Jonathan Van Ness
Jonathan Van Ness in Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness.
Jonathan Van Ness in Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness.
The non-binary breakout star of Netflix's Queer Eye — and the comfort food-loving gymnast on those Uber Eats commercials — Jonathan Van Ness just gets curiouser and curiouser. Which is perfect for his new six-part docu-series, Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness, debuting January 28 on Netflix.
Based on his podcast of the same name, the show follows Van Ness as he interviews experts across a wide variety of fields. Joined along the way by such guest stars as Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch and Orange Is the New Black's Lea DeLaria, Van Ness unearths exotic bugs and teases out the secrets of hair's place in society, to name just two of his many adventures.
"My guiding rule for both the podcast and the TV show is that I have to be genuinely curious about what I'm learning," Van Ness says about his booking criteria. Emmy contributor Frank DeCaro spoke to the multi-hyphenate (executive producer, reality star, author, podcaster and hairstylist) about his insatiable curiosity.
So Getting Curious began as a podcast. How did that start?
It was 2015. I had been doing [the Funny or Die web series] Gay of Thrones, which gave me my first taste of executive producing and acting and writing and I just absolutely loved it.
I didn't finish college, but I always loved being a student and I felt like there were just so many things that I wanted to learn about. So I thought, 'Let me start a podcast where I interview experts, and just learn every week.' For the first, like, 40 episodes, I was booking all the guests myself. I slid into Lizzo's DMs and was like, "Can I interview you?" It was really a labor of love. I just wanted to be able to explore my curiosity without anyone telling me what I couldn't be curious about.
How did it make the leap to television?
I'd been doing the podcast for five or six years. I approached Netflix and said, "I have this idea to turn my podcast into a TV show. We're going to interview lots of people, and we're going to do comedy." But my guiding rule for both the podcast and the TV show is that I have to be genuinely curious about what I'm learning about.
Your producers are World of Wonder, the folks behind RuPaul's Drag Race. What has working with them been like?
There's never a dull moment. Everyone at World of Wonder puts everything into what they're creating. I feel like they really supported me and my curiosity and they've really helped me keep the show on vision. This is my first executive producing experience on such a major streaming platform and it is just incredible having them be there through this process.
Have you always been, as you say in one episode, an "ever-present student of life"?
I have always been insatiably curious about subjects that I'm interested in. I grew up in a family that owned newspapers, TV and radio stations. I grew up around reporters, so I've always loved current events. Growing up in a newspaper environment made me want to understand the world around me better.
Do you think kids will like this show? Except for a few naughty words, it seems made for family viewing.
That was an intention we had going in. We wanted everyone to sit down and find it truly interesting and engaging and quick-paced and fun. We wanted it to reach a lot of ages.
There's a childlike wonder to everything you do, such good humor and an unexpected slyness as well, and, of course, a tremendous fashion sense. Who were your influences as a performer?
So many people throughout my life. Margaret Cho always comes to mind. Her comedy and her pacing. She was one of my earliest obsessions. My obsession with figure skating and gymnastics informs my timing. There are so many different people that I feel like I am shaped by and some of them are very much outside of the world of comedy and entertainment. But I always try to be my own person.
Well, you've succeeded with that. You really are your own couture creation. Speaking of couture, what was it like walking into an Entenmann's baked goods factory in a maxi skirt and a cropped sweater? I worry when a non-binary person shows up somewhere that could prove inhospitable to such expression.
Honestly, I felt extremely safe. And I was so focused on the donuts. I left that factory with, like, 10 boxes of freshly packed Entenmann's donuts. Maybe they aren't amazing from the store, but fresh, they're on some other fucking level, excuse my French.
What was it like visiting that skyscraper construction site?
I was fine on the ground. I didn't think I was going to be scared when I got up there, but I was really scared. There were no walls; the floor wasn't laid yet. I was like, 'I can't believe we're allowed up here. I think I'm going to throw up on TV.' I couldn't stay up there as long as I wanted to.
You are a self-described "non-binary glamourpuss." That obviously informs your work on Queer Eye. How does your gender identity affect what you do on Getting Curious?
That's really a very serious question because for so long, people who are trans-femme or non-binary or femme-presenting or queer were very often told that we aren't allowed to be scientists. You're not allowed to be curious about science or math or architecture — things that are more traditionally male-dominated fields. But I want young people — especially queer young people — to know that you're allowed to learn about any field that you want. You don't have to sacrifice your joy, or who you are, or dim yourself down to fit someone else's box of what you're supposed to look like.
One episode asks if we can finally say goodbye to the gender binary. Why was it important to you to tackle that question in the first season?
For me as a non-binary person, the trans misogyny, toxic masculinity and gender-based violence affects my life and my friends' lives. I wanted to explore how things got like this. For decades — all the formative years of my life — I didn't have the words to put to the feelings of what I was experiencing. I wanted to explore all of these things with everyone who has access to Netflix, because I'm not unique as a non-binary person. You know, millions of people are experiencing that. So I thought that was a really important piece for us to hit.
Jonathan, you're building bridges one maxi skirt at a time!
That should have been the tagline for the show.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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