At first glance, Adam Davenport has it all – youth, good looks and a muscled body, a degree from Yale University, and a successful and lauded career in film, stage, and music. His charm is as captivating as his resume, he’s a gay man’s (or woman’s for that matter) dream. Cultured and well-spoken, you would never guess the rough road he’s had to travel.
As an African American born into one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, his parents’ answer to his sexuality was to take him to conversion therapy. Overcoming that ordeal, he entered young adulthood with bigotry from both the African American and LGBT community – he was a minority in his own community, from either side. What did he do with the hand life had dealt him?
He graduated Cum Laude from Yale University’s film program and his short film MIDNIGHT SON, which he made as his thesis project while an undergraduate, became the recipient of the Panavision New Filmmaker Award, a distinction shared by the first films of Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson and Jared Hess. He also became the youngest member in the Playwright/Director’s Unit of the Actor’s Studio, interviewing Academy Award Winner Martin Landau. He graced New York stages at The Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and Theatre Row. He has also been seen on HBO’s High Maintenance and Starz’ Sweetbitter. He co-produced the independent feature film Fulrough, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Anna Paquin.
As if that weren’t enough, last year he became the first African-American artist/producer to chart on Billboard for EDM after his debut single “My Return Address Is You” charted on the dance club chart for 10 weeks, surpassing Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. Most recently he won an IMEA Award for Electronica Artist of the Year for his work on “Change the World”, a remake of the Eric Clapton song.
I sat with him to have a candid chat about being part of both the African American & LGBT community, body positivity, surviving conversion therapy…and celebrity crushes.
To say you have overcome adversity is an understatement to be sure. Where did you draw your strength from/what is your personal mantra for overcoming obstacles?
I drew strength from the stories of my heroes, men and women, who persevered through circumstances much more adverse than my own and rose to true greatness. The difficulty makes you stronger. My time in the gym has taught me that too: you don’t get strong from doing the easy work.
What positive takeaways, if any, do you have from being raised in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country? How has growing up poor shaped your views on the entertainment industry, one of the most extravagant industries out there?
I was born in Harvey, Illinois. When I was a kid, they said it was the auto-theft capital of the country. I grew up in a working-class family: my parents made real sacrifices so that I could go to Catholic school K-12. Growing up without privilege does give you an appreciation for anything that you have. Anything you have usually is earned; it’s never just given to you because you want it. I might have a hard time getting along with indulgent personalities – there are some in the business. Entitlement turns me off. And I think my background has made me comfortable as an adult living in neighborhoods where others would never think to live. For instance, in New York three of my years have been spent in Bensonhurst, and the year before I finally could afford to move to Manhattan. Both hoods weren’t the safest, but simple living in pursuit of an ambition is appealing to me.
When did you first realize you were a part of the LGBT community?
I remember looking at images of shirtless muscular men and being aroused by them. These were the men on the covers of muscle magazines. These were also the male characters who were the fighters in Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. My first crushes might have been Ryu and Ken!
How did you find out you were heading to conversion therapy? What was your first day like?
It was the summer going into my freshman year of high school. My parents told me to get in the car one evening and that I was going to see a doctor. We drove for an hour. I did not like that they were being vague about where I was going or why I needed to see a doctor. I can’t remember the doctor’s name, but I remember that I didn’t want to be there.
What did you learn most about yourself getting through conversion therapy?
I’m resilient– You can’t change me! But the process was traumatizing. Any effort to change you does hijack your sense of self-worth. It’s taken some time to heal from that, a couple of decades to realize that it is okay to be my authentic self.
You have some heavy titles and accomplishments to your name. Do you ever feel the pressure that everything you say, do, or produce has to match your accomplishments – are you able to create just for fun?
I probably would have made more content if I didn’t have this pressure. I could have directed more short films after Midnight Son for instance and should have. It took me some time to remove the need to attach successful collaborators to my projects — part of that was my ego. Now it’s not so important to me at all. I do think producing music has helped override that expectation. After my first record, I did not feature other artists and released projects where I was the only artist involved. I think part of the burden was that previously I did not think that I was enough, so I needed to have an award-winning actor, etc. onboard in other for others to be interested in my work.
Who were your earliest artistic influences?
For film: Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen.
In acting: Geraldine Page, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Isabelle Huppert.
In music: Don Diablo, Calvin Harris, Janet Jackson, Stevie Wonder.
What sparked the change from opera to EDM?
I don’t know that I ever made a formal switch. I’ve always loved all genres of music. I’ve been in three operas in New York, only one of them was a singing role in the chorus, while the other two were non-singing supernumerary characters. I think EDM and poets are pretty complex musical genres. One day, I would like to create an EDM opera!
What made you choose an Eric Clapton song?
I loved the theme of the song. At its core, it’s about the transformational power of love. I felt that it would sit comfortably in my range vocally and that I could at a level of production do something new with an arrangement using elements of Euro-pop and house music.
Where were you and who was the first person you called when you found out that you were the first African American to chart on Billboard EDM?
When I charted on Billboard, I didn’t realize at the time that I had made history. I was walking home from the grocery store in the Lower East Side and called Peter, who was my boyfriend at the time. He made me show him the chart position when I got back to his apartment; he needed to see it with his own eyes!
What was your first reaction to hear that you had been accepted to Yale?
You are part of the African American community and the LGBT community. In today’s social and political climate, there can still be division and bigotry within our own minority groups. What is your message to these communities?
Well, some of the most homophobic things I have heard and experienced were said and done by other African Americans. And some of the most racist things I’ve heard and experienced have come from other gay men. You would think and hope that another human being who has been marginalized ever would have empathy for any other person who is marginalized in some way. But this often doesn’t happen until someone’s perspective is challenged or confronted in some way that makes them finally stop and look at themselves. I don’t know what I could say that would get someone to be more self-aware than to call out the behavior for what it is. When you look the other way or laugh at the joke, you’re enabling it.
Being an outsider in your youth for many different reasons – African American, gay, poor – do you still feel a sense of loneliness in the entertainment community?
There’s a lot of talk about inclusion but it feels like just lip service or PR when it’s not reflected more consistently in the industry’s hiring practices. When you’re shut out from opportunities enough times, you can start to feel that you either don’t belong there or that you don’t deserve a seat at the table. But I know that I do belong there and that I do deserve a seat at the table. If you lack privileges, you have to put yourself there. There isn’t time to be lonely when you have to use your energy to create and build communities and bring people together with your ideas. The loneliness is a natural feeling, but you have to move past it.
Film is also a big part of your career. What should the filmmaking industry be doing most right now?
Those in positions of authority need to practice what they preach and hiring more actors, directors, writers, producers who are women, gay, transgender, people of color, Muslim, etc. We need more points of view reflected in the content than a white heteronormative one. If hiring that person for a position would be a first and the person is qualified, they should go with that person. I can’t tell you how long it took for me to find work in the industry when I moved to Los Angeles after college: I had a Yale degree, but I was also black and gay. It took a while.
You had some pretty big players participate in your film Midnight Son. How did you get your team to sign on to the project?
I wrote everyone cold letters! Tom Stern my DP, Melissa Leo, David Harbour, April Grace — I wrote them all letters about what their work meant to me and why I wanted to collaborate with them specifically on this project. At the time, David Harbour was doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway. Tom Stern was shooting Flags of Our Fathers for Clint Eastwood. Melissa Leo went from my set to shoot Frozen River, which earned her her first Oscar nomination.
What was your first day filming Midnight Son like?
Melissa Leo yelled at me to not touch her prop in the sink. It was the scene where Edward Dagney (Jack Mulcahy) comes home the night before he’s going to meet a boy he’s been talking to on the internet. His wife Rita is washing dishes while he listens to her husband lie to her. We were blocking for the camera and as I demonstrated what I wanted, I picked up a dish in the sink. Melissa barked, “Don’t touch my f****** prop!” I was 21 years old and making my thesis film for the Film Studies program at Yale. Within five years of making this short, Melissa would go on to win an Academy Award. It was great that she decided to come and support me but that was extremely unprofessional and there’s no need to ever behave like that on a set. It’s a mark of insecurity trying to assert control. I was young though and of course too intimidated to assert myself; I just waited for her to finish and continued on. I became close with her and worked with her again: that tolerance of toxic behavior became part of the relationship.
You have been called a character actor in a leading man’s body – do you think diversity and body positivity is truly getting better in the film and the LGBT community?
Yes and no. As far as diversity, you are seeing more representations of it in the characters and stories onscreen. “Pose” on FX is a great example; many of the series regulars are transgender actors — this is history-making casting and storytelling. There was nothing on television like “Pose” even five years ago.
As far as body image, that’s a whole other discussion. Because of typecasting and other biases, an actor’s body image is going to dictate and limit how they are seen in the industry. An overweight actor might not be seen as a leading man or ingenue for a romantic drama. As it relates to me, an actor with a fit muscular body is not going to be taken as seriously in the acting world by some casting offices. I see myself as a character actor: those are the roles I am drawn to. I don’t get those opportunities for film/tv: I can’t even get those auditions. They bring me in for some version of the “sexy or strong guy.” The fit guy in the gym who’s full of himself. The bodyguard. The cop. The hot boyfriend who is a cheater or jerk. These characters never have their own point of view and are always existing on the page in service of someone else’s story. I’ve done these types of parts before, but I can do a lot more than that and the theater has allowed me to stretch myself in that way. To address that limitation, I’m working with different writers and developing my own material right now.
As a busy mover and shaker in the industry, how do you maintain time for friendships and relationships?
Friendships are easier because I am friends with people who are even busier than I am. You understand that you might not see each other for months at a time and that’s okay. In a relationship, there’s an expectation to see someone a couple of times a week. I don’t know that I could do that right now. I do think I could settle down one day. But he couldn’t be codependent at all.
Randomly quoting Catherine O’Hara’s one-liners in Schitt’s Creek: they are useful in all aspects of life!
They brought me in for a replacement in the Broadway show COME FROM AWAY. There were two songs and of course the one I didn’t really know they asked me to sing. I think I made up some of the words and messed up to the point where I started laughing at myself in the room. “That was horrible,” I said. “Oh, you were brilliant,” the casting director lied sweetly.
When I lived in LA, I texted my roommate to call me with an emergency to get me out of a date with this guy with really bad breath and who did not look anything like his decade-old photos. I was in my twenties, so I wasn’t direct enough to just say at the beginning hey this isn’t going to work.
Superhero you’d most like to play!
I would love to be any character in the Marvel universe. I think we’re ready for a gay black superhero. But thinking outside of the box, I do love Link from Legend of Zelda! Especially if it’s an animated film.
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It’s raining today so I felt like wearing a @Burberry coat inside and nothing else. #SatudayStyle in this editorial shot by @andrew_foord for @CrookesMagazine in the UK. Link to interview in bio. 🇬🇧💙 . . . #Editorial #magazine #interview #djproducer #actor #filmmaker #lgbt #actorslife #edm #housemusic #saturday #fashion #burberry #editorialphotography #london #uk