With Stress Positions, John Early Explores a New Side of Himself

“I want to offer up something to the culture that’s more than just a nasty little tweet.”

by Cat Cardenas
Photographs by Austin Sandhaus
Styled by India Reed

Early wears a Dolce & Gabbana suit; Sunspel vest; his own boots.
Early wears a Dolce & Gabbana suit; Sunspel vest; his own boots.

In 2022, the cast and crew of Stress Positions revisited a time most of us would rather forget. In one scene of the new comedy premiering April 19, John Early leans out the second-story window of a Brooklyn brownstone wielding a spoon, clanging it against a pot with a frantic intensity only someone who experienced such a strange time in New York City could capture. For a moment, it’s the summer of 2020, just a few months into lockdown.

In her feature debut, writer/director Theda Hammel delivers a brutal and hilarious watch with actor and comedian Early at the helm, returning to the early days of the pandemic to capture its chaos through an ensemble cast of messy, self-obsessed Millennials. There’s Terry (Early), a constantly frazzled soon-to-be divorcé; his 19-year-old nephew, Bahlul (Qaher Harhash), a half-Moroccan male model recovering from a broken leg; Terry’s best friend Karla (Hammel), a trans woman and alternative healer with a lot of opinions; and her girlfriend, Vanessa (Amy Zimmer), who sparks resentment after writing a bestseller based on Karla’s life story.

Early, best known for his acclaimed five-season stretch as the compulsive liar Elliott Goss on Max’s Search Party, says his pandemic experience wasn’t quite as fraught as Terry’s. But he does recall how “tortured” his relationship to cooking became. “Actually, I’m underselling the hell of it,” he says, letting out a laugh during a Zoom interview earlier this month. “We were all in our own unique, not-special-at-all hells at that time.”

Dries van Noten jacket; Brooks Brothers shirt.
Dries van Noten jacket; Brooks Brothers shirt.

That’s why Stress Positions was such an exciting project to tackle. Despite Covid-19 upending our lives in ways we’re all still unpacking, the pandemic has become a topic most filmmakers have avoided like, well… the plague. Few have managed, let alone even attempted, to turn that collective trauma and grief into something as sharp and funny as Hammel’s debut. “This movie has teeth,” says Early. “It really sinks into that time and shows the feral truth of our lives then.”

Early’s own first summer of the pandemic comes through in flashes, like clips playing at the beginning of a true-crime documentary: There was the Lysol, (so much Lysol!), sprayed all over mail and Amazon packages; ransacked grocery stores with no toilet paper in sight; and, most haunting to the actor, the social media minefield. On Instagram, every scroll revealed updated Covid guidelines or distressing news updates delivered in the form of aesthetically pleasing infographics.

“There’s a lot of comedy in that that’s gone unexplored, because it was such a dark time,” he says. “People were dying and there was also so much collective rage, so I understand why people shy away from it. But this movie [captures] both [aspects].”

Early wears a Dolce & Gabbana suit; Sunspel vest; his own boots.

The film moves at a frenetic pace, teetering between moments of pure slapstick comedy (ie: a Theragun-induced medical emergency) and cutting social critiques. The turbulent summer months of 2020 become the perfect backdrop to skewer the ego-obsessed coastal elite with a flair for performative social justice. (In his own life, Early still cringes at some of the things he felt compelled to post at the start of the pandemic. Although they’ve since been deleted, he has a sense of humor about the whole thing: “I was really on edge! I needed to feel connected to other people, and not just the Test Kitchen staff at Bon Appétit.”)

A need for human connection doesn’t push Terry toward social media. Instead, for much of Stress Positions, he’s hardly still enough to zone out on his phone. Until he’s taken out by a raw chicken cutlet and knocked on his back, he’s buzzing around the frame nonstop, busying himself by clinging to any and all Covid protocols as a distraction from his pending divorce. He also takes turns musing (and often ranting) with Karla about identity, politics, and sexuality. But as their conversations with Bahlul make it comically clear, neither of them know much about the world outside of Brooklyn.

Interspersed between these frantic scenes are more meditative ones, told in thoughtful and revealing voice-overs. Bahlul’s narration allows viewers to learn more about Terry’s anxious nature and his strained relationship with his sister. Early’s character’s need for contact is omnipresent, lurking just below the surface—and the actor lends him a heartbreaking sincerity.

Extreme Cashmere sweater; Sunspel t-shirt.

In that sense, Terry is somewhat of a departure from the kinds of roles for which Early has become known. Since making his TV debut as Jenna Maroney’s son in 30 Rock, the Afterparty alum has developed a knack for playing roles built on delusion and narcissism. Listing comedy icons like Jane Krakowski, Lisa Kudrow, and Jennifer Saunders, it’s no surprise Early has honed the part of the vain, insecure, wannabe star. But Stress Positions marks the beginning of a new era in acting for the Nashville native, and he says he’s looking forward to flexing more of his range in future projects.

“Growing up as a nice Presbyterian boy, I feel like I’ve earned the right to explore this kind of unlikeability,” he says. “But I’m also ready to make fun of the good Presbyterian boy. There is a part of me that is absolutely trying to be a model citizen. That’s the musical theater kid in me, and I want to explore that side more.”

Last year, he dipped into his musical background while filming his first HBO special, John Early: Now More Than Ever. Part stand-up show, part cabaret performance, part concert doc, Early goes from observations on the vulnerability of bowling, or the nefarious tone of Apple’s “Ask App Not to Track” notification, to renditions of Britney Spears’s “Overprotected,” and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” supported by his backing band, The Lemon Squares. (And if you were wondering, yes, Early can hit those high notes—“It’s my oldest party trick,” he says of Summer’s classic song.)

He’s set to reunite with The Lemon Squares again on a project later this year, something he’s been working toward in between getting started on his own debut film. Beyond the challenges of writing a script, selling the movie, and avoiding development logistics hell, Early’s also wary of another, less obvious obstacle: “There’s something very evil happening now on social media, where everyone thinks it’s cringe to be sincere,” he says. “Sometimes, before anyone even has a chance to form their own opinion on a movie or an album, people have decided to laugh it out of the room.”

Among his group of actor-comedian friends—including Hammel and frequent collaborator Kate Berlant—Early says they’ve all been coming to terms with the effects of spending so much of their careers on social media. “We’re all kind of shaking off the dust and realizing we’ve lost years of our lives to it,” he says. “Artistically, romantically, sexually, we’ve poured everything into social media, believing that if we just shared our thoughts, and our funny little videos, something would happen.”

Instead, he became disconnected from his original goals. “I really wanted to direct movies when I was in my early twenties,” he says. “Then I woke up, and I’m almost 40. That’s scary!” Now, Early says he is coming up for air—and trying not to think about how he might be perceived on Twitter or Instagram. “I want to make something significant, and offer up something to the culture that’s more than just a nasty little tweet,” he says.

The actor is ready to bring on the sincerity renaissance. Or at least, he was ready. At the end of our call, he’s having second thoughts. “Wait, why did I talk about this?” he says, reminding me that his debut film is simply a kernel of an idea right now. “Please include that I know it’s completely unhinged for me to be talking about something that isn’t even close to being made yet!”

Dolce & Gabbana suit; Sunspel vest.