Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman is one of those people you meet and you instantly know that you’ve met someone special. With an undeniable shining light and genuine positivity, you can’t help but feel good when you are around him. Actor, model, humanitarian and general bad ass, Jeffrey is someone who leads with his heart, something that continues to inspire me.
Amanda: So we know each other from our good old days back in Vancouver. Starting out our acting careers on a really amazing movie that we worked on together.
Jeffrey: Oh, just, like, riveting and thought-provoking and mind-blowing.
A: A really life-changing film for people.
J: That was a long time ago, actually.
A: It was. Almost 10 years ago. The first thing I remember about meeting you was your energy. You had (and still have) this radiant light about you that was so positive, contagious and genuine, and I just wanted to be around it. Where does that comes from?
J: Such an interesting question. Now, at 31 years old, and for the past couple of years in my life, it’s been a very conscious choice, to be totally honest. It’s part of my repertoire of affirmations that I repeat to myself on a daily basis, one of them being, “May the brilliant light from within me shine for all the world to be inspired and impacted by,” amongst many other affirmations, “To be used by God for a purpose greater than myself,” or the universe, or Gaia, or Buddha, or whoever. When I was a kid, I think that I certainly had it in me, because it was something that I was always told from my friends’ parents, from teachers or whoever, in elementary school. As years started going on, I felt like that light – I could very much feel it starting to be dimmed as the external world around me was telling me that I was wrong and was devaluing me on a basic human level for things that were far beyond my control, whether it was the color of my skin or my sexual orientation. I was very much aware of this at like 10, 11, 12 years old. That time in my life was really rough; and I was not a happy, light, bright, open, trusting soul. I was very guarded. I really dimmed my own light, because I recognized that the brighter I shined, the more I stuck out and the more of a target that I was. I really tried to blend in, which upon reflection, sounds so incredibly absurd because I grew up in such a small, little farm town in Canada, in Alberta, that no matter what I did, I couldn’t blend in. I was never going to blend in and I looked at it as a negative for many years, that I couldn’t just blend in and be like everybody else. It’s so cliché, but it’s like “you were born to stand out.” I was born to stand out, and I’ve really embraced that. As soon as I recognized that, I stopped apologizing for who I was, around, like, 15, 16 years old.
A: That’s so young to figure that out. I feel like I’m just starting to figure that out now.
J: It’s funny, because I feel like in some ways, I’m very much a late bloomer, and I’m still learning lessons that I feel my friends learned when they were 15, 16 years old. I feel like everybody has their own path and is going to go at their own pace. I knew that the alternative for me was far too painful. I just didn’t feel good. I was vibrating at a very low vibrational frequency. I was unhappy all of the time. Things just weren’t flowing. Everything was really fragmented. My relationships were strained. My dynamic with my family was really fucked up. I didn’t really feel like I had anybody that I could go and talk to and just really, truly, authentically be myself and be accepted for all sides of myself. But I realized at 15, 16 years old that so much of it was me telling myself these stories. I can’t deny the fact that I did live in a very violently oppressive environment in some ways, if you look like me and are like me; if you’re a black, gay male. But so much of it was just unwarranted fear. I started modeling as well; and that opened the doors to a whole new world for me.
A: Were you traveling for modeling, or were you just modeling in Alberta?
J: I wasn’t traveling at that point. I was 15 years old, and I did my first test shoot with an agency in Calgary called Mode Models in Calgary, which was the crème de la crème of the Alberta fashion scene.
A: Oh, snap, snap, snap!
J: They actually were. I think they were quite a power house in the Alberta market, at least. There wasn’t really a ton of work, obviously, in Alberta; but they would scout, develop and place models internationally. I remember doing a photo shoot when I was 15 years old and it was with a photographer from Los Angeles. It was just a test, but for me it was the biggest deal in the world, because I never thought that I could be a model; but as soon as somebody presented it as a potential opportunity, my eyes just got so bright; and I thought, “Oh, my God! This is a way for me to get out,” you know? I shot with the photographer and got the photos back, maybe a month later, like a contact sheet along with a letter from the agency letting me know that they had decided not to take me internationally. To me, that was the biggest devastation. It was the worst thing I could possibly have received. In my mind, I’m like, “I’m 15. I’m going to get emancipated. I’m going to go travel the world. I’m going to run this shit!” And with that one letter, I was really, really devastated because I didn’t know – at that point, I didn’t have–
A: You just saw that as your one and only way out?
J: I didn’t know if there were any other options, or if there was ever going to be another–
A: When you’re in a small town, it feels like no one “gets out.”
J: No one gets out.
A: I totally connect with that notion of, “Oh, this is my way of getting out of here and creating a life for myself and a name,” and that door was just shut on your one opportunity.
J: Totally. The candle snuffed out just like that and no light to guide the way. I pulled my shit together quite quickly and went and got signed by another agency in Edmonton, instead of Calgary, where my father lived. I started doing local, little jobs, little photo shoots for catalogs and a couple of runway shows here and there, nothing major by many means.
A: Little Jeffrey in jeans.
J: Ridiculously skinny, so scrawny, just emaciated with these big, wild curls. I had no idea what I was doing and, to be totally honest, I was emulating or trying to channel the energy of female fashion models; because that was really the only reference that I had. I would watch - what is her name, the host of “Fashion TV”? Jeanie Becker? I’d watch that show obsessively. I loved it and I would watch it, but it was always female models, these really skinny, editorial girls walking the runways in Paris, Milan and Tokyo. I didn’t really have any examples of male models. I tried to fit myself in that box, and it took me about a year or two to realize that I’m not a girl. I’m not an editorial model. It took everything for a photographer to try to get me to smile when we were doing a photo shoot, because I just wanted to be so edgy, raw and real.
A: Well that makes sense. I mean, where you grew up, there was no one like you. Especially since from a young age, you knew you were gay.
J: Three years old.
A: Yeah, exactly. It’s hard to find anyone who’s out in a small town. Especially someone around your age, if you’re a teenager. But then you’re also someone of color. Who did you look up to?
J: People ask me a lot as an actor, who do I look up to, and who do I admire, and who inspires me. I’ve never –
A: I don’t have one either.
J: Oh, my God! I’m so glad you have that answer. Seriously?
A: I have people that I’m like, “Oh, yeah, she’s cool,” or, this person I like what they’re doing, or whatever; but there was never this one person. You know what I mean? I think because I take little pieces of everyone, like, “Ooh, I like how this person does this and how this person does that.”
J: I would say that’s certainly how I collected little bits of people’s personalities and piled that into a source of inspiration for me. To be totally honest with you, I feel like it’s never really been actors who I’ve looked to for inspiration. It’s always been charismatic world leaders and inspirational speakers who have been my greatest source of inspiration. Maya Angelou changed my whole world.
A: When were you introduced to her?
J: I wasn’t introduced to Maya Angelou until I was 22 years old. I was in New York for the first time, working. I was walking down the street in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, and on Bedford Avenue, there’s a lot of people who have their own little tables, that sell incense, or candles, or whatever. I was walking by and I saw a book called “A Song Flung Up to Heaven,” by Maya Angelou. It just caught my eye, I picked it up and I started reading it immediately. I fell in love with it and devoured it in a day and a half. She has a series of seven or eight memoirs, autobiographies. I went back after devouring that book and got “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and then all of her other autobiographies and every book of poetry, every recipe book, every book of quotes.
A: She did recipe books?
J: Yeah, numerous recipes books actually for just some delicious soul cooking, some yummy soul food.
A: What a woman!
J: She was a phenomenal woman, as is the title of one of my favorite poems by Maya Angelou. What I loved about her and reading her books is that she was a very ordinary person who came from very dire circumstances, living in the South, being raised by her grandmother during the time of segregation. The world was not in her favor, and she made so many “mistakes” along her journey. She got pregnant at a very young age. She didn’t live an ideal life and, yet, she’s so incredibly unapologetically honest about the mistakes she’s made and the choices that she’s made along her way and the life that she’s lived. It’s really raw, and it’s really honest. I just respect that so much. The truth is so much more interesting than fiction. She tried many different things. She was a calypso singer in a club. She traveled with a European touring group of “Porgy and Bess,” you know, the Broadway show. She was the first female trolley attendant in San Francisco.
A: Oh, my God!
J: She just did so many different things. She got involved in politics, spoken-word poetry and just so many different things. She never categorized herself into one box and said, “This is what I am.” She tried everything, and she found out what worked for her, what didn’t work for her and went from there and then shared her story. That’s what she’s given to the world.
A: Hearing you talk about her, it makes total sense why that would be one of your heroes, because so many of the things you’re talking about that she either believed in, or stood for, or did are a lot of the things that you’re passionate about. Like public speaking, especially with the LGBT community, people of color and equality. I can totally connect the dots on why you identify with her. When you’re talking about Maya, I’m like, “That could be Jeffrey down the road.”
J: Thanks, Amanda.
A: I feel like you’re already on that path. You recently spoke at a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) gala. I remember you telling me that you were going to be speaking at it, and I just assumed that you’d be presenting an award, and maybe say a couple words about what this campaign meant to you. I was working at the time and we didn’t really get to talk about it after. Then the speech went online. You sent it to me and I was so blown away by the speech that you gave, because not only was it powerful, and what you were saying was so important, and the way that you spoke and how you commanded the room but also, watching you up there, it was just like, “He was made to do this.”
J: Thanks, Amanda. That means so much to me. I remember you called me in tears after you saw my speech.
A: It was so beautiful. Why is that important to you? Speaking at the HRC gala, why was that a dream come true? I just put words in your mouth, but I assume it’s a dream come true.
J: I didn’t realize how much of a dream come true it was until I had already done it. I felt like it was where I belonged. I felt very comfortable up on that stage. I feel like it was a really ideal opportunity for me to reclaim my power because, as an actor, as much as I love acting, you are the paint to the artist, who is the director, or writers, or producers. It’s you up on that screen, or up on that stage saying these words, but these words aren’t yours. I feel like it’s a really powerful thing to have the opportunity to touch many people’s lives all around the world as an actor, and I feel like people can relate to your characters, or can see themselves in you. That’s a really beautiful byproduct of what we do as actors. I recognize that and the power of artists as activists. I recognize that it’s going to be much powerful to me to be able to use my own words and to speak from my own heart and soul about issues and topics that are relevant and important to me, and to be able to share my perspective with the world. I talk in the speech about the importance of visibility and diversity in the entertainment industry and how I didn’t have that when I was growing up and that it became a mission for me very early on in my career to become that, to become a source of inspiration for youth, specifically, LGBT youth and LGBT youth of color, in America and Canada. For them to have somebody, just somebody, to look to, so they can turn on their TVs and they can see somebody who looks like them, or they can see themselves. To see a reflection of yourself.
A: I feel like that’s part of your life message and I feel like it just naturally comes from you. You are a rare case of an actor who is gay and who has always been out, which is a huge deal. When Ellen DeGeneres did it, her career is obviously amazing now, but at the time when she did it, it wasn’t received with open hearts. It’s unfortunate, but it can backfire for public figures to come out as gay. But you’ve always been out.
J: I think Ellen’s an interesting example, because she is somebody who took back the power, reclaimed her power and uses her own voice. If she were strictly an actor, it may have been a different story. I saw it as I was growing up and as I started to work as an actor. I feel like Rupert Everett’s a classic example that was always used for me by agents when I was first starting acting and talked about how I wanted to be an openly gay actor.
A: That was a conversation with your agents from the beginning?
J: Yeah, very much so. I was 21. I wasn’t necessarily supported, and even at 31 years old. I’m lucky to have a very strong team. My agents and my managers, I love them, and they love me, and they understand me. We’ve been together for about five or six years now, since I first moved to New York. But as much as they love me and as much as I love them, as much as they understand me and support my vision, they still had their worries, for sure, because they’ve seen it in the past. They’d seen examples of Rupert Everett, where somebody is an actor who plays straight and then decides to come out of the closet, and then the American audience just doesn’t buy it anymore. They don’t see him as a straight man, or people don’t see him having the ability to play a straight character, or be the love interest. For one, I was young enough. I wasn’t acting in my teens when I was seeing all of this going on. I would have, even Ellen coming out on the cover of Time magazine and then seeing the backlash from it. I just had this feeling in my gut and my soul back then of, “Ugh! I never want to go through that.” I thought, “Well, if I was ready to avoid going through that, just don’t be in the closet. Don’t hide in the first place.”
A: Were you worried that it would have a negative effect for you being out, or were you just like, “Whatever?”
J: No. 10 years ago when I first started working, the amount of roles written for gay characters, the amount of gay characters being written for was far less than it is today. I knew, and I was told by my team at that age, that if this was a choice I was going to make, then I will realistically not work as much as my straight counterparts. I was okay with that. They weren’t okay with it, and a lot of their opinions did affect me as the years went by. I did work playing a straight character in some movies and some TV shows. I just was never happy doing it. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy playing the straight character, because that’s part of being an actor. You’re stepping in the shoes of another human being, and you’re taking on a completely different persona. It wasn’t while we were shooting. Once the director called, “Action,” and you’re shooting and playing the character, I was totally fine with it. It was when they would call “Cut,” and then I felt the pressure to still play straight for the producers, for the other cast members, for the studio and the network. You know what I’m saying? I had several instances on a couple of projects. One project specifically that I was on for quite some time where I had the director come to me and just make some perceivably homophobic comments to me, telling me essentially to butch it up, not while we were shooting, but while I was on set, when the camera wasn’t rolling.
A: “Butch it up” just as a person?
A: Did he know you were gay?
J: And it didn’t feel good. It didn’t. That’s the thing. Not only did I have the examples of Ellen DeGeneres and Rupert Everett coming out of the closet and having to watch them go through a really challenging time in their personal life and their careers. But I was also friends with a couple of guys and dated a couple of guys who I knew were gay but were actors and were playing straight characters and were too fearful to ever live authentically or come out of the closet and be who they are in their daily lives in fear of never working again and fear of their families not accepting them, all these things. I saw what came along with that decision. Sure, they were working actors, and they were making money, and they were working more than me because there were more roles available to them. I saw their incredible personal and emotional turmoil that they were living in on a daily basis. It was a hell of their own creation.
A: That would be exhausting.
J: Because in those situations, the director never yells “cut.” You’re always acting, you know?
A: Like you said, you got a glimpse of what that felt like when you were playing these straight characters, and you felt the pressure to be playing straight when the camera had cut. That’s only for a fraction of the time of what their lives are like.
J: Exactly. It felt really wrong. It didn’t feel good. That goes, once again, back to me being 15 years old and being able to decipher what felt good and what didn’t feel good. Authenticity felt good. Inauthenticity felt horrible. Talking about this now, I can see that I really tried to consciously navigate my life from a heart-centered place. You know what I’m saying?
J: If a vibrational frequency feels low, then that’s not a direction that I want to go in. If it feels high, and it feels like it lifts me up and elevates me, then that’s the direction I’m going to go in.
A: I love that.
J: The path of least resistance is the path that I am very fond of and familiar with.
A: That’s so beautiful. We were talking about Maya and the impact she left people with. What would you want to leave people with? How do you want to be remembered?
J: There’s a quote by Maya Angelou that says, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will always remember how you made them feel.” I would want to be remembered as somebody who makes the people around them feel good and feel worthy, accepted and good enough. You’re good enough. I’m good enough. I feel like by embracing that yourself and living your life from that place, it automatically gives the people around you permission to do the same.
A: You do that for me.
J: You do that for me, too. From the moment I met you, you’ve done that for me. You give me permission to be myself, and you gave me permission to shine, because I saw you doing the exact same thing; like attracts like, girl. You can see the beauty and the friendships and the relationships that you have in your life and your incredible success and all of your personal ventures and all of your hobbies. You have a really beautiful life because you live from a place of beauty, authenticity, kindness and openheartedness.
A: Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman!
J: It’s the true stuff.
// jeffrey's favorite songs at the moment \\
all images by amanda crew except the scan of jeffrey's personal photos.
interview edited & condensed.