interview by ELIYA WEINSTEIN

Joey Pollari began as a child actor in St. Paul Minnesota in Disney Channel Original movies. Now based in LA, he continues acting as well as creating his own music. Joey is excited about the release of his second full length album, ‘I’ll Be Romance’, written through a tumultuous ex-relationship in his early 20s. It was released on April 5th, the same day as the TV show Sugar, in which he has his latest on-screen role.

Firstly congratulations on your new record. Much of it was written in the midst of an ex-relationship. Has the way you think about the record changed considering the relationship is in the past, or has it played a role in moving past the relationship?

When I wrote the record I was still in the relationship. It was almost imaginative about an ending. Not our ending but about what was going on in me that could have resulted in a failure of a relationship. When it ended I went: “Oh, I’m a little too smart for my own good, I guess I cornered myself”. And years later, as I’ve gotten further along with other relationships, growing older and understanding myself more psychologically, the record seems so different to me. It seems indicative of a period of time of youth, where you are searching for this magical other who can complete you and fulfill every fantasy. So, the record has gained more irony. It’s gotten scarier to me.

There’s something quite relatable about that. Everyone seems to have this idea of a perfect relationship and that you can’t meet someone unless they are perfect.

It’s gotten worse and I think we’re all reinforced along that narrative. It used to be in the movies, and others in real life saying “be practical”. But now there’s even such psychological language around diagnosing who we do or don’t want to be with. What I want from a guy, manifesting – I’m in Los Angeles so I’m manifesting [laughs] – this type of person, amount of money you need to have… Yeah, I find it relatable. Searching for Mr Right.

But you wrote the songs before you were aware of this “meta-perspective”.

Yes but I certainly had instincts to it. I remember writing ‘Johnny Guitar’ thinking the song had something to do with the interplay between me and another person, that we need each other to get away from reality but it masks what’s really going on. Was that happening to me in my relationship? Not really, but years later you look back and you go “Ah, I guess a version of that was happening”. At the end of the day, we all need each other to combat what is really going on. It’s difficult. Relationships are hard, but such a boom, and so much fun, and such a gift. Even if that gift is an insight.

So the album is an intimate reflection of what you went through in this relationship: bliss, confusion, introspection, naivety, romanticism. How do you feel this relates to your audience, your generation or those even younger who find themselves lost in the modern dating world?

Well, young or old everyone is “trying to get back to the garden again”, as Joni Mitchell put it. It is crucial work for all of us to give up a certain idea of getting back to the garden, realizing where we really are, what is possible and what work we need to do. So, I hope it relates in that way, that the work of love is timeless.

Do you think that the songs read differently to people of different ages?
With age, we hope to gain wisdom, so even for myself, retrospectively, it gives a different tint. Only with years you are only able to realize your own naivety. So I suppose it hits differently. A lot of my audience, as I see on metrics, are 40-60 so I don’t know if that has anything to do with it.

That’s quite the compliment, it’s a hard audience to crack with new music. You refer to the years that have passed since the relationship, how old were you when you wrote the record?

It’s been a while, I was 24-25 when I wrote it and I’m about to turn 30. So, it has been a lot of years. By this point I’ve gone through a saturn return, so I’ve experienced a lot more and life is different now.

Since then, have you wanted to change anything about it, or has the thought process around the record changed for you?
That’s a good question, maybe I’m a little kumbaya but I look at it and I know that’s the record I amassed. Acting has taught me a good deal about that, you lay it on the dancefloor, whatever happens, happens. It’s damaging to think about what could have been. Plus I’ve made so much music since, anything I could’ve rewritten I just wrote to a new song. I feel so good about the record. Also, the product was extremely different from what I had thought of in the beginning. It was challenging, certain ideas I had were upended when we got to the process. It didn’t go the way I thought it would. It was like a relationship honestly.

How poetic.

Yeah, it was. It started off with all this energy and then problems started presenting themselves with the songs. Adding and subtracting things ended up being difficult. The songs resisted things, but it ended up in a way that I love. I think if you go “this is the idea, it has to be this”, you risk looking back to realize you’ve made it only about yourself. I had to give up so much, but it was for the better.

So you also learned a lot about producing music, and you directed the videos for your album, which are brilliantly cinematic. Where did the desire to take the director’s role come from?

From crucial experiences as a young child, watching movies and identifying with actors but even more with the directors. I would always be thinking, “wow, I can’t believe they made this”. It’s a long standing wish really. I directed before for friends, but my music has always been an opportunity to exercise that muscle and have my own influence. I have a certain vision and I want to be the one to put it together.

So how was the process, considering it was such a wish from the beginning.

Fearful, but then things started to flow. I don’t know how to speak about it another way.
Film, or video, is such a process. Everyone needs to be on board, it’s so collaborative and it takes so many people. Even when I’ve done music videos that were just me, it’s a lot of effort towards acquiring ingredients. But for these, my team and I, everything came to be the best. People showed up, they did their thing, we were all so close as it was a bunch of friends and friends of friends. The producer showed up just to play and I said, “are you okay being in boxers and wrestling” and they would just start and I was amazed. We were all giving encouragement, “this looks so good, this looks so good!” And for all the lighting and the references I had, maybe I sound kumbaya again but it all came together so well.

It sounds really positive.

Yeah, and how this positivity came out of such fear… Sometimes you need that excitement. Fear and excitement are very much aligned after all.

But this wasn’t actually the first time you took the directors position.

No, I had directed an attempt at a film maybe 6 years ago, and the music videos of my previous record. Also, collaborations with my good friend and director Chelsea Johnston. Other people have directed me, and I’ve worked with so many best friends, doing similar projects. I’ve made a psycho sexual thriller myself called Punisher, but this was definitely on a higher budget.

What were your inspirations for this project?

Probably, Jonathan Glazer, Derek Jarman. Wow, there’s a photobook called ‘The Park’ by Kohei Yoshiyuki that’s all night vision photos of couples hooking up in a park. Couples, groups… It’s not pornographic. It’s really eerie though. That was the inspiration for ‘So Close’, which was initially going to be filmed in night vision. This proved to be difficult so we transposed it. Yeah, anonymity, cruising culture, the eerie element to it, not knowing what’s going to happen. The fear is the thrill. I wanted to metabolize that into this dank, dark vision of bodies coming in and out without fully being based in reality.

Like a fantasy scene.

Yes, and Jarman is really good at that, like his movie Edward II has many moments of fantasy. The two male lovers dance to an Annie Lennox song, who is also in it and comes out to sing in an archaic castle.

Since you directed them quite a bit after you wrote the songs, do you think you would have wanted something different for the music videos at the time you wrote the songs?

Great insight! I can’t remember what my idea for ‘So Close’ was but it was definitely different. It must’ve been something with a car. Maybe cars smashing. But everything I thought then has changed; album cover, how I want to be represented, the way I want to be seen. It all shifted, and I’m really glad for the gift of hindsight. It helped me talk about the record more meaningfully.

Especially with the focus being on love, I suppose you’ve gained a more mature perspective.

Exactly. It becomes its best version, ready for everyone to see. I’m not looking back just to say, “what was I thinking”.

Well going back to the start then, you first learnt to play piano from a strict Russian teacher at your local music store. Can you share something about that?

Well her name was Zhenya, and she was a brilliant teacher for kids but yes very strict. Although, even as a child I had a need for strictness. The first commercial I ever did at age six, the director was yelling at the crew… not great. My mom checked in on me to ask how I was doing, what I thought was going on with him. And I said, “Mom, he’s just trying to get the shot”. So I’ve always had a respect for strictness. It seems to be somewhat of a recurring theme for young gay children, maybe for my generation at least. I’ve talked to a lot of my friends and we all seem to have looked up to this level of excellence.

The vision!


So when did it become, rather than you being part of someone else’s vision, actually your own?

I was part of an acting class that had a first day exercise called “Tornado of Talent “. We had to perform something that we most fear or desire to do publicly that we’ve never done before. One woman’s dream was to be interviewed by Letterman so she got up, not knowing anyone in the class, and performed as herself and as Letterman. It was embarrassing, it was meant to be. But mine was writing a song. That was where I realized I could do it, because people in the audience had an emotional reaction. Before that I had only written songs with my first ever boyfriend. He was into House music so that’s what we made, a far cry from ‘I’ll Be Romance’. But, at the time, it was just me, him and friends. So, I performed my own song and so many people were moved. I realized this isn’t so bad, I can make this into something bigger.

How do you share your priorities between music and acting, you mentioned that this started at a very young age.

I was a kid that looked up at the movie screen and said “that’s gonna be me, I want to do that!” All I wanted for Christmases and birthdays were costumes. My favorite was ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’. I would swing around and sing ‘Out There’ at three or four years old. I was in love with it. It was never a question, everyone would say, “You are going to move to LA when you’re 18”, “go ahead, go do it”. I wasn’t sure whether I’d go to school but I just was going to keep at it. I’ve always been supported, but not in an outwardly expecting way. Rather, an inward way that just makes sense.

It is the same with music. I just keep going, keep writing more and one day something will happen. Until it does, I keep developing my relationship with it. I do have moments of fear and doubt, but mostly I try to listen to the smallest voice that says “it doesn’t matter, just keep going”.

That’s how you make the things that are most meaningful to you in the end.

For sure, meaning derives from listening to your intuition, listening to that voice. It wants to be heard, so you follow where it wants to go. The whole process of writing this record was listening to where the songs told me they wanted to be. Looking back, it made it more revealing and maybe less top down than I wanted at the beginning.

So returning to acting, you started your career as a child actor including in Disney Channel Original Movies, and later joined the cast of the US remake of ‘The Inbetweeners’. This is quite the leap in terms of content, how did it come about?
[Laughs] Well that’s the natural trajectory for those who have been on Disney Channel. All of them go off and rebel in the opposite direction. It’s not a bad thing, you need to shake it off and individuate. How did this come about? In acting, they tell you what roles you’re going to have, so it wasn’t much of a choice. That’s what showed up. I loved those experiences and they changed my life in every way. Acting is a revealing process where you are cast and you’re like “I am nothing like this character” and then oh boy, suddenly you are. Not in any devastating way, you realize “maybe this is a part of me”, or it can be. The leap is what I always wanted for myself, to make my own playground of expression. Meanwhile with music, no one has to pick you, you can take your voice to any direction. You have the opportunity to try different costumes instead of waiting for someone else to give them to you. So, I have a good balance.

Is there anything you would like to be chosen for?

Anything I haven’t done before, I want to keep trying things. It’s natural, and I want to simply let it happen. Again, kumbaya.

That should be the title of the interview.

[Laughs] Actually to be fair, being chosen is more about who you are working with. My dream is to work with the producers that I’ve always listened to and directors I have always watched. That’s the dream, it’s always collaboration and inviting more people in. Music starts as more of a solitary, but my dream is connecting with others. What forms between you and others, that’s the mountain top.

You grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota but as you said moving to LA was a natural path to follow. Did it feel like a business decision or were there other influences?

It was and it wasn’t. That’s just where you went if you wanted to make it.

How do you feel it has contributed to who you are and the art you are producing?

It’s indivisible from what I can imagine for what could have been. I came out here at 18, pretty much on my own. I only really knew three or four people, so I had friends but it was lonely. I love it now but LA is a difficult city to get into. I have friends who have just moved here and I always tell them, “hold fast, keep the faith”. It feels too big to get a hold on, but all of it makes you who you are in the end.

But you feel that while it was hard, it was the right thing for you to do?

Maybe, I don’t know. It happened. I am grateful for my experiences here and everything I’ve done here. I have no regrets, but it’s strange to think about whether this was right or how it could have been different, who would I have been if… Maybe this is the Russian teacher deep inside me, but it’s what I am doing, and what I did. Only certain opportunities come, acting teaches you that. You can try to choose your own thing but there’s always a casting director who makes the cut.

So later on, you starred in Love, Simon in 2018, the first teenage gay romance film by a major film studio. Did it have a personal significance to you?

More because it means a lot to other people. I didn’t realize it at the time. I was put into a costume, and I remember going to catering and catching on to it being quite a big production. When it came out I was like “oh, this is a big deal”, so it gained significance to me along the process. I also met long term friends on the project, Clarke Moore for one. We’ve become very good friends. Personally, coming out publicly feels like it was so long ago. It was the biggest possible thing to do at the time and certainly, its impacts were both seen and unseen. Now, it’s lost its surprise and trouble factor. The worry related to being out free floats somewhere. But ultimately it’s a hugely positive thing.

Yes, there was this “coming out revolution” in the media some 10 years ago, but it’s become much more normalized now.
Absolutely. Sure there are closeted artists who do great work but it eats away at you. At the time, everyone I admired who was gay was out, and to a certain extent a lot of art had to do with being gay. So it’s great to be able to just be now without it remaining the central topic of conversation.

Indeed, and with that, we come back to now… You have a role guest starring in the drama mystery TV Show ‘Sugar’, which has just been released. For those who haven’t had a chance to catch it yet, is there anything you can reveal about your role?

The genre is modern day Neo Noir with a hidden twist. My character is part of the villainy of Sugar’s investigation, so he is quite low on the totem pole. Basically, he’s a weasel who cannot figure out the right move to become part of the bigger picture. Fitting into this character didn’t feel like much of a challenge, as I had many people I could call upon for the role. Some of my fathers friends or my uncle’s friends, these offbeat men who exist in their own world. Somehow I felt I knew this guy already, like I had grown up around him. It was a hoot really, and I felt very encouraged to do what I wanted. It was a smaller role but this made me grateful for it. I just saw my audition tape and I seem like a snarling piece of shit, but Rebecca Mangieri and the team, thank you for casting me in it. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it’s exciting, and it came out the same day as my record!

Truly exciting!

It’s a huge milestone and I feel as though I’m punching above my weight class. I have this feeling of my life being backed by Doris Day’s ‘Que Sera, Sera, Whatever Will Be Will Be’.