Fellow Travelers’ Ron Nyswaner – Smalltown Outsider to Tinseltown Insider

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

This season, Showtime premiered the series Fellow Travelers, an ambitious, beautifully woven multi-era-spanning love story between two men as they fight the odds of societal norms, family pressure, and personal demons. Starring Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey in undeniably career-topping performances, the series is based on the novel by Thomas Mallon and brought to television by Academy, Emmy, and Golden Globe-nominated writer and director, Rony Nyswaner. No stranger to telling our stories, Ron has been infiltrating Hollywood with subjects that include homosexuality, AIDS, homophobia, and LGBTQ activism, in works that include Philadelphia with Tom Hanks, Showtime’s Soldier’s Girl, and The Policeman with Harry Styles. His craft captures characters in a gripping and visceral way, something that was inspired by dealing with his sexuality in his youth.

I feel that I have been an outsider my whole life, and I have come to really enjoy it. I grew up with very loving parents – simple working-class incredibly honest people who taught me to be kind to other people and to think about others besides yourself. I grew up being early identified as a sissy kid, terrible at sports, couldn’t throw the ball, and ran funny. It becomes that whole thing where once you’re identified like that, everything you do is held up to ridicule and question by certain people. So, the way I talked, the way I walked, the way I held my books, which was a big one – girls held their books in front of them, and boys held their books under their arm on the side, was looked at. And if you made a mistake, the entire day you were treated in a brutal way.

With a combination of that sort of thing, there was some violence. It sent me into my head and into watching Betty Davis and Joan Crawford movies in the afternoon on our black and white TV. I learned to love melodrama, I learned to love women, and I learned to love story-making and storytelling. Then I transitioned into movies like The Way We Were. I was just so impressed at how you could make this love story about two people who aren’t destined to be together, and it could just break your heart. I think that has been an influence and made me want to tell stories that would move people emotionally as it did.

And tell stories, Ron has. He sold his first script while in graduate school, and he’s never looked back. As an openly gay writer in the ‘80s, his presence in the industry was a rarity at a time when most Hollywood writers stayed in the closet for fear of being black-listed.

I’ve been out there. It’s just who I am. I like being different. I’m quite comfortable being one or one of two gay people in the room. I don’t seek it out, but I don’t mind it at all. I like being a little bit of an outsider.

In film school, I remember I wrote a scene with a gay character in it. I was told by somebody at the film school that I should leave the screenwriting program and be a critic instead. And I certainly should not write characters like that anymore. This goes way back to 1978. That didn’t stop me. Ever since, I’ve been trying to write LGBTQ characters when I could.

The first major splash Nyswaner made in Hollywood was in 1993 with Philadelphia. Sweeping the award nominations for that year, the film details the trail of an attorney suing his employers for firing him after they found out he was a gay man with AIDS. Given the climate towards AIDS and homosexuality at that time, the film was surprisingly easy to greenlight.

People are so disappointed when they hear that. In some ways, they want to hear we had to battle the suits. The suits opened their arms. Mark Platt, who is still such a dominant force in our business, was the head of Orion Pictures. When we, Jonathan Demme and I, went to him and pitched the idea he said, “There are 10 scripts in development now in Hollywood about AIDS. All of them have heterosexual main characters – that’s immoral. We’re going to make the movie about AIDS that should be made.” So that’s how easy it was – the doors just opened for us.

Ron was the instant talk of Hollywood. His success would prove to be a double-edged sword as he spiraled downward with addiction to drugs, alcohol, and sex, marring the day he received his Oscar nomination.

I had been up for two days doing cocaine because I was in the throes of my drug addiction, which very nearly killed me. And the phone was ringing repeatedly, and I pulled it out of the wall because I couldn’t talk to anybody in that state. That specific memory is very much in my mind.

Ron recounted his relationship with addiction in his memoir Blue Days, Black Nights: A Memoir.

I had a tragic event in my life. Somebody I was with died while we were vacationing together. You would think that the next day I’d rush to rehab. But I drank and drugged for the next two years because I hated myself so much for the part I had played in that person’s death. It’s somebody I really loved. I thought I didn’t deserve to live.

I don’t think I had a terrible childhood. But I do think those things that you’re told when you’re growing up gay: you’re ugly, you’re disgusting, the way you walk is stupid, the way you talk is wrong, that everything about you is wrong finally caught up to me. I’m not blaming my addiction on that. I believe addiction is a disease but that’s self-hatred. Even though I had been out in Hollywood, and I had some success and I felt very comfortable taking my boyfriends to events and all that kind of stuff, the self-hatred was still there. It all got wound up together, and then I had my own suicide attempt. Then there was just a day when I couldn’t take it anymore. I went and I found help. It had been another three nights that I’d been up and just hated myself so much. I either had to die or I had to get help. And so, I got help.

Love has played a tricky part in Ron’s life. From being inspired by movies like The Way We Were to the novel Fellow Travelers; he finds the beauty in love that just doesn’t seem destined to be. The two main characters in Fellow Travelers are both in the political arena during the McCarthy Era when witch hunts for sexual deviants ran rampant. If that weren’t enough, the two characters couldn’t be more different than the other, one finding love in illicit one-night stands, the other battling his love of God with the love of another man.

When I read Fellow Travelers, I just loved it. I loved the relationship at the center of it – the love story of two people who just don’t see the world the same way. They’re opposites in many ways yet, they can’t stay away from each other. And I love that that was set in a time of politics in Washington DC when love really was dangerous when being found out, being exposed, could mean the end of your career, the end of your life, or being cut off from your family, et cetera.

I find a lot of love stories are written like soap operas and people sitting around talking about their feelings and that kind of stuff. That kind of love story bores me. I believe that love is actually a terrifying thing because if you love something you might lose it. And you can lose it in different ways. People walk out of our lives. People don’t love us as much as we love them, or something tragic happens. This has happened to me. People we love die. I don’t like grief, so I’m afraid of love. I’m afraid of being rejected like we all are. But that’s a great adventure to have, that I keep trying to force myself to have.

The sex scenes in Fellow Travelers are graphic but beautifully done. The intensity of the sex is not to shock, but rather to show the visceral connection that two characters have. Where there are no words to convey the love or rage, they have towards each other, there is body contact. This was extremely important to Ron to include in the series.

When I finally, at the ripe old age of 21 came out of the closet in 1977, the sexual connection with other men was so powerful, to have that passion and that freedom. It brought me such joy. Then we rolled right into the AIDS crisis and that beautiful sexuality that I’d experienced was being blamed. We were being blamed. We were being told that we deserved to die because of it, which was so unjust and wrong. And I just wanted to reassert the joy of sexuality.

In our show, we are incredibly careful to be honest about what sex is. Oscar Wilde says sex is about power. That was the rule in Fellow Travelers that every sex scene is an exchange of power. Somebody wants the other person more at that moment, or they get something from the other person. It’s not totally consciously manipulative, but it is about power. And that really gave the actors and the directors something to really work with. The sex scenes are about who actually wins, and who’s getting something from the other person.

The series conclusion ends during the AIDS epidemic, something Ron intimately lived through. What does he want younger generations to understand most about that time?

That it was the activism and the brilliance of gay activists, like those in Act Up, who solved, as much as it was solved, the AIDS crisis in the sense of coming up with the AIDS cocktail. And they did it by at one point taking over the CDC, breaking into it, climbing onto the roof, and raising banners. And then eventually they sat side by side with people like Dr. Fauci to understand the science. Our community became empowered by what we were experiencing. That’s the thing that an LGBTQ audience should take away.

As much as Fellow Travelers takes place in the past, Ron believes it is speaking to our current struggles as an LGBTQ community.

There’s joy in the struggle. Don’t despair. This isn’t the worst time in gay history. It’s been worse. There’ve been other dark times. It’s the fact that we survive and that we thrive. We make culture. We laugh, we have sex, we dance, and we change. And we get to become politicians and we change the world. So that’s the message of Fellow Travelers. It’s not a visit to a sad time – I hope it’s an empowering thing.

Ron has seen, and been part of, the evolution of LGBTQ stories in Hollywood. What is his take on the current way Hollywood is telling our stories?

I don’t think of Hollywood as this monolithic thing that has a single brain that does anything. Hollywood is a place where we get money to do things we want to do, and we must convince them to let us. So sometimes we get to make things like Fellow Travelers. I’m totally supported in that journey. But I’ll tell you something that I have been talking about, and I feel that we have succeeded with Fellow Travelers. In this story, our characters are flawed, like Don Draper or Walter White or Tony Soprano. That is where we need to be and what we embrace with gay characters, that they can have their full range of humanity. They can be morally ambiguous. We had a rule – no noble victims. We’re not going to embrace the victimhood of our characters. They survived and they’re flawed. This is the place we need to be now. And we are, I’m not alone in doing this. If you watch all the characters in Succession, they’re fascinating. None of them are LGBTQ. I think that would’ve been great, but would the LGBTQ one have to be the nice one because we’re afraid that we’re offending a minority? To me, that would be offensive. Like, oh, I don’t get to be bad. I want to be everything that all the straight people get to be.

Through his storytelling, Ron has a message for the LGBTQ community:

Be energized by the fight. But don’t hate, because if you return hate with hate, we are not empowered there. Tom Stoddard, who was one of the founders of the early gay rights activists (who was a consultant on Philadelphia), said, “Because we’re a civil rights movement based on the right to love, we must love even those who don’t love us. There’s a radical kind of love that we can have that is an acceptance that’s not forgiveness.” Find joy in the struggle, keep struggling, and don’t despair.

Fellow Travelers is now streaming on Showtime.

Last modified: January 5, 2024