"I've been very lucky," Samer Salem says, not for the first time today. The handsome 33-year-old actor from Calgary, who stars opposite Keiynan Lonsdale in My Fake Boyfriend, has only been living in LA for a month. According to him, it's all been coming up roses since he set foot off the plane.
"People always talk shit about LA, and before I got here, I believed what people were saying, kinda. Then I came, and I had my own experience. And I think I realized, you can find shitty people everywhere. And so far, knock on wood," he gingerly taps the table in front of him, "everyone I've met has been fucking amazing."
If it weren't for a fateful drunken night in Sweden during a semester abroad, Salem's life might look a whole lot different today. He was a nursing student doing his final clinicals at a Swedish hospital when one fateful night, he got drunk with his friends and confessed a secret desire to try out acting. His friends all agreed he would be a natural, and encouraged him to take a class when he got back to Canada. "I wanted to do something in the arts so badly, ever since I was little," he confesses. And why didn't he? "I didn't want to get picked on in school. And it's too bad, because even if I did get picked on, my soul would've been so fucking happy."
But fear of bullying wasn't the only thing holding him back. Salem, whose parents immigrated from Lebanon, had big dreams for their son. "Being an actor doesn't pay the bills, but being a doctor does. I remember thinking a lot, 'how am I going to make the family look?'" In other words, his desire to act "was very much in the closet."
Once Salem landed back in Canada, he was ready to take the bull by the horns. He went to Vancouver and enrolled in his first acting class, and never looked back. He laughs as he remembers telling his parents about the career change. "I didn't really give them a choice either way." He told his parents his friends were coming by to pick up all his belongings on their way to visit him.
But acting wasn't the only closet Salem had to come out of. "One of my first agents asked me to change my name. I said no," he smiles. "I was so proud of myself for that." That same agent asked him if he was gay. "I was still closeted to myself — and everybody else — at this point, so I said no. And my agent said, 'Oh, thank God. Gay doesn't work.' Like, if I wasn't already in the closet, you just pushed me in further."
Salem recalls another early experience working with a director who kept saying his name wrong. "He was like, 'Ugh, I'm never gonna get it.' And I just thought, you look like a fucking idiot because my name isn't hard to say. It's a fucking name. Say my name properly."
"Still, 99% of the experiences I've had have been amazing," Salem is quick to add. "Everyone on set, the other actors, the directors, everyone has been so awesome. So I don't have any horror stories, really, besides the small ones." But those little micro-aggressions add up, and they get in your head. "Especially in the beginning, when you don't have much to go off of, or your own experiences to inform you. These are the people you've hired to work for you, and they've been in the industry for a long time. I think about the agent who told me to change my name and told me 'gay doesn't work.' They were a phenomenal agent, and I don't think they were actually homophobic at all, or had malicious intent whatsoever. They were just the product of the industry they had been working in for over 20 years. But still, you bear the brunt of that. Especially as a gay man in this industry. It's fucking brutal."
Despite that weight, Salem did come out. At least to himself. He recalls a lot of self doubt in those early stages of experimentation, and fears about making it public. "What if I do this and I'm not actually gay, how do I come back from that? That's what the voices in my head would say, and that made it seem so much worse in my mind."
But then Salem fell in love with a guy, and that was that. "I was like, fuck it, I'm coming out. I came out to all my siblings and all my friends." In fact, it was an acting class that inspired these early coming out conversations. "It was a tough class, very emotional. That happens sometimes in an acting class. You’re working through a scene, and it resonates, and it’s good." He and his roommate went for dinner after. "We sat down. He was like, 'You wanna order a drink?' and I was like, 'I'm gay.'"
Two months later, he moved to Toronto to be with his first boyfriend. "It felt so good to be walking around and be like, here I am. Not be embarrassed, or afraid, or ashamed. Shame was a big thing. Once I got to the other side of it, I was like, fuck, why was I doing that to myself for so long?"
Fast forward to now: Salem gets to fall in love with a man on screen. He plays Rafi, a confident and romantic chef who captures the attention of Keiynan Lonsdale's Andrew in BuzzFeed Studios' new rom-com My Fake Boyfriend. Salem's natural warmth and lightheartedness translate beautifully on screen, and it's easy to see how Andrew, or anyone, could fall in love with him after taking just one cooking class.
Flirting in a lighthearted comedy was a new experience for the actor. Prime Video audiences already know Salem as Josep, part of the #PolyAmBelterFam, a pirate family in the cult sci-fi hit The Expanse. "When I read the breakdown that they were this polyamorous family, I was like, fuck yes," he says of landing the role. "Let's normalize it!"
Last year, he filmed a two episode arc on The Handmaid's Tale. "Working with someone like Elisabeth Moss, that was a big deal to me. For [My Fake Boyfriend], I was nervous in a different way. It was something I hadn't done before, so I was getting my sea legs."
The production schedule for the film forced him to jump right into the deep end. The second day of filming was the final scene of the film, a moment of big romantic resolution between Andrew and Rafi. But as we already know about Salem, diving in head-first is his bread and butter. Before filming, "Rose [Troche, the director] took us out on, like, a date, she and Keiynan and I, so we could get to know each other. We went and got ice cream on the boardwalk after. Working with Keiynan was awesome, he's a class act. Super talented. Very much a leader on set."
Unlike a lot of gay romance films, both the romantic leads in My Fake Boyfriend are played by out queer actors. A contentious topic that's been long debated within Hollywood and LGBTQ circles: Does an actor need to be gay to play a gay role? "It's a tricky question. I think the issue has been lack of representation to begin with," Salem offers thoughtfully. "So I understand why some people are like, if it's a gay role, then a gay person should play it. Because for so long — I mean case in point, we've had agents that say 'gay doesn't work,' and fuck, finally there are opportunities for actors that are out! But I think as the pendulum starts to settle, and it's no longer a big scarlet letter on a person's career, then it's not necessary. Then it's just acting. I mean, I don't want to only play gay characters. But right now, yes, there is meaning to it, to casting a gay actor."
Regardless, Salem doesn't believe that the natural chemistry between him and Lonsdale is necessarily because both men are queer in real life. "When it gets down to it, what I love about this movie is that it's just a human love story. It has nothing to do with the fact that we're gay other than that we're gay. It's human to human. Our chemistry was just chemistry between two human beings." Salem was relieved to see that their chemistry translated on screen. At an early screening for the film, he thought, "Oh great, it really is believable! I really wanted it to feel real and relatable."
My Fake Boyfriend arrives in a wave of LGBTQ rom-coms in 2022. Joel Kim Booster's Fire Island premiered just a few weeks ago on Hulu, and later this year, Billy Eichner's Bros is set to become the first major studio romantic comedy featuring a gay couple. "It feels really fucking good to be a part of it," Salem says.
These new films are in stark contrast to gay cinema staples like Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, or even Love, Simon, all of which focus on topics like homophobia, coming out, and trauma. "When you're gay, you get to see all the different colors of being gay. We have fun, we go out to dinner, some of us want to get married, some don't. Some of us are assholes, some of us are nice. We're just human beings!"
The magic of My Fake Boyfriend, according to Salem, is in its normalized treatment of all of its gay characters. "The love story is between two men, and there's no comment about it. You could have put a woman in place of some characters and called it 'My Fake Girlfriend,' and it would've worked. Anybody could watch this and feel like, 'Oh, this could happen to me.' When you start to normalize anything, you start to get empathy, understanding, and love of your fellow man. Ignorance comes from lack of exposure. So all these movies coming out, I hope it'll change the way gay people are perceived, even in communities that are a little bit more homophobic. If a kid like me can watch this film and think, 'I see myself in that guy. Maybe I'm not the only person of color in my town who's gay. Or the only one in my family.' I think that's really exciting."
"I'm at this point in my life where I want to have a deeper purpose than just doing well. I had such a hard time when I was younger with being gay. I knew even though I couldn't even say it out loud. So if I'm in a position to help, I want to. Change takes time. We're moving in the right direction, but we're not there yet."
For now, this 1-month-Angeleno is just ready to see what happens next. "The older that I'm getting, I’m like, I get to decide my perspective, what I do, who I spend my time with. With a job, with a lover, with an apartment, whatever, I think what's meant for me will not pass me by. I want people that are on board." He knocks on the table once more for good luck. "Again, somebody up there is watching out for me. Everybody I've met has been lovely." After an hour spent around Salem's infectious positivity and relaxed confidence, it's easy to see why the world has been so kind to him.
Now he is a cheerleader for anyone else who's ready to take a big swing like he did. "That's one of my superpowers. If you want to take a big leap or make a big decision, call me to justify it. I'll encourage you to make it happen," he says. "We’re all here to have fun and experience joy in our lives," he quotes author Esther Hicks. "That’s the highest vibration. So when you’re having fun and feeling joy, that’s when you’ll feel the most alive.”