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Bowen Yang and Hot White Heist creator Adam Goldman discuss: What makes the heist genre so queer?

The SNL star shares how heists "tell a queer narrative," and why he finally stopped worrying about his "gay voice"
Bowen Yang (Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews) and Adam Goldman (Photo: Nicolas Maloof)
Bowen Yang (Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews) and Adam Goldman (Photo: Nicolas Maloof)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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There’s a moment in any heist narrative when the goal is stated, loud and clear: break into the vault, bankrupt the casino, plant a false memory three dream-layers deep into the target’s mind. Inevitably, someone will label the mission “impossible,” but there’s always a way; all it takes is a well-laid plan and a team of aces, each with a unique skillset to help pull off the job. The new Audible Original podcast Hot White Heist thrives in that familiar mold, spinning a high-stakes action-comedy yarn across six episodes as a ragtag group comes together to accomplish the impossible. But the fact that the series pulls it off with an entirely LGBTQ+ cast and crew? That’s a queer inception.

Hot White Heist comes from Adam Goldman—best known as the creator/writer/director/star of web series The Outs—and it was inspired by a tweet (an apparent trend in this summer’s entertainment offerings): “My kingdom for a queer heist movie,” Goldman pleaded to the Twitter-sphere. Three years later, the writer’s making his own dream come true with the original scripted comedy podcast, directed by beloved bi icon Alan Cumming, and produced by Goldman, Broadway Video, and Club Cumming Productions for Audible. In telling the story of a heist to snag high-profile sperm samples from a maximum-security vault, Goldman and Cumming assembled a team of their own—a voice cast that doubles as a who’s who of queer celebrities, including Cynthia Nixon, Jane Lynch, Pose’s MJ Rodriguez, Broad City’s Abbi Jacobsen, and American Horror Storys Cheyenne Jackson, not to mention Drag Race royalty Bianca Del Rio, Peppermint, Katya, and more. But Hot White Heist needed the right voice for its lead role—the Danny Ocean to this chosen family of con artists—and for Goldman, there was no one more perfect for the part than Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang, the show’s breakout featured player who pulls off his own version of the impossible, week after week, by bringing a distinctly queer sensibility to the mainstream comedy giant.

With all of Hot White Heist’s episodes dropping simultaneously on Audible on June 17, The A.V. Club sat down with Bowen Yang and Adam Goldman to preview the uniquely gay adventure. In the humorously insightful conversation, the pair ponders the allure of the genre that was previously—more often than not—comprised of straight men, and surmise why heists “ultimately tell a queer narrative.” Yang also reveals why he stopped worrying about “gay voice” in his SNL character work, and the two discuss the empowering feeling of collaborating with a team full of LGBTQ+ voices.

The A.V. Club: Bowen, back in your active Twitter days, you had a great runner about things in the culture that “ultimately tell a queer narrative.” Not to put you on the spot, but why do heists ultimately tell a queer narrative?

Bowen Yang: It’s about community assemblage. All heist movies are about gadgetry, ultimately, which feels very queer. And an ex always rolls in to fuck shit up. And all three of those things are elements of queer narratives!

Adam Goldman: Those feel very queer to me, yeah.

BY: Well, Adam, do you have anything to add? I’m just trying to generalize broadly about the heist genre

AG: No, I think you’re exactly right. And the thing that keeps popping into my head lately is that everything is a heist. You can take any genre and be like, “No, it’s a heist!” A rom-com is just a heist where they’re trying to steal some romantic feelings from each other when they don’t exist at the beginning of the movie. You twist your brain in any old way and you can get there.

AVC: Not to speak for anyone else, but I have always loved heist movies, I’ve always loved the spy genre—James Bond was huge for me, and I always joke that James Bond made me gay—

AG: Which one?

AVC: Specifically Goldeneye, because that was the first one I saw. But I mean, Alan Cumming—coming back full circle to this podcast—[Famke Janssen as] Xenia Onatopp...

AG: [Izabella Scorupco as] Natalya! I don’t want to make any assumptions here, but [we’re] three bespectacled media gays—we all played the video game. It was a way into a lot of aspects of my personality.

BY: It was also a way to ingratiate yourself to straight boys. It was a way of, like, asserting some dominance over them, but also just getting them to respect you. Even though you were a fey little boy, they could at least be like, “Oh, well, if Bowen plays as Xenia, then he’ll kill us all.”

AG: You can play an N64 with a limp wrist! [Laughs.] That’s well-acknowledged.

AVC: But to zoom back out to the spy genre, the heist genre: Adam, how did you end up on the heist milieu as a means to tell this queer comedy story? Why did it feel like a natural fit for you?

AG: I mean, everybody loves [them]—heist stories are cool, spy stories are cool, and I think it’s a fun genre to play with because everybody knows something about it, which you can turn on its head. The project grew out of a tweet that was a joke that was, like, “I would just love to see a queer heist movie. And, no, they’re not stealing sperm.” Then I thought about it for 10 seconds, and I was like, “Oh, no, wait, that kind of works!” So, in this specific case, that was where it came from. But [heists are] just something that everybody—when you think you know where a story is going to go, when you think you know the building blocks, it’s really easy to run those through whatever filter you want. And in this case, it was, “Cool, so what if it’s a queer thing?,” and I just love writing about queer people because I think we’re the most interesting people on the planet.

AVC: So what’s the queer appeal of these genres? Why is James Bond—why is Goldeneye—a specific touch point for all of us?

AG: I mean, I think there are these very basic ideas—like, queer people, closets, keeping secrets—that make a natural fit for spies. You know, there was that Ben Whishaw [project] London Spy a few years ago, which was that taken to its darkest and weirdest and most British conclusion. But I don’t know if there is anything inherently queer about a heist, which is kind of the fun of it, the tension of it.

BY: I think the clandestine element to it is probably the one big queer thing—the fact that you have to sort of fly under the radar, but still think in terms of procurement, in terms of getting what you want; it feels very queer. I think there’s that [bell hooks] quote that’s like, “Not queer as in who I have sex with, but queer as in the way I engage myself relationally to the rest of the world that is hostile to me,” or whatever that is. I mean, I think that’s a heist.

AG: And I think there’s something about, like, everybody on the heist team is good at something. In a way, putting a heist team together is just about people being found, you know?

BY: Oh my god, Adam!

AG: Not to be the Dear Evan Hansen of the heist genre here, but it’s like, “You’re a great drag queen, so you’re a great master of disguise.” We need these people, and they’re going to do something greater than the sum of their parts. And that’s part of what I love about the heist thing: Doing research and watching all these movies, the secret to all these heists is saying something is impossible and then doing it anyway. Literally, every heist movie is just: You explain why something can’t be done and then you do it anyway! So maybe that’s what queer people are doing anyway—we’re just doing the impossible every day.

BY: This bitch! [Laughs.]

AVC: The “assembling the team” montage is my favorite part of any heist movie; it’s so satisfying. And, of course, I’m tickled by the fact that, to put this podcast together, you also had to assemble a team, with Bowen as your lead. Bowen, what immediately stood out to you about this project? What excited you?

BY: Well, Adam was catching me at various points; when he pitched it to me, I was just so addled by work, I was so overwhelmed. But I remember what cut through all of that, my own personal stress, was the fact that it was Adam, and that he is known for work that—I mean this is a show about representation on some level. But then, any time I think about Adam and what he’s done, it’s not that, “it’s a story about queer people” is tertiary, but it’s not the first thing that I think about when I watch [Goldman’s series] The Outs. When I watched The Outs, I was like, “Oh my god, this is just such a great, grounded, lived-in story about people my age living where I happen to live.” But I had this latent processing when I watched Adam’s things that, after the fact, I’m like, “Oh, that was about queer people!”

And I feel like that’s what [Hot White Heist] was, to where I was like, “I’m just so along for the ride.” Even though there are so many semiotically queer things about this where everything is gay, in the general sense. But it’s not until afterwards that I realized, “Oh wait, I was on this project with an all-queer cast,” like, down to the Foley artist, Joanna Fang; and the post team was all queer. Like, I forgot about that! And that is just Adam’s calling card, in a way. It’s just great work, first and foremost—which is not to say that the representation is unimportant—it’s just not the thing that is driving it all the time.

AG: Not to get too heist-y, but it’s just about: What can you get away with? Can you get away with casting 100% queer people in a 100% queer story? Like, “I don’t know, you better get away with it.” That’s how you do it! So the story just was what it was, and the stories that I tell are often about queer people. And it’s not like that’s where they start from, but that’s what interests me. Especially in this story, it just makes fucking sense. It’s baked into the DNA of Hot White Heist, if you will—which, ew—but you know what I mean. [Laughs.]

AVC: So, the real heist was the queer family we found along the way!

BY: Yes! [Laughs.]

AVC: The flip-side of my previous question, then, is for Adam: Why Bowen for the lead of this story?

AG: That’s a ludicrous question. I mean, there’s no—Bowen, just leave for a minute because I’m just going to talk about you in the most flattering way. Bowen’s a genius, I’ve been saying for years that we’re all going to be working for Bowen one day.

I know that, with Audible, part of the pitch of these shows is casting people who people love to hear, casting big stars and that kind of thing. I did not know how we were going to cast this. And even the fact that it was going to end up with a 100-percent queer cast was not a sure thing from the get-go. But writing it, it was always in Bowen’s voice. And I think when I started to write it, I texted Bowen like, “I’m writing this thing. I’m not going to be ready to talk about it for a long time. But, love you!” And then, as it developed, it just felt so comfortable in Bowen’s voice to me, and it just felt like this character made so much sense for Bowen.

Bowen can turn any written line, or any unwritten line, into a moment in an incredibly effective way. And I think that’s really important in this medium where we don’t have the visuals. Bowen has a great voice and a lot of control over that, so that just made a lot of sense to me. And then we were able to build the cast around that, but it was not always certain that we were going to have Bowen—I think there was a lot of scheduling mishegoss, and a lot of conversations going back and forth. I just feel incredibly fortunate that we ended up having you on our little heist team, because it brings the whole thing together. I mean, it’s really Bowen’s story, it’s [his character] Judy’s story. It really all comes down to that person who forms the spine of the whole story and is putting that team together, and I don’t know that anyone could have done it as well as Bowen did it.

There, you can come back now. You can un-mute, Bowen.

AVC: Bowen, on your podcast Las Culturistas you’ve spoken a bit about how there’s a certain math to a performance on SNL, where you’re pitching it to the rafters, in a sense, whereas podcasting is a whole other medium. Is there a different calculation, in your mind, for this type of acting?

BY: Absolutely, and I still went into this thinking that—like I’ve said, the credits don’t transfer from SNL; you are being trained to read off a cue card and scream and be big. And Adam wrote these truly poignant—there’s a better word, but these scenes are suffused in emotion and all these things. I was like, “Am I going to be able to do this?” And then, through Adam and Alan [Cumming] guiding it and shaping it—even just the line-by-line run-through of the scripts—I managed to [get there]. Adam sent me the episodes last week, so I listened to them, and there were some line reads where I was like, “How did I do that?,” and it was Adam and Alan. I feel I was not the person doing the math—that was just Alan and Adam—but I think I learned so much from this!

AG: It’s tricky. When you’re doing what Bowen is doing, what the character is doing, sometimes [they’re] the far-out one to someone else’s straight man, sometimes Judy is the most grounded person in the scene doing the action stuff, and sometimes the material is the straight man. And that’s really hard. There’s a balance to find where it’s like, “Actually everything that’s happening is insane.” You need to have established the world in a way that the audience understands how this is working. So it takes a lot of versatility, and that was part of us all feeling it out together.

AVC: And to have Alan Cumming steering the ship as the director—someone who has experience with voice work and all manner of performance—what did he bring to the project?

AG: I think it’s his sense of humor; we just have very similar sensibilities in that way. He has never directed—I think—a podcast like this, so it was interesting, but he has so much experience that he just really knows. I would say, “I think we got it,” and he’d say, “No, no, no, let’s just do one more like this,” you know?

BY: Do you remember—I think it was the first day, the first scene we did. There were just a million cobwebs that I hadn’t shaken off; Alan was giving me a note, and then I immediately was like, “I’m sorry to do this: You can just give me the line read if you want. That’s just how people do it at SNL.” Alan so politely laughed and was like, “Oh, that’s very nice, but no. I’m actually going to do my job well and not give you the line reading and just guide you to that place,” in a way that was completely organic and professional and great. He cut under my nerves so quickly and then just made me feel immediately taken care of; the trust was there. I had not experienced that before, and that’s just Alan being Alan.

AG: He’s a great producer, and that’s directing, too. I think a producer can mean so many things—like, literally anything—but he’s very good at that, and he’s good at reading a room and getting people on the same page. I really respect and appreciate that about him. Watching him, every day, get on Zoom and figure out the right way to get what we needed from different people—it’s a unique talent.

AVC: Perhaps this is a leap too far in logic, but does it feel revolutionary—at least on an individual level—to be queer and in the podcasting space? We grew up in a time where there was a lot of shame around our voices, thinking we couldn’t sound a certain way. But in podcasting, your voice is all you’ve got.

AG: I think that’s legit, and I think there’s—you know, we were lucky enough to have Tony Kushner do narration in this a little bit, and he wrote his own stuff. Part of the thing that he wrote for himself is like, “By the way, sorry about my voice.”

BY: “I don’t like my voice,” right!

AG: “I sound like Bea Arthur.” Which is such a weird insight into him, because he—

BY: I think he has a great voice, yeah.

AG: So, that even Tony Kushner is like, “I don’t like the way my voice sounds; sorry about my voice,” says something. But no, there is something there about queer voices—about “gay voice”—on podcasts, I think. And you’re talking to someone with an incredibly popular podcast led by two gay men, you know? It just proves that we want to hear that, we want to hear ourselves, we want to hear us.

BY: Well, you want to know something? I think this season on SNL is when I gave up on, like, trying to mask the gay at all. I’m just like, “You know what? There’s no point.” And I might as well set the model for gay voice in a way that’s like: The timbre of the gay voice is not the joke. It might be the vehicle, but that’s not what the content is. I’ve fully turned a corner in terms of thinking about my own voice. I think I have a pretty cool voice, just sonically. Then, listening to the episodes of this, I think it sounds really interesting, in a textured way, when I’m like opposite Bianca [Del Rio,] or I’m opposite Jonathan [Bailey,] or Abbi [Jacobson,] or MJ [Rodriguez,] or whoever. It all is a beautiful little tapestry.

AG: A big part of it for me was building this tapestry of all these people. You know, I just heard the other day that there’s going to be a Hot White Heist billboard in LA, which is very cool. And I’m so excited about it, like, Bowen at a thousand feet tall! Other than that being cool and exciting, the fact that you’re going to look up and see this billboard of all these queer actors, that really means something to me. I just think that’s really fucking cool. And so I think there is an element of putting us in places that maybe you don’t expect to see us, or at least in numbers like this. That is fucking awesome, and I’m really excited that I get to be a part of that.

BY: But the experience itself of an all-queer cast, working on something with an all-queer group—I took for granted the fact that that never happens. Except, Adam, this is something that you and I were used to when we were pounding the pavement with our own projects, like with The Outs. That set some expectation for me to be like, “This is how it normally is!,” to work with all queer people and it’s great and there’s a shorthand and it’s all understood. Now, fast-forward to being on SNL and being like, “Oh shit, I’m kind of in the minority here.” And that’s a tough thing to navigate. But then, to do Hot White Heist, I’m like, “Oh, I remember this feeling!” It kind of sucks that it’s hard-won, or that it’s rare, but this is cool. This thing is cool, and it should portend some [projects] like it in the future.

AG: Yeah, it’s like, whatever it is, if the thing is for you—I mean, I will say, if you don’t listen to and enjoy the podcast, you are a homophobe.

AVC: [Laughs.]

BY: Yes!

AG: But, whether it’s for you or not, it’s producing a specific kind of work. When we get together, we put our heads together, and we’re able to do this, we’re making a thing that is unique, that is cool, and that is not anywhere else. So that’s got worth on its own.