cucumber, banana, tofu’s freddie fox on gay shame, gay pride and avoiding labelling
As Russell T Davies’ new, sexually explicit gay drama Cucumber invades our screens, we speak to the star of it’s younger offshoot Banana, Freddie Fox about sexual fluidity, Tinder, Grindr, gay shame and steamy sex scenes.
"Cucumber," "banana," and "tofu," in case you didn't know, are the words sexologists use to metaphorically describe the different stages of a hard on. Cucumber - Banana - Tofu is also the threesome of Russell T Davies' new Channel 4 programs exploring not only gay sex but dramatising the things we all practice in reality and are usually too prudish to talk about. The British public went bananas over his 1999 TV series Queer as Folk, which opened up the world of gay sex to many for the first time. Now he's back with Cucumber, the C4 late night show surrounding the mid-life crisis of Henry Best and his infatuation with a young, beautiful, blonde pansexual Freddie Baxter (played by Freddie Fox), Banana, which is the late late night E4 show following the lives of Freddie and his mates, and Tofu, a 4OD short film. Despite today's sexual fluidity, which has moved on immensely since Queer as Folk's screen time, issues surrounding sexual preference other than 100% "straight" are still very real and Russell is bringing them to a mainstream audience once again. With Cucumber's first episode airing this Thursday, we catch up with Banana's blonde Adonis, Londoner and The Riot Club star, Freddie Fox. With his previous parts in Pride, Worried About the Boy - a biopic of Boy George and The Judas Kiss, on stage playing Oscar Wilde's lover Bosie, mean Freddie's no stranger to playing characters where sexuality is fundamental, but you can't deny he's a connoisseur at picking the parts which have maximum impact.
Tell me a bit about your character in Cucumber, Banana...
From what you've seen in the first episode, he's a character who's enveloped in a cloak of mystery. From the second, there's a confrontational sort of battleground set up between the main character, Henry Best, and me, because I know he fancies me, and he's a middle-aged gay man who I think is disgusting and has wormed his way into my flat and the young person's world. Then in the third episode we go into my past and find out about a relationship that Freddie has had that is dark, complex, damaging and is perhaps the first moment we start to see cracks in this otherwise very strong armour of sex, confidence, beauty and sort of power. That's what you've got to look forward to. And some pretty full on sex!
Is your character bi or gay?
He's bi. There's a line in the first episode where he says he's kind of anything. Sex is his raison d'être. It's what he gains his control and gratification from, and he's very good at it. He doesn't identify with the idea of labelling. He thinks it's archaic, it's a waste of time. You know, there's a whole human race out there, why should I narrow myself to 50% of it?
He seems like a bit of a player... any similarities? Is it just a coincidence that you're both called Freddie?
Yeah I know! I asked Russell whether he based the character on me, and I was like "you're making a lot of assumptions here Russell!" But no, he based him on somebody he knew at university, who I think he admired. But similarities - there are some. People will tell you differently, but I think people who know me quite well will say I'm a confident person. But I think my confidence covers insecurities, as we all do, about wanting to be loved, wanting to be liked. I think Freddie Baxter's no-shit, out there, truth-talking, no mincing of words, "balls" shall we say, is something that I've learnt from him. I've learnt a lot from him about having the balls to be true to who I am and not worry too much about what other people think of me.
My character doesn't identify with the idea of labelling. He thinks it's archaic, it's a waste of time. You know, there's a whole human race out there, why should I narrow myself to 50% of it?
Do you think the show is an accurate portrayal of modern gay life?
Yes, undoubtedly it is. Everything from the tech side of it - the Grindr and Tinder and that sort of stuff that dominates so many people's lives. The social media aspect of sex - that it's a very easily and readily available commodity now, literally at the touch of a button - that's very real. Russell, as a gay man, who has written more groundbreaking drama about gay characters than anybody in the world, undoubtedly does his research better than anyone else, so yes it's very true. There wasn't a single beat to this story that I didn't believe when I read it and it represents, not just the gay, lesbian or bi community, but the entire community of men and women that have sex with each other. It's about love, lust and everything in between, it's about people.
What are the differences between the generations? Between being gay when the older generation in Cucumber were young, and being young and gay today like your character in Banana?
I think the concept of labelling is very different. Adam, who's played by an actor called Ceallach Spellman and is younger than us - his generation don't see the need for arcane terminology to identify sexuality. They don't need the word "gay" or "straight" or "bi". They just think, you do what you do. You do what makes you happy. I think another great subject of the piece is gay shame. I think it's a very real concept, that even my character feels, who is in that generation gap between Henry and Adam. I think for mine, and much more so for the older generation, there's a stigma to being gay and it seems like a lot of people in this country and a lot of the world still see it as being weak and inferior and abnormal. If that kind of propaganda is being piped around enough, a little part of you starts to believe it - that you are a little bit weirder, you are a bit weaker, you are inferior and you aren't normal. I think for the older generation there's still a hangup there. It's been about fighting that militantly and now the younger generation have been given the privilege of yes you can marry, yes it's normal, yes it's fine, yes it's healthy, yes it's great! Those freedoms are taken for granted, thank God, and in the case of the younger generation - Adam's generation - they don't even needed to be talked about.
How does Henry fit in with the younger generation?
It's sort of like dropping a concrete block into the middle of a rainforest, he's so out of place! Yet because of my character being there, he so desperately wants to be in place because a tiny little corner in the back of his brain thinks, if he hangs around that boy for 1000 hours, one of those hours he might be bored or drunk or bereaved and might actually want to fuck him. Naturally that kind of dichotomy between the old and the young is going to create conflict.
You've played a lot of gay characters before, why do those parts appeal to you?
As an actor, you want to play the most interesting parts and often, gay parts are the most interesting ones. I would defy any actor to take a look at Bosie or Marilyn [Worried About the Boy] or take a look at Freddie and go, "nah, there's not enough there." There's so much to play and investigate and explore that's new. Because they're very colourful and exotic and have drawn a fair bit of media attention, it's very easy to forget the other parts like The Riot Club or The Mystery of Edwin Drood, that balance those out.
For mine and more so for the older generation, there's a stigma to being gay and it seems like a lot of people still see it as being weak, inferior and abnormal. It's been about fighting that militantly and now the younger generation have been given the privilege of yes you can marry, yes it's normal, yes it's fine, yes it's healthy, yes it's great!
What was it like filming the sex scenes?
It's very liberating! Sex scenes I've done up until this point tend to be immensely starchy, very choreographed, controlled and basically very un-sexy. They're manufactured and sort of like the opposite of what they're meant to be. Making a beautiful, raunchy sex scene, often is the most un-raunchy, un-sexy thing to do. However, on this job, I don't know whether it was the confidence that we got from the script or from Russell, or the atmosphere that the directors created on set or the feeling, as a company of actors, that we were all there for each other and it wasn't going to be embarrassing, but the sex scenes with both men and women were really sexy to shoot and I hope that comes across in the viewing.
Have you ever been on Tinder or Grindr in real life?
Nope. I don't do social media. I was on Facebook when I was at drama school, so when I was 18 but I left when I was 20, that was five years ago and I've never been on a social media site since. I think they're a wonderful gift to our generation, I just think that in my life, the relationships that I want to have - I don't need it for that and I don't use it as a promotional tool.
Do you think you can find real love on the internet?
Oh yes, undoubtedly you can! It's a very big world and there are many people out there for everybody, it's just how do you get in contact with them? How do you find them? Some of my best friends are together from Grindr or Tinder and I praise that.
Text Felicity Kinsella
Portrait Rosie Ellis
Stills courtesy Channel 4