Exclusive Interview: Genera+ion creators Zelda Barnz & Daniel Barnz on telling “a different kind of story about queer teenagers”

Ahead of the season one finale of the beautifully queer comedy drama Genera+ion on HBO Max on Thursday July 8th, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with its creators, daughter and father Zelda Barnz and Daniel Barnz, who executive produce the series alongside Zelda’s other dad, and Daniel’s husband, Ben Barnz. Zelda and Daniel are also among the show’s writers, and Daniel has directed seven of season one’s 16 episodes.

Daniel Barnz and Zelda Barnz. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

During the exclusive interview, Zelda and Daniel discuss the intergenerational conversation between them about queer life today that partly inspired the show, their determination to secure a diverse cast, wanting to redress the balance of narratives about queer suffering with stories of queer joy, and the LGBTQ+ culture that’s had an impact on them.

Nathanya Alexander, Haley Sanchez, Chase Sui Wonders, Uly Schlesinger, Justice Smith, Marwan Salama, Sydney Mae Diaz, Lukita Maxwell, Diego Josef, & Chloe East. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: going back to when you initially conceived Genera+ion, what did you want to add to what was already out there in terms of shows about the contemporary teenage experience? Did you feel like you had something fresh to bring?

Zelda Barnz: “I came out when I was 15 and I felt like I wasn’t seeing a lot of positive representation of pure queer joy and happiness and queer love in media and I really wanted to explore that, so the show definitely came very much from that place. A lot of TV shows tend to shift more towards queer torture and queer pain and stories of queer suffering and that was really hard for me to watch when I was coming out, so I wanted to try telling a different kind of story about queer teenagers.”

Daniel Barnz: “The gift of being able to create a show that’s about so many queer characters is that you get to explore not only their queerness, but also their lives in general. So often when you have a queer character who is part of an ensemble—especially if they’re the sole queer character—their storyline has to be in some way connected to or defined by their sexuality. What was so refreshing about being able to do this show was to have characters who are queer and sometimes talking about their sexuality and their queerness, but often they’re just queer people who are having other kinds of experiences. That’s refreshing to be able to put out into the world.”

Nava Mau. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

Also the characters are not necessarily labeled in terms of their gender identity or sexuality, which is an aspect of the series I love, and I think is partly reflective of your generation Zelda probably more than ours Daniel, in that people don’t necessarily want to label themselves, although sometimes it can be very liberating to do so. I spoke to Nava Mau about playing Ana in Genera+ion, and we don’t necessarily know that her character is trans in the first part of season one, though it is explicitly referred to in the second part of the first season. Was not labeling certain characters something that felt important to each of you?

Zelda: “First of all, Nava is amazing!”

She’s great isn’t she, and I’m so glad we get to see more of her in part B of season one. I loved the Hamburger Mary’s episode with her on stage hosting, and wow, that gold dress!

Daniel: “I was so starstruck I was like, oh my God!”

Nava Mau & Chase Sui Wonders. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

Zelda: “It’s ridiculous, I’m obsessed with her! I definitely think there is this importance in not labeling characters necessarily because we also don’t really label Riley either, we don’t ever have a moment where Riley says ‘I am bi’, she’s just kind of fluid and she doesn’t want to put a label on that and that’s totally okay. There’s a scene with her and Chester in the car where he refers to her as a lesbian and she’s like, ‘I’m not a lesbian’, but there’s no further conversation about it and there doesn’t always need to be. None of her friends are pressuring her or asking her, ‘What are you?'”

“I think Riley is one of those queer teenagers who doesn’t really have any intention of ever coming out officially to her parents or people at school because she doesn’t really need to, everyone knows and it’s fine and it’s not something that she’s going to make a deal out of because I don’t think she likes to make a deal out of anything. I know so many teenagers like that for whom the traditional idea of coming out to their parents isn’t their experience and they either just one day brought home somebody of the same gender or they never told their parents but have had queer relationships. I think that’s really interesting because with older generations if you were suddenly in a queer relationship it would be something to have a discussion about, whereas I think my generation is approaching this point of saying anyone can identify however they want and it doesn’t have to be everyone’s business. I think that’s beautiful. Similarly with Nava’s character Ana, yes she is trans but we don’t necessarily put a label on her because her identity is not the main focus of her storyline.”

Chase Sui Wonders & Justice Smith. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

Exactly, Ana is warm and wise and loves hosting people at her house as we see with the X-Files party, and she’s a great aunt and mentor figure, and there are countless other interesting things about her, and, she happens to be trans too. It’s beautiful storytelling.

Daniel: “For my generation, once you identified in a certain way across the sexuality or gender spectrum, that was it. If you said, ‘I’m gay’, or ‘I’m bisexual’, that then became your label for life and that’s part of what made it feel daunting and intimidating to come out. What is interesting about Gen Z is that there’s more fluidity in so many ways, and also fluidity in terms of labeling. It’s okay to say, ‘Here’s how I identify now, maybe I will identify in this way in a year or two years, or maybe I will identify differently’. There’s a freedom and a way of not being fixed that is actually incredibly liberating. The other thing I think is fascinating, and kind of a contradiction in some ways, with Zelda and her friends in Gen Z, is that there is a very careful nomenclature of ‘this is how I identify’, with all of these terms which are really incredible and specific—to be skoliosexual, or to be demigender, or to be aromantic—terms that didn’t exist when I was growing up. There’s a sense of ‘If I am going to label myself then I want to be labeled carefully’. Simultaneously, there’s a sense of not wanting to be pigeonholed or categorized or put into a box. I think those two things exist in a kind of a tension with each other, but a really glorious and liberating tension.”

Haley Sanchez & Marisela Zumbado. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

The high school appears to be a pretty accepting environment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that every character is going to arrive fully formed, knowing exactly who they are. They are teenagers and some of them are still discovering themselves. So how important was it to have someone like Greta in there who is still questioning things and hasn’t quite worked out who they are yet? I don’t want to second guess the character, but I have an idea of maybe where she might be going, but we’ll wait for her to tell us.

Zelda: “That was really important to me because I knew so many people like that in high school. I knew so many kids who didn’t really know who they were yet or what they wanted, or who they wanted. There are so many queer kids or queer teenagers who know who they are immediately, and they come out or they don’t, but they know, and that’s amazing, but there are also a lot of kids for whom sexuality is a journey and figuring out who they are and how they identify is a really long process. No matter what your process is it’s so incredibly valid and we wanted to show this character who is trying to break out of her shell really hard but doesn’t quite know how to do that.”

“I love Greta so much, she’s so adorable and shy and anxious. I think it’s a very relatable feeling to be in your shell that you can’t totally break out of because people already know you as this shy person. It was important for us that she found these new friends who didn’t have preconceived ideas about who she was so that she got to explore with this new group of people.”

Chase Sui Wonders & Haley Sanchez. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

Daniel: “Can I ask what your guesses are?”

Well, you just used the term aromantic, which might be relatable to Greta, or she might identify as asexual.

Daniel: “We will neither confirm nor deny, but I love that you’re thinking in these veins because there certainly has been some conversation online about Greta with people picking up on certain details of her experience, which for us is a really exciting conversation to watch unfold.”

As well as being diverse in terms of LGBTQ+ representation, Genera+ion is also diverse racially and I wondered how much that was part of your initial writing rather than something that came in through casting?

Zelda: “That was almost all part of our initial writing. We learned from a couple people in the industry that what tends to happen with open casting is that you get a lot of white people coming in and so we were very careful to specify characters’ races because we wanted to make sure that we’d get as diverse a cast as possible.”

Nathanya Alexander, Haley Sanchez, Chase Sui Wonders, Uly Schlesinger, Justice Smith, Marwan Salama, Sydney Mae Diaz, Lukita Maxwell, Diego Josef, & Chloe East. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

Daniel: “My experience in writing screenplays and television shows has also been that if you don’t specify a character’s race then people will tend to read them as white and are then surprised when that character is cast differently. For us, it was not only important to specify from the get-go that these characters were diverse racially and ethnically, but also to suggest that their stories were going to reference that. One of the things that we really tried to do with the show is to not make our characters’ identities dictate their storytelling, not make their sexuality define what their story is about or not make their race define what their stories are about, but to make sure that their race, ethnicity, and sexuality are feeding into their stories and their existences because that is the experience of being a queer person of color.”

“It was important to us that we said in the script that Chester is queer and Black, because we knew that in subsequent episodes, Chester is going to talk about what it is to be a Black queer person. So it was something that we were really careful with in our casting to make sure that we preserved that. One of the things that’s been most exciting about seeing the show come out is hearing responses from people, especially teenagers, who feel seen in a way that they haven’t been seen before, because there are Asian American queer people and Black queer people and Latinx queer people on the show.”

Uly Schlesinger, Justice Smith, & Marwan Salama. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

Although there isn’t necessarily one lead character, and we get distinctive shifts in perspective throughout the series, it does feel like Chester is at the heart of Genera+ion and I wondered why he was a character that you wanted to be quite central in the narrative and also what you feel Justice Smith brings to Chester?

Zelda: “Chester as a character was inspired by this student at my school who was a senior when I was a freshman and they were the student body president and they were openly queer. That in and of itself I think was really impactful for me to see when I was coming out as a freshman, because student body president is really just a popularity contest, the most popular kid in the grade usually wins, and they won. They wore high heels to school all the time, always had their nails painted beautiful colors, performed in drag in front of the school, and that was so not what I was seeing on TV. I was being told through media that if you’re queer you’ll never be able to win the student body president election because everyone will just bully you, and it’ll be impossible to come out to your family, and this person made me realize that all those stories of pain and suffering didn’t have to be true.”

Justice Smith. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

“We wanted to show this openly queer character who is popular and loved and doing amazing things on campus. Chester was born from a place of wanting to see that kind of energy, that really cool, beloved, popular queer kid who was open about his sexuality. For that reason we did want that character to be quite central in the show because it contradicts everything we’ve been told about openly queer kids in high school and their storylines and what happens to them. We wanted to bring that front and center. Also, Justice Smith is an absolute genius.”

Daniel: “Zelda, Justice, and I have talked a lot about how a character like this is rarely at the center of shows and that aspects of his character are rarely at the center shows. When you have a thoughtful, contemplative person, which Chester can be, that’s usually the silent guy who is sitting in the back row, but not the presentational, wearing-crop-tops-to-school character. But that person exists in our world, we just don’t often see them on TV. Justice initially auditioned for the counselor role, and we didn’t think he was right for that, but we really loved him and asked him if he would come and read for Chester. He gave this really phenomenal audition, which was very moving.”

Justice Smith. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

“What’s important to remember about Justice is when you look at his body of work before this show, this is very different from anything that he’s done before. I have to emphasize that because he seems so that person as Chester, and interestingly I think he has encountered a lot of public examination because he is Black and queer and there’s an assumption that he’s just playing himself on screen, but he’s not. He’s done an enormous amount of work and research to craft this character, and he’s drawing on lots of influences in a very thoughtful way. So we all bristle when we hear things like, ‘Oh, isn’t this just Justice being himself on camera?’ The answer is emphatically no. He’s actually doing this extraordinary character construction. That’s why it’s so helpful to look at his past work, to see who he was in The Get Down or the Jurassic Park movies, because it’s very different and I think that’s a real testament to his ability.”

Justice Smith & Chase Sui Wonders. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

Touching on what you were saying earlier, Zelda about queer joy, I love the way that Chester—who is a high school athlete, a water polo playing jock—expresses himself through his style with his crop tops, the nail polish and makeup, I love all of his looks. So it was very striking when he was feeling down and came into school in that grey polo shirt and baseball cap. We were depressed by that as viewers, and so were the rest of the school. Tell me about that beautiful moment of Black queer joy, where we see him taking his top off and voguing. It also feels significant that it’s the whole school encouraging him to do that, contrasting with, as you were saying Zelda, all those stories of bullying and pain that we’ve seen over the years.

Zelda: “In terms of Chester being inspired by the student I mentioned, I definitely think that had that student ever come to school in a grey polo shirt people would have had a similar reaction. With Chester, people are so used to seeing him in these really colorful, amazing outfits that he puts together, and so to see him in jeans and a grey shirt is the most jarring thing. He expresses himself through his clothing and such a huge part of his identity is how he presents himself in terms of style and fashion. It’s such an important moment to see that when he is down or upset about something his teammates and his friends will always be able to bring him back to who Chester is fundamentally.”

Justice Smith. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

“It was really important to us to have his water polo teammates in that scene, getting him up and partying and dancing because we’re so used to this trope that queer teens get bullied and queer teens aren’t athletes and that’s so ridiculous, it’s just not true. It was important for us to see that this person is loved by his teammates and his queerness doesn’t really have any effect on the relationship he has with them or the fact that he’s an incredible water polo player.”

Justice Smith. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

Daniel: “I think that that moment would have played so differently if it had just been his friends in the GSA, the gay–straight alliance, who were beginning to rally him. Some people have actually watched that scene and felt a little nervous when it began about what was going to happen and whether it was going to turn into a scene of them making fun of him. In some ways there’s a little bit of danger to it.”

Justice Smith. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

“For me, what always made that sequence very moving is the people who aren’t in the GSA who are coming to rally for him. They don’t always get it right. If you listen to some of the things that they’re saying in the background, there are these sort of gently homophobic things like, ‘It’s okay to be gay’, or, ‘I’m not gay, you’re gay’, but they’re doing it with this spirit of love for Chester. We wanted to strike that balance, because we didn’t want to suggest that this is a utopian world where everybody is super woke and everybody understands, but their hearts are in a really good place and that felt a little bit more indicative of the world around us, because we see so many scenes of the jocks or athletes bullying the queer kid. Here is the queer kid who is an athlete and he can sit in a locker room with tons of naked guys walking around him, and they could be having a conversation about something totally separate from sexuality, and that’s a refreshing thing to see on screen.”

Justice Smith. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

There was also a great choice of music for that scene with Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and I love your use of music generally throughout the series, what did you want to bring to the show with that element?

Daniel: “Thank you for pointing that out because we love the music as well. One thing you’ll notice is that there’s no score in the show, which was a conscious and somewhat unusual choice to make, but part of our whole approach in realizing the show. Because the show was created by a queer teenager we wanted to give the authorship, the visual style, the sound design, a sense that you’re immersed in this world and looking at it through these kids’ eyes from the inside out. We’re very strict about our point of view language and the music was a part of that. As opposed to having score which is an overlay, and the director telling you or guiding you how you should feel, we wanted all the music to be source music. Occasionally that source music turns into what we call “scource”, when a song that was in a scene becomes full-fidelity and you’re hearing it play out. We always want it to begin in a real world place and then it could become more evocative.”

“We work with this phenomenal music team, Maggie Phillips and Andrew Brady, in crafting soundtracks with only songs, which is hard to do sometimes. They’ve also tried to make sure that the music selections themselves are elevating and supporting queer voices and they’ve been really spectacular about finding some unknown or newer queer artists and putting them in prominent spots in the show. Occasionally we’ll read a tweet from somebody who’s like, ‘Oh my God, my song is on this show!’ It feels really exciting to be able to give a platform to those voices, and at the same time there are some really iconic queer anthems in there, like Bad Religion or that Sylvester classic. In this show that is called Genera+ion, and which is exploring to some extent what it is to be queer now versus being queer over the ages, it felt important to have that kind of context musically as well.”

Sean Porter (DP), Ben Barnz (EP), Daniel Barnz (Co-creator, Director & EP), & Zelda Barnz (Co-creator, EP) on the set of GENERA+ION. Photograph by Jennifer Clasen / HBO Max.

In terms of that intergenerational exploration, Sam says to Chester at one point, I wish I had been like you when I was younger, and Ana says something similar to Riley. Also, although the teenagers are generally unhappy with their parents, particularly as the season nears the end we begin to see things from Martha and Mark’s perspectives, so even the white evangelicals, whom we might expect to be demonized, aren’t, and we find ourselves seeing things from their point of view too to some extent don’t we?

Zelda: “Megan is the character that a lot of other shows would make into the villain, but we really wanted to be careful with that because the show doesn’t have a villain, this show is supposed to feel a little bit more real than that. She’s just a human who is figuring things out too and that doesn’t mean she’s doing well or right, and that doesn’t mean she’s not hurting people in her life, but she has her own issues and her own complicated things going on. She has an older daughter and then two 16-year-old kids and she’s about to be an empty nester and I think that’s hard for her. She devotes so much of her time and energy into being a mother and so she doesn’t know what to do when her kids leave the house. She’s questioning, ‘What’s my purpose now?’ That is a really scary thing for her to confront and on top of that she really loves her kids and she’s genuinely afraid for her son, even though she is not going about protecting him in a good or mature way.”

Martha Plimpton. Genera+ion. Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO Max.

Daniel: “Clearly the origin of the show was a generational conversation between Zelda and me and Zelda’s other dad about what it looks like to be queer now and so it does infuse its way into the perspective. When the kids are around their parents, their parents are out of focus or kind of like ‘wah-wah-wah-ing’ in the background, and that’s sometimes how it feels as a parent when we’re around our kids. Similarly, I think sometimes, no disrespect Zelda, but that’s how it feels for you too, right? You’re focused on your world and your friends and your parents are more distant. So that feels like a reality. Then there are these moments where the parents want to come forward and say, ‘Wait, I’m a person, I have feelings, and not only do I have feelings, but I actually want to connect with you on another level and I wish I wasn’t just this parent in the background’, which is something that comes out in episode 15.”

“When Sam says that line to Chester, ‘You are who I wish I was in high school’, that was a very personal line to me because it really applies not just to Chester, but to so many of these characters in the show. These characters, like Zelda and her friends in Gen Z, are sometimes flawed and make terrible decisions, and don’t always use rational thought, but they’re also capable of extraordinary resilience and grit and thoughtfulness, which you see in the Delilah storyline. As many terrible decisions as they make, they also make really wonderful things too and what we wanted to do with Genera+ion was to celebrate that part of Gen Z, that fearlessness, that thoughtfulness, that desire to do good in the world, and that boldness, because that is something that I see and it makes me want to be them!”

It’s A Sin. Photograph by Ben Blackall/HBO Max.

Final question for both of you, what’s your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that has had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

Zelda: “I have a super recent one, Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin. That show really impacted me. I didn’t realize how little I knew about the AIDS epidemic in general until I watched it, which I think is really interesting because I was raised by gay parents who lived through it and the schools that I went to never taught me anything about it. There was so much in It’s A Sin that nobody had ever told me and there were certain things that came up in it where I was like, wait did that really happen? Then I looked it up and it was completely true and I was so shocked by that. I also fell so in love with all those characters. I think It’s A Sin is a great example of a show that does a really good job of balancing the queer joy with the pain, because obviously with a story about AIDS it’s going to have its really sad, tortured moments, but I think they do such a good job of emphasizing the joy that all of those characters have too, and those moments of queer triumph. That show meant so much to me.”

King Princess. Photograph by: Vince M Aung.

“Also, I have to mention King Princess. I really love her music and I think it is quintessentially queer, which I adore. I listen to that a lot.”

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Todd Haynes’ Carol. Photograph by Wilson Webb.

Daniel: “I think this is a virtually impossible question to answer because there are so many. One of the things that I’m really able to see clearly with Generat+ion is how it was made possible because of so many people and shows that have paved the way for us to be here now. So I want to say a hundred people, but I’m thinking of Larry Kramer and his rage and the extraordinary impact he had on the world. I’m thinking about Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes, filmmakers who have brought queer characters to the fore. I’m thinking about RuPaul and Drag Race and that extraordinary celebration of queer creativity. But there are four thousand other people that I would like to mention. There’s that moment in Genera+ion when Chester suggests that they go to San Francisco, the queer motherland, and he talks about learning about ourselves and our history as queer people and and I feel what he’s expressing there is the enormous debt that we owe to so many queer people in our past who have created a position where kids can identify in 100 different ways and not be scared of labels, and that is something that the show really celebrates.”

By James Kleinmann

Episodes 1 to 15 of Genera+ion are streaming now on HBO Max. The season 1 finale, episode 16, premieres on HBO Max on Thursday July 8th 2021.

Read our exclusive interview with Nava Mau who plays Ana in Genera+ion.

Generation Season 1: Part 2 | Official Trailer | HBO Max
Genera+ion. HBO Max.

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