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It didn’t unfold at a counter at Schwab’s Pharmacy, but Philemon Chambers has a seemingly-out-of-nowhere discovery story, too.
Chambers (his first name is pronounced “phil-LEE-mun”), 27, had been struggling to make it as an actor since 13, with only a few small roles on TV series like Criminal Minds and All Rise on his résumé.
But in late 2020, after surviving a nasty bout of COVID-19, Chambers stumbled upon an opportunity to audition for a Netflix Christmas movie called Single All the Way.
“Two weeks after I got better from COVID, that’s when the audition came,” he says. “And I remember having this conversation with myself of, ‘If I’m going to do it, and if I want this to be my career, then I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.'”
The plot of the film follows all the familiar tropes of the genre — disenchanted big-city dweller falls in love in a small town — but had one major difference: The central love triangle is among three gay men.
“I sent in my audition tape,” recalls Chambers. “Two days later, Jonathan Clay Harris, the casting director, reached out to me. And he was like, ‘Who are you? Where did you come from? I know everybody — and I do not know you.'”
When Single All the Way debuts on Netflix on Dec. 2, a lot more people may be asking similar questions of Chambers, who landed a lead role in the movie — a fresh face amid a crowd of Hollywood vets like Michael Urie, Jennifer Coolidge, Barry Bostwick and Kathy Najimy.
“These iconic people that I have looked up to for such a long time, I am now getting to work alongside of,” he says.
Chambers plays Nick, best friend to Peter (Urie), a children’s author and handyman who accompanies Peter from Los Angeles to his hometown of Bridgewater, New Hampshire, for the holidays. Nick is in love with Peter; but Peter is distracted by a local hunk (Luke Macfarlane, who also plays the love interest in Universal Pictures’ upcoming Billy Eichner rom-com Bros).
Urie and Macfarlane were already well-acquainted, having overlapped at Juilliard drama school. “I remember the first day we did our camera testing in Montreal, Luke and Michael were just telling me stories about how they had this one teacher that would explore the difference in vocal tone and how to enunciate. I got so many stories,” says Chambers, who is not classically trained.
For Chambers, who is Black and identifies as queer, the opportunity represents more than just a career leveling-up — it’s a game-changer.
“Netflix is breaking a lot of barriers with this,” Chambers says of being the first Black actor to star in an LGBTQ Christmas rom-com. “This is exactly the kind of thing I needed to see when I was younger. In Hollywood, a lot of things have been portrayed as very stereotypical, or it’s the coming-out story. Or there’s some negative connotation behind it. And this was so refreshing. My character, Nick, has a successful career and is doing successful things.”
(2020 marked the first year that Hallmark and Lifetime brought out Christmas movies with gay lead characters, while Hulu released the lesbian holiday rom-com Happiest Season, starring Kristen Stewart.)
Chambers was born and raised in Compton, California, and still lives there. He was 6 when he saw The Lion King at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre and realized he wanted to be an actor.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t really know [I was gay,]” he says. “You kind of suppress it. And I did that for years. I tried to act very masculine.”
That secrecy extended into adulthood and his professional life, too.
“Back in the day,” he says, “and I’m new to the industry, but Michael remembered it too, you couldn’t really say who you were openly without judgment. And within the past five years, it’s becoming a thing [to be openly gay]. With Marvel having their first black gay character in Eternals, I mean, that speaks volumes from where we were. And I really cannot wait to see what happens in the next five years, when it will be normalized versus this thing that has to be a thing.”
Chambers credits Single All the Way with giving him the confidence to fully come out.
“Going through this role with Nick, I became accepting of myself even more,” he says. “When you do learn to fully embrace who you are, a lot of different avenues in your life do open up.”
He continues: “It’s of those things where I am still in awe of the power of Netflix to reach this global audience and allow me to be a vessel and a conduit to that. I’m very overwhelmed. It’s so much love and support and accepting of myself that’s come from this. Even from my family and my own family dynamic — the immense amount of support that I have received is monumental.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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