Fire Island’s Margaret Cho and Bowen Yang on why it’s ‘profound’

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This modern update of a Jane Austen classic is pioneering on several fronts. It’s also a hell of a great time.

Jane Austen would never have imagined Pride and Prejudice would ever be adapted as a LGBTQI love story set on Fire Island, a famed gay playground on New York’s Long Island.

But American comedian and actor Margaret Cho insisted there are similarities to Regency-era England, and that the author would’ve loved Fire Island, the rom-com which bears the name of its setting.

Adapted by Joel Kim Booster, who also stars, and directed by Andrew Ahn, the movie reimagines the Bennetts as a group of friends on their annual pilgrimage to the enclave, complicated by the possibilities of romantic entanglements.

The confident Noah is the stand-in for Elizabeth Bennett, the insecure Howie is Jane while the aloof Will is Mr Darcy. Cho has a supporting role as Erin, the den mother to the group, and the modern counterpart to Mrs Bennett.

Saturday Night Live star Bowen Yang, who plays Howie, told news.com.au the germ for Fire Island was seeded in a trip he and Booster took to the real-life party spot some years ago.

“We were on one of our first trips together and he had brought a copy of Pride and Prejudice with him to Fire Island and kept turning to me and going, ‘Wait, this maps so neatly onto what we’re going through in this place’. When I finally got the script years later, he had made good on this threat.

“I read through it and was astounded by how wonderfully cinematic a piece of work this was. Even though it was inspired by the beats of this perennial story, it felt like something novel.”

Yang said that when he read the script, he was constantly reminded of how much it pulled from the conversations he and Booster had had on Fire Island.

Cho said the film’s vibe mirrors her own experiences on the island, especially the movie’s non-judgmental depictions of the parties.

“Sometimes in film, there’s a conservative bent that we put on these ‘decadent’ parties or sexual practices, but it’s just detail in this film,” she said. “All these things – going to tea, going to the underwear party – are being show in pretty vivid detail.

“But there’s no morality or judgment placed on the fact that these guys are just hanging out, having wild times.”

The LGBTQI representation in Fire Island is more complex than just “Here’s the gay version of Pride and Prejudice!”. There are contours within its story that is specific to experiences within the community.

Its two lead characters are Asian-Americans, which allows the movie to confront the discrimination within, including the blunt dating profile criteria of “No femmes, no fats and no Asians”.

Cho explained: “It’s really about being in queer spaces and still feeling othered – being in a place where everybody is from a minority, which is gay culture, you still feel like a minority within a minority because oftentimes when you’re gay, you think can’t possibly be racist, sexist, body shaming or classist, but we have those biases no matter where we land within the queer community.

“It’s the only film that I’ve ever seen which actually portrays that in a very funny way, that doesn’t mean to shame anybody who does it. It’s more about recognising that this happens.”

That intersectionality of being queer and Asian-American is paramount in Fire Island, informed by the lived experiences of its main cast and director Ahn.

For Yang, inhabiting the character that was written with him in mind in a film that plays in the sandbox of his life was freeing.

“It’s so nice to not have to dial down parts of myself,” he said. “Working with Andrew Ahn as an Asian director, and working with Margaret and Joel, we were able to bring the totality of ourselves to this.

“So many times I’m so used to going into an environment and going, ‘I guess I’ll play down the gay thing about me, or I’ll dial up the gay thing but dial down the Asian thing’. That’s a lot of modulating you have to do day-in-day-out, right?

“To be free of that every day and to be able to meet the other challenges head on that had nothing to do with those was really refreshing to me, and I hope to feel that way again on another project. I was very lucky with this one.”

Working on Fire Island was personal to Yang for more reasons than one. In slipping into the romantic but anxious Howie’s skin, it brought up some of his own demons, ones he thought he had already vanquished.

“Howie is someone who’s deeply insecure about his lot in the gay community,” he explained. “I thought I did a lot of work to outgrow that in my own life. I thought, ‘Oh, I have all these wonderful things, I have so much to be grateful for’, and I do feel confident in a lot of different areas of my life.

“Getting to play Howie was a really eye-opening experience in terms of understanding that maybe I hadn’t outgrown those feelings of insecurity.

“Everyone’s insecure in some way, but in the ways that Howie is maybe feeling a little inferior, I thought I had escaped that. I thought I had outpaced those demons.

“It turns out it was very edifying to be able to revisit those and familiarise myself with what I was still having to deal with to then bring it to this character.”

Modern updates of classic literature are not new, it’s its own genre by this point, populated by the likes of Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You and more. Fire Island marries the conventions of the rom-com and layers on top of that modern sensibilities, fun, and the centring of diverse experiences that rarely get to be the focus.

Cho said Fire Island both challenges and reinforces the Hollywood rom-com.

“There are tropes that we go back to in romantic comedies because it really works.

“We love watching enemies turn to lovers, we love watching the dream unfold, and that’s one of the satisfying things about romantic comedies. It’s more that we’re included in this for the first time as queer Asian-Americans. That makes it really profound.”

Fire Island is streaming on Disney+ from Friday, June 17

Originally published as Fire Island’s Margaret Cho and Bowen Yang on why it’s ‘profound’



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