From YouTube to ‘Jane the Virgin,’ Brian Jordan Alvarez Is Conquering Hollywood on His Own Terms

Brian Jordan Alvarez’s name already points to his bicultural identity. Born in Manhattan to a Colombian mother, he lived much of his life in rural Tennessee (Winchester, to be exact) before heading to Los Angeles to pursue — what else? — his dreams of stardom. While you may recognize him from his brief stint on Jane the Virgin where he played Wesley, the conniving grad student all too happy to write about the “curse of the Solanos,” he’s best known now as the mind behind and star of The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb GalloThe sunny and painfully funny LA-set web series was the success Alvarez had long been aiming for. In his own words, “it’s a fast-paced fringe-meets-mainstream comedy about a group of friends desperate for love and thrills.”

The five-episode series (currently available on YouTube) is a show about relationships. It’s a kind of vague description, he admits, but one that truly speaks to what he was hoping to get at when he wrote it. That’s because the relationships at the heart of Caleb Gallo defy easy categorizations. Caleb is in love with his straight friend Billy (Jonathan Ebeling), but also harbors feelings for this guy Benicio (Antonio Marziale) who’s out of town. His best friend Karen (Stephanie Koenig) is also into Billy, while their friend Len (short for Lenjamin, played by Ken Kirby) is into Karen while also very open to going bi. As he says in the show’s first episode, “You know, I was looking at Forbes magazine and it said, ‘People that are bisexual are more likely to succeed in business,’ and I think I want to be in that 73%.” He opts to ease into it, though, aiming to hook up with genderfluid guys first. That short interaction sums up the deadpan humor that runs through Alvarez’s show, and its particularly refreshing attitude about sex and labels.

Thinking out loud about the way critics have noted that Caleb Gallo depicts a kind of utopia where people’s different sexualities and gender identities are seamlessly integrated into the show, Alvarez was quick to point out that this merely reflects his own experience living in Los Angeles. “It’s pretty easy to be queer in the city. Your friends are just queer and usually you’re just trying to have sex with someone. The show can look like a gay utopia maybe because I kind of live in a gay utopia.” He doesn’t miss a beat before correcting himself: “A queer utopia.” The distinction is an important one. While “gay” would limit ideas about identity, “queer” is a much more fluid term, one which really encapsulates the unruly desires of the characters in his web series and, by extension, the people that populate his life in L.A.

“It’s pretty easy to be queer in the city… The show can look like a gay utopia maybe because I kind of live in a gay utopia.”

That’s not to say the show speaks only to those who live in similarly inclusive enclaves. Freckle (played by Jason Greene), who’s all too eager to play the role “genderfluid courtesan” to Len, is, as Alvarez notes, one of the most subversive characters on the show. Yet beyond the long hair, the dresses, and the lipstick, what’s most engaging about Greene’s performance are the many one-liners that Freckle gets in any given scene (“I’m always prepared, unless of course prepared means sober, which in that case I’m rarely prepared,”) and the crazy situations that Alvarez puts them all in (it doesn’t get much better than Freckle lip-syncing to Selena while officiating a same-sex wedding.) Indeed, seeing more conservative friends and family members enjoying the show may be one of things that most tickles Alvarez, and shows him he’s making the type of show that could, despite how corny it may sound, reach across cultural and political lines.

“I grew up in a state where people use the word faggot regularly. And I think growing up around that makes you want to make a show that will move them toward not calling people faggots anymore – by just being a great show.” Not that living in Tennessee was all that bad. Or, rather, not as bad as one would think. While he grew up with his fair share of gay bullying, his experience at his high school, Saint Andrew’s Sewanee (“this super progressive school plopped in the middle of Tennessee,”) was anything but torturous. With two supportive parents and a liberal-minded environment at school, his coming out was pretty uneventful. “I had the sneaking suspicion (and I was right) that being gay made me cooler at that school because the thought patterns at that school were so advanced.”

Eager to pursue his artistic ambitions, he eventually spent his senior year at the North Carolina School of the Arts Drama Program before landing at USC. He’d have no doubt continued on a path to success had drugs and later alcohol not gotten in the way (he almost didn’t graduate.) As he tells it, it was his ambition of wanting to do bigger and better things which finally pushed him to get clean and sober. “Something in me just knew that alcohol wasn’t going to stop me from doing those things, but it was just going to make it so messy and so much less efficient.”

In true Los Angeles fashion, he began to meditate and to focus on what he wanted to accomplish, going to auditions, getting a manager, going to more auditions, getting a better manager. It might all have been moving slower than he’d have liked, but there was a joy in knowing he was paving his own way. The idea to write and shoot a sitcom of his own came when he failed to get a slot on Saturday Night Live. He’d been making video sketches on YouTube (including the hilarious “What actually happens when gay guys see other gay guys and straight people aren’t around” which went viral for obvious reasons,) and that type of long form storytelling seemed to be the next logical step. The original idea was Boy Toys, which he’d worked on with his friend Brad Wergley; but after shooting and releasing the first episode, Alvarez realized it wasn’t going to work. It didn’t really capture, he said, his voice.

And so he sat down to write The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo even as he was booking more prominent roles on TV. He was working on Jane at the time, which is why he made his character a grad student, just like Wesley. But what made Caleb Gallo really come together, he said, was finding his director of photography Matthew Lynn, whom he knew from Tennessee and who he credits for the series’ beautiful, cinematic style. Despite the series being a product of his own idiosyncratic sense of humor (he compares it to Arrested Development,) the show feels immensely collaborative. In addition to Lynn, the cast is mostly composed of close friends who bring their own sensibilities to the show. In fact, the storyline regarding Benicio (Caleb’s foreign guy friend whom he’s in love with and who’s going to be forced out of the country if he doesn’t settle his visa problem,) mirrored the very situation that the actor playing him was going through. And in a gay and wondrous way, the show’s success ended up helping Marziale’s visa application, solidifying his ability to stay in the country.

The passion project, which first used iPhones as mics (look closely in that first episode and you’ll see all the actors holding one in their shirt pockets,) has clearly paid off. Not only did it earn a Gotham Award nomination last year, but it’s been receiving rave reviews all over the country where it’s been shown in various film festivals, including New York staples like Newfest and Tribeca. When explaining his drug abuse ahead of his college graduation, Alvarez confessed that he was scared not knowing if he was going to be as successful as he knew he wanted to be. He needn’t have worried. After signing with Lionsgate to create long-form programming, this up and coming queer storyteller is clearly just getting started.