Nathan Stewart Jarrett | Homecoming, Dreams & Drag Queens

In conversation on the actors role in new film 'Femme' and other theatrics

Written by

Sofia Ziman

Photographed by

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Photographed by The Other Richard.

As the relentless rain falls over Manhattan for the fifth straight day, the storm feels like home to London-born actor Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Unlike the bulk of New Yorkers, who are treading through the downpour in a frenzy, he remains unfazed. “When I first moved to LA there would be days like this, when it was raining. I would get giddy because I was so excited.” Now, after five years of residing in New York—interspersed with months away on film sets—he remains unfazed. “I’m not ruled by the weather. I grew up where it was constantly bad, cold, and damp, so I just don’t pay attention to it anymore.”

Returning to his hometown to star in Femme, the seasoned actor embodies a youthful essence both on and off screen. The breakout feature by Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, premiered at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival and garnered outstanding critical praise. For his harrowing portrayal of Jules, Stewart-Jarrett received The Cheval Noir Award for Outstanding Performance from the Fantasia Film Festival. Dressed in drag as the fierce “Aphrodite Banks,” Jules becomes the target of a horrific homophobic attack in the film. The narrative explores his compelling journey toward seeking revenge on one of his attackers (played by George MacKay) after a fateful encounter with him at a gay sauna. 

Over Zoom we both sit by the windows of our New York apartments, hoping to catch a sliver of light and chatting over our morning coffees. Stewart-Jarrett takes his coffee black, which further emphasizes his old school charm and the unique pace in which he lives his life. He explains that he is 18 months to 2 years late to most trends and crazes. He jokes that he was almost late to our call; he had spent the preceding hour shamelessly indulging in The Supermodels on Apple TV. 

Stewart-Jarrett is getting ready to take the night flight from JFK to ZRH, where Femme is nominated for Best International Feature Film at the Zurich Film Festival. Calm, collected and professional, the only thing he is nervous about is not being able to eat cheese. “You don’t know how to say ‘no cheese’ in German, do you?”

I couldn’t think of a better place for this film to have premiered than in Berlin. How did it feel to attend the festival and be rewarded for your passionate performance?

It felt like… like a dream! I’m sure you have and have had those things when you were younger. Like, “this is where I want to go when I’m older” or “that is the festival I want to go to”. So I had been to other festivals, but when I was at drama school I always thought that Berlin was the coolest festival. It was the cool one, it was the really indie one, it was the one that I always would have loved to go to. So to go to this specific festival for the first time was amazing. And I had seen the film obviously, but it hadn't premiered yet. So it is always that bizarre reaction, you don’t know which way it is going to go. It went so far towards the positive that it was actually a bit overwhelming. I didn’t watch it, but when I came back in the audience was all standing and applauding. Then Aaron Heffernan who plays Oz came up to me and was crying. And I was like “Woah. You have to stop crying… because I am going to start crying…” and this doesn’t seem like a good time for me to cry. I could tell it meant so much for him to be in it, to be with us all together in that moment, in a position where everyone is embracing the film. So then I did start crying.

I went up on stage and it was overwhelming to see people standing and clapping for this film, which was a small film we made in London. A very daring film too, with first time directors. Then I was streaming tears, all because of Aaron Heffernan. I’m telling you, it was because of him. It was so nice and felt so warm. 

When we were getting on stage I said to George Mackay. I was crying and I told him “I didn’t know what to do, I can’t wipe my tears on my shirt… It's silk!” He was like “use my back! Use my back.”  So literally there’s a video somewhere of me rubbing my face on his back before the Q&A. It was just so on brand for this film, really young and guerrilla. I loved it. 

How was the Q&A? Was it strange to have the film discussed right in front of you?

It was so nice that people were impacted by it. It wasn’t a split audience by any means, but there was still a lot of discussion. It wasn’t all like “woah we love you!” It was still a very thoughtful discussion. Especially being in Berlin, it was a room full of intellectuals, coming in with questions… and then more questions. But it was just a dream. I loved it. And then we had a rave. 

Of course! What else would you do to celebrate in Berlin? 

Yes, as one would in Berlin. We had to line up for our own after-party, and I was like “this is Berlin.”

I would have loved to witness that. Especially the discussion, as this film blurs morals in a unique way. The concept of right and wrong gets a little murky, which is particularly challenging for such loaded subjects. 

Yes. There is a level of ambiguity and I think that is very powerful. I think it's very powerful in art anyway, but it's incredibly powerful in this story. You don't know not only who to side with, but you sympathize with both parties– one of which hates sympathizing. Yet, the one who does like sympathizing does some pretty shitty things. So the viewer has that sort of moment of, “What's happening here?” I think it is really important to have that. It’s not this clear line of good and bad or black and white, because life isn’t like that. Jules’s feelings became complex and complicated and subject to change. So reading the script, and processing it all I realized that it wasn’t all clear. I loved that. 

Although this was a breakout feature for many cast and crew members involved, that obviously wasn’t the case for you. How did that play into the experience? 

No, it wasn’t but I am treating it like that. Everyone loves that story, of a first big role, although it is not my first time at all. I would say it’s a departure. Jules as a character has his agency taken away from him, then he regains that. Recently, I hadn’t played a lot of characters that had a sense of agency like that. So that is why I am making it seem like my first time. It is also kind of like a homecoming– a London film, I’m from London. I’d worked in London recently, but not in that way. So that is probably why I am giving off that air. A lot of it was filmed on the streets of London, which I was walking when I was a kid. I've been in New York for five years and I was in LA for a couple years before that. So like, it's, I'm so far removed, in a sense. It's not how I grew up per se, but I was back on the streets that I'm so familiar with.

How did you manage the pressure knowing that the film's success would heavily depend on your performance? Did nerves–if you had any–help shape Jules as a character?

I was nervous, well, I am always nervous at the beginning. I was coming off of another project, that was very long. So I was nervous, but also pretty exhausted. That actually really helped because you kind of can't be that scared when you're tired. 

That is so real. I’ve noticed that too recently. Sometimes you are actually too tired to overthink things, which is kind of a blessing in a setting like that. 

You know what a friend of mine said once? I was so exhausted and had to go to this dinner and was stressing out about not having enough energy. He was like, “Don’t worry about it. Be polite obviously, but just be a little tired. Everyone will think you're really shy and charming.” At first I was a bit confused by what he meant, but he was right. It was really nice. So, I didn’t really have that kind of fixation on my performance, like it was all dependent on me. Not to sound pretentious, but I just had to tell the story and be in the story instead of worrying whether I was being “good” or not. It wasn’t really about that, which was very releasing. I hope I can continue to do that, because it wasn’t about me “ruining” the story, or about me at all, you know? Just tell, just be. 

You’re known for many action-packed roles, but how does your mastermind of a criminal, Joe, in Culprits differ from some of the other characters you’ve played? Do you find any differences having to channel the mind and manners your character? 

Joe is far far more action packed than I’ve ever done. Before I was the one running from the killers - now I’m the killer! I think the fundamental difference is that you have to feel capable. That was the thing. I had to embody someone who really knew what the hell he was doing, even as it all went to shit. 

Unwanted resurfacing of the past is a major theme within this eight-part series. Were there any specific episodes or scenes that were the most challenging or memorable to film? 

Oh some scenes were heartbreaking. There was actually a scene that was cut, with Joe and his ex Colin. They sat on a bed and talked about how hard it had been for Colin because Joe had just disappeared and you really got a sense of the emotional wreckage Joe can sometimes leave. It was hard and very real. I suppose we’re all that for someone in our lives. It was a tough scene...that no one will ever see–ha!

Femme as a feature was adapted from an original short film. Did you study that earlier portrayal of Jules in preparation for the role?

If I’m being honest, I only watched it before I met the directors. I thought it was amazing. Well, I actually watched it twice before meeting them. Then I never watched it again.

In what ways did your own background, personal characteristics influence your portrayal of Jules? What are some similarities and differences between him and yourself?

All of that said about being tired and kind of throwing myself into it, I know it would have been very different had I taken this role 10 years earlier. I have a feeling that I would have found certain aspects of the role easier, like when I was like 21 or 20. I feel now that I am not very similar to Jules. Perhaps I have been previously more similar to him, but not now. With every character one plays, you bring your own stuff but I do think Jules is still, very different. I grew up in South London. Growing up where I did, there's certain things you're aware of to do and not do. For instance, don’t go upstairs on the bus at night or after school. The best case scenario was that you’d get mugged and then just leave it at that. I think I recognize things like that when Jules walks down the street, inside I’m like “What the fuck are you doing? You know not to do this” So I kind of had to unlearn that thinking, because there are certain things you simply do not do. So those are some similarities and differences, like the code stuff. There were things I bought, and then had to lose so that Jules could make those mistakes. I had to convince myself that Jules knows the rules, but breaks them. Then there’s some internal stuff that I will likely never share. That kind of anchored links to my own experiences. 

Before we wrap up, I want to talk about Aphrodite. 

(Hysterical laughter) What do you want to know about her?

Well, seeing you up on stage at the start of the movie, you are a natural. How did you begin to tackle this role? Did you have any experience performing in drag beforehand? 

I played a drag queen–who, looking back now, I know that she's not a drag queen, she's trans. So, I played a drag queen– as she was called then–in a play called Wig Out at the Royal Court in London. So that would have been like technically my only experience doing it. I also played an ex drag queen in Angels in America, but you never saw that character in drag. The details were more so a storyline I made up for myself. 

I called upon a lot of the older stuff preparing for Wig Out, I used Naomi Campbell. The first scene [of Femme], I wanted it to be like Pretty Woman. She met this guy on the subway and I was like, that’s what I want. Actually, is it still a pretty woman reference? The skirt that Jules/Aphrodite wears is slit at the sides, the same as Vivian's in Pretty Woman. And there is obviously the Naomi Campbell element as well.

Obviously a prerequisite is RuPaul’s Drag Race–I’d seen a bit of it for Angel’s. But I thought it better to go to the source. Yes, drag queens can be inspirational but the whole point is that one finds their own voice. So I thought, we need to look to the divas, we need to go to Grace Jones, etc. Then I started looking at a bodybuilder called Lisa Lyon, who actually just died recently. And I was really big and had to lose weight. I thought, “Let's try and play into some of that.” I don't fully think I did it or made the cut. There was an element of trying– especially in the second performance– to merge the masculine and feminine. I just tried to have fun. When Jules becomes Aphrodite, that’s his most confident so therefore full and fun. Which is actually what the tragedy of the film is. But there was a freedom that came with that. 

Were there any pre-shoot rituals you used to get into character?  

I had this epic playlist. During my two and a half hours of makeup, I would just put on this playlist and it just kind of got me in the zone. I think I've said it before, but like, when you have nails and eyelashes and lips and hair and heels, you're not moving like normal. You cannot move like that. I couldn't bend down too much, because my hair would just flip in my face.

As you know, people will say, “oh, she's asked me to do this, like a drag queen” like if you ask someone to get something for you, do this or that blah blah. I get it now because I couldn’t do shit. The hair is everywhere. And like, you can't tap away on the nails. It's all about practicality. There were times where I was like, “can you pass me that please? Can you do that?” It's an operation to get this one body–who is in six inch heels– over there. 

Wow, seems like quite an operation indeed, when you aren’t used to the whole getup. 

I practiced a little bit before, but there were still some faults and near misses. There was one on camera performance where I basically tripped and had to cross my legs to stop myself from falling off the stage. It was pretty close. Jules didn’t actually spend that much time during the movie in drag, but the moments he was Aphrodite were so powerful. I was also aware that this is probably something I'm not going to do again. So during this performance, I was loving every second of it. 

If I were to throw you the mic right now, and ask for an Aphrodite inspired performance, what would you be singing?

There’s too much though. There’s too much. So there's “Bust Your Windows” by Jazmine Sullivan, “Golden Eye” and “Private Dancer” by Tina Turner too, those are three kind of old songs. Then um… “Vampire” by Olivia Rodrigo and anything by Alanis Morisset.

That playlist I had was epic, I should send it to you. It was a crazy mixture because there was that kind of grrrr stuff but then a Fantasia song that was very gentle. There’s a lot. What's that thing that Goldie Hawn says in First Wives Club? She's like “I do have feelings! I’m an actress! I have all of them!” Basically, that was the remit of that playlist. 

Please, I’ve never needed a playlist more. 

Oh my god! I didn’t even talk about Whitney. There's a lot. “I Have Nothing,” and then there’s just natural karaoke songs. I loved singing them. But obviously I can’t sing like her, so it was particularly painful for everyone. 

Oh! Wait! I’ve got it. You know what it is? “Tomorrow Never Dies” Sheryl Crow. That’s the song. That is the song. 

There we go! After the whole debrief –which I'm glad we did because now I have a lot of inspiration– that is the song. 

Well, there was an idea. We hadn’t discussed what Aphrodite's opening performance was going to be, so I was coming up with my own inspiration. What I really wanted to do was “Tomorrow Never Dies,” like in pajamas with a teddy bear and a bottle of vodka. Obviously that wasn’t in the budget because it was a Bond song. That would have been such a good performance because she's jilted and she's really messy. In dirty makeup and hasn’t showered for three days. Holding onto the teddy bear like, “Tomorrow Never Dies, fuck you” basically. That would have been the dream performance. Maybe I will do drag again.

I think that you have to. I would love to see that. 

Well there is my idea, if we see that anywhere out in the world now, then you’re welcome. You can have it. 

I’ll be in the front row. 

You should do it too! We can actually make that a duet. 

I mean… We are both in New York…It’s a plan!

It’s a plan. We’ll do a trial run at a Karaoke bar in the city and then just take it from there. 

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Sofia Ziman, Nathan Stewart Jarrett, People, Femme,