Nico Tortorella Fills The 'Space Between' Old Understandings Of Gender, Sexuality, And Love
Actor and queer activist Nico Tortorella is ready to help the world get the ever-evolving nuances of their nonbinary and polyamorous life.By Rachel Smalter HallNov 15, 2019 8:53 AM
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RSH: Hi, I'm Audible editor Rachel Smalter Hall, and I'm here with Nico Tortorella, the actor, artist, author, and seeker who you might know from their hit series Younger, their films Scream IV, or any number of other projects. Their new memoir, Space Between, is out now and it's a gorgeous exploration of gender identities, sexuality, love, spirituality, and many other things. Nico, welcome to Audible.
NT: Hi. Thanks for having me.
RSH: Nico, one of my favorite stories from the early moments of your memoir is the story of how you got your name. For those who haven't listened to your memoir yet can you just tell that story?
NT: Yes, absolutely. My full name is Niccolo Luigi Tortorella. It's a very Irish name, obviously.
NT: Just kidding. Nico is not a family name at all. About a week before I was born, my mom was watching a movie [called] Above the Law, with Steven Seagal. It's about this Sicilian detective in Chicago. And while watching the movie, it just hit her. That was it. His name was Nico in the movie and she found the baby name, just like that. I like to joke that I was named after Steven Seagal. I would like to think that I was named after Nico from The Velvet Underground. Mom wasn't that cool. Mom was more of a disco girl than a hippie chick.
RSH: You know what, your mom sounds amazing. And I need to tell you that my firstborn son -- he's four years old -- he's also named Nico.
NT: Oh really?!
RSH: Yes. And when his dad and I were talking about names, true story, Nico was kind of at the top of the list along with another name. And I went to my longtime friend and hairstylist. She was doing my hair and I said, "What do you think of the name Nico?" And she goes, "Ugh, that sounds hot." I was like, all right. That's the name. So it's a great name.
In your memoir you write that you weren't born in the wrong body, you were born in the wrong world. So I think that might need a little context here for listeners who are just joining us in this conversation, but can you tell me a little more about what you mean by that?
NT: For sure. It's no secret that I have these conversations around sexuality and gender identity and specifically trans issues right now. And you know, anything trans is at the top of the zeitgeist right now. It's having a huge pop and you know, as somebody who identifies as nonbinary but also presents as predominantly masculine on a regular basis, it was important for me to touch on what it means to be in this body that I live in. And it's expression.
So many trans stories, rightfully so, are about, being born into the wrong body and what that feels like. That was never my experience. I was always very comfortable in my body. I've had some body image disorders just like everyone else, especially other actors. But I never felt like when I look in the mirror that it wasn't who I was.
And as I'm telling this non-binary story -- this trans story, right? Because non-binary is absolutely underneath the trans umbrella. We're all constantly transforming. It was important to point that out from the get-go. And the second part of that sentence, born to the wrong world. I was raised in such a way to not see all of the injustice that exists everywhere in this world. I'm from an upper middle class, very white, conservative, Republican area of Chicago.
And this little bubble trains you to not see anything outside of it. And it was only once I moved out of it, move to the coasts -- New York and Los Angeles -- and I started meeting all these incredible queer people and people of color, right? People from different backgrounds. Was I able to really step outside of myself and look at the world for what it was, you know? And I think that as the gender and the trans conversation progresses, it'll be interesting to see how the language of it all changes, right? We hear so many stories about being born to the wrong body and I just wanted to give my two cents.
RSH: I think it's really amazing how it could be tempting to force your story into that narrative, but I think it's really amazing how you are really looking at the truth of it and offering up a new narrative that I think will resonate with a lot of people. I think that's really freeing.
NT: I hope so.
RSH: I hope so too. I think it will be. I want to talk a little bit more about what you just said about language. I want to talk about your gorgeous wife, husband, person, twin flame, Bethany. And I love how you introduce Bethany in the story. You say, "When Bethany and I met, I was a boy and she was a girl, whatever that really means today. Bethany and I both identify as non-binary and prefer they/them pronouns." And you say that's exactly how you'll refer to them throughout the book as a way to normalize this simple language and help people feel honored, represented, and comfortable. Do you feel called in some bigger way to use your platform to normalize identities and language?
These conversations are taboo, but they don't have to be.
NT: Oh my God, absolutely. Yes! I would say that's the core of my own personal work right now, outside of being an actor. Specifically the pronouns of it all. For me, it's still a work-in-progress. It's such an interesting conversation because we have been programmed to only use one or the other. And I'm still going through it. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it means for me to be using they/them pronouns and how it fits into the world, especially when I'm having conversations with my family and my friends at work. It's really difficult, especially in the media. People will still write articles about me being like, "You know, Nico Tortorella prefers they/them pronouns. He made that decision in 2016."
NT: It's comical and I sense that younger generations are very anarchist when it comes to pronoun usage. It's like you either get my pronouns right or you are oppressing me, right? It's all or nothing and there needs to be some "give" in this conversation. We have been programmed so hard to only see this or that. Only say it. And as long as the intention is right, I don't have an issue with being called "he." I don't have an issue with being called "she."
I feel like if you call me, "they/them," ... if you use the correct pronouns, you get it. If you call me a "she/girl", you understand you're on my team. We're on the same page. And you know, I still slip up. I'm not perfect. I use the term code-switching a lot. Especially if I'm talking to Bethany's mom, for example, or even my mom. They will still refer to us as "he" and "she," and sometimes it's easier to just throw out a "he" or "she" in that conversation. So I don't have to waste time re-explaining it over and over again.
RSH: That's got to get onerous sometimes, to have to have this big [discussion] every time you just want to talk to your mom for five minutes.
NT: I don't know how many times I have to explain to my mom that it's not plural. It doesn't have to be plural. I don't need to have that conversation again. And she gets it right sometimes.
RSH: That's a hard shift.
NT: Totally. But that's also part of my privilege, right? The ability to see all sides of its usage and resonate with all pronouns really. I understand that. And not everyone has that option, especially when it comes to expressions.
RSH: Do you ever feel the desire to change from one pronoun to another? I don't know. This is just occurring to me now, but you're such...
NT: A flipper.
RSH: Yes, talk to me about that. Does the code-switching include switching what gender you want to present as?
NT: Yes, absolutely. I think that that's also the privilege of being an actor. Right now I'm playing a character named Felix on the new Walking Dead spinoff. I've been shooting in Virginia for the last couple of months. We're shooting through December. And Felix is very masculine. He's a dude, you know, and I have been adopting those characteristics hardcore. I'm very method in that way. I'm not hardcore like Daniel Day-Lewis, but I'm playing a dude right now and I'm bound to bring that energy home with me every single day. In one way or another.
I have that option through my work and so many people don't. Most people don't get the chance to play other people. You know? I think that we do in our own lives, people that aren't actors, play other people all the time, but you don't have to think about it, you know? You don't have to break it down. It's my job to quite literally become other people on the drop of a dime. Which is why I think my study in gender and sexuality has been so important to me. Because it's really about understanding other people, right? Yes, it's about understanding myself, but it's more where I fit into this giant puzzle and what it means to actually identify with other things, with other expressions, with other people. Because that's my job, you know? And it's only when I'm able to understand every facet of my own multidimensional being will I be able to continue to pursue other characters in real, authentic ways.
RSH: Right. You must draw on that work all the time in your day-to-day work as an actor.
NT: Totally. And I have been my whole life. I grew up on stage. This isn't new for me. This is what I've done from the beginning,
RSH: And you just haven't cut yourself off from...
NT: The language. I'm just developing new terminology for it all, you know?
RSH: Right, right.
NT: And the world is at the same time.
RSH: Yes, it's all evolving. You talk a lot in the book about getting to Hollywood. It sounds like that was kind of a rough transition. There was a lot of pressure on you to present in a particular, very, very masculine, hetero-normative way, and that led to a lot of complications for you, including addiction. And then there's this part I love where you say that sobriety is what birthed your queerness as you understand it today. You describe an incident in which you hit rock bottom. For those who haven't listened to your memoir yet, can you describe what that moment in time was like for you?
NT: Whew. Yeah. I mean there were a couple...
RSH: Not that it's a big ask or anything.
NT: Yeah. I mean, it was really a slow burn. I want to start off by saying, yes, I have had hiccups, when I first moved to Hollywood. Yes, people wanted me to express myself in a certain manner. All that being said, I had a lot easier time than most people do, right? It was much more positive across the board than it was difficult. And you know, I always say Hollywood is more of a state of mind than an actual place because these stories don't just exist in Hollywood, California, right? It's the industry.
Once you get into the industry, the idea of selling your soul to the devil is very prevalent. And that happens when fame and celebrity are tossed into your face, when you start getting recognized, when you start being invited to the 1% parties and events of the world, where everything is free and you're getting your picture taken. The lushness of it all is enticing. It just really is. And so many actors, so many celebrities fall into an addiction for that reason. There really isn't someone looking out for us. Especially when you're young.
And I fell into it. It was a slow burn at first. I grew up in a bar. I grew up around addicts. I am very used to the culture of addiction. And when I first started drinking, it was all good. I was using it as a creative outlet. I was able to let go like so many of us do. And then over the years it just got to a point where it was the opposite of that. I just continued to hurt myself rather than to heal myself. And it was something that I was able to recognize but unable to fix until I was.
And when it got to the point of me just drinking by myself in order to completely numb out and not feel anything, was I able to look at it and just say enough is enough. I can't do this anymore. Especially if I want to be the person that I think I'm going to be and want to be, something's got to change. That's important to know. I am not sober from everything. I think of my sobriety as fluid. Just like everything else in my life. I am sober from alcohol. Alcohol was my poison. It wasn't anything else. Alcohol led to the use of a lot of chemical-based substances that I don't touch at all, but you know, I say sobriety birthed my queerness in a lot of ways, but addiction also birthed my queerness. Plant medicine absolutely has birthed my queerness, exponentially. My work with psilocybin and iowaska [specifically].
I get into a lot of that in the book and they go hand-in-hand. One does not exist without the other in terms of addiction and sobriety birthing my queerness. I just had more time to focus on myself. Alcohol has such an ability to just make everything else disappear. I've always been more interested in having things appear than disappear.
RSH: Yeah. Yeah. I want to touch on what you said about psilocybin and plant-based medicine just because it's a topic that I'm kind of obsessed with lately. I've noticed it's in the cultural ether a lot more. You talk about your deep respect and love for Ram Dass in the book, I noticed his name coming up a lot more in cultural conversations lately too. Can you tell me why Ram Dass is special to you and also why these sort of metaphysical conversations might be in the cultural ether lately?
NT: Yeah. Well, Ram was Timothy Leary's best friend and they came up at the same time. And Ram went to India and Timothy went to jail. It was pretty much what happened.
RSH: Yeah. Yeah.
NT: I think it's no coincidence that Ram, the white dude from the United States who went to India and came back as a guru, is the first person in this world that I was introduced to. That's just how our culture works, unfortunately. It was the white dude that I was introduced to first. And not to discredit any of the work that he's done. But there were plenty of Ram Dass's before Ram Dass. And it just so happens that he was the one that I was introduced to first and the one that I could relate to the most. And his poetry... right? Be Here Now. That was one of the first books my uncle bought me and once I ate my first bag of mushrooms and then went back to that book, everything opened up so much more.
It was my original introduction to all of it as you mantra in so many ways. And you know, I think that the pendulum of the world has to swing in both ways. Politically, culturally, we are on fire all over the place. And as that happens, personally, we need to find ways to put out that fire. And since the beginning of time, spirituality has always been that medicine. Whether it was pagan culture or religion or, I mean, whatever it is, right? It's always been available to us.
And I think right now specifically-- I'm going to kind of detour this conversation a little bit. The conversation around gender and sexuality, the one big piece of the puzzle that's missing for me is spirituality. It is inherently spiritual to be able to look in the mirror and ask yourself "Who am I?" And "What and who do I love?" That is spiritual. If that's not a conversation with God, I don't know what is. And the community is so, so broken up right now, it's so displaced. The battle that exists within the LGBTQIA plus community is so strong. We're not all on the same page right now. The L's are fighting with the B's and the G's and you know, it's real. And I think that a huge part that's missing is because we don't have that spiritual connection across the board.
And for me, that's why it's so important to have this conversation while also having the queer conversation because I really think it's the same conversation. Gender and sexuality are really just metaphors for spirituality. That's where we are culturally right now. I'm ready to go. I'm already at the next phase of the conversation, in my own head, but I think its steps that we take to get that right.
RSH: I love how you talk about how spirituality was so important to you, even from such a young age. You were single digits when your uncle, "the smartest man in the world," in his own words, was introducing you to these subjects and I think listeners are really going to enjoy that part of your story. What was that like for you to record this audiobook?
NT: Oh girl, it was hard.
RSH: Was it?
NT: First of all, I was in Bali for two weeks doing a bunch of queer work. I was talking to a bunch of the queer youth in Bali. And the day that I landed, I went straight to the studio to start recording this book because I only had three days in New York City before I had to be in Virginia to start shooting TheWalking Dead.
[There was a] 12-hour -- 14-hour time difference. And I just had to get in the studio and I recorded the entire book in two days. We had three days allotted, but I did the whole book in two days. I'm sitting in the studio for, you know, 10, 11 hours each day just fighting through it. It's really difficult. People do not realize how hard it is to actually sit in a booth and just read or speak for an extended period of time. It was exhausting. It's also my own story. So emotionally it's obviously very triggering. And it was the first time I had read the entire book out loud. I have read it in my head. Yes, I wrote the book, but beginning to end and I don't think I'll ever do it again. That was it.
It's a really intense experience. I'm so happy I went through it. I learned so much more about the book, about myself. Even just having that experience. Each time I pick it up or each time somebody reaches out to me about how it inspired change in their own life, what it brought up for them. The book is constantly a medicine for me. But the experience of reading it was a real one for sure.
RSH: And you really do bring your emotion to the reading. I think part of that has to be your background, your training, but I imagine that had to be emotionally taxing. Do you think so?
NT: Totally. I never shy away from how I'm feeling. I would say that my favorite thing in the world is to feel. I cry on a daily basis. I can watch a commercial and cry. I think it's the greatest medicine that we have. Crying and laughing, they go hand in hand. And yes, as I'm reading these stories I'm reliving each experience. And each heartbreak and each win and each failure and each fall and each climb and it's real. You know, it's funny, I haven't actually even listened to the book yet. I have found myself going to go start it and then stop. I'm not ready to listen to it quite yet. It's still too soon to give it a full listen.
RSH: Yeah. Well, I can vouch that it's amazing. So when you're ready, you need to listen.
NT: I appreciate it.
RSH: So let's talk really quickly about polyamory.
RSH: In Space Between, you talk about your beautiful identity as a person who is both gender nonbinary and polyamorous. You know, polyamory is a lot more mainstream these days than it was even five or 10 years ago.
NT: Even six months ago.
RSH: But it's still not necessarily widely understood. How do you find that most people respond to this aspect of your identity?
NT: In question. A lot of people have more questions about that than I think anything else. Because everyone can relate to being in a relationship, right? Everyone can relate to monogamy. Not everyone can relate to sexuality and all its sub-categories. So I can get questions about polyamory from anyone, right? Any age group, any sexuality, any gender, everyone can have a vantage point on this conversation.
And it's so widely unthought of and unknown. This is unmarked territory right now in the world. The only representation that we really have in terms of media is like Big Love on HBO, which is Mormon. It's very much still a religious conversation, either Mormon or Islam. Those are the only ways that we have the conversation. It's only one dude and multiple women. And that's just not how it exists in my world at all. And in so many other worlds.
But polyamory has existed since forever. And it exists not only in the human race but obviously in the animal kingdom across the board. It's a very normal thing that exists on this planet. But it's really scary for people. I think so many people are seeking that one true love, right? That's what we've been taught to have. We only really believe what we see, right? We don't know what it looks like to be able to love more than one person at any given point.
And create space for multiple relationships. So I realized very quickly on when I started understanding what non-monogamy and polyamory meant in my own life, how important it was to share that conversation as I was experiencing it with the world. Because we've got to start normalizing it. We just have to. I really think it is the next phase of the queer conversation in so many ways in terms of media. We need to start seeing more stories. We need to start believing that it's real because the majority of the world does not believe that it's real.
RSH: And that's really the work that you're doing with this memoir, I think. You're normalizing so many things that have been so difficult for people to talk about and acknowledge.
NT: Thanks. That's the goal here. Yes, these conversations are taboo, but they don't have to be. I think that we're still so confused about what sex is, what love is, what relationships are. We just, we're so behind, I feel. We're making all of these advances in technology and art and you know, across the board we're advancing, but we're still thinking about love and sex, I don't know... We've got some work to do.
RSH: You know, though, I think there is a little hope. I was on the New York City subway the other day and I saw an ad for bedsheets that said, perfect for thrupples. I was like, New York, I love you. This is amazing.
NT: Nice. Yes, New York, I do love you. This is the longest that I have lived outside of New York in probably 10 years. I am in Richmond, Virginia. I'm in the Confederate capital of the United States. And you forget that the world exists outside of New York. It's very much so that same train of thought of like when I was growing up in Chicago. New York City is a bubble. The fact that the rest of the country exists, right, is not something that you think about living in New York City.
And it's been really interesting as this book is coming out that I have been living in Richmond. Because conversations that exist in this book exist in my life in New York City every single day. I can't escape it. Living in a house with Bethany, we're both going through the same transition at the same time. We are both public figures having these conversations. It's a hot topic every day in our house. But now I'm living in Richmond. I am working on a TV show that is about post-apocalypse, where really the only binary that exists is dead and alive.
It's true. And you know I'm just not having the same conversations that I was three months ago. I'm finding myself really seeking queer enrichment. It's actually Virginia Pride this weekend. So I'm really excited to have some family celebrations here. I'm speaking and hosting a lip sync battle. But the queer subculture that exists here is so fascinating because of the history of the city, you know.
And I'm finding myself questioning even how I got to this point in the conversation that I'm in. Why gender and sexuality. Why is this what I'm writing books about right now? And I wasn't questioning those things three or four months ago because it was prevalent everywhere in my life. But now I really am getting to see people who actually don't ever think about this shit. Because they don't have to. It's not in front of their faces on a daily basis. Like it is in New York or LA. It's really put a lot into perspective for me and it's constantly just bending and shifting the way that I see the world, which is exactly what this book is about. You know, I think at the end of the book when I'm like, "How do I finish the story?" That's not done. Yeah. I'm very much so continuing to live my own story as we all do.
RSH: Nico, what do you hope people will take away from your memoir?
NT: I think more than anything I hope people will see themselves in the pages. I hope this book inspires every single person that reads it to go back, look at where they came from, look at their own cultural programming, their own family dynamics, their own romantic and platonic relationships that have shaped them into the person that they are. And what that means, right? Like what it means to be alive in 2019, 2020 in this, you know, the political craziness. What it means to have a voice, what it means to have a platform or the ability to create a platform. I think the most important thing in the world right now is to have something to say. And it doesn't really matter what it is. Just commit to it and, and constantly seek new ways to give that voice leverage. Yeah.
RSH: Well, thank you so much for talking to me today and talking to Audible about Space Between. It's such a gorgeous memoir. I know listeners are going to really find things that they see themselves in all throughout. And I wish you much love, luck, and happiness in wrapping up The Walking Dead and pride this weekend. And thank you so much.