Jordan Firstman sits on a couch in a sterile corporate office after a photo shoot, dressed only in a pink beach towel and cowboy boots, and talks about recreational drugs. The juxtaposition is both funny and an apt metaphor for his career path. He spent eight years working in the writers’ rooms of irreverent comedies like Find party, Big mouth And The other TWO before finding internet fame when his Instagram impressions went viral during the pandemic. Now, after two years of engaging with followers, he found himself increasingly interested in more of the same content: “Nobody cared that something (that) wasn’t banana bread,” he says, referring to a clip in which he pretends to be the publicist for the treat – he pivots to something that’s a little more him.
The 32-year-old is now at the beginning of an acting career that is characterized by both a family-friendly role in Ms. Marvel and like the star of a dark comedy, Rotting in the sun, whose main talking point is that the unsimulated sex scenes – and a lengthy nude shot on the beach – feature a whopping 29 penises. “I’m serious and there’s something childlike about me, but I’m also very… lived,” he says. “I want more roles as a guidance counselor, but I also don’t want to stop talking about sex and drugs.”
Rotting in the sun features Firstman and writer-director Sebastián Silva playing dramatized versions of themselves: Silva is living in Mexico City, fighting his way through a creative crisis and self-medicating with ketamine, when Firstman arrives on the scene and irritates his new friend with his optimism and bad art. Their on-screen dynamic is based on their first meeting in real life. “He immediately knew how to fool me,” he says of Silva. “He saw my Instagram videos and said, ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’ And I was. I had an exposure hangover and I thought it would be a cool art project to show my personality through someone who doesn’t like me.”
The film was shot over 30 days, drawing on both the script and a commitment to hyper-realism – a scene where Silva and Firstman have a near-drowning experience where they both had to go into flood-heavy waters without doubling over, and when his character is on drugs, the real Firstman was on those same drugs, he says. The process, which required heavy introspection, left him more confident as an actor, but less confident as a person: “I knew we had something very special, and that I had also been damaged by the making of it.”
The actor now finds himself in a position to promote his first leading role in a historic double strike (he is a member of both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA). Rotting premiered at Sundance in January, was picked up by Mubi and given an interim deal, a process the actor says wasn’t easy — but he can’t imagine not being able to do press. “This is a true indie film, so I feel very comfortable fighting for it,” he says. “Everything about this strike is important, and at the same time you want people to be able to talk about their hard work.”
Tell me more about how you met Sebastian and how your creative collaboration began…
We met in a similar way to what happens in the movie. I was in Mexico City to escape my problems, and I met a guy who had a really weird personality and was so mean to me. He was also quite anti-Semitic. There was a strange tension with very strange sex. I said to him, ‘I think you would like this movie Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus – which is one of Sebastian’s.’ The next morning he goes out to walk his dog and I met him in Plaza Rio de Janeiro, and he’s sitting there flirting with Sebastian Silva. I didn’t even know Sebastian lived in Mexico City. My partner didn’t know it was the director of the movie we had seen the night before. I introduced myself because we had met once before through Alia Shawkat, and we ended up having dinner.
What was Sebastian doing in Mexico City?
He was there trying to work out his idea for this film. He was depressed and put himself in K-holes and he wanted to point out the hypocrisy of the bourgeois class and the artist class. He needed a foil, and then he met me and didn’t like me at all. He immediately knew how to make fun of me and exploit me (for the movie). He wanted to explore the part of me that was ashamed of my Instagram fame.
When we were promoting this film, and when you walked into our Sundance studio together, it seemed like you were good friends…
He learned to love me.
Do you think you could tell this story in such good humor if he had never learned to love you?
No. (Laughs.) And if the movie was bad, I would have been fucking livid while filming it. Like, oh my God, I’m sucking dick and making a fool of myself and going into real K-holes on camera?
Was there a specific moment when you felt your relationship changed or softened?
We shot the beach scenes last and then we stayed on that beach for Christmas and New Year, just doing drugs together and sitting on the beach. So Sebastian and I were completely healed during that time. With this role I got to see a big part of my life. Not that it has changed me at all. (Laughs.) I’m not very good at that.
Had you explored the idea of turning your Instagram fame hangover into art before Sebastian came to you?
I had a show set up at Showtime that was metaphorically about my social media, so I was concerned about two projects that were about similar topics. But then of course years pass in the development process. We got into a really good place (with the Showtime show) and all the executives signed on, it happened, and a few days later the main character was gone. Then Paramount came in, and by the end it was just so messy. I considered calling the head of Paramount and telling him my show was based on a video game just to get him to reconsider. This all happened on April 12, and then the strike started on May 2, so…
You mentioned the way this film challenges the bourgeois class and the artist class, especially in the way they run away to a place like Mexico City, taking up all these resources as they search for themselves or whatever, and I’m personally curious if you think there is a way for privileged Americans to travel somewhere like CDMX responsibly?
Anyway, I don’t think they will stop traveling. Look at white Lotus. Has it ever put people off going to Hawaii?
No, I think it probably brought in more people to go to Hawaii.
Precisely. Or look at Succession, the studios literally behave the exact same way (as Waystar). We make art as a warning, but people don’t see it that way. I think this movie will make gay people want to go to the beach we offer – which Sebastian has purposefully made look like hell. We never learned our lesson not to colonize.
It makes me a little depressed thinking about it. Maybe that’s part of why I was sad when I saw the movie.
The most exciting thing right now, especially with gay films, is people saying, ‘Oh, no more sad gay films.’ We want a happy ending. But I find that so damn boring. Not to mention I don’t know any happy gays. Not one. I don’t think many people are completely happy. There is so much pain. In movies or on TV, the story often seems like it’s external homophobia that hurts the gay characters, but I think it’s more realistic that it’s the internal things that hurt us. And we hurt each other.
What were your early days like when you were trying to break into the business? You were crewed on a show quite young, right?
When I first moved to LA, I think I was 20, I worked as a photo booth operator and went to people’s dinner parties or bar mitzvahs. I was able to quit those survival jobs when I started writing on Search Party at age 23. I was very ambitious and I really wanted that job. I had just gone on an ayahuasca trip and I saw this version of God and he told me that I had to work really, really hard or he wouldn’t give me anything. The next week I had my job interview, so I stayed up for three days to map out an entire season. I went guns blazing. The industry really liked that show, but I think my short films were really the thing to get me every job.
Did the phone ring more often after your Instagram videos blew up?
I had a few acting opportunities, but Sebastian was the first to see me and see that I had more potential. And to this day, I’ve never gotten a role that I put myself on tape for.
The other roles I’ve played were because the person was a fan of mine, so they had a frame of reference.
Does it feel weird to be one of the few people who can promote their movie now?
It feels strangely normal. To be honest, it was not easy to get that (interim) agreement. The way I feel is, this isn’t like… Dune, where everyone will know whether Zendaya posts about it or not. But I do feel sorry for my friends who have films that couldn’t be agreed upon. I’m very close to the Bottoms girls and I know how much of their heart and soul they put into it.
Here I am saying that we did a cover on Ayo Edebiri for her to talk about Bottoms. But I completely understand that feeling when you create something that feels like it’s disappearing into the ether.
Am I only in this issue because the strike is happening? Be honest.
A version of this story first appeared in the September 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.