Although strides have been made, there’s still quite the dearth as it pertains to stories related to gay life coming out of Hollywood. It’s even scarcer when you think about narratives associated with the lives of Black gays. Throughout his career, director Patrik-Ian Polk has worked to counter the imbalance, first via the Babyface-produced Punks, which made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and eventually Noah’s Arc, the landmark television series chronicling the adventures of four gay men of color living in Los Angeles.
Currently, Patrik is traveling across the country in promotion of his latest feature film, The Skinny, a comedy focused on a group of four young, Black gay men and their lesbian best friend. Though The Skinny offers movie goers laughs, the movie also keeps in line with Polk’s trademark of tackling tough topics within the LGBT community, including date-rape, infidelity, and HIV/AIDS.
Polk has partnered yet again with the Black AIDS Institute, which has allowed he and his Skinny cast members the opportunity to promote the film while simultaneously advocating sexual health and HIV/AIDS awareness within minority gay communities throughout the nation.
Patrik-Ian Polk spoke with EBONY about the success of The Skinny, his longtime work with the Black AIDS Institute, in addition to his thoughts about the current state of gay creative works in Hollywood and optimism for the future.
EBONY: There are numerous references to HIV/AIDS and the overall importance of sexual health throughout the film. Considering your partnership with the Black AIDS Institute, how important is it to you to continue bringing about awareness through your creative works?
Patrik-Ian Polk: I’ve worked with the Black AIDS Institute for a number of years now [and] obviously HIV/AIDS remains a huge issue in the Black gay community so it’s only been natural that my work would address the subject and my new movie being focused on young adults – young adult gay characters – it felt natural to include more timely [and] update-to-date messaging around sexual health issues that specifically affected the characters.
EBONY: You’ve made mention of filming The Skinny in what you’ve described as “guerilla style.” Although there have been recent reports making note of an increase of gay characters on television and in film, do you still find it difficult to secure funding for projects that feature primarily gay characters of color?
Patrik-Ian Polk: Well, I don’t know about an increase. I don’t necessarily see an increase. It’s definitely difficult getting these projects made, certainly projects about Black gay characters. I largely financed this movie myself so it’s not easy, and [when] I said we worked guerilla style [it was] with respect to budget, but I’d like to think I made a movie that didn’t look like it was shot guerilla style.
EBONY: Of the images we do get of gays – particularly with respect to those found on network television – we don’t see much in the way of sexual chemistry between many gay characters, especially in men. Whereas in The Skinny there’s many sexual overtones and very thorough depictions of gay male sexual acts, say how men prepare for anal sex. Is that a conscious decision to not be as ambivalent as other creative works out there, and if so, do you ever worry that might alienate certain audiences?
Patrik-Ian Polk: Well, I’m an artist, first and foremost, so I feel like I create the art I want to create, and who so ever will, let them come. I feel like in my attempts to be a real artist, I can’t concern myself with whether something is going to turn off an audience or whether people will be open or not open to my movie because of something that’s in it. For me, it’s rooted in the story I’m trying to tell and the characters I’m creating and if something makes sense for the story and characters then that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t really think myself with anything else, any of that external stuff. You know, what happens to the movie when you put it out into the world – I mean, I want as many people to see it as possible – but the movie is the movie. I’m saying what I want to say in the movie and people have to accept it as a work of art. Ultimately, that’s my concern.
EBONY: Have you noticed that while we may see more gay characters in other works, they’re not necessarily whole where we see them emotionally and sexually as opposed to characters featured in The Skinny?
Patrik-Ian Polk: I’m not comparing or I don’t compare. Certainly I’ve seen mainstream movies and TV with gay characters that keep them very, very super tamed or they don’t really give them fully realized, romantic love lives, and yeah that’s annoying, but I don’t know if I’m pushing the envelop in any way to respond to that. I think it’s just, again, I’m just trying to do what I do outside of all of that. Also, I’m just doing something that I personally would want to see, and I feel like a film like this about characters in their early 20s – the reality is they’re young adults and they’re gonna be having sex and dealing with issues surrounding sex. I didn’t want to shy away from that. I wanted to be bolder.
EBONY: Was there an excitement among the cast, you know perhaps as if they knew they were a part of a much needed alternative to what’s currently out there?
Patrik-Ian Polk: I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone felt that – maybe they did and we didn’t really talk about that. I think people were happy to be working and happy to be cast in something. I think the actors liked what they were doing, and they certainly got along very well with each other. I think they believed in the project and enjoyed doing it. I don’t know how they feel about the larger cultural significance of it.
EBONY: You’re known for breaking a lot of emerging new talent or some in cases, offering people we’ve seen previously in unexpected roles. Is that something you make an effort to do – offer actors a particular challenge?
Patrik-Ian Polk: I like working with talented, fearless actors so I’m open to working with anyone, but really when I’m casting something, certainly something like The Skinny that’s a small movie that’s a definitely bit bolder and a little racy, I just need fearless actors who connect to the material and the characters and don’t have any hang ups about what they’re doing. I don’t care where they come from, but I’m happy to work with new talent and there is a certain satisfaction that comes from giving an unknown actor whose really got some chops a chance to shine. I look forward to some or all of the newer faces in The Skinny catching fire and being discovered by the more mainstream entertainment community. I think that’s gonna happen, I think we’ve got some really breakout young talent in this movie.
EBONY: I read your tweets about the opening weekend of The Skinny doing well. Has that been encouraging as much work as you’ve put into the movie and funding it yourself? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment? Are you relieved?
Patrik-Ian Polk: Absolutely, we’re a small outfit, this is an independently distributed movie as well so there’s not been a lot of big money support in terms of marketing the movie and distributing the movie, promoting the movie so we’re really relying on kind word-of-mouth and talking about it and hitting our core audience. To have the movie open in two cities and do well on the level of a Titanic [the movie had the third highest per screen average at the box office its opening weekend, besting the re-release of Titanic] is very encouraging because it says even without a big money machine behind us there is a viable audience for Black gay subject matter.
EBONY: Although you are still actively promoting The Skinny, what are you working on in the future? Are you open to making a return to television? I recall hearing that you may have something in the works?
Patrik-Ian Polk: I’m open to any good job that comes my way and pursuing any and all opportunities. I’m definitely planning to shoot two sequels in the Skinny series. We’ll shoot part two and part three in the fall. We should be filming in September in Atlanta. There’s another movie project that I wanna do this year as well and I have some TV stuff. Lots of irons in the fire, you have to kinda keep busy in this industry and keep figuring out what the next things are. There are quite a few things in the works.
EBONY: You mentioned proving that there’s a viable audience for Black gay subject matter, so I wondered what do you make of the success of Dee Rees’ Pariah? Are you hopeful about more gay Black stories will our out?
Patrik-Ian Polk: I certainly hope that the success of Dee Rees and other filmmakers like her encourages just more: Encourages Hollywood to make more of these projects, encourages more filmmakers to make these projects. I mean any real success like that is only helpful to the next person. I just hope more of our projects can find an audience because the industry pays attention to numbers a whole lot, so if you can show a clear track record then you can establish that there is an audience for these projects so that more people can make them.
The Skinny is currently showing in limited engagement in San Francisco (Embarcadero Center Cinema), Oakland (Piedmont Theatre) and Chicago (Century Centre Cinema). The movie opens May 4th in Boston, Detroit & Philadelphia, and May 11th in Los Angeles and New York City. The movie will be available on DVD/On Demand in June and make its television premiere on LOGO in July.