By Benjamin Lindsay
Though it’s set to the backdrop of a backwoods murder and a pedophilic killer on the loose, Eyewitness has rooted one of its most compelling storylines in actor Tyler Young’s character Philip Shea, the Queens native and gay teen who witnesses a triple homicide while hooking up with his secret boyfriend, Lukas Waldenbeck (James Paxton). Watching him navigate his relationship with the closeted Lukas in their tiny upstate town has been as emotionally gratifying as watching his foster mother, Sheriff Helen Torrance (Julianne Nicholson), lose herself to the murder mystery.
This week was one of Philip’s most poignant arcs yet. With his lies piling up as quickly as the bodies (he and Lukas have refused to tell anyone they witnessed the murders in the cabin), Philip opens up to Helen and his foster dad, Gabe, when he tells them he’s gay. USA spoke with Young about bringing this character to life, the preparation that went into getting the nuance of his identity right, and how he found inspiration from his real-life gay brother.
Below, Young reveals seven behind-the-scenes secrets from Eyewitness 104, “Crème Brulée.”
1. Philip came out to show Lukas that it gets better.
“This is also Philip’s coming to terms with his sexuality. A lot of people have interpreted that Philip is already out of the closet, he’s waving the Pride flag around and this and that; but really, I think Philip’s backstory is that, being from New York City in Queens, he’s sort of dabbled in the gay scene and the gay community of the city as much as a 17-year-old kid can.
“But I think he never really had that moment where he felt the need to officially come out. I think he kind of knew who he was at a certain point and knew what he was interested in, and it just was. It wasn’t a whole big deal for him because for a lot of kids in progressive cities, it’s not an issue, and it hasn’t been an issue in his life. But going to this small town and seeing Lukas, for example, who’s just in entire denial of who he is, it makes him think, ‘Wait, I guess this isn’t OK necessarily to just be who you are. It affects how people think of you.‘
“Lukas can’t tell his dad because he’s afraid he’ll stop caring about him or if he tells these Motocross sponsors, they’ll stop supporting him and that’s an awakening moment for Philip to realize that there’s a lot of places in the country and this world – and for that matter, even in the state of New York -- where being LGBTQ is not necessarily just an accepted thing.
“So I think he sort of reevaluates his own identity and how he wants to be perceived by others and that’s the moment when he realizes, partly, that he has to come out to Helen and Gabe because he’s the one telling Lukas to come out and that it’s not a big deal. It’s not going to get better if you just let this simmer; it’s only going to get worse. So, to lead by example, he says, ‘You know what? I’m going to come out to my mom, and I’m going to come out to Helen and Gabe because that’s one secret that I don’t need to keep anymore, and if I get that off my chest, then maybe everything else will get better, too.’ It was a necessary step to show Lukas that things can be okay.”
2. It’s important to showcase different LGBTQ experiences.
“I think it’s important because it’s a reality. I think many kids might relate to parts of Philip’s story, or you might relate to parts of Lukas’s story. Not only kids, but a lot of older LGBT people have been writing in and saying, ‘I was a Philip,’ or, ‘I was a Lukas.’ I think that’s so interesting because we’re showing such different ends of the spectrum. On the same show and in the same place, you can see how different things can go for people and how people can actually make their own coming out experiences more difficult for themselves or easier for themselves just based on how they handle it.”
3. Issues facing the LGBTQ community have been on Young’s radar long before Eyewitness.
“I have so many friends who are part of the LGBTQ community who have been through the coming out process and I’ve just gotten to witness firsthand people’s experiences with it and I’ve heard so many of my friends’ stories. And I’m always shocked at how different everyone’s story is. Not only that, but my brother is gay, and he had his own coming out experience that I got to witness very closely. So all the research that I did, I had organically acquired it through having friends within the community and just talking to them as friends about their processes. There’s a little bit of a lot of people I know in Philip, which I think makes him feel real.”
4. There’s also parts of himself in Philip.
“Philip has had to deal with so much and he’s taken on so many people’s problems as his own. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders -- having to deal with his mom and having to deal with Lukas. I tend to be the kind of person who empathizes with people and their situations. Their stories really affect me deeply and I like to get involved. I feel a sense of responsibility to help people, and sometimes, that over-involvement can be a problem because you take on too much and then things kind of get out of control because it starts affecting your life. I think a lot of people have felt that before, where you are spreading yourself thin by taking on other people’s issues and you stop really focusing on your own issues or your own self-development.”
5. But it’s really his differences with Philip that attracted Young to the role.
“That’s what acting is -- you get to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and explore what that’s like. It was a really incredible experience to take on something that was so different from my own life experiences. A lot of it was backstory because you don’t necessarily get to see in the show all the things Philip has been through, but I wanted it to feel for an audience like this kid’s been through a lot. This kid hasn’t had it easy. So I had to figure out what that all meant and how I could play those things even though they’re not necessarily there in the script.”
6. Young loves interacting with fans -- and he ’ships for #Philkas.
“One my most memorable experiences with fans was trying to figure out what the official ’ship name for Philip and Lukas was gonna be. There was a lot of back and forth about, like, if it was going to be Philus, or Lukip, and then it hit me: Philkas. It kind of marries the two names perfectly. Everyone has such a strong opinion about this ’ship name. I think that’s a testament to how much of a connection people feel to these characters and their relationship. So I’m happy. I’m ecstatic that the fans are interacting and they’re really taking on this show and they’re embracing these two boys and what they’re going through with each other.
“Every encounter I get is memorable for me. People are so creative on the Internet. I’m shocked at some of the things people have made. Somebody made a Photoshopped image of this jar of Shea butter and they put Philip’s face on it because his last name is Shea. “Philip Shea Butter.” They were like, ‘USA marketing team, get on this!’ It’s hysterical.”
7. Don’t’ miss Young in his next LGBTQ project, ABC’s When We Rise miniseries.
“There’s a new miniseries coming out about the LGBTQ movement in the 1970s in San Francisco called When We Rise, and I got to be a part of an episode of that. I think that is really a history lesson for a lot of people, and I think when that comes out it’s going to be incredible for people to see the history of that movement in San Francisco and how, really, that’s so responsible for the Philips of the world. He gets to live in this world where it doesn’t really make a difference if you’re LGBTQIA+, A-B-C-D-E-F-G -- it’s just a bunch of people existing in this city and everyone is embraced.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.