tommy dorfman is the 'unapologetically queer' actor from '13 reasons why'
Best known as Ryan Shaver on the hit Netflix drama '13 Reasons Why,' Dorfman talks to i-D about going from emerging actor to queer advocate.
We met Tommy Dorfman at his Bushwick townhouse on a rainy day. Looking at his Instagram account, which since the premiere of 13 Reasons Why has skyrocketed to over 800,000 followers and is populated with shots of Dorfman wearing joyfully queer things like gender-fluid jumpsuits and bubblegum-pink sunglasses, you'd expect to walk in on something a bit… grand. But nope. There Dorfman was in a white tank top and black carpenter jeans. He sat crossed-leg on the couch, playing with his pitbull, who was obviously as bummed out by the gray weather as the rest of us.
"He wants to be outside running around," Dorfman said, giving the slumped dog a quick kiss on the snout.
Dorfman is remarkably Zen considering the noise surrounding Netflix's 13 Reasons Why. For all the people decrying the series for glamorizing suicide, there are as many fans praising it for sparking frank conversations about the topic. On the show, an adaptation of the bestselling young adult novel of the same name, Dorfman plays the openly gay Ryan Shaver. Confident and frighteningly driven, Ryan is one of the 10 Liberty High students that the character Hannah Baker blames for driving her to commit suicide. Considering the litany of calamities Hannah endured, from rape to having inappropriate photos of her spread around school, Ryan's offense is pretty mild (*spoiler alert*: he steals a personal poem from Hannah's journal and publishes it in his zine). But, like most of the other students, Ryan cares more about making sure his actions never see the light of day than the fact that he contributed to Hannah's decision.
If Ryan has one redeeming characteristic, it's that he eschews being a gay stereotype. In one of his first scenes, he proudly calls himself "a skinny faggot who writes poems" while talking to Hannah Baker. When Hannah, uncomfortable and shocked, tells him he's not supposed to use that f-word, Ryan quickly serves back, "You're not. I'm allowed." It's a powerful moment — a gay teen character escaping those tired victimized and "closeted" clichés, and instead being enviably at peace with himself.
"That line was not in the script originally," Dorfman recollected, stealing a glance at his chipping bronze nail polish. "Gregg Araki [the director] and I were having a conversation and I was like, 'Can I say faggot?' I just feel like if he's talking about what other people call him, no one's calling him a 'gay dude.'"
As if sensing someone, somewhere, cracking their knuckles to type up an objection, Dorfman pivoted to his own queer experience to explain his reasoning: "I feel like as a gay person there's an ownership to that word. Like, taking on that word so other people can't use it to harm me — not that it's not painful sometimes."
It's this kind of eloquent argument (he also weighed in on "liberal bubbles" and Trump's attacks on gay rights) that shows Dorfman is well-versed in the contemporary queer landscape — and clear about where he wants to situate himself within it.
Growing up in the Atlanta area, Dorfman always wanted to be a queer actor who spoke out about important issues and provided audiences with positive representation. "I had no interest in being in the closet out of fear of not getting cast as something," he said, scrunching up his nose at the thought. "I wouldn't have been able to survive if I had done it that way."
Dorfman did not expect to step into the role of "Queer Advocate" so quickly. He scored the part of Ryan only a year after graduating from Fordham University's acting program. The 25-year-old learned about the audition from his roommate (who also tried out for it). "I've always loved hour-long dramas and character-driven shows," Dorfman said with a smile on his face. (His passion for "the craft" seemed to radiate off him.) "I was like, 'This show is perfect and I want to be a part of it.'" And so he was.
To prepare for a role on a show that touches on practically every facet of Gen Z-ers lives — from sexting to drugs to fluid sexualities — Dorfman had to re-educate himself about what it's like to be a teen. He turned to his teenage cousins for guidance. They confirmed that today's homecoming kings and queens are no longer football players and cheerleaders, but the MVPs of Instagram and Twitter. "I learned about 'finstas,'" he said with a laugh, amused by the new nuances of adolescence. "They're these fake Instagrams teens have."
Unfortunately, certain familiar phenomenons are still haunting high school hallways: bullying, alienation, harassment, and depression. It was easy for Dorfman to tap into these experiences, as he either lived through them himself or knew people who did. "I reflected on the discomfort of high school for me," he said. "How everything feels like it's life or death. Now that I'm 25, I look back on the stuff that happened to me and today it would probably not affect me like… at all."
It's good that Dorfman has wrestled his high school insecurities to the ground. Because now he's helping teens across the globe do the same. When the first season of 13 Reasons Why premiered on Netflix in March, its cast of emerging young actors was immediately shoved into the spotlight. "We all became advocates," Dorfman explained. "It's been really meaningful to have queer youths reach out to me, teens who live in rural towns or countries like Brazil and Russia where maybe it's not as accepted to be queer." He paused, suddenly self-conscious. "It's weird to talk about this!"
He'll get used to it. He'll have to. Dorfman has a busy year ahead of him: he's jetting from photoshoot to photoshoot, flying to Europe for men's fashion week, and heading to Northern California in a few weeks to start filming season two of 13 Reasons Why. The obvious question is: how will the show possibly proceed? The 13 reasons behind Hannah's suicide have all been covered and dealt with. Ryan remained coy on the subject, giving not even a whisper of an answer. We'll have to wait and see.
Dorfman's looking for new projects too, a steady stream of auditions penciled on his calendar. I asked him if he's worried about being pigeonholed as "the gay guy," and, like Ryan in that first scene, he quickly served back. "My next audition is actually for a straight role."
That's the thing. As much as Dorfman says Ryan and he are pretty different, the two exist unapologetically as themselves. "I'm not gonna worry about that," he said about balancing gay and straight roles. "I can't worry about that. I don't care about playing gay or straight — as long as they're well written. If I play gay characters for the rest of my life, great! As long as they're actual characters and not stereotypes." He shrugged, unbothered, and returned to playing with his dog.
Text André-Naquian Wheeler
Photography Leeta Harding