The actor opens up about working on the two streaming series and fighting racism on Broadway.
After first breaking out on stage, Griffin Matthews has gone on to steal scenes on Netflix’s Dear White People and the pulpy, new limited HBO Max series The Flight Attendant starring Kaley Cuoco. But the actor made the biggest headlines this year when he took on racism in the theater scene as the Black Lives Matter movement took off at the beginning of the summer. Speaking with ET over the phone, the 38-year-old Pittsburgh native opens up about where things stand now and his experiences on the two, wildly different streaming series.
On The Flight Attendant, which premieres with three episodes on Nov. 26, Matthews plays Shane Evans, a fellow flight attendant and nightlife compatriot whose friendship with Cassie (Cuoco) begins to unravel after she awakes one morning to find herself in bed with a dead man and no memory of what happened. “All they told me was that you’re playing a flight attendant and you have a secret,” the actor recalls about first auditioning for the series, adding, “And that was enough for me.”
Quick to offer his opinion or throw some shade at Cassie or the rest of the flight crew’s way, “Shane is absolutely providing some comedic relief,” Matthews says. And thanks to his “instant chemistry” with Cuoco, the two actors have fun banter that plays out in various scenes on screen, particularly in episode 3, “Funeralia,” when Cassie and Shane go on a brief, but unexpected road trip as she continues to investigate the mysterious death that set her off course.
Though, Matthews, who is openly gay himself, points out that Shane is not merely some gay best friend in the series, which straddles the line between noir detective series and rom-com, and sees Shane very much in the mix of Cassie’s ever-expanding messy situation. “Steve [Yockey] had a lot of conversations about how to avoid some of the cliches,” he says of working with the series’ executive producer and showrunner.
“As we’ve learned in 2020, this is a year where we’re talking a lot about diversity and inclusion, and one of the most important things when you get diversity on your show -- when you get actors of color or actors that are LGBTQ -- is not to be afraid to ask them,” the actor continues, adding that the experience on set became a conversation. “I really, desperately wanted Shane to feel like a whole human when the secrets start getting revealed.”
Without revealing any spoilers, he teases, “Once you know about all of the players, but Shane in particular, it all makes sense.” It was important to him as a performer that “it all check out.”
While Matthews says that he had a positive experience on the set of The Flight Attendant, it’s still a far cry from Dear White People, the comedy created by Justin Simien and based on his 2014 film of the same name.
Joining the series in season 3 as D’Unte, Matthews played both medical adviser and mentor to fellow student Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton). Most of the season, he’s seen helping his younger counterpart embrace facets of the LGBTQ community he never experienced before, including going to drag shows and exploring his sexuality.
“I got really lucky doing Dear White People because it was a character that exposed more about the Black gay experience,” the actor shares. “It gave me a chance to dive in in a way that wasn’t cliche or bowing to all the stereotypes.”
More than that, it was the first show that Matthews had ever been on with a Black creator, showrunner and producers as well as a largely Black cast. “It actually changes your life,” he says, explaining that the moment he stepped out on set, he felt free in a way he never has before. “I was, instantly, on day one not covering anything.”
One of the first things Matthews noticed was that “there were people on set that could do my hair, that could do my makeup,” avoiding the “horror stories” other Black actors have dealt with in the past. “And the other thing is, because I was working on a show about the Black experience, particularly the Black gay experience, I was encouraged to continue to be me,” he adds.
Because of that, Matthews says his entire career changed. “I didn’t have to navigate” being a Black person on a white show, or a gay man being on a straight show, he explains, “so I was able to fire from all cylinders.”
It also led him to feeling comfortable enough in his own skin to (mostly) strip down during a sex party scene. “No one’s ever asked me to show my skinny body onscreen. Justin and other people were like, ‘You’re beautiful,’” Matthews says, adding that despite not meeting stereotypical physical expectations for gay men, “I actually felt very accepted.”
Matthews adds, “So yeah, it affected the way I felt not just as an actor, but as a human.”
Sadly, Matthews confirms that he’s not returning for the series’ fourth and final season, which started filming during the fall. But he says it was “amazing” to see the viewership of the series skyrocket over the summer, following the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It was an amazing moment for America that we were finally having these conversations that needed to be had,” he says. “And certainly for Dear White People, the show has been having a conversation about race since the movie. So that was exciting for us as a cast. It also gave us a chance as a cast to talk in depth with our creators, our producers, Netflix and Lionsgate about our place in the industry and what it feels like to be Black actors in the industry, what it feels like to be on a Black show on Netflix.”
Additionally, Matthews also posted his own video in June, taking on Amy Cooper, the white woman who called the police on a Black man in Central Park, and his negative experiences developing the personal musical, Witness Uganda, which was retitled Invisible Thread for its Off-Broadway debut in 2015.
“I have been in the room where it happens and Amy Coopers are alive and well in the American theater. Also, white men can be Amy Coopers too,” he says. “Here are just a few things that happened to me along the way: Strong-arming a Black writer after you've already purchased the rights to my work by saying, ‘I will not produce your show if you do not change the title, exit your role as lead actor, and exit your role as lead writer’ is a direct threat and that is Amy Cooper.”
In addition to the video, he was one of 300 Black, indigenous, and people of color to sign a letter, which was accompanied by a petition, demanding that American theater recognize and address institutionalized racism within the industry.
Months later, Matthews feels like he and others who spoke out were heard. “I think a lot of conversations have been sparked. A lot of organizations have sprung up inside of this to help that movement,” he says. “A lot of theaters have released statements that have said they have received the ‘We See You’ demands and they are working on it.”
However, he points out, “We won’t know if any of it has really worked until the theater returns, until you look at Broadway and go, ‘There is all that diversity.’ Until you look at the audiences at Broadway and go, ‘OK, it’s not just older, white people, right?’”
That said, for Matthews, the greatest lesson learned from the entire experience is realizing that as people of color, “we were operating from inside a system where there was a culture of lacking,” he says, adding that now, "we have to see each other. We have to work together. We need to hire each other. We need to produce each other’s work. We need to elevate each other and amplify each other. The movement is twofold.”