The search for your latest Netflix binge ends right here. Gripping, nuanced and urgent, Brooklyn-set high school drama Grand Army, adapted from creator Katie Cappiello’s own 2013 play Slut, follows the lives of a diverse group of students navigating contemporary teenage life. Among them is Indian-American Sid Pakam, played by Degrassi: Next Class star Amir Bageria, a swim team captain questioning his sexuality while the pressure piles up as he applies for a place at Harvard. Two of the ten season one episodes are directed by Emmy-nominated trans trailblazer Silas Howard, who has directed episodes of LGBTQ hit series such Transparent, Pose and Tales of the City, among many other credits.
Ahead of today’s global launch of Grand Army on Netflix, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Amir Bageria about taking on the role of Sid, the research he did including talking to his older brother who is gay about coming out, and his love for Brokeback Mountain and Frank Ocean.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on the series, one thing that I really liked it is that the series doesn’t objectify the young people it portrays, it feels very authentic and like we are seeing what their lives are like from the inside, from their point of view. What were some of the things about Grand Army that made you want to be involved?
Amir Bageria: “I think the writing was, like you said, so authentic, and it did a great job of portraying teens just as people which I guess is something that you don’t see a lot of, so I really appreciated that. Also, I feel like it was very good in terms of representation and showing the world what diversity really means. Every character was so specific and precise, and there was a lot of depth involved in the material. You could just tell from the writing that these were people who really trusted their audience and took it seriously and it’s a beautiful combination of passion and honesty. It’s just meticulously crafted and I loved the scripts, they were so good.”
How would you describe Sid’s coming out journey? One of the things that struck me is that the high school is set up as not being a homophobic environment, because there’s a bisexual character who’s already out and we see that he’s largely accepted, so it seems like Sid’s reluctance to come out is more to do with things going on in his own life, familial expectations and maybe his own feelings about being gay.
“It was interesting to explore. My older brother is gay and my parents are the best, they’re literally my number one fans and I love them with all my heart, and they were so amazing at being as accepting as they possibly could be with my brother. Pretty much he came out, and then they were like, ‘Oh. What do you want for dinner?’ So, it’s funny, in my head I came on to this thinking I know everything there is to know. Then we were doing the read-through I was playing Sid very stoically and I remember after the read-through Katie Cappiello came up to me and she was like, ‘Hey, just a note, when Sid’s with the boys, he’s with the boys.’ And I was like, ‘No but he’s hiding it and he’s just pretending because he has to in order to play chess.” But she was like, ‘No, it’s just that simple that he’s with the boys and then he also has this other thing going on.’”
“And as far as coming out, there’s a scene on Master of None, where one character comes out and her mom starts crying and she’s essentially saying ‘You’re already African American, you’re a woman, and now you’re going to add gay on top of that?!’ And that whole perspective of being upset about how the world is going to treat your daughter versus just being upset at your daughter is a very specific difference that I felt like was explored on Grand Army. The actor who played my dad Soujas, Raoul Bhaneja, was very adamant about bringing that layer to it when we were first rehearsing. Sid’s journey is so specific, but universal at the same time and that’s a very difficult dichotomy to navigate in writing.”
And it examines the intersection of queerness and race and religion doesn’t it?
“Absolutely, and how difficult it is to navigate all of those entities. As you mentioned, there’s a very positive environment in the school around sexuality. There’s an LGBTQ/Straight alliance and other clubs, and there’s a scene where Sid gets the flyer, but he’s just not comfortable with that and you could put that down to his upbringing, or to him being the captain of his swim team, and having to establish this male dominance that he feels would be relegated if he did join one of these clubs. There are just so many layers to it.”
Did you speak to your brother or to anyone else about their coming out experiences as part of your preparation to play Sid?
“Totally. Yes, I talked to my brother, and I did a lot of research online to find major sports figures who had come out. A friend of mine grew up playing hockey and he came out as gay a bit later in his life, and I just asked them if their experience was similar to Sid’s and if they had any notes or dos and don’ts, and just basically what advice they could give me on that. The interesting thing is a lot of the people that I talked to personally had weirdly positive experiences, they didn’t have a lot negatively to say about coming out which is a testament I guess to the environment that we grew up in, but it was still interesting to hear each individual experience of maybe not the most dramatic ways that being gay effected them but little microcosms that you should be picking up on.”
Did you have any reservations at all about portraying a queer character?
“Not at all. Sid’s sexuality is obviously a very dominant part of this character, but what is just such a great testament to the writing is that it’s not the only thing about him, there’s just so much going on with his character. It pertains to masculinity and his ethnicity and how he views those entities and how other people view them. There was just so much going on and I guess as an actor that’s just so enticing to jump into. So I was just so excited to play the role. And it was very serendipitous the way that it came to be. My brother had actually taken me on a trip to New York in April last year, and I was not expecting to get a show like this at all, and after that trip I had decided that I was going to head to New York for a couple of years to do a conservatory over there because I really fell in love with the city. In my acting class at the time I was actually performing Brokeback Mountain because I think it’s a great script and I wanted to try something that I really just had to dive into. Like Sid, I also grew up swimming, but I’ve spent the last couple of years changing my physique so that I could be seen for different roles and then sure enough here comes this character whose sexuality is going to be explored, he’s from New York, and he’s a swimmer and it’s very clear that he is very naturally athletic, and it all kind of came together just like that.”
Do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, play, book, music, artwork, or a person. Something or someone that’s had an impact on you?
“Brokeback Mountain is one of my favourite films. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger were so phenomenal in those performances and I definitely use that as a motivation to try to reach those heights, I’m definitely not saying that I did at all, but that was definitely very inspiring to me. And in terms of an LGBTQ+ icon, Anderson Cooper is really cool and I feel like no one talks about him, but he’s so smooth the way he talks, and he’s very good on his feet, I love him. Oh, and Frank Ocean, I love Frank Ocean! He is without a doubt my favourite in terms of LGBTQ+ icons, I think he’s just so phenomenal and his music is breathtaking.”
That’s a great list Amir. Congratulations on your beautiful work in Grand Army, I think you’re right up there with those two in Brokeback Mountain.
“Oh my God, thank you so much!”
By James Kleinmann
The entire first season of Grand Army is streaming on Netflix now.