[This story contains spoilers for They/Them.]
In John Logan’s directorial debut, Peacock summer camp slasher They/Them, a group of LGBTQ young people find themselves at a conversion therapy camp — places banned in many U.S. states that allege they can “change,” “repair” or even “cure” someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Run by Kevin Bacon’s Owen Whistler and designed to appear like a typical summer camp, Whistler lures the campers into a sense of trust with an oddly warm, inclusionary and unthreatening welcome before unleashing his and his family’s violent and discriminatory torture on the group. All there for different reasons, the group must band together to survive the psychological and physical abuse they experience.
But as the campers fight off a variety of queerphobic and transphobic camp counselors — including members of their own community — they soon discover that there’s another threat walking among them in the woods, and in a twist, those running the camp find themselves on the wrong end of the knife.
The film — among a healthy smattering of inclusive horror titles releasing in August alongside Nope, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Prey and The Invitation — explores how the historical, social and cultural treatment of marginalized identities can serve as fuel for nightmarish present realities. It also features a leading LGBTQ+ cast and ensemble, with Theo Germaine (The Politician, Work in Progress) starring as one of its central campers and heroes, Jordan Lewis.
Ahead of the film’s release, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to the They/Them star about the layers behind the film’s title, how the movie fits into the history of queer horror, working with Kevin Bacon and that Pink musical sequence.
They Slash Them is the title and it’s really witty before you see the film, but super layered after you’ve finished it. What do you think it’s saying in terms of your character Jordan but also the larger narrative?
If we’re talking specifically about the character, Jordan, and the trajectory that they experience and they go through during the film, they start off by their self. They show up at this conversion therapy camp a very hyper independent, you know, pretty traumatized person who very much is like, I’m going to need to get through this myself, which is how they have always gotten through things. There’s a lot of support that they do not receive at home, so there’s a lot of strength that they’ve had to build up in themselves. So in that aspect, at the beginning of the film, it’s they — a singular they, Jordan by themselves. By the end of the film, because of all the experiences that happen, Jordan experiences this feeling of community and camaraderie with all of these other campers that they really didn’t expect to feel. So that makes me think about them. Jordan starts out as they by themself and then by the end, they understand the importance of community, especially the LGBTQ community. They actually start to find community, which is something that because of their background, and where they came from, they didn’t have yet.
Otherwise, I just love that it’s a play on words. I love that it’s “they slash them.” I think that’s really funny. Also, it’s kind of thought-provoking. Even if there are people who are like, “Nah, I don’t think they-them pronouns are real” — which they are — I would like to think that even those people would be like, “I need to see what this film is about. What’s going on with this title?” Then I would hope that if they did that, they would be inspired to be better people and to be more accepting when they see the film because of how seriously it takes queer fear and the repercussions of conversion therapy. I also liked that is kind of a throwback to other horror films across cinema history. It makes me think of the movie They Live and this really old movie called Them that’s about giant bugs. Using “they slash them” as a title is also subverting the way “them” is used in previous times, which is to describe a monster, or an unknown, or something that is really scary. It’s like, actually just this person who uses these pronouns and that’s it.
Queerness has a long history of being explored in horror — mainstream, independent, whether textually or subtextually. How do you feel like this film expands that existing canon?
This movie really feels like it’s kind of standing alone in a sense and it feels like it is a new foray or exploration into how we do good representation on screen. You really get to see the humanity in all of these characters, these campers. I feel all the people that are suffering and struggling are really portrayed in a positive light, but it doesn’t feel like it’s two-dimensional. As someone who’s consumed a bunch of media, I really liked that Jordan gets to be the hero. I really like that there are characters who are queer that are in denial at the beginning of the film and are really actually interested in changing who they are because they think it’s not OK. And then they feel maybe a different sort of way, by the time the film is over. I really appreciate the way that all of these characters experienced survival throughout the film. It doesn’t feel like anybody gets sacrificed, which I think is a thing that is kind of a horror device.
There’s also a lot of tropes that happen in horror, and it’s like, if this happens in a movie, then this character is probably going to die. If they split up, this person is probably going to die. All of these tropes are addressed in this movie, almost in an exploratory or academic way. Because the director, John Logan, is very much a horror aficionado. He takes all of these tropes and then he’s like flip, flip, flip — he flips everything. The result is this weird haunted, kind of beautiful thing on screen that I truly feel I’ve never seen before. Another thing that I really think makes the film stand alone and I hope will provide a source of inspiration for future films is having a bunch of queer people making a film — even if it’s something that is more in the realm of heteronormativity — and involving queer and trans crew members and actors and creators.
At one point, viewers discover the people working there are former campers, which is its own conversation about the ways people can internalize the bigotry wielded against them. What do you think the film is saying with its villains being both straight cisgender people and members of the LGBTQ community?
It makes me think of the word “denial” and how many people identify as ex-gays, or how many closeted queer people were actually a big part of a lot of these conversion therapy movements. It’s like, we deny ourselves who we are, we deny ourselves our truth and we can become perpetrators of the violence that is happening against all of us. So there are some moments in the film that immediately makes me think of a lot of the media that I was consuming in preparation for this film. I watched a lot of interviews with people who had later come out in life who, before that had happened, were really involved in the anti-gay, anti-LGBTQ movement. Some people get so conditioned to not approve of who they are, it really can turn you into a villain if you’re not dealing with your shit. That idea shows up in various ways throughout the film. It also shows that if you perpetuate that much discord and chaos by not being able to accept who you are, there might be a responsibility that you have to take for committing those actions. It’s absolutely a pure empowerment film, where there’s a lot of survival.
You starred opposite Kevin Bacon in this, which is sort of fun considering he started out in horror early on in his career. What was it like acting opposite him?
I had a really, really pleasant experience working with Kevin. I would work with him again in a heartbeat. It’s really fun to work with him. He’s so talented. He’s such a veteran of the screen. He’s done so many different things. He makes a terrifying bad guy. It was also funny because I’d never met him before, I was a little bit starstruck and I had to play that I wasn’t intimidated by him or scared of him at all. But in real life, I was like, “I can’t believe that I’m working with him. This is such a big deal for me.” I was a really big fan of a lot of his work growing up, from Footloose to Balto to Hollow Man to Tremors. Even a lot of his work more recently. There are too many films to count but I’ve seen a lot of stuff that he’s done and I had a great experience seeing him. It really was a masterclass, the privilege to get to work with someone who has literally been working in film since the ’70s. I just wanted to be a sponge. I just wanted to soak up everything that I can. He’s also just a really cool, chill dude. He’s got goats. I don’t know if you know that, but he’s got goats on a farm. He plays music to his goats sometimes. It’s on his TikTok or his Instagram.
These characters are at a conversation therapy camp, but in some ways — and in some really moving moments — it feels more like a regular summer camp where people can be out and safe. Did it have that summer camp vibe on set?
I grew up in a really, really small town in the middle of Illinois and there was a summer camp that I used to go to and I actually worked as a camp counselor one year. I was the youngest camp counselor on the whole list of counselors, and they called me the super counselor, because I was really concerned with making sure that all the kids were OK. So, having so much experience of being at a summer camp, I felt like I was right at home when I got to set and the bonding just happened in that way pretty quickly. Everybody just kind of started hanging out and started to get close really quickly. There was a lot of fun that happened on set, there was a lot of stuff that we did when we weren’t on set. We would go get ice cream together, I went axe-throwing one time with a couple of the cast members. We want to see a movie at the drive-in and it was summer and it was hot. You know, it very much had that real summer camp magic. It happens, then it goes by so quickly. If I could work at that camp again, or do another movie like that, then honestly, it would be really, really fun. Because the vibe and the camaraderie is really exciting.
There’s one moment in the film where it feels perhaps most like a teenage summer camp and it’s that Pink musical sequence. It’s so tonally different than much of the rest of the film. What was it like filming that?
That was like the hardest part for me, honestly. I took it very seriously. I was like, I want everything to be good. If there’s choreography, I want to do it right. It was John who reminded me that I was taking it a little too seriously. He was also like, “I see that you want to do a really good job.” Making music together, singing with other people, it just stirs up all your emotions in such a positive way. The day that we filmed that I was so emotional, even though I was nervous about it. When you just dance around with people and you’re jumping on the beds, and everybody’s in a circle, screaming in each other’s faces, and everybody’s smiling — it’s really magical. It’s really healing. And that part of the film is so different from the rest of the film. I feel like it’s this weird thing that’s above the rest of the plot — that almost feels like a dream sequence or something. It was the seven of us and then it was the seven background campers so it was 14 queer people altogether. I didn’t know if I was gonna like that part when I saw the film, but I was like, “I feel really inspired.”
They/Them is now streaming on Peacock.