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How Olympian Gus Kenworthy landed his first Hollywood role, in ‘American Horror Story, 1984’


Growing up in Telluride, Colorado, I did a lot of repertory theater. But Telluride is such a small town, nothing is competitive. If you want to be on the volleyball team, you’re on the volleyball team. If you want to be in theater, you get a role in the play. There were no auditions, so my experience wasn’t an indicator that I was talented or had a future in acting. But I enjoyed it. My mom still has questionnaires from when I was in second and third grade. Right beside the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I wrote “an actor.”

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Back then, my favorite actors were Jackie Chan and Robin Williams. I loved that Chan did his own stunts and Williams was funny and connected with his audiences. I remember telling my mom, “When I’m an actor, I’m going to do all of my own stunts.” She was like, “OK, wear your helmet.”

The past couple of years, I’ve started dipping my toes into the acting waters. I did a cameo on “The Real O’Neals” and filmed a few scenes in “Olympic Dreams,” a movie starring Nick Kroll that premiered at SXSW in March. But my role on “American Horror Story: 1984” is the first time I’m playing a character who isn’t Gus Kenworthy. If you’re wondering how I landed the role of Emma Roberts’ boyfriend, you’re not alone.

Last winter I met “AHS” co-creator Ryan Murphy through mutual friends at a dinner in New York, where I was living at the time. We were with a small group, and we sat next to each other and talked all night. He told me that he followed my story during the Olympics and was a fan. I told him I wanted to get into acting post-skiing and had done a few small things to get my feet wet. He didn’t say much else at the time. Then shortly after the new year, he texted me and said, “There’s a part in the new ‘American Horror Story’ I think you’d be great for. If you want, come in and audition the next time you’re in LA.”

A week later, I was on the Fox lot. I assumed I was auditioning for a small walk-on part, maybe I’d have two lines in one episode, so I didn’t overthink things. Ryan told me his thoughts for the upcoming season, what the arc and vibe would be and how it would be shot. I read sides, a part of a script used for auditions, and afterward Ryan said, “Great. The part is yours if you want it.” Literally right then. I couldn’t believe it. I felt so guilty.

How Olympian Gus Kenworthy landed his first Hollywood role, in 'American Horror Story, 1984'
A skill Kenworthy will bring from skiing to acting? Stunts. He’s dead set on doing his own. Peter Yang for ESPN

My boyfriend, Matt Wilkas, is an actor. A trained actor. He’s been on TV shows, in movies, on Broadway. He’s taught me so much about how to prepare for a role. Until I develop my own process, my process is Matt’s process. When I get a script, I first figure out how I relate to the character — who I am, where I am, what I’m doing, the point I want to get across — and then I sink into that feeling until I have a very clear picture of who I am, where we’re sitting, who the other people are. It’s an imagination game, and I have a pretty vivid imagination.

A lot of our close friends are actors too. I’ve watched them go in for auditions, callbacks and chemistry reads and not get the part. It’s such a tough business with so much heartbreak and disappointment. It was hard to call Matt after the audition and tell him I had just been given this part, with very little work, that he or any of our friends would want. I could tell it was hard for him to hear the news, and of course there’s a little bit of mixed emotions, but he was so supportive and happy for me.

When Ryan announced he’d hired me to play Emma’s boyfriend, he and I both received a lot of negative comments online. The gay community is the most supportive community in the world and also the quickest to cut you down. There were a lot of people saying, “Gus has no credits, no experience. How did he get this role?” Some people wanted to know how I was cast as a straight man or if I could play straight. Is that even a question? I spent the first 23 years of my life playing a straight man.

I used that joke to defuse the negativity on social media, but there’s a lot of truth in it. Every gay man has the experience at some point in his life of pretending to be someone he’s not. I knew as a teenager that I was gay, yet I was still sleeping with girls, pretending to be straight, playing this persona I thought I needed to be for my sport. The stakes were so high. I remember going to crazy lengths to make people believe I was someone I was not. That’s acting.

Maybe this sounds unfair, but I feel like it’s much more OK for a gay man to play a straight role than vice versa. Most characters are straight. Most shows are about straight people and straight lives and straight dynamics, and if there is a gay character on the show, it’s usually a sidekick. Allowing a gay person to play that character does a lot in terms of visibility and breaking down perceptions and stereotypes. For the longest time, only straight actors were cast in gay and lesbian and transgender roles, and that makes LGBTQ actors feel like there is no opportunity for them to be seen on screen. If you’re telling a trans story and you have Scarlett Johansson playing the role, it discredits what it is to be a trans person. Even if she does an incredible job, it doesn’t allow people to have a real sense of what it means to be trans, and for so many people it’s the only taste they get.

I also think a gay actor playing straight is a big deal. There aren’t many openly gay actors getting cast in straight parts. But that is changing, and I am lucky to have the opportunity to be part of that change.

Unlike in freeskiing, where I was the first openly gay athlete to compete at the X Games, I’m hardly the trailblazer in Hollywood. As an athlete, I was so scared to come out because I worried I would lose my friends, my sponsors, my fans. It was hard to find the courage to come to terms with the words “I’m gay” when I’d spent my entire life avoiding them. But when I came out, in a cover story for ESPN The Magazine, I received the opposite reaction.

I didn’t lose. I gained. My story wasn’t silenced. It was amplified. I was met with so much support. I let my guard down. I’m much funnier and more candid than when I was in the closet because I’m no longer worried about saying the wrong thing. I have this liberation. Since then I’ve made some of the best friends and have thoroughly enjoyed so many parts of my life that I only half enjoyed before I came out. Living freely made me a better athlete, and I believe it will make me a better actor too.

The biggest thing with acting is you don’t want to embarrass yourself, but I am so accustomed from skiing to performing with people watching and having that fear of failure. I’ve learned to balance that. I know how to put those nerves on the back burner and perform. But of course I’m nervous. Everyone else on set has had way more experience than me, and I know I am going to make a fool of myself at some point during filming.

I would love to take on the role of a real person one day, to try to live in someone else’s skin. Charlize Theron’s performance as Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” was inspiring. I’m fascinated by serial killers, watch every episode of “Forensic Files” and am an encyclopedia of horror films. If anyone reading this is making a Jeffrey Dahmer movie, I want the lead.

The goal is to tap into who the characters are and find similarities. I could be playing a serial killer and think I have nothing in common with him. But when I break down what that character is comprised of — this person is lonely, isolated, depressed, has skeletons in his closet — I start to find we have more in common than I thought.

It’s also my dream to play a superhero. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with them. I related to them so well because, let’s be honest, a superhero basically lives his or her life in the closet. They have a daytime persona, whether it’s Clark Kent or Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne, who is completely separate from their superhero persona, and nobody gets to know both people at once. Their second identity is something they believe they have to keep hidden. It’s their big secret. In a weird way, when I was a kid, I felt like a little gay superhero. It would be a dream to play the first gay superhero on the big screen. Marvel, are you listening? — As told to Alyssa Roenigk



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