To promote his new film, the merciless queer satire and veritable penis buffet Rotting in the Sun, the actor, writer and pandemic-era social media sensation Jordan Firstman took his clothes off. Firstman does this a lot online, his Instagram grid a smorgasbord of skin, spread-eagles and semi-nude selfies. But one person in particular wasn’t amused by it – the film’s director.
“He’s like, ‘Dude – please don’t post thirst traps, it’s so embarrassing’,” the 32-year-old recalls. “But I’m doing it for the movie!” Rotting in the Sun’s director is Sebastián Silva, a brilliant provocateur who turned a Chilean housekeeper into a folk hero for his 2009 breakout The Maid, and sent Michael Cera on a hallucinogenic odyssey for 2013’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus. Firstman, meanwhile, went viral in 2020 for his short-form comedy videos, skits in which he did impressions of surreal contemporary archetypes: the publicist for banana bread, someone who was sick during Covid but not with Covid, or a white person attending a protest who can’t chant on beat. Firstman and Silva have a somewhat complicated relationship.
“He would rather the movie fail than him seem cringe,” Firstman explains. “I would rather seem cringe and the movie do really well. People want to see someone shirtless on their Instagram feed! I wish it was different. I wish people were like, ‘Gimme an intellectual, gay, meta-comedy thriller.’ But they’re not!”
In fairness, the prickly yet oddly erotic dynamic between Silva’s suicidal artiste and Firstman’s hyper-sexual hedonist lends Rotting in the Sun its bite. They play variations on themselves: Silva is Sebastián, a withdrawn filmmaker in a permanent ketamine haze; Firstman is Jordan, an Insta-celeb who insists fate has brought them together when they collide on a gay beach in Mexico. Jordan is sweet but exhausting, and Sebastián can’t seem to stand him. But they agree to collaborate on a script anyway, until a mid-film plot twist sees Sebastián vanish and Jordan turn detective.
As it trundles along, the film takes a pick-axe to queer relationships, modern art and the influencer economy, while a feeling of existential dread hovers over the whole thing. Also, there are wangs. An inordinate amount of them. So many, in fact, that one of the film’s primary promotional stills – emailed to subscribers of its distributor Mubi in an act of impressive brazenness – is of Firstman’s face mere inches away from a man’s incredibly large and incredibly poorly pixelated penis. Firstman himself engages in numerous acts of unsimulated sex, and flops about with the guilelessness of a wood nymph sporting Elliott Gould’s Seventies chest rug. Today, though, he admits to being deeply insecure about his body during filming.
“I didn’t remember how self-conscious I was until [one of my co-stars] said recently that I was calling myself fat the entire shoot,” he winces. He says he’s only liked his body twice: a period in March 2020, and then a second period in February 2022. It’s become so bad that his boyfriend has claimed he has exactly two kinds of days: “‘I’m fat’ days, and ‘my career is over’ days.” He doesn’t think anyone in the world truly likes their body but is quick to caveat that his image issues are easy to separate from his libido. “I never deny that I’m sexy. And I think I have a handsome face.” The focus of his ire then? “Literally [just] my stomach.” He breaks into laughter. We’re meeting in London, Firstman swirling the cubes in his iced coffee while dressed in denim cut-offs, leather boots and a T-shirt that reads “You Wish LOL” in glitter. He doesn’t know if he comes off very well in interviews.
“Most actors are kind of boring,” he says. “They don’t have that much to say. I wish I was more like that. My personality doesn’t work that great in print.” In person, at least, he’s very personable – funny, frank and flagrantly candid; a living “Redacted” mark on a top-secret document. “I’m probably the first person in Marvel to suck d*** on camera,” he ponders at one point. “Is Chloë Sevigny in Marvel?” She’s not, I tell him. Firstman thinks she should be. “I think it’s cool to do Marvel with a wink. Obviously I don’t respect it or like it at all, but… it’s kind of a funny joke to be in it.”
A recurring role as a high school guidance counsellor in the Disney+ series Ms Marvel remains Firstman’s strangest career pivot, an example of how his Insta-fame sent him down wildly different roads all at once. The Ms Marvel offer, for instance, came in the same week a pornography studio asked him to direct one of its movies.
Firstman had broken into entertainment long before the pandemic turned him into a star. He’d grown up a smart, funny and lightly withering Jewish kid from Long Island, New York, who burnt with artistic ambition. “My high school teacher always said, ‘Jordan, use your powers for good and not evil’,” he remembers. “Because he saw that I was capable of using them for evil.” He moved to Los Angeles at the age of 21, finding work in the writers’ rooms of TV series such as the dark millennial satire Search Party and Netflix’s puberty hit Big Mouth. And remember that viral video of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles singing a celebratory ode to the work of Laura Dern? Firstman wrote the lyrics.
His rapid online ascent makes for a fascinating time capsule of pandemic entertainment. His early interviews flit uneasily between journalists gushing over the formal wizardry of his comedy skits, and Firstman seeming to find the praise mortifying.
“I didn’t want to burst their bubble but I was not the most unique person on Instagram back then,” he says. “All of these celebrities were stuck at home on their phones and they’d never seen anyone like me. They’d never seen a gay guy talk so openly about their sexuality, and straight people were obsessed with that part of it. And while I do have my own comedic language, [those videos] were also derived from a lot of things in the gay scene already, but they didn’t know that. They were like, ‘Oh my god, I’m getting in on this whole world!’”
Many of Firstman’s Covid-era contemporaries have since faded into obscurity. He saw the drop-off coming, though. “I knew it was not gonna last,” he says. “And that’s what I would say to anyone blowing up on the internet: almost immediately transition, or else you’ll get stuck in it and then forgotten within a year.”
Within a few months of gaining digital notoriety, Firstman had signed a number of lucrative endorsement deals, been profiled by Vogue, and written his own TV pilot. He admits to being ready to “graduate” from the internet now. “I’ll do an impression every now and then, but not to the level I think people might want,” he says. “But I’d rather get no engagement and lose followers than do something creatively that I’m not feeling any more.” Plus, he adds, “people on the internet are so… I don’t want to give them credit and say ‘cruel’. They’re f***ing annoying and dumb. Like they’re not smart enough to be cruel.”
For his next move, Firstman wants to be Adam Sandler. “He’s a real hero of mine, and someone’s who’s been able to skirt this line his entire career where he’s like… so family-friendly in some stuff, and then he’s in Uncut Gems and working with Paul Thomas Anderson.” It’s not hard to imagine this for him. Or at least an Adam Sandler you can easily find naked on Google Images.
‘Rotting in the Sun’ streams exclusively on Mubi from 15 September