’m responsible about it, but yeah, I do like to have fun.

MW: Are you going to Pines Party this year?

BOOSTER: I am not. It’s way too expensive this year. I got priced out. I’m going for the 4th of July with Bowen, though.

MW: Will you show the movie out there?

BOOSTER: I believe we are doing a screening out there.

MW: That should be exciting. And where will we see you after Fire Island?

BOOSTER: After Fire Island, I have a Netflix comedy special coming out called Psychosexual on the 21st of June. And then I am also co-starring with Maya Rudolph in a show on Apple TV+ called Loot that comes out June 24th. And I’m also a part of the Stand Out gay Netflix comedy special that’s coming out on June 14th. So it’s a big month for me.

Fire Island is available for streaming on Hulu. Visit www.hulu.com.

Joel Kim Booster: Psychosexual is available for streaming June 21 on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.

Follow Joel Kim Booster on Twitter at @IHateJoelKim.

Leave a Comment:

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!