'Alex Strangelove' Director on the Wish Fulfillment of His LGBT High School Sex Comedy (Exclusive)

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Photo by Presley Ann/Getty Images

Alex Strangelove is a story of boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy meets boy, boy might be falling for boy, too, and, oh yeah, boy might actually be gay, but it is all very confusing. In the Netflix comedy, Alex (Daniel Doheny) is a high school senior obsessed with cephalopods, among other wildlife, and with losing his virginity to his girlfriend, Claire (Madeline Weinstein). Until he meets a cute boy, Elliott (Antonio Marziale), at a theater party and everything gets complicated. Director Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins) was inspired by his own coming out story, right down to the love of wild animals -- though these days a far more domestic critter is occupying his time.

"We just got a dog this weekend, so we're, like, little nervous daddies, running around, making sure that we don't screw it up," Johnson says of the Corgi mix, Winston, he and husband Adam Roberts adopted. "He's not entirely housebroken, so we are going to roll up our sleeves and get to it. Keep me in your thoughts and prayers, as they say." With Alex Strangelove now streaming on Netflix, ET phoned Johnson to discuss turning his most "embarrassing" life experiences into a teen sex comedy and comparisons to Love, Simon.

ET: This is being called your most personal film yet. What from your life inspired this story?

Craig Johnson: I look at this film as the sexual confusion of my teens and my 20s crammed into one kid's senior year of high school. [Laughs] I had a long, circuitous journey of coming out incrementally over the years, in my 20s, and there was all kind of struggle that led to, you know, encounters, dating women when I was, in the back of my head, questioning whether or not this was even what I wanted, which led to, in retrospect, some funny and embarrassing moments. At the time, they were just purely confusing and embarrassing.

But when I eventually came out as gay, I thought about my journey and thought, Wow. You know what? In this day and age where it's a possibility for kids to come out of the closet in high school -- that really wasn't the case when I was in high school in the '90s, but now that it is a possibility, I love the drama of that. Because you can do it now! So, in 2018, what does that mean? And I think it's actually, perhaps, even more confusing, because everything's on the table. Now, you can make multiple choices. Are you bi? Are you gay? Are you poly? Are you genderqueer? And it seemed like a real dramatic premise for a high school sex comedy.

Was anything that happens in the movie lifted directly from your life? Or was it capturing the spirit of that time in your life?

Oh, boy. OK! Well, here's the embarrassment. While the encounters are not necessarily directly autobiographical, there's a moment where Alex is trying to consummate with a drunk sorority girl and at one point, she goes, "Sweetie, are you getting shy?" That may or may not have been said to me in a moment of consummation with a female. We'll put it like that.

Yeah, that is something you would hold on to. Hopefully now that it's on film, you can release it.

That's what I'm hoping! Talking about this film is cheaper than therapy.

I was also told that you call Alex your "surrogate." How close is he to who you were then?

Oh, incredibly similar. I was kind of a nature freak, obsessed with weird animals. I was always a people pleaser as a high school kid -- I always wanted everybody to like me. I got good grades. I was probably overcompensating, which I think is very common for queer, closeted teenagers. I was trying to overcompensate because I knew I had this thing that could render me unlikable, and so that is all part of Daniel Doheny's performance. Weirdly, when we cast Daniel, he's from Vancouver, BC, and I grew up in Bellingham, Washington, which is, like, 45 miles south. When I met him, he just reminded me of me when I was a teenager.

Winston aside, are you still into exotic animals?

Very much so, yeah, and as soon as you declare a favorite animal-- Like for me, everyone knows that I love octopuses, so our shelves are littered with little octopus sculptures and little octopus gifts that people have gotten us. I still am a total weird animal freak, and maybe even have an action-adventure, sci-fi movie about weird animals in my system down the road.

Alex Strangelove
Photo by Walter Thomson/Netflix

To a degree, whenever we gay men write about coming out, as we are wont to do, there is an element of wish fulfillment to it. How we wish our experience could have been. Was that the case for you?

One hundred percent. I never had an Elliott character in my life when I was a teenager. Eventually, later on in college, I did run into quote-unquote Elliott and that is the wish fulfillment. I think about how I would have maybe come to some conclusions a lot sooner had I met an Elliott, someone who was brave enough to live out and openly, who could sort of nudge me a little bit without pushing me or outing me. But Elliotts were harder to come by in the '90s, so I think wish fulfillment is a very apt term for the Elliott-Alex relationship.

You talk about high school in the '90s, but I was in high school in the later aughts, and even then, there still weren't many openly gay kids. It's still so cool, but so surprising, when I see these gay teenagers just out and living their life. It's beautiful but it's also, like, "How is this possible?!"

Oh, I know! And yet I still think that even now that it's an option to come out, the struggle becomes an internal one. For Alex, it really is a struggle of, What am I into? He's got this wonderful girlfriend, who is his best friend, who he loves more than life itself. He truly does love Claire and is so emotionally invested in her. On paper, they are the perfect couple, but for this one thing that is really part of the heartbreaking journey for him. And I think that's the case for many closeted teenagers who have really close relationships with girls -- which is almost every closeted teenager, I think -- and that was really important to me, that that relationship between a kid struggling with his sexuality and his girlfriend, that's a relationship that I really hadn't seen depicted in film before in the way that I remember it and lived it.

I feel like it's only been in the last five or six years that this younger generation has just really embraced more of an open view towards sexuality. I conceived of the idea 10 years ago, and I would update the script to reflect that. Alex, his struggle is not that he's going to come out and then he's going to get beat up or get disowned by his parents. We're sort of beyond that story -- I mean, not in all regions, certainly -- but for this story, I wanted to talk about a kid where his struggle is not what's going to happen to him if he comes out. It was more internal. We would bring the script around to traditional studios, all of whom really loved the story, but they all wanted, like, a teacher character or a parent character to be more prominent so we could cast Meryl Streep and get the movie funded. But Netflix believed in it being a story about the kids and Netflix said, "Hey, we love this. Cast whoever you want."

Why was it important for you to tie the ending of the movie into YouTube coming out videos and the "It Gets Better" movement?

You know, we talked a lot about that. It was always in the script, and I just liked the idea of giving the movie, situating it with a little bit of social context of where we are today. I knew that a lot of young people would be watching the movie and I think for what the movie is, I like the idea of giving that real-world context to a story, to show that Alex's story is one of many thousands of stories of kids in this country today dealing with this and telling their stories. I thought that it could be meaningful to young people, but to anybody who's maybe questioning their sexuality at any age.

You describe this as a teen sex comedy, but a lot of the comedy of sexuality revolves around straight sex. Do you think it is possible to get a teen sex comedy where the sexual comedy is with gay sex made?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You'd have to think about what sort of then is the storyline and the conflict. For me, it's always about, What is the drama of the story? And the comedy always comes from the drama. In this case, when you have a kid struggling with his sexuality and really wanting to make things work with his girlfriend, the comedy then naturally fell into trying to make straight sex work. But, oh yeah, [in] the next wave of this, I'm sure. I'd love to see a high school comedy where you're dealing with gay kids and there are all kinds of gay sex hijinks. Maybe I'll write a sequel.

There have been a lot of comparisons between Alex Strangelove and Love, Simon. With Love, Simon, there was this response from people asking, "Do we even need this movie anymore?" That maybe it wasn't queer enough for 2018, with criticism over centering the film on a more masculine, white male. Is that anything you grappled with in making this?

You know, I didn't. Partially because, for better or for worse, I am a white male. [Laughs] And I was telling an autobiographical story, so that's just where this movie landed for me. First of all, let me say that I think that criticism is legitimate. We should always be striving for diversity in these movies. That said, I would argue that a lot of the audience for Love, Simon wasn't necessarily, you know, queer kids. I'd like to think that queer kids would enjoy it, but let's invite 13-year-old girls to the party and our straight allies to the party, who can maybe for the first time encounter a coming out story that maybe helps them think about their closeted friend in the seventh grade. I think the audience for Love, Simon was diverse and the 13-year-old girls weren't necessarily thinking about that masculine kid in the lead role in the way that I am as an out adult, you know? Which I wasn't, personally, because I enjoyed Nick Robinson's performance in that.

With Alex Strangelove, I'd like to think that we might even be inviting straight guys to the party, because there are all the tropes of the raunchy sex comedy -- sex scenes gone wrong and drug trip outs and party hijinks and all this stuff. I'd like to think there's a straight kid out there who sees the movie and goes, "Yeah, I really liked it. Yeah, there was some gay stuff in it, but I really liked it!"

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