On Hacks, Carl Clemons-Hopkins portrays Marcus, a CEO who represents the business interests of comedic legend Deborah Vance. Marcus tries to chart the entertainer on a more pragmatic, profitable course than, say, trying to revitalize her comedy on the road with new material. When he's not talking business, he's trying to manage a budding (but struggling) relationship with Wilson (Johnny Sibilly), a water maintenance worker frequently called to Vance's pool. However, Marcus's drive for work often gets in the way of his love life.
Clemons-Hopkins has received critical acclaim for the role, including a 2021 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. Yet it's a part that the BFA graduate from University of the Arts never believed he would have the opportunity to play.
"When I started in this years and years ago, there really wasn't the concept of different types of queer Black characters to be played," explains Clemons-Hopkins, whose prior credits had been largely in the theater world, such as the Chicago production of Hamilton. (He also recently starred in the 2021 film Candyman.) Clemons-Hopkins adds, "When I was coming up, there were maybe a very small handful of quote unquote, 'out actors,' people in entertainment. And they were being led by white cisgender individuals." He notes that the concept of an out Black actor playing themselves, let alone a character of another LGBTQ+ identity, seemed unimaginable only several years ago.
Pictured: Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Hannah Einbinder
Thus, the queer and nonbinary actor, who uses they/them and he/him pronouns, is elated with the warm reception received by Hacks and his character. "I feel like I'm frequently at the intersection of so many things, and neither of them [spark] a default warm reception, you know?" they say. "It's not something that I expect, sadly, from anything. So, for this to have been received so well and to have been not just entertainment, but a comfort to people, has been great."
Clemons-Hopkins did not realize at first how revolutionary Hacks was, with its rainbow cast led by a veteran actress. "It was really more like, OK, you have a job, great, run your lines, show up, have some breakfast, and try not to fuck up and waste everyone's time," he recalls. More pressing matters, like the pandemic, also remained top of mind during the filming of the first season.
However, when they saw the playback from the show, they realized how "inspirational" the world of Hacks was for viewers from any background longing to escape. This world was "just a touch sweeter and just a touch kinder and just a touch more accepting and more positive," he says. The story of an older woman trying to reinvent herself is "not often seen," he notes. Additionally, "you have queer characters and people of color interacting in a world that is seemingly not overwrought with their oppression." And for marginalized people, Vance's uphill climb against the patriarchy "really does mirror a lot of our experiences."
That his work environment also teems with LGBTQ+ people and allies working in front of and behind the camera is a benefit not lost on the actor. "I think we all just have a sense of relief often coming into work with each other because not only is there love in the room, but there's understanding in the room," he says, adding, "Every now and then I will get a touch of loneliness being often the only Black person in the room, but I also know that I'm not the only person bringing my racial background into the sphere, so that kind of balances in a way."
Clemons-Hopkins does not confine their queerness to their work. In the real world, they walked the Emmys red carpet in a gender-creative look designed by Christian Siriano that exhibited the colors of the nonbinary flag. Given their experiences, they feel a responsibility not to "conform or hide" so that they may be a possibility model for others. "As difficult as it has been for me just to get to this point, it would be even more difficult if I didn't recognize that others are coming as well," they say of their decision to be visible.
The Georgia native knows the difficulties that can come from the closet firsthand. "The environment in which I grew up [was] not the kindest and most accepting when it comes to non-heteronormative understanding," he shares. "I often recognized as a child [that] there was a lot of things I had to work out on my own, there was a lot of things that I had to hide, there was a lot of things that I had to grin and bear." It was when he arrived at college that he began to "start the figuring-out process of who am I."
Acting played a key part in this process in their 20s. "If you can't figure yourself out, try to be someone who's better written," they note of their driving force at the time. "I think a lot of that was helpful because I got to start to play certain roles where I'm like, Oh, this stuff is not me at all, but I can figure that out."
Clemons-Hopkins has observed a cultural shift in the past few years, where people they've met have asked for their pronouns and identity. They called a polite inquiry like this "a record scratch moment" for them. "And it hits: What are you going to do? Are you going to say what you've been told you think is right, for white Jesus and them, or are you going to stand in whatever amount of truth you can see?"
Clemons-Hopkins is standing in that truth. And for other Black queer people who haven't yet found a space where they fit in the world, Clemons-Hopkins advises them to first "make that space for you and enjoy it, and only allow people [in] who are bringing joy for that space," he says.
Hacks, he notes, will only bring more space into the world for people and stories that have never before received the limelight or acceptance. "I'm cautiously optimistic that this will help foster even more wonderful stories that we've not seen before, featuring wonderful, beautiful voices that we've not heard as much," they conclude. "And the overall goal of any of this is to continue to further our humanity."
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This article is part of Out's May/June 2022 cover story, appearing on newsstands May 17. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News. And don't miss season 2 of Hacks, premiering May 12 on HBO Max.