It’s not often that Black gay characters on film and in television shows are played by Black gay actors. Hollywood often acts like Noah’s Arc didn’t set that standard in the early aughts. But as industry creators move to be more inclusive, the importance of authentic casting has taken on new meaning. Enter Austin Crute, the young actor quickly becoming Hollywood’s go-to Black gay teen.
“It feels like a melody from heaven,” the actor tells Out. “It is a blessing to be able to portray a character that one, I could never be [in real life], and two, portray people in environments that I never had. These accepting and nonchalant [worlds] are the environments of the future, and I feel the media should be two steps ahead of the way that society is because we should be reflecting and portraying the future and the society that we want to see.”
You may remember the 23-year-old from a hilarious, 2016 episode of Donald Glover’s Atlanta in which he played a Black Justin Beiber. Earlier this year, Crute also starred in the summer indie darling Booksmart as the resident, lovable theater geek with a flair for the dramatic. As of last week, however, the Atlanta native is now leading man material, starring as Wesley Fists in Netflix’s post-apocalyptic dramedy Daybreak.
Based on the comic series by Brian Ralph, Daybreak follows 17-year-old high school outcast Josh Wheeler who’s searching for his missing girlfriend Sam in post-apocalyptic Glendale, California. He’s joined by a tribe of other misfits including a pyromaniac 10-year-old and his former high school bully now turned pacifist samurai (Crute’s character) as they try to stay alive and avoid the evil jocks and zombie-like creatures.
Out caught up with Crute, who just graduated from New York University last year, to discuss the new role, what it means to him to be able to be gay and play gay characters, and why we end up loving men who don’t love us back.
(Spoiler alert: The following conversations includes spoilers from season one of Daybreak. Proceed at your own risk.)
Talk to me about the audition process and your first thoughts reading the script.
I was like, "What is this?" It was really the WTF factor of the script that really caught my attention because I had never read a script in my life that did what this was doing. It was like he's talking to the camera, we're going back in the past, now in the present. The script was so visual. I could see everything that they wanted me to see while I was reading it. So then when I read my character's breakdown, it was a wrap because they caught me in a time when I was doing a lot of emotional and spiritual checks and wisdom harvesting. I was like, "Oh no, I'm about to kill this. I don't know if I'm about to get it. But I know I'm about to be happy with whatever I do". So I went in and then I got a call back and then I was on the show, so I mean, it just happened really quickly. But it was the most fantastical sensational thing that came across my desk ever, to this day.
Since you know his backstory, how would you describe Wesley?
Wesley is a star who is figuring out how to shine. He likes taking a back seat because it feels safe for him. I think that he's real impressionable. So, when he's hanging around these assholes, he's more of a mean person [with] a bully-type spirit. But then when he starts wandering by himself in the apocalypse and he reaches this place of earned influence equilibrium, he can actually just go, "Okay, what do I need for myself? What do I need to know for me?" And that's why he even left the jocks in the first place, because they were awful. He just wants to prove to himself that he is worth it. And you already know, in the black community, if you're queer, you’ve got to tell yourself all types of things to get you through the day, get you through church, get you through all types of different experiences and then you'll go to school with the white people and they'll have their own flavor of oppression for the day, their own flavor of annoying. But I think that for Wesley, him being Black and queer, and a football star too, [he’s dealing with] that pressure of being the one that performs the best also has implications.
One of the things that I love, and that I hate, about the character is who he's in love with. I loved it and I hate it all at the same time.
At the same time. There's plenty of times I was memorizing some lines and I was like, "Huh? Me and Wesley going to have to have a talk. We need to have a sit down.” Because, there's no way.
But it's interesting because I think even with his story — of loving Turbo, the guy who wants him to kill his new friend — it's one of those things where I felt like it was an obviously overblown and dramatic portrayal but it's very reflective of, I think, sometimes we end up loving people who don't really love us or who make us have to choose between them and our friends, or our truth.
The toxic energy from Turbo, I have received [that in real life]. So I would say 2016, 2017 is when I was really like, “I’m baggin’ a boy tonight and there's nothing that y'all can say because I'm sick of y'all.” That was the energy that I was too… but it took a lot of arguments between myself to even get to that place. Now that being said, it still happens to this day — pray for me — where I get involved with people who are not done with their internal conflict. I get caught up, but literally all the names of anybody that I've had an emotional fling with that are men are all secret because they're not out. So like Wesley, I know what it is to be in something where you are invested, transparent, communicative, but you're the one that's being healthy about it and the other person is going through so much internal turmoil and conflict. But I’mma need [Wesley] to fix it because where Wesley is, the intrinsic reflective person, and Turbo is, as the more impulsive gross testosterone-y person, it’s not working.
Episode five centers on your character and is narrated by RZA and written by Ira Madison III. Did you have the chance to speak to him about delving into Wesley's story?
I really wish that I did. I love Ira so much. We have hung out numerous times, but we still need to talk about the Wesley episode. I have not talked with him about his process, coming from a Black queer man, developing a young Black queer character, because as soon as I started reading episode five, I could just tell. I was like, "Oh, this is on point." I was like, "Okay, this is actually dealing with some stuff that if I were to write the episode, I would definitely want to address."
I feel like some of the characters that you've been taking on, they have the potential to be the first time that younger generations see Black queer folks, on screen. Who were the Black gay characters or the Black gay actors that you remember seeing when you were coming up?
I honestly don't even remember because I was watching Psalty the Singing Songbook and Bibleman [as a pastor’s kid]. I was watching VeggieTales. I don't want to put my parents on brain blast, but it's my upbringing. I don't think that I was exposed to a lot of that kind of stuff. But I will say this, I remember watching Juwanna Mann and watching Martin Lawrence and watching Tyler Perry be Madea and watching Black men step out of the traditional trope of masculinity and masculine comedy and allowing themselves to step into a world that is risque for Black men. Because just on that barbershop talk, you don't do that. You don't put no dress on and put no wig on and go around. And so it's just funny how artists like Prince can come out and have makeup and they are walking around like a whole rock star and Black men worship and praise them. Tyler Perry could come out in a whole [body] suit, boobs out and jangling everywhere, holding a piece, acting like a whole woman and they exalt it. But then the minute that they see it in a genuine light, there's something to be said. And so maybe I didn't look up to any body, not growing up.
But now I would say, if I was mirroring in my journey after someone, Billy Porter. [He’s] somebody that I look up to a lot. Everything that he says, it's just incredible. I've met him a couple of times. He's the sweetest, kindest, most real person. Kinky Boots was one of the first times that I have seen an openly queer Black man in a lead role, doing something so bold and so intentional.
I also look up to me. I'm looking up to myself, because you know what? I did not expect to be comfortable. The fact that I took the reins of my own mental health and my own perspective with no adult prompting me to do anything. That's an accomplishment. I’m patting myself on the back and I’m excited to see where Austin takes Austin because “Wow, You have outdone yourself. You have pulled yourself out of hiding.”