At the heart of Kissing Walls, a queer romantic comedy web series, queer friendships are the real love story. A mix of Broad City meets Looking, Kissing Walls follows the shenanigans of two best friends, Cameron and James, living together in Chicago trying to make their artistic dreams a reality, and figuring out millennial dating life one butthole pic at a time.
Based on the real friendship of co-creators and lead actors, Zak Payne and Nathaniel Tenenbaum, Kissing Walls showcases how important friendships are in the queer community and how the bonds we share with chosen families can outlast the romances we encounter. Combining real-life inspiration with playful humor, Zak and Nathaniel bring their perspective as queer POC men to the genre of romantic comedy, making characters who would typically be relegated to subplots to driving and leading the show’s narrative.
Recognized for its fresh perspective, Kissing Walls has garnered the attention of critics and film festivals alike. Season 1 was selected for IFP’s 2016 Screen Forward Lab in New York, and later screened at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. It was also selected to screen at various festivals including the 2017 SeriesFest in Denver, the 2018 Chicago International Television Festival, as well the 2018 Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco.
With the recent drop of Kissing Walls’ season two premiere, we sat down with Zak and Nathaniel, to discuss their behind the scenes collaboration, the creative dynamic of queer friendships, and how the show is a snapshot of millennial queer dating life.
Kissing Walls sets itself apart as being a web series that puts POC queer narratives to the foreground, rather than having them relegated as a subplot. As creators and actors, what was it like to lead and collaborate on a project that reflected your personal experiences as someone who is both POC and queer?
[ZAK]: When we started Kissing Walls, I just moved to Chicago and I wanted to make something that could tap into the lens I was looking through, which is queer. The people I surround myself with aren’t straight white dudes. It’s like, “What if I took these friends that I’ve made and myself and develop the show into a queer romantic comedy?”
I can only count the shows on a hand where there’s more than one LGBT person in the cast: Looking, Queer as Folk, Will & Grace, the L Word, a few others.
Certainly, when we started season one – compared to season two – it became a whole different landscape. I started writing Kissing Walls in 2015 and things have changed so rapidly in the last four years. I feel like streaming services have really opened the doors. The gatekeepers that we had with network television has passed and now it feels more democratic and it’s like, these are people that I want to see on tv! Audiences and studios are opening up to this idea that we can have all of these people.
[NATHANIEL]: I need to take a step back and take a moment whenever we’re shooting, writing, or imaging what the season will be because I realize that this opportunity doesn’t happen very often. I want to take advantage of experiencing telling our stories together, Zak and me. Like we’re living and breathing the exact same thing we are portraying on film. It’s otherworldly.
There are a lot of exciting plots that happen in season two. One is Zak’s character, Cameron, exploring and hooking up with an open couple, Guy and Mike. I think there are many queer millennials who can relate to Cameron’s arc, seeing him maneuver and figure out his place in a couple’s open relationship. What interested you (Zak) the most in tackling and discussing open relationships?
[ZAK]: They’re relationships I hadn’t seen on screen much, but something that I have encountered in my own my romantic life. It’s not the same in heterosexual dating, where there’s a boyfriend and girlfriend, period – for the most part. But if you look at queer dating, there are friends with benefits, lovers, partners, etc.
The inspiration for Cameron’s arc wasn’t so much me being like, “I’m really into polyamory.” It came more from this place of, “This is just how dating is.” Dating for us is a bit more fluid, a bit more open. It’s something I haven’t seen portrayed often on screen. If Kissing Walls is a queer romantic comedy, then I want to have it (open relationships) on the show.
James is a character we don’t see represented much in queer media: a gay femme bear. It’s exciting to watch a show and see a character like James push and lead the narrative. Nathan, what attracted you to taking on the role of James and what was your favorite scene to film?
[NATHANIEL]: Characters like James do happen on stage and film, but they’re never there for more than a couple of minutes broken up throughout a play or movie. Jumping into James and allowing him to take up the space was freeing for me. I loved every minute of it.
I especially enjoyed doing the ‘meet cute’ scene in the flower shop with his love interest, Benjamin. I never get to be Drew Barrymore, Reece Witherspoon, or Minnie Driver and have meet cutes in a flower shop. It just doesn’t happen. It really felt so cute, and so girl-next-door, and I love we can convey that energy on the show and still keep it me. I think it was so special and fun. I want little chubby, Jewish, gay, queer, early balding babies like me to really see themselves in those moments. You don’t have to look like Drew Barrymore, or Reece Witherspoon, or Minnie Driver. Or hope that someone sees you like that. Just go out and get your meet cute.
A lot of Kissing Walls reminds us how queer circles are made of these larger and growing chosen families. Both Cameron and James are like siblings to each other and ground and support the other. How have your chosen families pushed and inspired you as artists?
[ZAK]: When I moved to Chicago, I didn’t have any related or blood family. But the first friends I made immediately became my family … especially when I needed an air mattress and half a bunch of other things (laughs). It’s like, “Okay, these new friends that I’m making were able to provide these things and give me advice for how to navigate Chicago.” Pretty quickly, I realized how important those friendships are and how they evolve into a family. I knew that was something that has always been an important facet of the queer community. I knew this is something that needs to be showcased on the show.
[NATHANIEL]: I think that speaks volumes to how important the chosen family has become for queer people. I don’t believe in the phrase, “Blood is thicker than water.” Especially in the queer community, for some that doesn’t exist, and our chosen family is all that we have. Zak and I have a bond as siblings and we call each other sisters - not in the queer sense, but legit sisters, like we shared the same womb. We call each other sisters and we feel that translates on the show.
It’s the goal of the series for most of the actors and the crew to be from our chosen family. They’re like family and we talk to each other all the time. Zak and I can’t imagine doing an entire season without the same team we used from the season before. You see this all the time with artists like John C. Reilly, Will Ferrell, and Molly Shannon or the Duplass Brothers. We want that cinematic family and sense of chosen family throughout.
It’s like a chosen family fuels creative energy in a way related or blood family can’t. Even for queers who aren’t involved in the arts, or are creatives, chosen family fuels some kind of energy in their life.
[NATHANIEL]: Yes, exactly!
Kissing Walls has covered a lot of ground in its 2 seasons. Tackling topics on sexuality, gender norms, and body image, and it’s celebrated queer friendships in a really playful way. What can we expect for a tentative season 3?
[ZAK]: I want to continue to expand on Cameron and James’ dynamic and show how important it is to have to have a friendship like theirs. Definitely focus more on their love lives and obstacles they’re figuring out.
And continuing to ground the series in some kind of reality we are in. It’s difficult to make work as a filmmaker and be blind to our political situation: climate change, gun violence, and I could list of twenty things we’re all aware of going on. It’s part of this wave of anxiety that is impossible to escape from. Like when James and Benjamin – the guy he’s dating – are having their date night, walking down the street, and oh look there’s Trump Tower. Nobody really talks about it in the city, but it’s this thing that’s hanging over you. It’s very ominous.
I hate to make it so dark (laughs) but it’s like I have a cast of queer characters and I don’t think I could make the same carefree white privilege heterosexuality kind of blend we’ve seen before. I want to continue to ground it in some kind of reality. Whatever the struggle, I don’t want to make it up. I think there’s enough struggles to go around.