Josh Thomas on telling distinctive LGBTQ stories in Everything's Gonna Be Okay
After breaking out in his native Australia with the semi-autobiographical comedy Please Like Me, a dryly funny portrait of a newly out gay twentysomething which ran for four seasons, Josh Thomas launched his first American series earlier this year: Freeform's critically acclaimed half-hour, Everything's Gonna Be Okay.
The series follows Nicholas (Thomas), an entomologist living in Australia who's forced to make a trip to the U.S. permanent when his father dies suddenly, and his two teenage half-sisters are left without a guardian. Over the course of the first season, Nicholas, his boyfriend Alex (Adam Faison), and his sisters Matilda (Kayla Cromer) and Genevieve (Maeve Press) navigate romantic hiccups, family dysfunction, and the lingering pain of grief. Having received strong reviews, the series recently secured a second-season renewal from Freeform.
For Thomas, who now lives in Los Angeles, the series marks an expansion of his distinctive explorations of LGBTQ life (he created and writes for the show): In addition to Nicholas' relationship with Alex, the first season also explores the sexuality of Matilda, who is autistic.
As EW wraps its 2020 Pride coverage, we caught up with Thomas over Zoom to discuss the nuances of capturing LGBTQ life in his new show, what lies ahead for Everything's Gonna Be Okay, and, in the wake of a controversial resurfacing of past remarks, the responsibilities that come with emerging as a public figure.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How's your quarantine going?
JOSH THOMAS: It ebbs and flows, it ebbs and flows. Definitely having a job has been nice, like having stuff to do has been good. Today we sent some documents to the network, that was good. The first six weeks I was unemployed and I just was doing gardening, I got really obsessed with digging holes. I got earthworms to make the soil quality in my garden better, but then I never got any plants, so now for two months I've just been digging scraps to compost for the earthworms in my old, dark backyard. I just care so much more about them than the plants, which is not the end goal, though. The end goal when you get earthworms isn't just to have pet worms buried in your backyard, but that's what I've been doing.
So I guess what I'm trying to say, in a roundabout way, is that I'm not coping that well.
You're breaking season 2, right? In the midst of the worms and everything.
Yeah. I mean, it's different. We started with mini-room, so I just had the writers that I already knew, and then I was going to open up and double the size of our room and we could meet face-to-face, and I'm just coming to terms with the fact that we're never going to be able to meet face-to-face. All year, just so optimistic, just thinking, well, maybe next week. So we're about to go into phase two, where we expand the size of the room. It's going to be fun, some new people, it's just been me just sitting in this chair all day.
Have you been talking about starting production and what that would look like?
Usually I'm very involved and very interested in production and how our schedule's running and stuff, but every time they try and talk to me about it, I just feel like it's make-believe and that no one knows what's going to happen, really. No one knows when we're starting, so everyone's constantly making calendars with different start dates. What are these start dates based on? Nobody knows. So I don't know, today I had the first virtual meeting where I really went in and listened because I felt like maybe we're making progress. But the rest of the time, I'm just focused on trying the best way forward. Luckily, there's smart people that do that, that just give advice and we just take the advice.
In terms of the creative direction of the show, going from season 1 to season 2, how did you feel about season 1? What kinds of things did you want to bring more into season 2 or less into season 2?
I don't think about it that much after I've made it.
[Laughs] Every episode I've had so many weird experiences on. I have to take five years away to watch it again and know whether it was good or not. I want more of the other actors that aren't me, that's what I really want. And I really want to explore their worlds more; I think they're all so good and reliable and interesting, so I want to get to know their characters better and let them do as much as I can get away with.
In the first season, you explore Matilda's sexuality and particularly queer sexuality. There are levels of responsibility there: in just doing teen sex, then in doing queer teen sex, and then in exploring an autistic character's sexual identity, which is something I had never seen done in that way. What was that process like for you? Did you feel nervous about executing it appropriately?
I feel nervous about everything all the time, but when I was doing my research into autistic teenage girls, two big themes that came up a lot were parents of autistic girls being really worried about them being taken advantage of sexually, and that being a huge cause of stress. It was a conversation that would come up nearly every time we spoke to older [autistic] girls about their teenage years. They, on the flip side, would be really frustrated that nobody trusted them to make their own decisions around sex. They want more independence in that area. I wanted to make a story about that, so that's where we came at it from. And then from there, we try and make sure we're being realistic about what would happen and what it would look like, and then making sure that actors are comfortable. I don't treat the sex stories any differently than how we treat any other story, we try and figure out what would really happen, we try and figure out what the real-world anxieties are around it, and then try and put it onscreen in a truthful way that doesn't, hopefully, upset people.
Were you conscious that it was a fairly new storyline for TV, especially to be on a network like Freeform?
Yeah, Freeform, they're not shy, right? Their concerns, when they note things like that, are always "Is this based in real life?" That's first of all: is my research stacking up? They want to make sure that it's being socially progressive and that it's a helpful thing to put out in the world. Other than that, they're open to going into difficult territory. They're excited about it, they're thinking that it's, like, having conversations that are difficult that people haven't had before is wonderful to them, right? That's what they want me to be doing.
They're definitely longer notes calls when you're like, "Hey, in this episode, I want to [depict] three autistic teenagers deciding to have a threesome, and the main character just allows it to happen." We've got to really explore and test those ideas, and they really want to explore and test those ideas and I think that's fair. They're not scared of being edgy, they just want to make sure you're being edgy for a reason.
I would imagine those calls would be maybe helpful, too, to work through what you're doing.
Yeah. I actually really like notes calls. I'm probably one of the only people.
In terms of your relationship in the show and drawing out: On Please Like Me, you had various romances, but this feels like it's more of a longer-term relationship that you are exploring and the struggles that go into that, particularly for two gay men. Are you drawing from personal experience there? How are you thinking about it going forward?
Well there are these teenage girls in this, and there's a responsibility to them when you go into a relationship, which I don't think we've explored that much in season 1, but definitely we'll explore in season 2: step-parenting is interesting. But in my life, I think that's what you're asking me, I was 19, I dated a boy for two and a half years, and then straightaway dated the next boy for two and a half years, and then almost straightaway dated the next boy for five years. And then dated another boy for two years. I've been single for the past year, but before that almost never.
So long-term relationships: I know how they go. To make a story with a happy couple is a challenging writing task. Watching people get together is fun, watching people break up is fun, watching people stuck together is fun, if they're married and they're just stuck with this person. But two people that are together because they're happy and they decided to be together that day? I don't know how much I want to watch that.
And yet you are writing it.
I am. Ugh, this happy couple. I don't know, that's something that we talk about a lot.
Earlier this month, you were embroiled in a controversy about some racially insensitive remarks you made a few years ago, and you had put out an apology for those statements. What was that experience like for you: You being out there in a public-facing way, making a public apology, and having to think about the words you say as you perhaps hadn't before.
Casting diversity, along racial lines but also queer lines, trans lines, and neurotypical lines, is something that in this show I felt was really important, but also I just think it makes for better television. [As] I said in the apology, it's something that on Please Like Me I don't think we did that well at. And I definitely was always frustrated that we weren't better at it. We were maybe a C-minus at it, but I really wanted to be one of the best shows at it. In Australia, I'm pretty vocal about how bad it is that our television isn't diverse.
It's something I'm really passionate about. I didn't know this clip existed and I saw it, and it absolutely doesn't represent my view. I was very keen to want to apologize for it, because I wanted to make sure people knew that that's not my view. The things in that clip are hurtful; you want to make sure you come out and you make sure people know that you don't stand by those [comments]. So that's what I did, and then it led to a big conversation in Australia about diversity casting, which I think was really good. I'm happy that that happened. But yeah, it's definitely embarrassing to be so stupid on camera and then also to be doing that in a way that's hurtful. That was not a good day.
More broadly for you, particularly now being in L.A., what have you learned about the business in the past year and your role in it that you maybe didn't know when you were on Please Like Me?
Definitely I think everybody's learned so much in the last few weeks, and it's something I've been really excited about. There's sort of this, I've had a foot in the American conversation and a foot in the Australian conversation, and they're about the same thing, but they're slightly different-looking conversations. I've been really interested in both of them. One of the big things [I've noticed] has been a lot of white people who think they're not racist and would go as far as to say that they're anti-racist, but actually having blind spots about things that they do and how they affect people. I think having an open conversation about that has been really cool, and it makes people more cognitive of what they're doing. It's something we're going to do on our set, actually, we're going to start doing unconscious bias training for the crew the same day that we do our harassment training.
When Please Like Me was out, I think it was tagged by a lot of people as a depiction of gay life that you didn't see a lot, and Everything's Gonna Be Okay has that in its own element, too. How do you perceive gay stories on TV right now: The kinds that you want to tell, versus the kinds that are out in the world?
We're at a good place where there's a lot of different types of gay stories, which is a really exciting place to be at because it means you can just tell the gay story you want. Whereas back when Please Like Me [came out], which I guess was eight years ago, or maybe a bit earlier when we started making that show, there were so few gay stories that the amount of pressure and the amount of conversation that was about this one gay story was really big. There was a conversation about, "Is this the right kind of gay to put on TV?", which I really always f---ing hated. I hated when people would talk about the fact that my character was a different type of gay than the gays on other TV shows and why that's more worthy. It always made me feel icky, but I understood it. These days, there are a good amount of queer stories, so you can just be specific and you can just build a character without having to worry too much about how it fits into the media landscape. That's nice.