The highly anticipated, much-hyped political thriller and romantic drama, Fellow Travelers, drops on Paramount+ in the UK this weekend.
The series, which stars Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey, follows a gay couple across four decades of their lives, but also examines the difficulties queer people living in America in the last century have faced.
Based on a 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, the series was created and written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who is known for his work on films Philadelphia and My Policeman, as well as TV series Homeland.
We caught up with Ron to talk about the making of the series, as well as what he hopes audiences will take away from Fellow Travelers.
Here are 13 things he revealed to us...
1. Matt Bomer was one of the first actors to be cast in the series
Ron Nyswaner: Matt Bomer came on as Hawkins very early; Robbie Rogers introduced me to him, and he eventually came on as an executive producer, too. When Matt walked into the room, I said ‘oh, Hawkins Fuller just arrived.’ I also knew his talent for acting – especially for being able to let you know what he’s thinking without saying what he’s thinking. That’s the epitome of brilliant acting!
2. Ron also knew Jonathan Bailey was right for the part as soon as he met him.
RN: Jonny was among the very first people that we thought of for this. Robbie had met him on another project, and even in our first conversation, his energy and openness and emotional availability was so right for Tim.
We felt like that was destiny, and we felt the same way about Jelani Alladin, Noah Ricketts and Allison Williams. I would say for all those five people who we follow through the four decades of the show, as soon as we met them, we knew we'd found our cast.
3. Working with gay actors made telling the story so much easier.
RN: We hoped we would have LGBTQ+ actors in these roles, and we did, but it wasn’t a rule. It worked out, and we’re very happy that it did. It was helpful in terms of talking about sex and love and relationships – we could do it in a shorthand way with people like Matt, Jonny, Jelani and Noah. I think it also made everybody really comfortable.
I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years, and to see that there are so many people now who can be out of the closet and be comfortable and have powerful dynamic careers, that is a big shift in the world. That’s the thing about it that is the most heartening to me. We can say, ‘hey, this is who are we are and we’re not gonna hide that.’
4. But Ron doesn’t believe straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles.
RN: This is how I feel: I don’t tell other people what to do, I’m not the kind of person who goes on social media and makes a moral judgement about you and your choices. I think the world is too filled with people on social media doing that, to be completely honest.
5. He was super involved at every stage of the process.
RN: I’ve seen it all about a hundred times, I think. I was on the set for every scene, I cut all the episodes, too!
6. The whole show was “meticulously researched” to present history as it really happened.
RN: We researched everything to the letter because I don't believe in revisionist history, I have no interest in it. For instance, the relationship between Roy Cohn and David Schine, anything that is said about them in public or they do in public in the show, that’s all true. Even the thing about how Robert Kennedy was involved with getting David Schine is true.
That’s something I think is really important. If it’s being presented as a part of history – like in episode seven with the White Night riots – we weren’t guessing, it was meticulously researched. Now the private scenes, we had to use our imaginations a little for those.
7. So don’t expect to hear about any improvised moments – because there weren’t any!
RN: When you’re doing period, you can’t really improvise. We don’t revise history – if people didn’t use a word in a certain way in the ’50s, we weren’t gonna do that – but it wasn’t just history. The show is very carefully constructed in terms of plot, so it’s just not a show that has a lot of improvisation in it.
8.The sex scenes came with very strict rules.
RN: We had a rule that we wouldn’t do the same sexual act twice in the series. So by the time we got to episode eight, we were scratching our heads and weren’t quite sure what was left. We found something though!
Every sex scene is about the exchange of power – that’s very important – and each one moves the story forward. We didn’t do any sex scenes to just show two beautiful people making love – we don’t do crap like that. If they’re having sex, somebody’s trying to get something from somebody else.
9. Ron once had to show everyone on set how poppers work.
RN: I was very proud of the fact that my director once said, ‘Ron, would you show everybody how to use a popper?’ It was one of my favourite moments! There were like a hundred extras, and was like, ‘OK, you take this’...
10. His favourite era to write and research was the 1950s.
RN: It was really fascinating for me to think about the ’50s. I was born in the ’50s – I obviously wasn’t an adult – but back then there was no gay identity. You don’t have a gay community in that time period, and being out of the closet means your family will probably never speak to you again.
You’d be a pervert, you could be sent to a mental institution and given electric shock treatments, which actually happens to somebody in our show. So to get everybody to think about the way people lived in the 1950s and into the 1960s, that was a fascinating adventure.
11. But his favourite episode is set in ’70s.
RN: I have to say I love episode seven, which is set in 1979. There’s a lot of me in that episode!
12. Also, his favourite character to write was Marcus.
RN: I consider Marcus a third lead; I always saw Hawk, Tim and Marcus as the three leads of the show. I really loved working on Marcus, I had some great collaborators, including Jelani Alladin who plays him. He doesn’t exist in the book, but I thought in 2023 that I had no interest in an all white show.
I think we have an opportunity here to explore history, and if it was interesting and challenging and fascinating to be white and LGBTQ+ in the ’50s, ’60s, ‘70s and ’80s, what the heck was it like to be Black and LGBTQ+?
We addressed race head on. We looked at the hypocrisy of the alleged desegregation of Washington D.C. as well as Marcus’ conflict between his Black identity, and wanting to be an effective Black journalist, but feeling the need to hide his homosexuality. I’m very proud of the fact that we made our Black characters as complicated as our white characters.
13. And finally, Ron hopes that people won’t feel traumatised by the show, but will be incentivised to fight for their rights and live their lives to the fullest.
RN: One of the rules in the writers room was that trigger and trauma were words we weren’t allowed to use! We’re survivors, there are no victims here. Do not despair and do not embrace your identity as a traumatised person, embrace your identity as somebody who’s gonna change the world and do it joyfully!
There is joy in the struggle, that’s what I’ve found in my gay community throughout the 40 years that I’ve been doing this. We’re always gonna dance and put on fun outfits and make great art no matter what you do to us. Keep struggling and do it joyfully.