Faking It premiered on MTV last night and you, like us, are probably breathing a sigh of relief. Buried beneath its infuriating logline—basically, a couple of best friends (played by Katie Stevens and Rita Volk) pretend to be lesbian for the sake of popularity—is a show with real depth and raw emotion. It's a show that not only understands what it's like to be a teenager confused about his or her sexuality, but also just how much it sucks to be a teenager, period.
But that shouldn't have a come as a surprise, considering its showrunner Carter Covington knows exactly what that's like. An openly gay man from North Carolina, Covington grew up like most LGBT youth—constantly in search of something that validated what he was feeling. Years later, he'd channel that desire into this series, where he's hoping to offer that same validation to kids who are as lost as he was.
Complex got the chance to speak with Covington about his intentions for Faking It, how his personal experiences as a gay teen informs his show, and how he's prepared to deal with the conservative backlash.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
How'd you get involved with the show?
MTV brought me the basic concept of two girls pretending to be lesbians in order to be popular and it was titled Faking It. They didn’t have anything more than that. They wanted to see if anyone had a take on it that could really make it special. In the wrong hands, it could've been really offensive but I felt like there was a show there and there were a couple things that were going on. One is that I work at the Trevor Project, so I have a lot of exposure to what a lot of LGBT youth are going through in the country. Attitude towards the community hasn't changed across the nation, but in the places it has, people are kind of celebrated for being gay because it shows they can be themselves. So, I thought it could be really fun to set the show in a high school that's incredibly inclusive and accepting. I thought I would really love to show that to America and that would also be a good reason why these two girls would pretend to be lesbian.
Being openly gay and being in school, I was always falling in love with my best friends but I could never tell them. So I was like, “You know, this is a great place for me to share that and I think this is a universal thing that you have feelings for someone that you are scared to share.” And so I pitched it to MTV and they got really excited.
I think a lot of people were initially offended by the premise because they didn’t think the show would have more of a heart to it.
Yeah, I recognize that and I understand that. If I had read about this show not knowing anything, I would probably feel the same way. As a gay person, I think we all have a little bit of our guard up because we've been through it and we know that so often we're not accepted for who we are. But I think those people will become big fans of the show. We're trying to put out a vision of a high school that could be the future and also present this journey of Amy trying to figure out who she is in a way that people haven't seen on TV before.
Yeah, it's cool to see Amy's journey front and center.
It is! Every time I've been on set and I watch the episodes, I pinch myself because I can't believe I'm getting to put this on the air. It's really exciting that I get to explore these issues and that MTV isn't like, “Okay just put her story over there in the corner and let's talk about the boys and the girls."
And the model for the show's progressive high school, Hester High, have you encountered one like that in real life?
There've been liberal schools in Los Angeles that I've heard are sort of like this, but I definitely invented it in my own mind. MTV has been great. We have this whole social element to the show where people can go online and access resources to make their high school more like Hester High. We are partnering with The Trevor Project so that people who come to MTV.com and say, "My high school isn’t like that one and I wish it were and I am being bullied…” can loop in with Trevor’s resources and get some help. We're really hoping that Hester High provides an example of what high schools could be like for both straight and gay teens, and that the show also provides a gateway for help.
What I was really into is that Amy’s feelings are unspoken, but her face just gives away what she's going through. I feel like that right there encapsulates high school.
Yeah, I'm really proud of the actors. Rita Volk who plays Amy has a gift for being able to play two things and being able to show what's going on inside of her while covering. I know if I went back and watched me in high school, I would have all these moments where my face was always giving away what I feel. It's been fun to watch her on set because she really gets the different levels of the character and what she's feeling. She's a very special actress.
What did you watch growing up? What influenced you?
The shows that had the biggest influence on me were Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which made me want to be a television writer, and Friends, which was the first show that I felt so connected to. I was also a huge My So-Called Life fan and I was so sad when it didn’t come back. I thought that it was so true about high school and felt really visceral and real to me. Plus, Jordan Catalano was the biggest heartthrob. [Laughs.]
Those three shows really influenced me as a writer. I think a lot about why I tapped into them and what made them so hard to let go of. There are so many things to watch on television and online; there are so many things competing for attention. Nowadays, there's only so much that you can plan and a lot of what gets people coming back to your show is chemistry.
Do you remember any LGBT storylines that influenced you as a kid?
Oh yeah, I remember Matt on Melrose Place. When he kissed his boyfriend who was in the military, I was like, “Oh my!” He was never given much of a personality or a storyline, though. When they had that kiss, it was like finally we get something! But I was always aware and I always knew, even before I came out, when there was an episode on television that featured homosexuality or a gay character. I remember that it wasn’t always presented in a positive way. A lot of the coming out scenes were great, though, because they showed how hard and painful it was.
One thing we tried to do in this show was to remove some of that angst and make it a little less about how painful it is to come out and more about the fear of missing out on things and losing people. To me it was less "I am going to get kicked out," because my parents were very accepting, and more "How is this going to change things?"
You talked about your parents being accepting, but how accepting was everyone else around you?
My dad was a law professor and my mother was a social worker so we had a very progressive home, but I grew up in North Carolina. That wasn't very progressive and accepting and I didn’t come out of the closet until I was 24. So even though I knew my parents weren’t going to kick me out, I still was so scared to come out in the environment that I was in. I didn’t know anyone who had done it, so it wasn’t even on my radar as something that I could do.
I'm really proud of the country in the sense that that has changed. At least people know that coming out is something that is celebrated in some way. I think that every time another celebrity comes out, it shows gay and lesbian youth that it is okay to come out, too. The more we can be our true selves the better.
Growing up, I would read about straight actors playing gay characters and it would diminish the idea of what they were saying a little bit. There's something about knowing the person is openly gay when he's playing gay that resonates more with me as a gay viewer because that actor gets it.
You're right. It does make it easier for people struggling to come out.
The thing I'm most excited about is for the country to get to know Michael Willett, who plays Shane. I felt like it was important to hire an actor who was openly gay versus a straight actor pretending to be gay. I really wanted to make that clear to young people watching the show. Hopefully we're getting past the point where actors feel like they have to stay in the closet in order to have careers because Michael is so fantastic in the role and is excited to be a role model for the LGBT youth, so I'm excited for him.
I'm so glad you brought that up because, while some actors are great at their portrayal, it makes a difference when an actor is gay and playing a gay character.
Yeah, it really does make a difference. Growing up, I would read about straight actors playing gay characters and it would diminish the idea of what they were saying a little bit. There's something about knowing the person is openly gay when he's playing gay that resonates more with me as a gay viewer because that actor gets it.
How are you preparing to address the backlash from the more conservative viewers, if at all?
Well I think we're really lucky to be on MTV because I think MTV has been such a pioneer in showing gay characters on TV, from Pedro on The Real World ages ago to all of the different LGBT people that have been on their various reality shows throughout the years. The network is so behind the show that I'm not concerned about it. And I think those groups will probably write it off as, “Oh there's MTV doing another salacious shocking show.”
What will be interesting is if they start to watch the show and see that we're presenting gay characters as normal people. That's more threatening to them because they see us normalizing and that riles them up. To me, it's humanizing, not normalizing. It's just showing that we're all human. Actually, I hope I do get a little backlash because that means I'm doing my job well.
It just generates more conversation about the show.
Right, and those groups get louder as they get smaller and they are loud because they are desperate to hold on to the way the world used to be and the world is not like that anymore. At least, not America.