By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: Focus Features
This is Ben Aldridge’s moment, and that’s no spoiler alert. The Los Angeles Times already made that call in a recent profile of the 37-year-old English actor, writing that Aldridge is “on the cusp of stardom.”
And so it seems, as Aldridge, an established London theater actor who came out publicly as gay in 2020, thrusts himself into leading-man roles in two major studio films after a recurring role in “Fleabag” and a more substantial part, as Thomas Wayne, in HBO’s “Pennyworth.”
On the big screen, the actor can currently be seen in the new romantic tragicomedy from Focus Features, director Michael Showalter’s “Spoiler Alert.” In the film, Aldridge portrays Kit Cowan, a photographer whose romantic relationship with real-life pop culture journalist Michael Ausiello, played by Jim Parsons, is suddenly challenged when he’s diagnosed with cancer (the film is based on Ausiello’s 2017 memoir of the same name).
In early 2023, Aldridge will try his damnedest to survive M. Night Shyamalan’s apocalyptic horror film “Knock at the Cabin,” portraying another gay character, this time alongside “Looking” actor Jonathan Groff. Aldridge and Groff lead the Universal Pictures project, out Feb. 3, as gay dads vacationing at a remote cabin, which ends up not being much of a vacation at all when they’re taken hostage.
From the Park Lane Hotel in New York City, Aldridge spoke about how it feels “invigorating” being a gay actor playing gay characters, his reaction to Sally Field portraying his onscreen mother and the “wave of progress” in LGBTQ-led content.
What was it like to tell such an emotional story that really happened in “Spoiler Alert”?
I think exactly that. I think it was emotional. It was intense, but kind of intensely wonderful. I feel like this is the kind of acting role and piece that you dream of doing. From falling in love, to the diagnosis, to the tragedy of Kit’s passing, it’s really a full life lived over 14 years in the film. And that’s kind of a dream come true, to be able to play someone that experiences all of that. I felt really honored, and sometimes daunted and overwhelmed, that I had been given the responsibility of telling the portion of Kit’s story in the film. It was a privilege from start to now. Still talking about it feels like a privilege.
I imagine that you and Jim had a lot of work to do between the two of you to really make this feel authentic to Michael and Kit’s story.
I really felt like my performance wouldn’t have existed without Jim’s. I felt so informed by him at all times and so much empathy for them as real people. But then that kind of just concentrated itself into me feeling specific empathy for Michael and Jim playing Michael that it just really felt like everything I did was influenced by everything he did the whole time.
In terms of chemistry, we just started emailing. So as soon as the film came together and I was signed on to do it, Jim emailed me and the subject header said, “Let’s start.” We just started this pen pal-ship of these long letters. Sometimes about the project, but not very often; mostly just about ourselves to get to know each other. And we’d ask each other questions about acting, maybe, but more about our lives and our partners and all sorts, really. And there was still a leap of faith in that. We were very lucky that we’ve formed a real friendship, which I think definitely helped us just to know each other and trust each other in the scenes. And I think it helped with that chemistry.
Our guide really was the material in the book and it is so detailed, and it’s so rich, and so full. It was always tethering it back to that. And Michael Ausiello was there on set as an exec and had really lived this. So I think we were just really lucky.
I read that you used Kit’s actual camera in the film, and then I wondered what kind of role Michael had in helping you portray Kit. Had he shared with you some details about Kit that brought you closer to who he was to play him?
Yeah, he did. As soon as I finished reading the book, I emailed Michael and he then emailed me back and just made himself a very open resource for anything Kit-related, him-related, relationship-related, including artifacts and specific things. It felt very powerful to hold that camera on set and to think that I was doing the thing that Kit did with it. There was something just very sacred in the object itself. Other things I asked him questions about, and that really helped me.
He has an active Kit Cowan Archives on Instagram and also his Flickr account. I’m surprised at how much that gave me an insight into the way he viewed the world. And he was a documentarian, so just very quirky observations. There’s a lot of humor in his work. The things that he captured were very specific to the way he saw the world. And Michael told me that, really, Kit’s camera was Kit making sense of the world and of himself. He also took a lot of selfies, probably in a time where not many people did, but lots of famous photographers have done that as well. I just really enjoyed poring over the photographs. They helped me in a way that I didn’t think they would.
There’s the moment where there’s this de-gaying of Kit’s place right before his parents come over. It’s funny because I feel like that’s relatable to every gay person. Did you relate to that particular experience?
Yeah, definitely. I think something the film does very subtly is show us the journey of… as gay people, until the moment our parents find out about our true selves, we are very used to managing their handle on the truth and what they know about us. And I think it can keep a distance between you and your parents, and certainly I could relate to that.
What happens in the film, once [Kit’s parents] Marilyn and Bob know and are accepting, there’s just such an honest exchange. I think it just deepens the parental relationship for them to really know who you are. I did really relate to that. And I think the de-gaying of the apartment, I can relate to almost de-gaying myself a little bit when going home when I was younger, and maybe potentially dressing differently or just being more conscious of that. I’m glad that element of the book is represented in the film.
I love that Kit had “Beaches.” And not just “Beaches” on DVD, but the special edition.
Those DVDs are very specific. Sara K. White, the [production] designer, [made] everything in the apartment so specific to the book. But then things outside of the book, we shared several emails back and forth about what I wanted there. Certain books and art books. If you look at all those films, they all make a lot of sense. And again, there were things of Kit’s in there. So yeah, it was very cool.
What was your initial reaction when you found out that Sally Field would be playing your mother?
So she was attached before I became part of the conversation, before I met Michael [Showalter] and Jim. So I knew that was always the deal. But of course, I was so excited. But also definitely a healthy amount of intimidation, just to think that I would be looking into her eyes and saying lines and hoping that she believed me. And yeah, that was a good nervous energy. But it was wonderful, and I could just marvel at her.
All of us were really free to improvise and she did a lot of improvisation. And sometimes I’d be just in a scene, of course acting with her, but being a bit like, “Wow, she’s so amazing.” And Bill [Irwin, who plays Kit’s father] too. Such wonderful actors. And they both have gay children themselves. So I think there was a real understanding and a real care. They had so much care over us and over playing parents to gay children. I just really felt that from them. They’re both wonderful in the film as well.
Was “RuPaul’s Drag Race” actually on in that scene with Sally? Did you really watch “Drag Race” with Sally Field?
Definitely knew we were watching “Drag Race.” I can’t remember if it was actually on the screen. Because there’s a funny thing about actually playing stuff [on TVs] and filming, so I don’t know. But we definitely knew we were watching it. But also, Kit at that moment is so almost in and out of consciousness. It was a really special moment because, I mean, I never watched “Drag Race” with my parents, and I wonder if they would understand it or not. But I just love that in our story that they sat down with their parents. It was just a really nice moment, cuddled up next to Sally Field. There was something really tender and gentle about [that].
Is this your first gay character?
No. I played a gay character on stage in a play called “The Lyons” in my 20s. And then I had done a UK detective series [“The Long Call”] just before filming this where it was apparently the first ever gay detective on UK screens. But yeah, that was very, very personal. I’m not a detective, but it really reflected my own life. And it’s been really nice over the last three years, and something I’ve craved and wanted to do is to play people that I really identify with.
My 20s [as an actor] was about escaping. I was playing lots of straight romantic parts, which I love doing. But it was about escaping something. I think more recently I’ve wanted to do a deeper dive on myself and meet myself in the projects that I’m doing and really emotionally understand. We’re in a wave of progress where there’s more quick content, and I feel really excited and privileged to be getting to play these characters.
To see your identity reflected in these characters on screen in kind of a big way, what does that mean to you?
Yeah, it’s a very personal experience. It’s strangely relieving to be on a set and being witnessed by a crew. It kind of feels like taking your skin off a little bit and being the most unguarded you’ve ever been. Even though you are still playing something, it feels invigorating, it feels life-affirming, it feels emboldening. And as someone who really struggled with their identity and a lot of shame in my teenage years and throughout my 20s, there is something… I feel very privileged to be doing it. And I feel like I’m part of riding a wave of progress. And I’m very pleased to be there and really glad that we’re getting more stories about ourselves that are not just connected to tragedy in the way that we’ve been represented before.
Love is at the center of [this] film. And yes, tragedy strikes, but it’s a real story that really happened. We’re not immune to the reality of life. What we should be calling for is real reality and real stories about us. And that also should contain the spectrum and the breadth and diversity of our community as well.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.