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Jelani Alladin: A Fellow Traveler On the Rise

Jelani Alladin as Marcus in FELLOW TRAVELERS, "You're Wonderful.” Photo Credit: Ben Mark Holzberg/SHOWTIME.



When Jelani Alladin read the description of his character in the Showtime/Paramount+ series Fellow Travelers, the romantic leading man of the stage musicals Frozen and Hercules knew it was a role like no other he has played.

The six-part series centers on the clandestine romance between Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer), a savvy State Department staffer and Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey), a recent college graduate. The series follows their complex relationship—and highly charged sexual dynamic—from the “Lavender Scare” in 1950s, to the gay rights movement of the ’70s, to the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s.

Aladdin plays Fuller’s journalist friend Marcus Gaines whose own attraction to men and ideas of gender roles become challenged when he falls for Frankie,  a drag queen played by Noah J. Ricketts—who just happened to be Alladin’s understudy (and pal) when they were both in Frozen on Broadway.

I first interviewed Alladin six years ago when he was about to star on Broadway—and the first time Disney had romantic leads of different races in roles that weren’t race-specific in a Broadway, opening-night cast.

“I want to share something with you I hadn’t really talked about in the press,” Aladdin, now 31, tells in our interview. “When I decided to make the move from stage to screen, I had a fear of playing a queer character on TV—and not because I was ashamed of who I am, but because the lack of depth and the sophistication of the characters that I was being offered, where ‘gay’ was the only character trait.”

However, when Alladin read the detailed description of his character, he saw a complex role: a young Black man confronting racism in his profession on a daily basis, and also one with a sense of humor, who has a cynical view of relationships, and who views himself not as a homosexual but rather a man who likes to sleep with men. All of that, plus a man who is not afraid to be affectionate with the man he is dating. “Now when I read that, I went, ‘Yes, yes, sign me up. Those are qualities that I can play.’”

Alladin says the role also shone a light on the difficulties of being a proud, out, Black, queer person. “That is not something that is often normalized. The stakes are so much higher [for Black men], and sometimes we want to ignore that and simply say, ‘It’s 2024. Just be yourself.’ But no, that is a privilege of being white where every door is open. There are so many hurdles that [Black queer men] have to overcome before they can even be open to love who they want to love. So, I was really honored to be the vessel for this story.”


Intimate sex scenes

When asked about how Alladin approached the plentiful and revealing sex scenes in Fellow Travelers, he said the scenes were not just rooted in sweaty naked bodies.

“When we approached the sex scenes, it was never about just the carnal but the spiritual desire. Sex for Marcus and Frankie began with poetry and the exchange of ideas; then it led to the physical, but it all comes from a spiritual place. Like, ‘How do I connect to this person that is new to me?’ It’s the journey of discovery.

“Lindsay Somers, our intimacy coordinator, was awesome in that before every scene that hinted with intimacy, we had a clear conversation about what we are learning from this moment, what are we trying to reveal or hide, like, ‘Can I touch you here? There?’ It all felt natural because Noah and I are such great friends, so there was a trust with our bodies which made it easy because we didn’t have to get into the nitty gritty. It was so comfortable to look into his eyes and to know that it is somebody I trust and who has supported me and who has been there for me. That carried the tether of our relationship through the series.”

Alladin was especially drawn to his character’s expansive sexual journey.

Sure, Marcus is a man who sees himself as ‘just a man who likes to fuck other men’—and honestly there’s nothing wrong with that. But the problem was that he was not able to make space for more than that. Sure, you can have whatever preferences you have, but are you able to look at the larger rainbow of all possibilities rather than one small sliver? I was so proud to show a character who was going through that evolution.”

Aladdin says one of his favorite scenes was at the dinner table when Marcus’ father asks about his love life as his son grows increasingly uncomfortable.

“When that scene was first presented to me, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that is an extremely relatable moment of what it feels like for someone going through that moment. I feel there are so many men who watch that scene and see themselves in it with their parents.”

Another revealing scene is when Frankie and Marcus are leaving the nightclub and are taunted with expletives by homophobes.

“Marcus’ toxic masculinity is on display when he says to Frankie, ‘Are you mad because they called you the F-word?’ and Frankie says to him, ‘They called you one, too.’ When I read that I thought, yes let’s go there. Let’s talk about hierarchy we have in the queer community where ‘my gay is better than your gay because I’m more masculine.’ Let’s pull that out of Marcus and be honest and truthful about it; let him reckon with that and show how damaging that inner segregation we have can be.”


Masculine masks

For Alladin, playing hyper-masculine men is familiar turf and one that has helped give him insights into the character of Marcus.

“When I think about my roles as Kristoff (in Frozen) and Hercules (in the stage musical) and Will Campbell  (in the series The Walking Dead: World Beyond), these are men who have a kind of armor. The way they present themselves physically and vocally, whatever it is, there’s this armor that exists around them. But inside is this beautiful, warm, luscious heart in each of the characters. I’ve been really lucky to be able to play such versatile humans in that they can be the strongest man on earth, but they can also have the most human heart and who is able to connect to other persons around them and share empathy. Their armor is their form of drag. I think about that all the time.”

And what was his drag growing up?

“It was simply to be a fellow student,” he says of his experience of being a Black high school student wanting to fit into a white environment.

Alladin, who is of Guyanan and West Indian heritage, grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn singing in church and youth groups. “I come from a family of strivers and education was the answer my family saw as the way up and out, and I took that very seriously.”

Through the scholarship program A Better Chance, he was placed in New Canaan High school and lived with a Connecticut host family. It was through the school’s theater program that he discovered his love of acting, which he pursued at New York University.

After graduating from college in 2014, he started his acting career, mostly at regional productions. One role that was close to home was the lead in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play Choir Boy, which centers on a exceptional gay student who is the star of the prep school’s boys choir. In the part, he saw the character’s need for “code switching,” something in which he was familiar.

During the New Canaan years, “my vernacular changed because of who I was associated with every day. I had to be clear and talk a certain way,” he says. But Alladin was already well aware of social and cultural dynamics and how to navigate through them because his aunt insisted he take “charm” lessons in church when he was a boy.

“My aunt saw that as a tool,” he says. “I’m so lucky that my family and my community had the wisdom to teach me those things to get me through the world with a sense of ease even before I knew I needed [these tools.] They knew how hard it could be for me.”

Besides acting, Alladin is developing a television script loosely based on his high school experience in Connecticut. In the meantime, he’s been promoting Fellow Travelers and working the red carpet at awards shows and galas, looking stylish and effortlessly sexy.

“Mickey Freeman is my stylist, and he’s morphed me into this fashionista,” says Alladin, laughing. “I did have style, but it was more ‘classic man’ and Mickey is more of a ‘contemporary outside-the-box’ stylist so we meet somewhere in the middle. Through our collaboration I’m at a place where I feel so elegant, regal, and confident.”

And his own man.