Jack Falahee's anxiety has been at an all-time high lately. He repeatedly demonstrated this in various ways — both verbally ("It makes me anxious") and physically (he tugged at his sleeves, his hair, his face, and anything he could get his hands on) — over the course of an hour-long lunch at Café Stella in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. And, given the millions of people who now know his name, drool over his body, and position him as the face of TV's sexual revolution, it's easy to understand why the 25-year-old actor has been feeling little uneasy.
In less than two months, Falahee has gone from anonymous actor to bona fide television obsession, thanks to his scene-stealing and "eye-watering" performance as Connor Walsh on the Shonda Rhimes–executive produced How to Get Away With Murder, ABC's legal thriller about five students who cover up a murder, armed with knowledge gleaned from their intimidating law professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis). With a libido as powerful as his mind, Connor has unapologetically used his sexuality to bend men to his will and manipulated everyone blocking his path to career advancement — the Cheshire Cat smirk plastered across his face demonstrating just how much Connor savors every ounce of duplicity. It's an archetype America is not used to seeing on television, particularly not from a man.
In the wake of Murder's phenomenal debut — 21 million people watched the premiere with Live+7 ratings factored in — the show's sexual content has been celebrated, analyzed, scrutinized, and vilified, while Connor has quickly become a character that fans cannot stop talking about (Falahee's performance has been called "simultaneously brilliant, arrogant, manipulative, sexually predatory, and totally irresistible"). So it makes sense that Falahee, at the center of this maelstrom, is experiencing some intense anxiety.
"Given the success of the show, everything's been kind of 0 to 60 [and] it's much more vulnerable than I thought it would be," Falahee told BuzzFeed News, offering what can be seen as a sort of confession about his insta-fame and viewers' sudden desire for details of his personal life. It's an area that Falahee most definitely does not want to talk about, strangers' speculation on his sexuality — a subject he has no intention of, or interest in, discussing.
"It's a really bizarre thing in our culture that people want to know that," he said, as he nervously tugged at the sleeve of his black T-shirt. "You see these people in film and on television and you feel like something is owed to you to know the intimacies of their lives, which is… I dunno." Falahee added that it could be tough for audiences to see him as another character if they've pored over every detail of his personal life. "Like Tom Cruise," he suggested.
The drive to keep his personal and professional lives separate meshes with his desire to remain in a bubble when it comes to the pandemonium encircling his white-hot television show. "I try not to read reviews or look at the ratings because it gives me anxiety, but it's been wonderful to hear how much fans love the show and Connor," he said. "It's one thing to be able to go to work every day and be thankful for having a job in an industry that's so hard, but it's mindboggling to think that I'm doing what I want every day and I'm on a hit TV show. "
And, so far, Falahee's daily routine involves the placement of his darkly charismatic character right at the center of a major shift in terms of depicting sexual content on television, one that both Falahee and the show's creator seem slightly uncomfortable discussing.
The pilot episode of How to Get Away With Murder quickly set the frank tone for the show in terms of sexual content. In the first hour alone, it featured Davis' married Annalise Keating receiving oral sex from her boyfriend (Billy Brown) and Falahee's Connor seducing nerdy IT specialist Oliver (Conrad Ricamora), in order to obtain incriminating evidence Keating could use during a trial.
While some actors might balk at being the poster boy for pushing boundaries on network television, Murder creator Peter Nowalk said it was never once discussed. "He read the script when he came in to audition and it was very clear that Connor was a sexual character," the show's creator said plainly. "So there was no discussion, and Jack has never asked any questions about that. He just understood it was an integral part of the character from the beginning, so we never needed to have a discussion about it."
For Falahee, the source of Connor's seemingly rampant sexuality remains the reason he never once felt a need to dissect it with Nowalk. "I think that the sex and those scenes are very plot driven," he said, without a hint of defensiveness. "Connor is trying to achieve things by having sex and not only that, but I think he's a creature of sexual appetite. I think he enjoys having sex and I think Pete's done a great job of creating a real character. People have sex — lots of sex — and I think Connor's one of those people."
While Nowalk and Falahee both try to downplay the significance of the show's sexual content — you'd be hard-pressed to find another man on network television who has ever said, "He did this thing to my ass that made my eyes water" — the millions of viewers who have made How to Get Away With Murder the fall's most watched new drama can't seem to get enough. It's a fact that has caught the creator off guard.
"I've been surprised by how much attention it seems to have gotten," Nowalk said of the slew of headlines discussing the show's "progressive" sexuality. "I've written for Grey's Anatomy, I've written for Scandal, and they're shows that depict a lot of sex. So nothing I've written here is any different. It's just the fact that it's two young gay men. There have been very outspoken sexual characters on all Shonda's shows and Connor is in that tradition. That's why the reaction surprises me, because it's literally things we've seen before."
Falahee shares Nowalk's surprise, especially given his opinion that Connor is simply the kind of person you see every day on the street. "I think it's very cool that Pete's created this character and it's exciting to be able to portray a character that viewers are identifying with him in whatever way they are," Falahee said. "But there's been a lot of discussion about how progressive the show is and I don't think that was ever the intent. Pete just wanted to write a truthful story and real honest characters."
One could argue that Nowalk and Falahee are right to quash conversations about the show's sexual content, as the discussion itself supports the narrative that How to Get Away With Murder is "different" and "progressive." It's a delicate balance and Nowalk, for one, is of the mind-set that the real sign of progress will be when viewers no longer talk about Connor's carnal exploits.
"I'm sensitive to Connor — or any of our characters — being marginalized," said Nowalk. "I wouldn't want Annalise to be marginalized in any way, I wouldn't want Wes [Alfred Enoch] to be marginalized, and I don't want [Connor] to be either. I feel like that's the only thing I'm sensitive about. People are writing about the gay sex like it's special, when it's not. Laurel [Karla Souza] and Michaela [Aja Naomi King] have both had sex on the show and it doesn't get as much attention. I just want people to be mindful."
For his part, Falahee works hard to ensure Connor is never defined by his sexuality — although that attribute was uniquely helpful when the actor began to examine the character on a deeper level. "A thing I do with all my characters is I break them down into one of three things: mind, heart, and groin," he said, gesturing to each. "I figure out where they come from and what they utilize most. Connor uses a lot of his mind and a lot of his groin, so, for me, it's about figuring out what that balance is and when one outweighs the other."
The actor also stressed that while the season has been front-loaded with sex, it's all in service of who the character will become as the show approaches "Night X" — a term that Falahee used to describe the murderous night seen in the show's flash-forward timeline.
"Pete told me early on that while Connor is focused on succeeding in Annalise's class and at Middleton, there's going to be a relationship that catches him off guard," Falahee said, likely of Oliver. "I'm excited for the audience to see how his choices physically and relationship-wise might be affecting his psyche. It's going to be really exciting for the audience to see how Connor unravels a bit, and how all the other characters reach the place they're at [in the flash-forward timeline] that connects those dots."
Being asked to talk frankly and at length about sexuality — both your own and that of your character — in interviews was something for which Falahee found himself unprepared. "I went to this top drama school and it's something that's never even discussed, but it's a big part of the work," he said, with a laugh, of the entire actor-interview process.
But then again, Falahee didn't actually grow up with aspirations to act. In fact, the actor might have never actually stepped on a stage had it not been for a devastating death many years earlier.
Falahee was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in February 1989. The third of four children, they were raised in "a very academic environment" by their mother, a speech pathologist, and father, a doctor. "They definitely pushed us growing up," Falahee said of his parents. And while each of his siblings went on to careers similar to their parents' (his sister is a lawyer and his two brothers work in the medical field), Falahee found his calling following the death of a close childhood friend.
"My friend was going to be in the school play so a counselor suggested, as a way of remembering him, that I do this production," said Falahee solemnly. "I had been thinking about doing it, but I was on the water polo team and it conflicted, so I very dramatically quit the water polo team, and auditioned for the musical, Singing in the Rain. It was a nice tribute. Then, I realized after that it provided this form of escapism for me. I was blown away. Pretending to be someone else every night alleviated all of this sadness that I was experiencing. I was like, This is quite cool. And I wanted to do another one."
So Falahee enthusiastically auditioned for his school's spring play, but failed to land a role. While that kind of immediate rejection would discourage many 17-year-olds from trying something new, Falahee's desire to recapture the high acting offered was not easily deterred and he came up with an unconventional plan.
"There was a school across the river that was doing a musical so I weaseled my way into taking a calculus class there," he said with a sly grin that Murder fans have come to know only too well. "But when I tried to dual enroll, the administration wasn't keen on me doing it because I'd have to leave one class early and get to one class late. But my mom, bless her heart, pushed for it. She was my champion and she got me in."
It was at his second school, while starring in The Wizard of Oz, that Falahee was pushed to pursue acting professionally. "Those productions were all directed and choreographed by the University of Michigan musical theater students, which is the best program in the country," he said. "One of the students came up to me after a show and asked if I was going to audition for colleges. It never even crossed my mind, given my siblings' trajectory. It took a bit of winning my parents over, but they were always great about not only pushing us academically but artistically."
After graduation, Falahee was accepted to New York University's musical theater program, where he quickly learned the most important lesson that college often imparts: This was exactly what he did not want to be doing. "While I love musical theater, it wasn't the right fit for me," he said, without a trace of regret. "It's so competitive and I was at such a disadvantage having started performing when I was 17. I mean, the men and women in my class were just so talented and had been dancing for 15 years and had vocal coaches and played every instrument on the face of the earth. I just felt that I didn't have enough raw talent to be able to find a place in that world, so I pivoted and did this international theater program in Amsterdam, which I think was, for me, probably the most instrumental time in my life."
"It was so out of my comfort zone," he said of life in Amsterdam. "I was taking a clowning class and a fairy tale class and a modern dance class. I was living this European dream in Amsterdam, biking to my experimental theater school and just meeting all of these people from all over the world that had grown up doing circus. That set the framework of always craving more and pursuing different disciplines and having an open-mindedness with the craft."
With a renewed passion for performing, Falahee returned to New York City raring to go — unfortunately he found the industry all but impenetrable. "It was very difficult to get in the room on anything theater related," he said of auditioning, as his fingers pushed his hair into an amorphous shape. "Again, it's just so difficult to break in when you're going up against these people with regional theater resumes that are pages long. So I thought that I should try my hand at something else." To that end, Falahee finished up his time at NYU in an intensive film and television course and set out to make a living off the stage.
"I had been working on and off as an actor, doing these smaller films and I started to get anxious because I wasn't gaining traction the way I wanted to," he said of those early, post-collegiate days. "I started to feel that New York was slowly killing me. I think my darkest days were probably when I was catering. I would go to these parties and pass out hors d'oeuvres and it's like you're invisible. I remember one catering captain told me that all you are is a tray that comes into their space for a moment and then you leave. It was one of the most depressing things I've ever been told."
He continued, "Being at all these events and premieres and seeing all my idols and thinking I want to be going to this event as a peer takes so much energy out of you. It's such a grind. I then found that in doing my survival job, I would bring that negative energy into my real job. A lot of times I couldn't shake that feeling in auditions. Artistically, I couldn't achieve what I wanted to because I was spending hours and hours waiting tables and catering and bartending. I'd close the bar at 5 a.m. and sleep three hours to prep for an audition at 9 a.m. I just didn't think it was sustainable and my manager was the one who suggested I go to Los Angeles."
Emboldened by possibility, Falahee made the cross-country move in August 2013 and almost immediately found himself back in the service industry. "I was driving for Lyft," he said of the ride-share service, which is similar to Uber. While it was not creatively fulfilling, shuttling passengers did allow for a more flexible schedule, and Falahee was able to go on more auditions. Then, less than six months after he arrived in Los Angeles, Falahee landed a recurring role on ABC Family's teen thriller Twisted. "It was the first television I'd done, aside from one scene on The Carrie Diaries," he remarked of an eight-episode arc as high school student Charlie McBride. "But even after I booked Twisted, I was still driving for Lyft. Then Twisted started to air and one of my passengers was like, 'Um, are you... are you on Twisted?' That was when I thought it was time to stop driving Lyft."
It proved to be a calculated choice as pilot season — an industry term for the months (typically January and February) when all the networks cast their prospective new television shows — was in full swing by that point, and a twist of fate brought Peter Nowalk's script for How to Get Away With Murder directly into his living room.
"A friend of mine [actor Max Fowler] was visiting from London during pilot season and sleeping on my couch, and he actually got the script first," Falahee said. "We're the same age, so we were going out for a lot of the same pilots, and he was like, 'Man, you gotta go in for this.' I hit my reps up and they hit casting up but I guess they didn't think I was right for the role."
However, as is often the case with developing pilots, Nowalk and Rhimes decided to take the character in a different direction. "Connor is a character dear to my heart," said Nowalk. "There's not a lot of twentysomething gay males on network TV, so I wanted him to be great. How he sounded was so specific in my head and we saw a lot of great actors, but no one was exactly who I pictured."
With ShondaLand taking the character in a different direction, Falahee recorded an audition — on a tape that quickly made its way to Nowalk. "Lindy Lowy, our awesome casting director, just didn't give up," Nowalk said of their exhaustive search to cast Connor. "I got Jack's tape and I was like, 'Who's that?' From the minute he opened his mouth, he sounded just like Connor should."
"We auditioned everyone with that first scene in the woods, where Connor says, 'Stop acting like a little bitch baby.' It's a hard line to pull off without sounding like a bitch baby yourself," Nowalk continued. "He has this sly, sarcastic quality and just got the tone of the show, which is this was someone very outspoken and unapologetic about who he is. I think Sandra Oh had the same quality on Grey's Anatomy, an ability to just be blunt and charming even though they're not trying to be charming. It's a rare quality and Jack has it. That makes even the meanest line feel fun to watch."
Falahee found out he landed the role a few days later and properly freaked out. "I was in the park, trying to meditate because I was a ball of anxiety, when my reps called," he said, excited all over again. "I started screaming and running in circles and dropped the phone and did a cartwheel. These people were having a picnic next to me and I looked like a lunatic. So, totally classic L.A., they go, 'Good news?' And I said, 'I just booked a pilot,' and they all cheered. It was so L.A."
He joined the Viola Davis-led cast in Pittsburgh in March 2014 to film the pilot episode of Murder, a confidently scripted and exceptionally acted hour that placed the show on dozens of Best New Drama lists and made Falahee an instant hit with viewers and Connor one of the year's most talked-about breakout television characters. Not that that has allayed his anxieties in the slightest.
Falahee drew a parallel between the characters that conspired to cover up the murder on screen and the actors that support one another off screen as How to Get Away With Murder is the most high-profile series many of them have ever worked on. "It's very new for us, which has allowed us to talk about things or voice anxiety or insecurities or excitement or joy," he said, the relief unmistakable in his voice at having a judgment-free place in his life.
When asked how the reality of sudden fame is different than he envisioned, Falahee grew quiet and thought for a long moment before he replied.
"Growing up, I was picked on a bit; I was pretty heavy-set, and then I was a theater kid," he said. "I just felt unpopular and uncool, so I think in my mind I had this idea of fame and being popular and how nice that would be. The reality of it is sometimes it's not nice. And maybe this is only an inner voice filled with anxiety, but I'll be talking to someone and I'll wonder if they're only talking to me because of the success or whatever. That's been this new unique thing I'm navigating."
"Now in hindsight, I realized how much I enjoyed, in life, being a fly on the wall," he continued. "Being a Lyft driver and hearing a couple bicker in my backseat or bartending and having someone tell me all about the problems in their relationship. I enjoyed those human interactions and life has shifted in a way. I don't think it's good or bad — it's different. But my dad says all these little things that I get worked up about are all good problems to have. This is the best-case scenario. The fact I was catering a year and a half ago and now I'm here doing this is like a dream!"