Johnny Sibilly Would Happily Play Queer Characters for the Rest of His Life

The Queer as Folk actor speaks on the importance of capturing the unapologetic joy of the LGBTQ+ community while also not shying away from the realities of today’s world.

by Max Gao

Johnny Sibilly lounging on the stairs, in a red suit

Johnny Sibilly will never forget the first time he saw Queer as Folk, the pioneering British drama that chronicled the lives of three gay men living in Manchester, England. He was 12 or 13 years old, watching cable television by himself at a family member’s house. Suddenly, two men appeared on screen, kissing and having sex. He’d never experienced a sight like that before, and immediately tensed up. With a finger planted firmly on the remote, ready to switch back to the Disney Channel in case someone were to walk in, Sibilly had found a show that made him feel seen, even if he was nowhere near ready to talk about those feelings with his friends or family.

But more than two decades later, Sibilly, one of the fastest-rising queer Latino actors in Hollywood, is ready to have that conversation. After playing recurring roles on the groundbreaking FX drama Pose and the hit HBO dramedy Hacks, the 34-year-old actor has landed his biggest role to date in the latest iteration of Queer as Folk, which premiered June 9 on Peacock. In the new series, which comes 17 years after an acclaimed American adaptation ended on Showtime, Sibilly plays Noah, a young lawyer whose life is upended in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a fictional gay bar in New Orleans.

“When I found out this was coming back, I thought, ‘So much has changed in terms of acceptance and respect for our community, but there’s so much that still hasn’t changed at all from when I was a kid watching,’” Sibilly tells W in a recent Zoom interview from New York City. “I remember emailing my agents to be like, ‘I have to be a part of this, somehow.’”

Below, Sibilly—who was born in New Orleans, but raised in Miami—speaks about the evolution of his character, the importance of capturing the unapologetic joy of the LGBTQ+ community while also not shying away from the realities of today’s world, and the reason why he would be happy to play queer characters for the rest of his life.

You’ve said in past interviews that you were initially hesitant about taking on a role that would be so heavily touched by gun violence. What ultimately changed your mind?

I read the script like any viewer who would watch the show, and as soon as the shooting happened, it wasn’t that I was hesitant on taking it—it was more so that I was sad it happened to these characters. But then I realized immediately that it was important to shed light on these things because they happen to us—queer people endure so much tragedy on a spectrum, all the way from gun violence to misgendering.

So I understand the want to watch entertainment and be taken away from the reality of what we endure day-to-day, but I think it’s also super important—and I’m so glad that [series creator] Stephen [Dunn] stuck to his guns to do it—to show the realities of what we go through. And not only that tragedy, but all the things that come after that, whether it’d be queer joy or the non-linear healing that a lot of these characters go through. It doesn’t feel great to read about a shooting, but it also is the truth. And as an artist, I feel like there’s always a responsibility to tell the truth.

Over the course of the first season, Noah begins to fall for Julian (Ryan O’Connell), a charming pop culture nerd with cerebral palsy who is looking to be more independent. What do you think Noah sees in Julian that allows him to find himself again in the aftermath of this tragedy?

Noah is coming from a place where nobody ever asks him how he feels. Brodie [Noah’s ex, played by Devin Way] comes back and doesn’t really address the idea that he left after he got proposed to. Daddius [a victim of the shooting, played by Chris Renfro, who had a sexual relationship with Noah] clearly tells Noah, “We’re not a thing.” Noah’s father never asks how he is. And then Julian comes in and says, “I’m worried about you.” I remember reading that and feeling like I would fall in love with this person immediately because they see me. Not only is [Julian] one of the first signs of someone seeing him, but it’s also a reminder of who he is inside.

Every iteration of Queer as Folk has become known for its frank depictions of sex. How did the presence of your intimacy coordinator, Hanna Hall, influence the filming of those sex scenes?

It’s interesting because in a lot of queer spaces and with my friends, we talk about sex very openly and in very Sex in the City-esque ways, like, “How big was it?” [Laughs.] And then you get into a work setting and you’re like, “Oh, right…” We don’t want to have it misconstrued in any way. It’s important to choreograph to make it a very safe space, but also to make it true to what queer sex looks like, because I said if I saw one more gay character kissing without tongue, I was gonna scream. [Laughs.]

It was really important to have her there because it’s not like there are a billion queer shows on TV. Now, she can take [the experiences she had on Queer as Folk] to the next queer project that she works on and already know what she’s going in with, just as much as we’re learning from the intimacy coordinator how to talk about, for a lack of a better term, the “modesty” garments.

Did you ever feel any trepidation about the nude scenes, or did they feel liberating in a way?

When you audition for Queer as Folk, you know they’re gonna see your ass at some point. Watching the past iterations, you see chiseled bodies and you’re like, “Is that what you’re looking for?” And Stephen was like, “No, we just want you to be however you are, because that’s what people look like.” It was less about people seeing my body; it was more about owning that space and being unafraid. It’s like, “Yeah, people are gonna see me naked. Who cares?” It’s very European to be like, “Okay, here’s my body. Big deal.” It’s very American to be like, “Now, now, now... that might be too much.”

Queer as Folk was largely shot on location in New Orleans, which has become one of the biggest queer meccas in the world. How did immersing yourself in that culture ultimately influence your portrayal of Noah and help you grow closer with the rest of the cast?

I remember going as a kid [during] summers and holidays, and you would hear about the gay people in the French Quarter, but I’d never experienced them until we were able to do this very, very queer show. It was important for us to know the gay people and the queer people in New Orleans, because we’re telling stories about people that lived in that city.

So one of the first things we did was—it was around Halloween—we all dressed up as Super Smash Brothers, and we went out and had drinks. We had a great time, and we turned up New Orleans style. [That bled over] into working with the extras and drag queens infused in the show. You see the same people over and over again,and it’s a family show not just in the main cast, but when it comes to all of the other faces that you see onscreen and behind the scenes. It felt like such a different experience than anything I’d ever felt before.

A lot of queer representation has skewed toward darker and more traumatic narratives, and while that is certainly a part of this show, there is an unapologetic joy that comes from rebuilding a community in the wake of an unthinkable tragedy. Why do you think it is so important to capture that queer joy and humor?

I always say queer people are no one’s victim—we are victims of circumstance. But in spite of that, we are our own champions and we push ourselves forward even when others don’t support us and it’s not out of choice—it’s out of necessity. There are a lot of scenes where you see these characters in bed looking like they do not want to do life, and that is very queer. But you surround yourselves with your chosen family to do life, and it’s important that we show that onscreen because that is how we exist.

A lot of times when cisgender, heterosexual people are at the helm of telling queer stories, the scope is through victimhood. In our show, you see the victimization of the community, but you also see how they’re like, “Okay, hold on. I’m much stronger than this, and you have to give me the space to show you that.”

You’ve said in past interviews that your mother was worried about you being typecast as a gay actor—but you have largely built your acting career around shows with amazing queer characters. Are you open to playing predominantly queer roles for the rest of your career?

Of course, as an actor, I want to be able to play everything, but my heart is set on telling queer stories, whether the queerness be at the front of the storyline or at the back. It is important to me that our stories are getting told, so if I keep getting booked for queer roles, I will be happy.

But I also understand that a lot of people—not only in the industry, but people like my mother—only know this hierarchy system of, “Don’t you want to play the Marvel superhero?” I’m like, “Yeah, I can play the Marvel superhero that goes home to a husband, and he is just as important as Captain America and Thor.” We are just as deserving and just as worthy of our stories being told as our cisgender heterosexual counterparts.

Who was the first character that made you first feel seen as a queer person?

I wouldn’t say it was a character but a person—and it was Pedro Zamora on The Real World: San Francisco. It was the first time I’d seen a gay person given humanity, and it was one of the first moments I didn’t feel ashamed of who I was. He was later diagnosed with HIV and then AIDS, and through him being on the show, we saw that people who have the disease are also deserving of love and respect. That taught me a lot about how to engage with my own community in a way that was respectful and understanding.

What would you be most excited to explore specifically with Noah in a hypothetical second season?

I would love to see Noah go back to work. I would love to see why he’s a good lawyer and why he almost made partner. Make it make sense to me! [Laughs.] I want to see him be a badass, and I would love to see him and Julian figure out the relationship because there’s still a lot untapped. It’s giving the honeymoon phase right now, but I’d like to see what happens when you actually put these two in a relationship for longer than a couple of months.

I need to see Noah as a Suits or How to Get Away With Murder-type lawyer.

I know! When I first got the job, I was like, “Ooh, I’m gonna get some juicy courtroom scenes!” And when he was let go, I was like, “Oh shit, okay. I guess that’s the end of that?” But as you see toward the end of the season, he gets a new job, so hopefully I get to see him giving his best Christine Baranski and Julianna Margulies.