Jordan Firstman is sitting on a couch in a sterile corporate office after a photo shoot, wearing just a pink beach towel and cowboy boots, talking about recreational drugs. The juxtaposition is both funny and an apt metaphor for his career path. He spent eight years working in the writers rooms of irreverent comedies like Search Party, Big Mouth and The Other Two before falling into internet fame when his Instagram impressions went viral during the pandemic. Now, after two years of catering to followers he felt were increasingly interested in more of the same content — “No one gave a fuck about anything [that] wasn’t banana bread,” he says in reference to a clip where he pretends to be the publicist for the treat — he’s pivoting to something a little more him.
The 32-year-old is now in the early throes of an acting career that is marked by both a family-friendly role on Ms. Marvel and as the star of a dark comedy, Rotting in the Sun, whose chief talking point is that its unsimulated sex scenes — and one long nude beach shot — feature a staggering 29 penises. “I’m earnest and there’s a childlike quality to me, but I’m also very … lived in,” he says. “I want more roles as, like, a guidance counselor, but I also don’t want to stop talking about sex and drugs.”
Rotting in the Sun features Firstman and writer-director Sebastián Silva playing dramatized versions of themselves: Silva is living in Mexico City, fighting his way through a creative crisis and self-medicating with ketamine, when Firstman arrives on the scene, irking his new friend with his optimism and bad art. Their onscreen dynamic is based on their real-life first meeting. “He immediately knew how to make fun of me,” he says of Silva. “He saw my Instagram videos and was like, ‘Aren’t you embarrassed?’ And I was. I had an exposure hangover, and I thought it would be a cool art project to have a view of my personality from someone who doesn’t like me.”
The film shot for 30 days, relying on both its script and a commitment to hyper-realism — a scene in which Silva and Firstman have a near-drowning experience called for both to go into riptide-heavy waters sans doubles, and whenever his character is on drugs, the real Firstman was on those same drugs, he says. The process, which called for heavy introspection, made him more confident as an actor but less confident as a person: “I knew we had something really special, and that I was also damaged from making it.”
The actor is now in the position of promoting his first starring role during a historic double strike (he is a member of both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA). Rotting premiered at Sundance in January, was picked up by Mubi and received an interim agreement, a process that the actor says was not easy — but he can’t fathom not being able to do press. “This is a genuine indie film, so I feel very comfortable fighting for it,” he says. “Everything about this strike is important, and at the same time you want people to be able to talk about their hard work.”
Tell me more about how you met Sebastian, and how you creative collaboration started…
We met in a similar way to what happens in the movie. I was in Mexico City escaping my problems, and I met this guy who had a really weird personality and was so mean to me. He was kind of antisemitic, too. There was this weird tension with very weird sex. I told him, “I think you would like this movie Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus — which is one of Sebastian’s.” The next morning he goes to walk his dog and I met him at the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, and he’s sitting there flirting with Sebastian Silva. I didn’t even know Sebastian lived in Mexico City. My hookup didn’t know it was the director of the movie we watched the night before. I introduced myself because we had met once before via Alia Shawkat, and we wound up having dinner.
What was Sebastian doing in Mexico City?
He was there trying to figure out his idea for this movie. He was depressed and putting himself into K-holes and he wanted to point out the hypocrisies of the bourgeois class and the artist class. He needed a foil, and then he met me and didn’t like me at all. He knew immediately how to make fun of me and exploit me [for the movie]. He wanted to explore the part of me that was embarrassed by my Instagram fame.
In the promotion of this movie, and when you came into our Sundance studio together, it seems like you’re good friends …
He learned to love me.
Do you think you would be able to tell this story with such a good mood if he had never learned to love you?
No. (Laughs.) And if the movie was bad, I would have been fucking livid while filming. Like, oh my God I’m sucking dick and making fun of myself and going into real K-holes on camera?
Was there a specific moment in which you felt your relationship change or soften?
We shot the beach scenes last and then we stayed at that beach for Christmas and New Year, we were just doing drugs together and sitting on the beach. So Sebastian and I fully healed during that time. With this role, I got to look at so much of my life. Not that I’ve changed at all as a result. (Laughs.) I’m not great at that.
Had you explored the idea of turning your Instagram fame hangover into art before Sebastian came to you?
I had a show set up at Showtime that dealt with my social media in a metaphorical way, so I was worried about having two projects that were dealing with similar subjects. But then, of course, years go by in the development process. We got to a really good place [with the Showtime show] and all the execs had signed off, it was happening, and then a few days later the head person was gone. Then Paramount came in, and by the end it was just so messy. I considered calling the head of Paramount and saying my show was based on a video game just to make him consider it. This all happened April 12, and then the strike started May 2 so …
You mentioned the way that this movie kind of skewers the bourgeois class and the artist class, especially in the ways that they run off to a place like Mexico City, taking up all these resources while they search for themselves or whatever, and I’m personally curious whether you think there’s any way for Americans of privilege to travel someplace like CDMX in a responsible way?
I mean, either way, I don’t think they’ll stop traveling. Look at White Lotus. Did it ever stop people from going to Hawaii?
No, I think it probably made more people go to Hawaii.
Exactly. Or look at Succession, the studios are acting literally the exact same way [as Waystar]. We make art to be a warning, and then people don’t perceive it that way. I think this movie will make gay guys want to go to the beach we feature — that Sebastian purposefully made look like hell. We have never learned our lesson not to colonize.
It makes me sort of depressed to think about. Maybe that’s part of why I was sad watching the movie.
The buzzy thing right now, especially with gay movies, is people saying oh no more sad gay movies. We want a happy ending. But I think that’s so fucking boring. Not to mention I don’t know any happy gay people. Not one. I don’t think many people are fully happy. There’s so much pain. Often in movies or TV, the story makes it seem like it’s outside homophobia that hurts the gay characters, but I think the more realistic thing is that it’s the internal stuff that hurts us. And we hurt each other.
What did your early days trying to break into the business look like? You were staffed on a show pretty young, right?
When I first moved to L.A., I think I was 20, I worked as a photo booth operator going to people’s dinner parties or bar mitzvahs. I was able to stop working those survival-y type jobs when I started writing on Search Party when I was 23. I was very ambitious and I really wanted that job. I had just done an ayahuasca trip and I saw this version of God and he told me I needed to work really, really hard or he wasn’t going to give me anything. The next week I had my interview, so I stayed up for three days mapping out an entire season. I went in guns blazing. The industry really liked that show, but I think my short films were really the thing to get me every job.
Did the phone start ringing more once your Instagram videos blew up?
I got a few acting opportunities, but Sebastian was the first person to see me and see that there was more potential there. And to this day I’ve never once gotten a role that I’ve put myself on tape for.
The other roles I’ve done were because the person was a fan of mine, so they had a frame of reference.
Does it feel weird to be one of the only people who can promote their movie right now?
It feels oddly normal. To be honest, getting that [interim agreement] wasn’t easy. The way I feel is, this isn’t, like, Dune, where everyone is going to know about it whether Zendaya posts about it or not. But I do feel for my friends who have movies that weren’t able to get an agreement. I’m really close to the Bottoms girls and I know how much of their hearts and souls they put into that.
This is where I plug that we did a cover on Ayo Edebiri where she was able to talk about Bottoms. But I totally understand that feeling of making something that feels like it disappears into the ether.
Am I only in this issue because the strike is happening? Be honest.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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