Lukas Gage on the Audition That Went Awry, ‘You’ and Writing His Own Ticket

Lukas Gage blew into the Tower Bar in West Hollywood like a ragged ocean breeze. He had come straight from Punta Mita, Mexico, where he was vacationing with the celebrity hairstylist Chris Appleton. But Gage forgot his passport at the resort, causing him to miss his return flight to Los Angeles, and had to book alternate passage to Orange County, whence he took an Uber the 50 miles north to make it to this interview on time.

And hence why he was still wearing his travel clothes: a cutoff “Pulp Fiction” T-shirt, baggy gray sweatpants and beat-up checkered Vans, paired with an enormous Old Navy zip-up hoodie and several items of beaded jewelry that he had bought in Mexico.

Still, he managed to arrive at 12 on the dot, not a single minute late.

That the 27-year-old finds himself here, talking about his burgeoning TV and film career at one of the industry’s favorite haunts — the kind of place with a no-photos policy and $24 cocktails — is the product of a similar dogged resolve.

The youngest of four boys raised by a single mother in the San Diego suburb of Encinitas, Gage moved to Los Angeles at 18 to pursue acting after a brief stint at the University of Oregon, where he got in a gruesome fight trying to protect a friend. “I have all these scars from where I had to get my face put back together,” he said. “Maybe, selfishly, I needed a reason to get out.”

Following arcs on “Euphoria” and “Love, Victor,” he gained wider recognition for a role he didn’t get. In November 2020, he shared a video of a pandemic-era Zoom audition in which a director, not realizing his mic was on, bemoaned “these poor people” who “live in these tiny apartments.” (Gage did not name the off-camera offender at the time, but the British director Tristram Shapeero later apologized.)

In the clip, Gage responds with quick-witted aplomb. “I know it’s a [expletive] apartment,” he says with a smile. “Give me this job, so I can get a better one.” But the critique stung.

“I understand the politics,” Gage said, “but I also want a chance to have a seat at the table.”Credit…Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

“I had never judged my apartment until that day. I was like, it’s not a mansion or a house, but it has crown molding, good natural light and it was in Beachwood Canyon,” Gage told me, referring to a desirable neighborhood of Los Angeles. “I remember having this weird feeling in the pit of my stomach afterward, like, why am I judging where I’m at in my 20s, at the beginning of my career?”

He posted that video while filming Season 1 of “The White Lotus” on Maui — Gage played the hotel employee caught in a compromising act with Murray Bartlett’s character — and since the HBO show aired, he’s consistently booked a string of supporting roles. Most recently, he played a duplicitous expat in Season 4 of “You,” and cameoed as himself in the series finale of the “Gossip Girl” reboot. He also moved out of that infamous apartment and bought his own place.

Now, in the independent film “Down Low,” a dark comedy of errors that premieres at South by Southwest on Saturday, Gage is stepping into a lead role for the first time. He gives a full-bodied, screwball performance as a sex worker helping a repressed divorcé (Zachary Quinto) explore his sexuality. Along the way, there’s an inadvertent death and high jinks with Judith Light, Audra McDonald and Simon Rex.

Inside the World of ‘The White Lotus’

The second season of “The White Lotus,” Mike White’s incisive satire of privilege set in a luxury resort, is available to stream on HBO.

  • End of a Journey: The actress Jennifer Coolidge discussed the ending of the second season and where the series, already renewed for a third season, might go from here.
  • Dressing Gen Z: The costume designer for “The White Lotus” sees your mean tweets about how the younger characters dress. She told us how she created the chaotic and divisive looks.
  • Michael Imperioli: The “Sopranos” star is enjoying a professional renaissance after years of procedurals and indies. In the new season of “The White Lotus,” he tries his hand at comedy.
  • F. Murray Abraham: The buzzy series is one of several featuring the actor, who at 83 is finding some of the most satisfying work of his career.

Gage also wrote the script with his friend and writing partner, Phoebe Fisher.

Opposite Zachary Quinto in “Down Low,” which Gage wrote with Phoebe Fisher.Credit…Matt Infante/FilmNation Entertainment

“I pitched it as a queer ‘His Girl Friday,’” Gage said. “I love a silence in a movie. I love a long shot. But I was like, let’s just make something snappy and fun that doesn’t go over an hour and 30 minutes.”

Next he’ll co-star in the eco-thriller “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” Season 5 of “Fargo,” the “Dead Boy Detectives” series (based on the DC comics) and Doug Liman’s “Road House” remake, playing a bartender whom Jake Gyllenhaal trains to fight. He also plans to continue writing.

Sitting in a velvety corner booth and sipping chamomile tea with honey, Gage discussed that viral video, the importance of sex scenes and protecting his private life. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Did you know your “You” character would have an affinity for kink when you signed on?

I knew sexuality or nudity might be required, but I didn’t know anything past the first episode. I think I had auditioned for every single season of “You” and didn’t get it until then. I auditioned for [star Penn Badgley’s serial killer character] Joe originally. I played him like a mustache-twirling, villainous murderer, and the casting director was like, “Yeah, that’s totally tonally off, but thank you.”

Penn Badgley recently said he no longer wanted to do sex scenes. You’ve said it would be a “disservice” to exclude them. Where does their value lie for you?

If we’re showing this character [on “You”] who has a hidden kink and he’s struggling with being honest, or a guy [on “The White Lotus”] who is having his first queer experience with his boss, I feel like it’s a disservice to not see that. But I totally respect Penn and his views. Maybe because I’m not married with kids, I’m like, I’ve got to give it away while I can. [Laughs]

There’s also a wider discourse advocating for ditching sex scenes altogether.

It is a little weird. I get a lot of backlash in my DMs about it, saying, “That’s so disgusting.” And that pisses me off because I don’t want to yuck anyone’s yum. But a lot of people can have a hard time separating the actor from the character, and then, suddenly, people are coming up to me at Starbucks asking [if the scene was real]. People forget it’s make-believe.

Opposite Penn Badgley in “You.” Badgley, the series’s star, has opted against doing intimate scenes, but Gage argued that when such moments are key to a character or a plot, “it’s a disservice to not see that.”Credit…Netflix
Murray Bartlett, left, Jolene Purdy, Natasha Rothwell, Christie Volkmer and Gage in the first episode of “The White Lotus.”Credit…Mario Perez/HBO

Is it true that you watched Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass to learn about screenwriting?

Phoebe and I watched all of the MasterClasses on writing during lockdown. That one was our favorite. We also watched “Pretty Woman,” one of my favorite romcoms, and a documentary about “Pretty Woman” is what kind of inspired us with “Down Low” — what “Pretty Woman” was originally going to be before the studio got involved. It was super dark, and everyone was like, “This is too insane to make.”

Were you always planning to star in “Down Low”?

No. I honestly thought they weren’t going to allow me to do it. They sent comps of who they thought the character should be, people who are much more famous and important than me. But I was like, “Give me a chance to show you what I can do.”

I tend to do that a lot. I understand the politics, but I also want a chance to have a seat at the table.

Your video of an audition gone wrong went viral. Why did you decide to share that?

I’d had a martini or two in Hawaii, and it happened out of a conversation I was having with [“White Lotus” co-star] Molly Shannon about our worst auditions. She was like, “You have to show people that.” Actors have the best job ever, but I was frustrated. And I want to be clear: That was definitely not the worst thing that’s happened to me in an audition. It just happened to be on camera.

What was worse?

In the [print and TV] commercial world, I remember, at 17 years old, people saying out loud what was wrong with my face and that I wasn’t in shape enough. As a teenager, that really makes you crazy. I had to stop commercial auditioning when I was younger because it was making me dysmorphic.

Gage posted the audition footage that went viral out of frustration. “I want to be clear: That was definitely not the worst thing that’s happened to me in an audition,” he added. Credit…Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

Last year, you replied “You don’t know my alphabet” to a commenter who accused you of taking roles away from queer actors. In your career, have you felt pressure to label yourself?

All the time. An agent that dropped me was like, “Stop dyeing your hair, stop wearing weird clothes and pick a lane: gay, bi or straight. It’s too confusing.” I understand representation and voices that need to be heard, but I don’t want to do anything on anyone’s accord but my own. Let me do it when I’m ready. And it’s acting. I feel like everyone should get the opportunity to play whatever they want.

You and Chris posted a series of Instagram photos together in Mexico. A lot of people took that as a relationship announcement.

If they want to think that, they can. I’m a pretty open book about most things in my life, but I have a problem with the culture of everyone needing to know everybody’s business and nothing can be sacred. It’s a weird line that I’m still trying to figure out.

Have you been offered any roles yet? Or are you still auditioning for everything?

I’m ready for some offers! I’m still auditioning my ass off. Now, I have a plain white screen that I pull down for a background. But I’m still at that point where I have to prove myself. I’m OK with it. I just want to keep surprising people that I’m not a one-trick pony.

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