Established actor, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman is widely known for his roles as iconic queer men in film and television. Mostly known for his role as Jay in the Peabody Award-winning and Emmy-nominated Lifetime/Hulu series Unreal, he has notched up an impressive list of roles throughout his career.
This includes a starring role in the critically acclaimed indie thriller Spiral, which follows a same-sex couple as they move to a small town and discover the sinister agendas of their neighbours. Bowyer-Chapman has also served as a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race and Canada’s Drag Race.
It is undoubtedly impressive for a talent that began his career as an international model before making a switch to acting. This year, Bowyer-Chapman will continue flexing his acting talents on screen in the new Disney+ series Doogie Kamealoha M.D.
A reboot of the 80s’ hit series, Doogie Howser, Bowyer-Chapman portrays Charles Zeller, a Midwest transplant to Hawaii who is a fellow resident at the hospital. In the series, the character serves as a positive Black gay role model for the community. Through Charles, a non-Islander character, viewers will also get an insight to discovering more about Hawaii.
In this exclusive interview, we catch up with Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman to discover more about his approach to acting, his latest role and uncovering Hawaiian culture through the Disney+ series.
Getting ready for this role, did you happen to look up the original series as a reference point?
I had watched Doogie Howser as a kid. It was one of those series that would have households across the continent gathering family members around the television together every week, my family included. After reading the pilot script for Doogie Kamealoha, I went back and revisited the first season of Doogie Howser on Hulu and was so pleased to see all of the Easter eggs and hidden references our team of writers peppered throughout the pilot, very much paying homage to the original.
What would you say is the main differentiating point between this reboot series and the original Doogie Howser?
This is a reimagining of the original series, not necessarily a direct reboot. We’re existing in a world that is self-aware that Doogie Howser was a series in the 90’s and we find humour in spotlighting that awareness. Here we have a 16 year old girl whose intellect is her equivalent of a superpower! Our show is focused on female empowerment, AAPI representation and showcasing the beauty and majesty of the islands of Hawaii and all of the rich history and reverence for the land and ancestors that is so much a part of the culture.
What drew you to this role of Charles?
The opportunity to be a part of a series that is so uplifting, positive, and joyous was something that spoke directly to me, being that at the time we were all still very much in the midst of a global pandemic and had been in our homes for nearly a year. I knew how optimistic and bright I felt after reading the pilot episode, that this project would not only be good for my overall well-being, but we would be bringing that joy into the homes of millions of people who needed it as much as I did.
What was the preparation like to portray this character?
Much different than how I’ve approached previous projects, namely because of the physical restrictions due to Covid. We as a cast only ever met via zoom prior to our first day of filming, so the rehearsal and preparation process was very much an individual experience for all of us. I think discovering who Charles is was a process that took place on set. Our writers are so hilarious and have such an abundance of jokes written specifically for each character, that more often than not while filming any given scene we would be thrown four or five alternate jokes to try after we got the original scripted version to see what would land and really shape the voice of the character. That was so much fun because crafting the character of Charles turned out to be very much a collaborative effort with Kourtney Kang and the other amazing writers.
How vastly different is this role from the others have you played?
Charles is by far the most joyous, optimistic, opinionated, and positive character that I think I’ve ever played. He very much reminds me of a seventeen year old version of myself. Fresh from small-town middle of nowhere, experiencing and exploring the world on his own for the first time with such wide-eyed awe! So many of the characters I’ve played in the past have had really strong moral compasses, but often those projects were set in such dark worlds. There would be a lot of negativity for them to navigate, which was very much the focus of their trajectory. This is hands down the most family friendly project I’ve ever been a part of, so navigating that moral compass to do no harm and fulfil his Hippocratic oath was a much lighter approach to discovering the true values of oneself.
How was it like filming in Hawaii?
Filming on Oahu was a dream come true. For our first two months of production there really wasn’t much tourism, so the island was inhabited by majority locals, majority People of Colour, which was an experience in Hawaii I’d never had before. It was so immediately obvious to me how vastly different the mentality of the locals is in comparison to the majority of mainlander Americans. It very much reminded me of First Nations Indigenous Tribes I grew up around in Canada. The focus on community, family – Ohana, tribe, interconnectedness, oral history, loving respect for nature, all of these things directly contributed to Covid cases remaining so low on the islands because the selfish nature of individualism isn’t prioritized in Hawaii. Looking out for each other lends directly to the well-being of us all. Having a local crew welcome us into their chosen family and guiding us during production was an unforgettable experience that has made me a better person.
Your role as Charles provides a spectrum for audiences to discover Hawaii through his eyes. What was the one thing that truly captivated you about the Hawaiian culture?
Something that fills my whole heart with loving gratitude is the respect and reverence paid to the Transgender community in Hawaiian culture. The native Hawaiian word for Transgender is Mahu. Mahu people are held in such esteem, having access to the energy of both feminine and masculine allows a higher perspective on this human experience that so many of us have never been able to see or consider. Mahu folk are healers, hula teachers, artists, and spiritual practitioners. Some of the most valued and necessary members contributing to the needs and betterment of their society. It was a joy to experience and see how much we can learn when we turn to those whose voices have traditionally be silenced in mainstream culture.
You’re an advocate for the gay community. Do you feel that there are enough roles presently for the community?
I’m here, which I am forever grateful for, but there is always room for improvement, advancement, evolution, and plenty of seats at the table that need to be filled by folks who often built the damn table.
Catch Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman in Doogie Kamealoha M.D., streaming now on Disney+
(Portrait Images of Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman: Hudson Taylor; Photos of Doogie Kamealoha M.D. courtesy of Disney+)