Coming out as gay frightens Lukas Waldenbeck, the closeted teen James Paxton plays in Eyewitness, almost more than becoming a murderer’s next victim.
“For various reasons, he is so afraid of coming out of the closet that he goes to this irrational place,” Paxton said. “Things like that make people do irrational and nonsensical things.”
“Eyewitness” airs at 10/9c Sundays on USA Network. You can see past episodes at the network’s website. [Spoilers ahead if you aren’t caught up to Episode 7.]
Lukas and his boyfriend, Philip Shea (Tyler Young), witnessed the murders of three men in the riveting drama’s first episode. Fearing he would be outed, Lukas insisted Philip not tell anyone about the murders and they threw the gun used into a lake.
After weeks of keeping quiet about what they saw, Philip told his foster mom, Sheriff Helen Torrance (Julianne Nicholson), that Lukas had the murder weapon. Lukas denied the claim and Philip was accused of lying.
When Philip decided to move away, Lukas had to come clean. He gave the murder weapon to Helen.
“Lukas realizes what he’s become through this fear of being outed,” Paxton said, explaining why Lukas finally came forward. “He realizes that he’s going to lose the only person that really understands what he’s going through and who cares about him the most.”
Paxton called Lukas’s confession a “turning point” in his relationship with Philip. But the boys—nicknamed “Philkas” by fans—aren’t telling the whole truth. Their relationship still is a secret, and Lukas has told authorities he was alone when he witnessed the murders.
“Coming forward was so terrifying for him,” Paxton said. “I think he felt a big release in that moment” when he gave Helen the murder weapon.
Lukas’s baby steps put him in graver danger, Paxton teased. “The worst part isn’t even over,” he said. “Just wait.”
I spoke with Paxton, the son of actor Bill Paxton, before the season began for an Out magazine story. In these outtakes from that interview, James Paxton talks more about Lukas’s fear of being outed, the Philkas relationship and how he trained on dirt bikes to prepare for the role. Read my interview with Tyler Young at Chicago Sun-Times. Read outtakes from my Tyler Young interviews here.
The metaphor of the secrets goes beyond just the boys’ secret because Helen, it seems like, can’t tell the truth about anything either.
The show portrays what the real consequences keeping a dangerous secret can have and will have. Secrets can haunt you and it’s always best to tell the truth and come clean with something like that. It’s an emotionally educating experience for all the characters involved. There are so many secrets in play with all the characters, not just Lukas and Philip. That’s a big theme: the danger of secrets.
What makes Lukas finally tell Helen about the gun?
Lukas starts to realize how crazy he is for lying and that they’re dealing with so much more than just him. Up to that point it’s all about him, him, him. All of a sudden he realizes, “I’m about to lose this one kid that has stuck by my side after I’ve treated him so horribly and he’s the only one that understands and has seen what I’ve seen.”
I think Lukas realizes Philip is his only key to freedom, really. That’s a great shift in the story, just an amazing shift. When he goes, “You know what? Screw the scholarship; this is more important.” I think that’s a first step to freedom.
People are going to hate Lukas for a second, for a few episodes. I don’t know—how did you feel about him?
I did not like him—at all.
Yeah, I wanted them to dislike him. That was all by design. It all makes sense in the story—then once you see that change of heart and that flip it’s just like, “Oh man, this is great.” You kind of love him again.
“Eyewitness” is a murder mystery, but the central story is a gay love story, which is not the usual subject matter in TV mysteries.
The show’s so cool. It approaches the gay relationship as just a love story like any other between two teenagers … It avoids all kinds of stereotypes. And just because there’s this gay relationship at the center of it, it’s not all about that.
These two boys are united in so much more than their sexual orientation and exploration of who they are. Especially my character, who is becoming himself and is coming to terms with who he always truly is inside. But he has quite a journey to get there.
What made you want to play Lukas?
You don’t see a lot of roles like this coming for young actors in pilot season. It was a challenging role because there’s so much at play. I had to prepare for the physicality of his motocross world. I had so much to research and prepare for. It’s kind of like an actor’s dream that way. There was no one-note about it. I had to really prepare for those auditions. I was like, “I’m not phoning this one in. This is definitely something special.” This was something that, from the jump, I knew wanted to do.
Also, I saw Catherine Hardwicke’s name attached. She directed a couple of my favorite films: “Thirteen” and “Lords of Dogtown.” That got me excited to read for it. …
Did you know how to ride? Did you do the riding in the show?
The motocross stuff was really great. I threw myself into it. I got my motorcycle license and went down to Temecula, Calif., and rode for a week before I went up to Canada. A private instructor and I rode trails down there on the dirt bike and I learned more for another three weeks in kind of pre-production up in Canada. I do a lot of the riding on camera, even in the wide shots in the first two episodes.
Cool. It’s kind of amazing you got a motorcycle license for this. Way to go all in.
Yeah, I had to. That’s something I did myself and then they helped me link up with that trainer down in Temecula.
It must be fantastic to have someone in a similar place career-wise to share this experience.
Yeah. It was both Tyler’s and my first big roles. It was the first time we got to carry and live in the skin of a character for four months and through 10 episodes. It’s so different from a feature. It was so liberating to really just find this character.
Lukas and Philip have such tender private moments together, but in public Lukas treats him like crap.
Yeah, I know … I think he’s led this very simple kind of life up until all this happens. The one thing he had that was stable in his life was riding his dirt bike. That desire to succeed in racing was pretty set in stone, so his reactions manifest in violence toward Philip when it’s threatened.
What was more fun to play: their complicated relationship or having to avoid being killed?
I think I enjoyed the relationship between the two of them more. It was more interesting to play all those dynamics. But both aspects go hand in hand. … I love that there was that emotional relationship at the forefront, which was more interesting and a bit more challenging for me to play as an actor. We really went to some sensitive places.
Is Lukas more afraid of being outed than he is of possibly being killed?
I think that’s an interesting question. This whole thing was so horrific for him and it gets very psychological. It’s almost like a waking nightmare. He views being gay as a sin. It’s almost this weird thing where this is the first time he gets to release himself in that moment with Philip in the cabin. All this stuff happens and they see these three guys get murdered. It’s almost like he bit the apple and this is his punishment. … They should have reported what they saw right away. But we wouldn’t have this amazing story if they did.
What do you hope viewers get from this story?
I think we still have a way to go … withequality in love and understanding of and education about these issues. … I think some people still need to start opening their hearts a bit. There have been a lot of tragedies like the Orlando shooting. It’s really sad and I think this show approaches the issue in a whole new light.
In Out magazine: James Paxton and Tyler Young discuss their collaboration