Audiences have fallen for The Queens Project, a web series about a group of self-professed “gay nerds” in New York City struggling to follow their dreams. It’s funny, it’s poignant, and it proves that life is better when you can lean on your friends. As the third season makes its way to the web, I caught up with creator Ken Arpino and cast members Trey Gerrald, Chris Dwan, BJ Gruber, and Andre Jordan to talk about the show, the importance of gay representation on TV and the moment they fell in love with performing.
So let’s start at the beginning. When did you first fall in love with acting and performing?
Ken Arpino: My parents always appreciated the arts. I grew up listening to Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, etc. I loved the storytelling, the vocals, and the way the music made me feel. I was also a TV junkie! My mother thought I was lazy but I really did love the storytelling. Little did she know making me play outside was stifling my creativity.
Trey Gerrald: I suppose I fell in love with acting when I was a kid watching I Love Lucy. I loved hearing the audience laugh and loved to watch Lucy do so many different things. I loved knowing it was all just pretend.
Chris Dwan: My best friend in high school actually dared me to audition for my first musical and I haven’t looked back since!
BJ Gruber: Middle school band. The tuba was my calling.
Andre Jordan: I’ve always loved performing. I sang in the church and school choirs as a kid. I would put on shows for my family in our den. Of course that was back when it was just “playing pretend.” I was also quite a ham as a kid and people think that adorable.
Do you remember your performance in front of an audience?
Trey: The first performance I remember was some pageant at church where we all played flowers and held these cardboard cutouts. I was cast as the sun which meant I was the only kid who got to stand and also the only one with a sun cardboard cutout. As we were being lined up to perform, the teacher gave me a flower and gave the sun to someone else and in that moment I knew this business would be hard.
Chris: I would put on shows as a kid with my cousins and I definitely remember donning a beret and playing ‘Pierre: The Chef.’
BJ: Les Miserables.
Ken: In the third grade, our music teacher adapted “The 13 Clocks” into a musical. I played a ‘wander traveler.’ It was an ensemble track, which 8-year-old Ken Arpino was not about. I mean, I performed—no small parts, only small actors and whatever—but I admit I may not have been as #fullout as Jerry Mitchell would have liked. I have grown a lot since then.
Andre: My Kindergarten class gave a performance of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in our classroom. I was cast as the butterfly. I waited behind a sheet and emerged at the end and ran around in circles with wings my mom made for me. Talk about a coming out story.
So, at what point did you decide this was that path you were going to pursue vocationally as opposed to it just being a hobby?
BJ: When I needed to decide what I wanted to study at University. It was either performing or pharmacology. Genius Beej went with performing. It’s going well.
Trey: I think acting switched to a serious endeavor when I got accepted into a boarding high school for the arts. It was incredibly rigorous and the curriculum was designed to hone the craft of acting, rather than doing it for fun. That was a major shift.
Chris: I had an amazing teacher at the high school where I grew up in Michigan and she told me that acting was a career I had potential for. I felt that if I never tried, it would be something that I’d regret forever. Meanwhile, I had a full backup plan to be an architect but here we are.
Ken: For spring break my senior year of college, my friends and I came to NYC. Being musical theatre majors, they wanted to see what auditioning in the city would be like. They dragged me to an open call for the national tour of Hairspray and I did not want to go. I had decided to pursue marketing and had my life all mapped out. Actually, I think I may even have been “straight” still at the time, but I digress. Curiosity got the better of me and I went with them—and I booked it. One contract lead to another and my career as an actor/cater waiter began.
Andre: This may be the gayest theatre kid answer ever, but I got the VHS of Cats for Christmas when I was twelve, and it changed my life. I became obsessed about learning more and more about musical theatre. That’s when I stopped telling myself I was going to be a marine biologist and I haven’t considered doing anything else with my life since.
Apart from “The Queens Project,” what has been your favorite credit/production you’ve been a part of professionally so far in your career?
BJ: Rocky Horror with Ken in the backwoods of Virginia. I played Rocky. He played Brad. It taught me how much theater can do for conservative communities. It was great watching that community let loose.
Trey: I don’t do much theater anymore, but I did a production of the one-man-show Buyer & Cellar and that was an experience I’ll never forget. It terrified me which made me work harder than I ever had before. It was an incredibly rewarding experience.
Chris: I had the best time making my Broadway debut in the musical Finding Neverland. The people I got to work with were incredible and I definitely learned from each person. Matthew Morrison taught me how to throw a killer party.
Ken: That is so hard to answer. I did a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Ogunquit Playhouse and it is still one of my absolute favorite contracts. It was exactly what I needed at that moment in my life. The cast got super close—I still hang out with a lot of them today—we were treated like family (especially by The Clam Shack in Kennebunk), and the talent of the group motivated me to do more and want to be better. That’s where I met Casey Garvin, who was in season one of “The Queens Project,” and my second contract with Andre Jordan, who plays Andre in seasons two and three.
Andre: A few years ago, I was on the national tour of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Not only is it one my absolute favorite shows (I have a thing for Andrew Lloyd Webber), but it was directed and choreographed by Tony trophy-snatcher Andy Blankenbuehler. I auditioned for it the first year and was cut very quickly. At that time I had just gone through a rough breakup and was taking all of the “no’s” in the room very personally. I figured I wasn’t worthy for anything good anymore. The next year they had some replacement auditions, and I went back and ended up booking it. I worked my ass off in that show and it was not easy, but I was where I was supposed to be and I got to grow so much because of it. Turns out I was worthy.
What does “The Queens Project” mean to you, personally?
Ken: Two events pushed me to start writing “The Queens Project.” First, I took an on-camera class with Heidi Marshall who’s mantra is generate your own work. If there is a role you want to play, do it! The second, I was taking sketch writing courses at UCB and the straight guys in my class didn’t think my characters were realistic. First of all, ew—second of all, I was writing based off my real life so of course they are realistic. So, being a gay nerd, I decided to test my characters on YouTube to see if my friends would get it. I never anticipated it would get so much attention. The moral of this story is that “The Queens Project” means validation for me. I understand that it may not be everyone’s story—but it is mine. I hope you enjoy either way.
Trey: “The Queens Project” is especially meaningful to me because it’s become more than just a one-off experience. It’s a gift to be able to return to the series and keep fleshing out these characters. In many ways, art has imitated life because when we’re filming, it really feels like we’re just hanging out and making each other laugh. The fact that people are watching is icing on the cake.
Chris: You know, I walked into “The Queens Project” completely blind and I only knew a couple of the guys connected to the project. Now, having said that, I absolutely binged the first season and was obsessed so when I was asked to be a part of the second, I flipped. Now I feel like I have a group of sisters I never knew that I needed.
BJ: It’s important to me that all kinds of people of all backgrounds have a voice in art. This is Ken’s voice and I’m proud to be a part of it.
Andre: You know you just believe in something so much, you can’t stop talking about it? That’s me with this. Ken has made something really special and to see it affect so many people is a real fuzzy feeling. It means we’re doing it! People are laughing! I love this silly world where these characters live and I’m excited to share it.
How has this show challenged and pushed you as an actor and an artist?
Chris: “The Queens Project” is really my first experience on camera so I’ve been having a blast learning as much as I can from these really talented guys.
BJ: I’m usually the straight man. Gabe is very matter-of-fact. I’ve always played dumb well and it’s been a lot of fun diving into Gabe.
Trey: Ken is such a great writer and has given me some really fun things to explore. I can’t wait for people to see the third season.
Andre: I haven’t had many opportunities in NYC to do much on camera work; so working these muscles is always a challenge. I just want every take to be hilarious.
Ken: For seasons one and two, “The Queens Project” was a labor of love. I was wearing so many hats—actor, writer, director, producer, accounting, caterer, etc. It showed me how much work and sacrifice ‘creating’ truly commands. In the process, I was building a team that has so much passion and energy for this project. The sense of gratitude I feel for these people is indescribable. They have made season three a breeze. They have been so generous with their time and talents. My advice to other creators, don’t try to do it all yourself. Surround yourself with passionate people and never settle.
Talk to me about gay representation in the media. In today’s cultural landscape, why do you think it’s still important?
Ken: Hell yes it’s still important! As long as we have bigots trying to pass anti LGBTQIA legislation, representation is vital. Educate yourself and raise your voice. As far as gay Hollywood goes, the more gay representation the better. We need to be more than the sassy secretary or the self-obsessed gym-junky. We are a complex community comprised of all types.
Chris: I was super inspired by any sort of queer visibility as a kid so I love seeing the new high school aged portrayals on TV. It’s still very important for both parents and kids across the world to experience these complex, diverse, and very relatable families. Compared to the many countries with little to no visibility, what a privilege that the USA has been so accepting of gay culture recently.
Trey: Representation of any kind is extremely important, especially today. It’s irresponsible for any kind of media to only reflect part of the story. Our world is made up of many shades and to not be inclusive of them all, especially as storytellers, is pretty lame. Exposure is a truly powerful tool.
BJ: I look forward to the day when LGBT art can be more representative of gay lives than cartoons in mainstream media. The caricature has become easily accepted in mainstream media and that’s great but I’m looking forward to when LGBT individuals can be more 3-dimensional in entertainment and I think “The Queens Project” takes a couple steps towards that.
Andre: I feel like we’re in this great place where we’re seeing more queer stories being told. And that so important today because there are still kids out there who are taking their lives because they feel alone and not understood. The more positive influence we can have, the better.