Netflix binge-watchers have gotten to know Charlie Barnett quite well this year.
Tales of the City just debuted, marking Barnett's third show on the streaming service. He also surprised fans of Russian Doll when he appeared as a second time looper with Natasha Lyonne, and he'll appear in the upcoming season of You.
Popdust spoke with Barnett by phone before the premiere of Tales of the City. The drama explores the lives of characters in San Francisco, including Ben (Barnett) and his partner Michael (Murray Bartlett). Netflix also just announced that Russian Doll will return for a second season, news that Barnett was waiting for at the time of our talk. Stream all three series on Netflix now.
What has this year been like for you with You, Russian Doll, and now Tales of the City all coming out?
Charlie Barnett: I mean, it's incredible first and foremost. I'm incredibly thankful and honored and feel like I'm getting an opportunity to play different and diverse characters, which is a dream for any actor. I've seen the community support me now, and I'm excited to see where it all goes and start maybe creating my own stuff. It seems like it's a new world out there of celebration of the artist. So I'm really happy to see a lot of people's arts surging.
What kind of community support?
CB: So many communities. My own intimate family and my friends. My loved ones from Juilliard, from classmates to teachers and professors. Then it expands on even to the world of theater in New York and the world of film and television in Los Angeles. Going into casting rooms, it's a different kind of presence when I think people know your work a little more and trust you a little bit. It's kind of funny to see how different the energy is. I'm just honored to be feeling it and hope that I can do service.
Are fans recognizing you now?
CB: It's funny, I've always had a weird balance with that. I was on Chicago Fire for four years, and that was a very big show. We were in Chicago, so within Chicago, we were recognized all the time. It was really fun, but I noticed even there [for] a lot of people, it takes people a couple seconds. I think I look very different, or maybe it's just because my energy is so different from the -characters I play, but people don't really recognize me. Or if they do, it takes a couple double-takes. and then I've usually walked on by. Every now and then I get somebody and I'm really awkward. I stutter and I stumble over my words, but I really like to have conversations one-on-one with people more than group panels or any of that junk. When a fan stops me and we get to talk, I feel like most of the time I'm the one talking their ear off and they just want to get away. So I still enjoy it.
Who is Ben, your character on Tales of the City?
CB: I hate to kind of diminish him to something as just an extension of his love, but he's a solid partner. I think the audience is really going to take notice of him and him traversing through this relationship with Michael. So I reflected on him so much as this strong partner and how he finds his identity and allows his own voice to be a part of this relationship and how he also comes to balance with what Michael's world is and what he is entering into, which is so encapsulating and amazing. Ben has hard points with it and a lot of acceptance to it, as well.
Was Ben a character from the book?
CB: Ben is a character from the book, and funnily enough, Ben is loosely based off of Armistead's partner. His partner's white and I'm black, so that was a big running joke, because we're both lovers and sweethearts. But he is a really, genuinely incredible person as well, so it was great to have him on set and to kind of reflect on. We created a friendship out of it, which was really nice.
What challenges are coming for Ben and Michael?
CB: It's hard to sum up as relationship angst, but it is. There's a lot of partnership battles. I think, funnily enough for Ben, I don't believe that the age is a really big issue, but it is for Michael. So that's another major figuring out point for the two of them. The history that Michael has been through with his struggle with HIV and AIDS—the community and going through the loss of more than half of his community. It's such a big reflection point for a couple of episodes. So it's a lot of young meets old, two lovers trying to figure it out, and I think a new person finding his footing or his space within this beautiful and incredible family, which is the home of Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis).
Ben and Michael are exploring the possibility of having unprotected sex. Is that an issue lots of couples with one HIV positive partner deal with?
CB: Oh, absolutely. Straight, gay, both. There's always ramifications to taking that kind of step with your partner. Specifically with Michael; he's positive, and it's got to be a conversation that both people come to and find a place that they're both comfortable and feel safe and able to explore, because sex can be incredible. It shouldn't ever have to be limited. I don't want to give anything away, because it is definitely a plot point. It's more of a challenge, I will say; this comes back to the generation gap. A younger LGBTQ community has come up in a new wave of PrEP. There's a variety of different kinds, but it's definitely created a different kind of conversation with HIV/AIDS for a younger generation. Hopefully not to be forgotten is the struggle that came before, but for someone like Michael who saw it and lived it, there's definitely a fear and a guilt I think.
How different was San Francisco to Chicago?
CB: Every city is so different. I love them both. I hate the expense of San Francisco. I can put that down in writing, but San Francisco is such a rich, incredible city. They're both cities that have American history. They're integral to the creation of our country. It's so hard to say which one I would like better, but San Francisco has more maybe freedom, because it isn't under snow for half the year. Chicago, I feel like, is a little more industrial, and they encounter that in their arts in a lovely kind of way. San Francisco is much more light and freeing, but there's a dark, twisted history as well that feeds into the people's work there. I'm an art fanatic: visual arts, music, anything and everything in all forms. When I think of people and I think of the city, I always try to relate it back to the work that comes out of it. I think it's a really good reflecting point.
You don't need to choose, but how did filming in San Francisco inform Tales of the City?
CB: Oh gosh, I hate to admit this, but I think we're allowed to: We filmed a majority of Tales of the City in New York, in Yonkers, New York and the Bronx, because mainly for Olympia. She can't travel that far that much back and forth, and her whole home, her base, and her life is in New York. We wanted to honor that. But, we did shoot for about two weeks in San Francisco, and it was a frigging blast. It's a hard city to shoot in. The expense of it is really a lot different from shooting in Chicago. We were filming in the lake in February, and half of our stunt crew almost lost their fingers because of frostbite. They're very, very different, but both have exciting challenges.
For Russian Doll, would you shoot every scene in a single location at once?
CB: Oh yeah. It was all block shot, which is what that's called. It's really difficult because you'll be shooting for one, eight, four, six, and three. We would maybe not have the full script for episodes six and eight. You've got to do these scenes where I'm breaking up with Beatrice all day, because we're in the apartment where I break up with Beatrice and let's just film it out because it's a lot cheaper. To the credit of the producers, Leslye [Headland], Amy [Poehler] and Natasha [Lyonne] and everybody else that was behind it figuring out the logistics, 1,000 hats off to them, because they did it and they did it really well. It was difficult, don't get me wrong, but if we hadn't done it that way, I don't think it would've been successful.
Where do you see Nadia and Alan after they break free of that loop?
CB: I have no clue. Everybody keeps asking me that. I don't know what they're going to do. I have no clue, just like my character in the show who is just going along for this ride with this woman. I'll help keep her in balance as much as I possibly can, but we're on this ride. I've talked to Natasha, had a great time at her birthday, and we just had a really lovely kind of come-to-Jesus about the work and how happy we both are. This is so personal for both of us. To see it flourish and, more than anything, people from all walks of life understand it and relate to it, and it trigger thoughts of what are male feelings of depression and how do I handle myself? Am I communicating enough to maybe get help from my friends and my family and my loved ones? That is a million dollars in the bucket. We had a little come-to-Jesus, and I asked her where she thought it was all going to go. I don't think she knows. She just finished Orange [Is The New Black], and I know that her and Leslye are going to get into writing, but they both are coming off of a lot of other stuff. I think they need time to really do it and do it right, and I want to give them that space. I think I'd wait another year if they needed it.
But you will be involved in a second season?
CB: I hope so. I don't know. I was only signed on for a year contract. I wasn't even a series regular, actually. Initially, we had talked about it going into a whole different world. We had talked about other characters. They talked about us going and doing a whole different thing. There was also mention of just a new story, so I have no clue where they're at at this moment. That was all early, early in the beginning. I'm excited to see it just as much as everybody else.
Did you film a movie this year too?
CB: Yeah, I have no clue when it's coming out, but it's a movie with Drew Barrymore. It's called The Stand-In. I'm really excited about it. It's a comedy and I have a little, itty bitty part in it, but I had a lot of fun working on it.