What Nathaniel Ashton learned about the LGBTQ+ Community in the 90s while filming “Cruel Summer”

Nathaniel Ashton can be seen in the new series Cruel Summer. The show is a thriller told over three summers during the 90’s and follows two teenage girls. Cruel Summer premiered on Freeform. In the show, Nathaniel plays Ben, an empathetic and compassionate character who has to be secretive about his sexuality. YEM spoke with Nathaniel about his character Ben, the research he did about the LGBTQ community in the early 90’s and what he did to get into his 90’s character.

Young Entertainment Mag: When you auditioned for Cruel Summer was it for the role of Ben?

Nathaniel Ashton: It was! A lot of the scenes you see in the first and second episodes were actually my audition scenes.

YEM: What did you know about Ben when you got the role? Did you know that your character will be gay?

Nathaniel: From the beginning I knew that Ben was a character grounded in compassion and empathy, and that a lot of that empathy stemmed from having to be so secretive about his sexuality. He understood what it was like to not be seen for who you are and because of that he never wanted anyone else to feel unseen.

YEM: What kind of research did you have to do about the LGBT community in the early 90s?

Nathaniel: The most important thing for me was to understand both the trials and hardships the LGBTQ+ community faced in the early 90’s, but also the beautiful ways in which people were able to come together and still express their love for each other. GLAAD was an incredible resource throughout the course of my research. Reading through every little bit of material I could find about how the LGBTQ+ community is represented in film/TV and how I could better approach that representation in the most authentic way possible. In combination with my research on paper I wanted to talk with people close to me who actually experienced those hardships in the 90’s and hopefully better understand how they felt in those moments and how they dealt with it. Knowing I’ll never fully understand, I wanted to get as close as I could to feeling what it was like to be a gay teenager in the south in the early 90’s.

YEM: What was one thing you learned about the gay community in early 90s that you were surprised to learn, that you think people should know?

Nathaniel: Unfortunately, there was a lot of conflict surrounding the LGBTQ+ community in the early 90’s; with the AIDS epidemic becoming fuel for bigotry and exclusion, the implementation of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, and finally the most ridiculous being DOMA. But through all of that, what was so beautiful and surprised me the most was the unyielding love that was clearly visible in the LGBTQ+ community. No matter what ‘policy’ tried to dictate, people refused to allow society to take that love away from them. Whether it was secret clubs to meet in private or finding ways to be with one another in public regardless of the persecution. That bravery and resilience was incredible to me and I think people should know that regardless of what your current situation is, you are always enough and don’t ever let anyone make you feel ashamed about who you love. Love always persists, love always wins.

YEM: Were you at all nervous about taking on such a role?

Nathaniel: Absolutely, there were definitely nerves. It was so important to me that I do this right and with respect to the community I’m representing on-screen. A lot of times when you would see a character from the LGBTQ+ community in film/TV, from what I’ve seen throughout researching, they were often shown through the lens of struggle and hardship. Almost in a way saying ‘look at how hard it is for them to be who they are’. While that is absolutely valid and those hardships need to be addressed, I also really wanted to try to embrace the humanity of this character outside of that hardship as well. My hope was that young people today could look to Ben and Vince’s relationship and feel safe and validated in who they are. 

YEM: How did you and Allius get comfortable with each other before doing scenes?

Nathaniel: It honestly wasn’t difficult getting comfortable with Allius at all. He was incredibly kind and open from the beginning; I remember us having a super vulnerable conversation by the hotel pool after our first time all meeting in person. It seemed to click together for us very quickly.

YEM: What was one thing that was challenging for you and how did you overcome it?

Nathaniel: Honestly one of the biggest challenges was adjusting to all of the Covid protocols. I feel like I’ve never used more hand sanitizer in my life. 

YEM: What are some things that helped you get into 90s character? Any fun things that you learned about that you didn’t know beforehand?

Nathaniel: For me a big part of getting into the 90’s feel was the music. I listened to a lot of Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Nirvana, Oasis, Radiohead, etc. I felt like I was back listening to my CD player at the skating rink all over again. I thought it was really cool that there was a time when music like that was what primarily played on the radio.

YEM: Out of the 3 years throughout each episode which was your favorite to play?

Nathaniel: I really enjoyed when I got to shoot scenes in 95’. The tone is darker, it’s edgier, and it’s also at a point in the character’s lives where they’re processing everything that just happened over the past two years. 95’ is a year for a lot of the characters that facilitates a lot of growth.

YEM: Was the show filmed episode to episode or was it filmed chronologically? If it was filmed episode to episode was it hard going back and forth with your character and following the story?

Nathaniel: We shot everything episode to episode, working in different years depending on which episode we were on. It got tricky to keep up with at times, but the writers did a fantastic job at conveying the timeline. There were a few little tricks they used to help us keep track of everything.

YEM: What was it like working with Olivia and such an amazing cast? Each character plays so many different roles.

Nathaniel: We got really lucky, everyone is so talented and brings so much life to all of their characters. But with that, they’re all just good people. It felt like this labor of love we all put our heart and souls into together. It’s been a privilege to be part of this show and to work with such an amazing cast and crew.

Watch Nathaniel Ashton in Cruel Summer!