With 'Canada's Drag Race' and New Film 'Spiral', Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman Is Having Very Busy Year

by Greg Vellante

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday September 21, 2020

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman
Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman  (Source:Ricardo Horacio Nelson)

Immediately exuding a sense of contagious enthusiasm, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman popped up on our Zoom call flashing a peace sign and a wide smile. The Canadian actor and model has had a busy year, what with the release of his latest queer horror film, "Spiral" (streaming on Shudder), and the recent conclusion of the first season of "Canada's Drag Race" — a spinoff of "RuPaul's Drag Race" brought to the Great White North, where Bowyer-Chapman made his debut as a judge and co-host.

But, he shares with us a year filled with COVID, social turmoil and a deeply divided nation facing a leadership choice. Sitting down with EDGE, Bowyer-Chapman discussed a wide array of topics, from relating to his "Spiral" character to being the target of social media bullies.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman in "Spiral"

EDGE: So, first and foremost, how are you? It's been a crazy year.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: Oh, man, what a heavy question. In the grand scheme of things, I am well. I'm safe. I'm healthy. I'm at home in Los Angeles. I have an incredible partner and great friends. And there have been so many lessons learned throughout all of this, not only in regard to COVID and the interconnectedness of us all, but also realizing that the way we had the world set up... it just wasn't sustainable. This individualized idea that none of us are connected and that we have so much more than separates us than actually bonds us, I think that façade has been lifted. So that's a beautiful thing. And with the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice and injustice... it's been tough. It hasn't been easy, as it's dug up a lot of trauma for myself and all of my black friends, but there's some light and hope. We're having conversations that we've never had before, and there's a level of awareness and mindfulness from white folk in our life that has never existed before, so there's something to look forward to. But... damn, it hasn't been easy.

EDGE: So is it weird being a Canadian in America right now?

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: I've lived in the United States for the past ten years or so. So, a Black Canadian moving to the US, it was a crash course in the experience of African Americans. Racism absolutely exists in Canada. It's much more covert. It's much more polite. And in America, racism is just so brazen and in-your-face and unapologetic. And it took a lot to get used to that. That's a fucked-up thing that anybody should have to get used to. But I had to understand it in order to be able to protect myself and navigate around it. When it comes to the level of fear and division in this country, it exists on a much higher level than it does in Canada. What people do when they resort to fear, with guns and the lawlessness that exists here, that's something that I'm hyper-aware of as opposed to growing up in Canada.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman in "Spiral"

EDGE: A lot of these topics relate directly to "Spiral," which is a queer horror that also falls in line with films like "Get Out" as a type of socially aware thriller. How did you approach that correlation while shooting?

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: To be totally transparent, it wasn't something that I spent a lot of time thinking of. Horror is not really a genre I was that familiar with. I've done some horror projects — "American Horror Story" and a couple others — but I'm highly sensitive and I don't really watch a lot of horror. It just gives me too many nightmares. So, when I first read the script when it was brought to me by John Poliquin and Colin Minihan, the writing and producing duo and two good friends of mine, they originally just wanted me to give notes. And my only notes was that I felt it'd be a more interesting story if the main character weren't white. If he were a person of color, it would add some layers and intersections of otherness that just make the story more interesting.

Then they approached me a few days later and asked if I wanted to do it. Reading the script, to me, I didn't focus on the social commentary, truly. I didn't focus on the horror aspects. I saw it as a family drama and the exploration of this person who had experienced such horrific violent trauma in his childhood and how the effects of that have carried on into his adult life. And him having to differentiate what are his own triggers and wounds and what is actually real out there in the world. And that is something that I've had to navigate myself as well as a Black queer person. That is what drew me to it and that is what I focused on during the duration of filming.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman

EDGE: Your character, Malik, descends into a "spiral" of madness during this film. How did you tap into that?

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: So much I have to contribute to John Poliquin and Colin Minihan. They were on set with me every day from beginning to end, no matter if it was night shoots or a 5 a.m. call. They were there by my side and so much is attributed to them. Also, literally filming in the place where I grew up and experienced so much violent oppression and other-ism and homophobia myself, it wasn't hard to tap into that. It didn't necessarily feel good and it wasn't easy, but it was pretty effortless to go back to that emotional state for myself.

EDGE: So it sounds like you could really relate to your character.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: We shot in this tiny little farm town in Alberta, Canada, which was actually about an hour away from where I was raised, funnily enough. I was adopted as a baby and raised in an all-white family. I was the only Black person in all-white spaces, and the only identifiable queer person. So, I faced a lot of what Malik experienced. Violent homophobia and oppression, harassment and bullying, racism, having to undo a lot of trauma in my adult years... so, being back in that space and filming this movie was a bit of a mind fuck.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Ari Cohen in "Spiral"

EDGE: Malik is also in an interracial relationship with Aaron (Ari Cohen). How did you approach that?

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: Well, at that time actually, I was in a relationship with a white partner who I am no longer with; and so many of the struggles that Malik faces with Aaron, I faced with this partner as well. And this is something that so many people of color can relate to when engaging with white people who they are close to in their own lives. Sometimes, the people who are meant to love us most and protect us most are also our greatest oppressors. They can be the quickest to gaslight us, or minimize our experiences, and it's incredibly painful.

Unfortunately, it's just the story of so many Black people's lives. That in order to survive in any given situation, you kind of just have to keep things to yourself. And it can build up to a lot of internal pain. That I could relate to in Malik's experience.

EDGE: The film has a pretty strong message by the end, especially in relation to the "other." What does it mean to you personally?

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: That, unfortunately, we as humans often default to the darkness over light. So often we default to fear and hate and... gosh, how do I even say this? It's said in the film, there's always something to be fearful of. The very theme of the film is that it's a spiral. This life is not linear. Everything comes in circles and history repeats itself again and again. The fact that this movie was set in the 1990s... it could've been set today. [The message of the film] laid a foundation for the fact that there will always be a group of people who are going to be vilified and feared and strung up on the cross because of fear mentality.

What is least understood is what humans seem to fear most. And it's a part of human nature that I think goes back to centuries and centuries... the days of the Romans watching humans being torn to shreds in the Coliseum, and the sick, perverse joy and pleasure that people get out of that. I think that there's a rush certain people get from watching others be destroyed, but there's also a sense of mob mentality and safety. Like, if I cling on to everybody that's piling on to this one person, at least I'm safe. So it's very much an us or them mentality, and I think it just really lays out how grotesque human nature can be and that it really takes effort to focus on, like I said, our interconnectedness and the light and the things that we have in common as opposed to the things that separate us.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Traci Melchor on "Canada's Drag Race"

EDGE: You can relate that message to some of what you experienced during the airing of "Canada's Drag Race," especially in regard to those who came out on social media to bully you for certain critiques you gave contestants. What was that like for you and how are you now?

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: It wasn't easy, and it was very hurtful, although I knew that all that was being said about me was completely taken out of context and not an accurate depiction of who I am or what my true character is. It's not lost on me the parallels of working on a show like "Unreal" where I played a reality TV producer for years and the power that people in positions like that have. When it comes to whoever's going to be on camera, be it a cast member or host or whoever it may be, to do or say certain things, they have this trust in the producers. And then, things can be manipulated or taken out of context or edited in a certain way that aren't necessarily going to shine that person in the best light.

That is certainly a lesson that I learned coming out of this. But then also, doing a movie like "Spiral" and having the experience that I did with people online, I can see the parallels to what I was just talking about — people's perverse joy that they get out of vilifying and destroying another. The thing that's most heartbreaking about it is that it's our own community.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman on "Canada's Drag Race"

EDGE: Yeah, that duality between the show's message of inclusion and what these people were saying to you seemed very strange.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: It is strange, but I didn't engage with it. I had to remove myself from social media. I did see a sliver of it, and that was hurtful and vicious enough for me to choose not to engage or expose myself to it at all. There's insanity that we as a community of others or people of color have this really awful habit of taking each other down and not paying attention to the actual emotional monsters and horrible people out there in positions of power who are actively taking away our rights and emotionally abusing us.

We are kind of blind to that and so focused on taking down people in our own community, and that cannibalization is not getting us anywhere. I don't really know what else to say about it other than... every day before going to the set, I prayed to be used for a purpose greater than myself. Throughout all of this, I just had to remind myself that was my intention. And hopefully people can see and realize, when they watch the show and see what was said online and put the two together, how insane the darkness of the internet and social media is.

EDGE: Well, haters aside, you seemed like you were having an absolute blast on "Canada's Drag Race."

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: Of course. I was having so much fun. It was a dream job.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman on Lifetime's "Unreal"

EDGE: It probably helped that the cast was absolutely aces this year.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: Spectacular, yes. I am so in love with each and every one of these queens and am so extraordinarily proud of them. I think we all grew during that process. It was my first time every really "hosting" something, and the first time stepping onto the stage of "Drag Race" without Ru there. To take the helm, make the decisions, deliver iconic lines and try to figure out how to meld that with my own personality, it was a learning curve and it was a public learning curve.

And it took all of us a minute to get there, producers and editors as well. And even for the audience to jump on board and learn to trust us and build an affinity toward us. And then with all of the online insanity after as well, I think all of us have grown from it. I know that I certainly have. I have a level of resilience that didn't exist prior to all of this, and I've learned to not place any of my self-worth or value in the opinions of others, good or bad. By avoiding the comments, I don't get to see people who are putting me on a pedestal, and I don't get to see people who are throwing me into the trash. I know who I am, and I have a solid foundation of self. That's all that matters at the end of the day.

EDGE: The past three winners of "Drag Race" competitions — Jaida Essence Hall ("RuPaul's Drag Race" Season 12), Shea Couleé ("RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars" Season 5), and Priyanka ("Canada's Drag Race" Season 1) — are all queens of color. What does that mean to you?

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: It's so incredible and important and impactful. And none of those wins were handed to these queens. All three of them earned it. They worked their asses off for it. Racism is something that exists everywhere, but we all know it's something that exists within the drag community and the fandom. Just when you look at the sheer number of followers that the queens of color have compared to their white counterparts, and the way that the whites queens and judges are spoken about versus the black queens and judges. When a white queen does something that may be considered messy, a Black queen does the same thing and it's considered "ratchet" or "hood."

So, when you give a platform like "America's Next Drag Superstar" or "Canada's Next Drag Superstar" to people of color who are aware of this and can use their power, privilege and platform to bring more awareness to this and help dismantle the system of white supremacy and implicit bias, it's the only way there will be any revolution or change. When you ignore it, it's going to going to continue to perpetuate. The people who have the loudest voices are unfortunately often the people who have the most negative things to say. So, with great power comes great responsibility and I know that these three queens are more than equipped to take the throne and create something really powerful with the platform they have.

"Spiral" is currently streaming on Shudder.

For more on Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, visit his Facebook page.

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