Waltzing into Tribeca mainstay The Odéon for lunch, Tommy Dorfman apologises for being fashionably late. He’s one minute early.
The thing is, Dorfman tends to show up first for most things: He’s one of the few actors that’s begun their career openly gay from the start; and his turn as Ryan Shaver in the Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why is one of the most authentic queer characters on television right now. He’ll tell you he doesn’t fit the status quo — and that he’s proud of it; that despite the many hurdles he’s faced — including auditioning for Netflix five times before producers would figure out what to do with him — part of his path to success can be credited to his refusal to conform.
“I decided that if I was going to be in the public eye, I was going to be unequivocally myself,” Dorfman says. “If anything, I was going to be a little bit more. There’s nothing like going to the MTV Movie Awards in Vivienne Westwood — straight from the runway — and DSquared2 heels, having these gay actors who work on other shows looking at you like you don’t belong. I’ve met people in the industry who look at me the way basketball players in high school looked at me — all while I’m literally being who I am, in a space that I worked really hard to be in. All because I’m wearing a skirt.”
Instead of name-checking any of the naysayers, Dorfman, clad in a Carhartt tee and Dior sneakers, focuses on what it means for one of the hottest names in teen fiction right now to use fashion to combat the prejudices not just within his own community, but within Hollywood — an industry that has long struggled with its approach to inclusiveness. As he takes turns talking with his mouth full of French fries and Diet Coke, he explains how he believes what he wears on the red carpet can have a ripple effect on society at large.
"There was a part of me that was like, ‘Whatever. Someone’s going to see these pictures and feel better about themselves and feel okay, like maybe they can try this and dress the way they identify. Or, even better: There’s a little queer actor out there who can see me and think there’s a place for them in this world.'”
For a moment, it seems as though Dorfman is reflecting on a younger version of himself. Long before he was a happily married 20-something living in New York City, he had to navigate life as a gay kid in Atlanta, Georgia — which wasn't always the easiest place to be a little boy wearing girl's clothing. (He admits to a decade-long affinity for a Pink Power Ranger costume.)
“I started dressing myself at a very young age," he explains. “And you could tell because I was a boy wearing girl’s clothing. I don’t think ‘style’ was the word I would have used; everything was costume. I would emulate the Spice Girls, too. I went through a phase where I was only buying platform shoes, bell bottom jeans, tube tops, and denim jackets, and wanting to get long fake nails but my parents wouldn’t let me. My siblings would protect me on the school bus because I was bullied a lot, physically and verbally, because of the way I was dressing.”
Moments later, as he recalls marching around Fordham University in a Burberry Prorsum trench he'd somehow convinced his father to buy, Dorfman admits how clothing — as important as it may be to his life — has, in some ways, failed him. “Growing up, I hated the idea that clothing was gendered. I identify as non-binary,” he reveals. “I present as mostly masculine because it’s just how I feel, but I’ve never had this idea that clothing should be one thing or the other.”
It’s here that Dorfman draws the line between gender identity and gender expression. "I can choose to turn it on or off,” he adds. “Sometimes it’s a protective thing and sometimes it’s just who I am at the time. I, as a person, am very fluid. I feel different hour by hour, day by day.” Dorfman admits he sometimes dreams as a woman. But when it comes to acting, he considers it an advantage to his craft. "I love playing characters who are female and I love playing characters who are hyper-masculine. I like telling those stories. I have extreme privilege in being able to do what I do, but I didn’t think I was going to be able to do what I do because of my queerness and fluidity. It turns out I can. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been met with obstacles as a result of being so transparent and open.”
Last month, wearing vintage Dries van Noten pants he'd gotten in high school, Dorfman was attacked in his old neighbourhood in Brooklyn. "Someone threw eggs at me and called me a faggot. I was wearing these silk, high-waisted pants and a blouse-y tank top. I was just going to the bodega and I was with my friend, who was in a skirt, and they threw eggs at us."
"Do I think I'm to blame for that person's actions," Dorfman asks. "No. It may have just been a bunch of teens in a car — and teenage boys suck. They sucked when I was a teen, and they suck now for my fans. Some are great, but a lot of them are really intense, going through a lot of shit, having to confront their own sex, gender, etc., with expectations that society and parents put on them."
But in the world we live in, can fashion really be armour? Dorfman ventures that it's complicated; not something he can answer for other people. "It’s a question of: How much do you want to be at the risk of your own security? But, at the same time: rebel, rebel, rebel. Make your voice heard because the cause is always greater. I sometimes think if I wear something to an audition that I won’t get the job. But then, when I wear something to an awards show, I think about how it’ll help other people. I’m willing to take the fall of not getting that leading man role that I’ve auditioned so many times for, that I’m qualified for — that I’m too queer in my real life for — in order to hopefully continue to keep breaking these barriers for others. I have to be okay with that…at least right now I am."
With that, Dorfman gets up from the booth, politely acknowledging a woman who'd been staring at him throughout our meal on the way out. Something magical lingers in the air — a pleasant reminder that, even though it carries a history that's both colourful and painful, fashion has soul. And whether he’s at the brunt of discrimination within his own community for the way he dresses or accepting an award for using his queerness for good, Dorfman is a walking, talking example that style amplifies who he is. What it doesn't do is define him.
As he heads for the door, he turns and grins: "I promise I don't look as weird as I feel."