Before Johnny Sibilly was an out-and-proud star of game-changing LGBTQ+ shows like Pose, Hacks, and the Queer as Folk reboot, he was an actor in a class, trying to find his voice and place in the entertainment industry. In this LGBTQ-focused course -- called Act Out, in New York City, where he met now-prominent trans actors like Laverne Cox, Trace Lysette, and Jamie Clayton -- his coach asked him to alternate playing Lucy and Ricky Ricardo with a Bronx accent. The result was "very John Leguizamo vibes," Sibilly recalls. His coach was blown away.
"Why don't you put that out into the world instead of all these masc-for-masc selfies that you're taking?" he said, as recounted by Sibilly in present day. "What do you mean?" Sibilly asked. The coach replied, "You don't know your full potential until you lean into those parts of you that are special."
That moment marked a major turning point for Sibilly, who had previously believed in high school and college that "maybe I have to butch it up in order to be taken seriously" as an actor. The class showed him a new path toward authenticity. His coach was fond of recounting how several queer actors he knew had turned down prominent gay roles, like in Will & Grace, for fear of being pigeonholed in the entertainment industry. In the end, straight actors usually took the roles the gay actors were afraid to take. It's a lesson Sibilly, now 34, would never forget.
"For me, I always say if I never played a straight character ever again, I would be perfectly fine with that -- just because there's so many queer stories that haven't been told that I am dying to tell. It would be an honor to only play queer characters forever," he says.
The value of authenticity was an important lesson for his personal life as well. "Being queer doesn't mean you have to throw on a lash and some mascara -- which, to be honest, is more fun. But it is that exploration of breaking down those old habits of censoring yourself in order to be considered more acceptable by society," he says. "And after I started just putting my art out in the ways that had always been special to me, I was really able to be like, Oh, there's no going back for me. This is what works for me, and this is what works for my art."
This mindset has allowed Sibilly to be an educator and a mediator for those who may not be able to step into the shoes of others (or their own, for that matter) so easily. "I don't mind talking things through with people that don't fully understand, whether it be straight people understanding queer people or gay men understanding trans and nonbinary [folks]," he shares. "I feel like because I've been so open to exploring who I was as an artist, it allows me space to be open to discussing things that are uncomfortable for people to understand."
Sibilly's characters are also his instructors. A queer role he loves to play -- in part because the character is his opposite -- is Wilson, the water maintenance man on Hacks who forms a budding relationship with Marcus, Deborah Vance's business head. It's a unique, odd-couple queer relationship -- that incidentally happens to be interracial -- which he is more than happy to bring to the TV landscape because it represents a truthful dynamic.
"A lot of times you meet a lot of queer men and...we're very work-driven and we want to prove to the world that we deserve to take up space in whatever career we're doing," he says. "So for me, Marcus embodies that queer excellence from a very early start. And then Wilson comes in and challenges the idea that we are only as important as our work and what we put out into the world...like, no, we can go out and see the world, and we can do rock climbing and put on toe shoes. For me, I'm not a Wilson, I'm more of a Marcus." (The failure of Marcus to rock climb with Wilson marks a pivotal moment for their relationship in season 1.)
Wilson has also challenged Sibilly's own work-driven mindset. "Right after we wrapped last March for season 1, I went on a trip to New York and I thought to myself...Wow, for so long, I've been chasing this dream, and I've forgotten what it is that I enjoy outside of chasing this dream. What makes Johnny happy?" Answer: dinner with friends and lying out on the beach for a lazy day.
Sibilly has also learned a lot from his LGBTQ+ Hacks castmates. He compares their work environment to a high school theater department, where each player is exploring their experiences and identities with one another through art. "Sometimes you're like, Oh, I know. I've been queer for so long, I know all there is to know," he says, but "every day is a learning experience" with Hacks. He describes the group as members of a found family, who enjoy hanging out, going to dinners, and frequently exchanging text messages. "It's just so much love because in this industry, sometimes you hear about horror stories of casts not liking each other, but it's just so easy with them, and it's like every time we see each other, it's like seeing family," he asserts.
For season 2 of Hacks, Sibilly looks forward to audiences seeing these characters leave their comfort zones -- literally and figuratively -- as they hit the road with Vance. He is also "just excited that we are able to tell queer stories that don't feel like ABCs."
One day, he hopes to be at the helm of his own projects that offer this gift of queer complexity to the world. "My dream self in 10 years, I see myself producing projects that allow other queer artists to thrive...and then living in a nice house with my dog and my 100-coffee-mug collection -- with a partner or without," he shares.
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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.