For Decent Company August: loyalty, Mike Axelrod will be reliving a moment of high school betrayal. Mike sat down with Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman to talk about identity, self-worth, and letting out his inner freak.
JOSH BOERMAN: Welcome aboard! It’s exciting to have you doing a show with us.
MIKE AXELROD: It’s good to be here.
JB: And you’re doing a piece dealing with a sort of unfortunate high school experience, which I think will resonate with a lot of us who have had unfortunate high school experiences. So tell us a little bit about it.
MA: Well, let me say this, first of all. Looking back, I feel like my high school experience was just so bland. Like, I was such a shy little runt dude. I was so worried about how I was perceived with people, so I chose not to do anything that would have me stand out with people.
So at the time, it was, like, doubly intense because I had never had anything happen to me like that. Like, I had never dated anyone. I had never asked out someone to prom before. So to have that happen was like, “Oh shit, maybe I should just be in the background,” you know?
JB: And when you say had “that” happen, you mean?
MA: So I was at senior prom. You know, I’d asked this girl to prom and she’d said yes. We’d been friends; our friend groups were kind of peripheral. And I asked her out and was like, you know, she’s short, I’m short. She’s cute, I’m cute. We’d be great together, you know? So we go to prom, and it’s like, everything’s fine. But everything’s very vanilla with her. We dance like this, probably.
JB: Oh yeah. Arms out to the sides, probably leaving more than enough room for Jesus.
MA: I’m like, “Boobs? Euuugh.”
JB: Right. “What are these? What are these things called boobs?”
MA: And secretly, I was like, “I don’t want to deal with this.” But I was like, “Yes. I’m a straight guy goin’ to prom with a girl I could date.” And then, you know, we do the prom thing. It’s all very fine, normal. Then we go to the after prom, and I’m like, you know, in theory, seal the deal, right? It’s prom night, this is my chance. Be with a girl.
JB: You gotta.
MA: And she disappears. She’s gone.
MA: Gasp. And I’m like, “Where did she go?” And I’m like, “Where did my friend Frank go?” And I find out that they’re makin’ out. By themselves. Like, with each other.
JB: Tough. Tough stuff. So you were effectively left at the altar.
JB: Which is a tough position for any, what, 17, 18-year-old boy to be in.
MA: Eighteen. Yeah.
JB: Tough times.
MA: Uh huh. And I felt like the woman scorned, you know?
JB: And so what you’re going to be doing, then, in this piece for Decent Company is you’re going to be looking back on that with the distance of time, figuring out what that moment really was.
MA: Uh huh. So at the time I was like, “It’s so fucked up. Like, I put myself out there by asking her, and she just blows it in my face. Goes with one of my good friends.” Who never showed interest with her. And he’s super pretty. He was, like, the pretty boy. He was the ultimate quiet, shy, mysterious dude.
And I just felt like, “Oh, I guess the nice guy gets his balls ground to dust,” you know? And I remember the next school day, that was the talk. Even the popular kids were like, “She left Mike and got with Frank.” And then I see them. There’s this long hallway in our high school that’s, like, from here to that graphic.
JB: Okay, so eyeballing it, that’s maybe 100 feet.
MA: Yeah, it’s a long, long way. It’s just this long hallway. And I could see them holding hands. And I’m like, “Wait a second, they’re a couple?” (LAUGHS) And they see me somehow. I guess they’re probably hyper-vigilant.
JB: I’m seeing this as a perfectly framed shot, like in a movie, where you’ve just got this long-ass hallway, like out of The Shining or whatever.
MA: Yeah. I see them. And maybe this is like a forced memory, but this is how I remember it: they see me, and they, like, scamper away. That’s how I see it. (JOSH LAUGHS) They’re just like, “Ooh!” And I’m like, “Okay, guys. I guess you don’t wanna talk to me.” So it was more shame piled on more shame. They knew they did something wrong, and they just ran away. Like, literally. And eventually we did talk separately. But it was super awkward. And I don’t think they apologized.
JB: But in that moment, you knew that your loyalty had been utterly betrayed.
JB: How do you deal with that? Do you suck it up and move on? What do you do?
MA: Surface level, I felt betrayed and hurt and all that. But underneath, I was like, “Oh, people are gonna feel sorry for me.” Super, like, victim enjoyment. I enjoyed being the victim. Sympathy, pity: I wanted it. I said I avoided attention and all that, but, you know, I really wanted it, secretly. And that’s why I went to theatre, ’cause I could get attention safely as not me.
JB: Right. And that is interesting that sometimes when you have a bad experience but you’ve been on the receiving end of the bad experience, it can almost end up having positive consequences on down the line because you can parlay that into, “Oh, look at me, look at how sad everything is for me.”
MA: It’s fucked up, though.
JB: Oh yeah, totally. But I think that we all do it.
MA: Right. Yeah. And that’s not a healthy attitude, I don’t think. So it was just many things on top of other things. On top of being a closet queer. You know, feeling like, “Well, nothing’s making sense right now. Okay, being gay is obviously not right. Obviously.”
JB: Because God says no? Or what was the—
MA: Not even. I grew up in a very liberal family and a very liberal school, but the GSA, you know, the gay-straight alliance or whatever, was like three people. And they were, like, the weird kids, and people made fun of them because they were weird and because they were gay.
So to me, being gay was like being one of the weirdos. It wasn’t, like, part of who you are. It’s just like, “Oh, this person’s weird, so I can’t be that.” So it was like, “Okay, can’t be gay. So let’s try being straight. Okay, tried being straight, didn’t work out.”
MA: Surprise. Wasn’t for you. (LAUGHS)
JB: Surprise. Yeah. And meanwhile, like, having these fantasies about this kid in my French class and just wanting to jump his bones and squeeze his tits, you know? He was like the jock dude, and I was just like, “Oh my god.” You know, just really confused at that point.
‘Cause I was like, “Okay, I can be straight. Fine. Let’s do it.” But I guess not. I guess this was, like, a sign being like, “Maybe you just should be nothing. Maybe you should just continue being this asexual wallflower who doesn’t deserve to be with anyone,” you know? Definitely a lot of self-loathing.
JB: And at what point did you come around and say to yourself, “Hey, that’s fucked up?”
MA: College. You know, I went to this liberal-seeming high school, open, but it was very small and very insular. So the attitudes of the popular kids were like, “Okay, gay people are weird.” So that was the attitude. Maybe not of the faculty, but of the students. And that’s who I thought mattered.
Whereas going to college, it was like, there are a lot more gay people. Everybody’s cool. (LAUGHS) You know, people don’t give as much of a shit.
JB: Sure. Well, and one thing that I think is interesting about this piece is that I feel like it is kind of the classic story of a betrayal that we hear about time and time again, but there’s also interesting questions in there about what it means to be loyal to yourself and to who you really are as a person. Which is a very important thing.
MA: Yeah. I was being fake about— you know, my real thoughts were, like, “I wanna bone this jock. I want him to fuck me.” But in reality, I was like, “I don’t deserve it.”
JB: Or trying to trick yourself into thinking that, like you said, because you’re not worth it or because you have to be perceived in a certain way, it wasn’t the right thing for you.
MA: Yeah. I liked to be perceived as the most bland, the most non-threatening— you know, I didn’t want to hurt anyone. So that meant I just didn’t do anything, I felt. I felt like I just didn’t say anything, I just didn’t do anything, so no one could hate me.
But the result was, no one liked me either, I feel like. You know? I was very much the hanger-on in high school. Like, I would go with my friends who were very wild and would, like, set fireworks off in people’s mailboxes and set fireworks off at people’s houses. And we would set Christmas trees on fire.
JB: But you were just kind of there watchin’ it happen.
MA: I was just kinda there. I was like, “I’m part of something now. I’m cool because I’m here.” But I wasn’t contributing to anything. I would smoke weed because my friends were doing it. I would chase each other with cars because my friends were doing it, you know? I felt a part of something because I was there, not because I was really part of something.
So that was all very surface level ego fulfilling things. But really, you know, I just wanted to be this freaky gay weirdo. You know, I’m a weirdo. And it took me a long time to be able to say, “That’s cool.” And that’s what people like about me, because I’m weird. And that’s the real me. The real me is quiet too, but the real me isn’t someone who would just, like, curl up in a ball at a party. Put up this shield.
JB: (LAUGHS) Just in the fetal position, just, like—
MA: Yeah. I was so scared. I was so scared of people. So scared of being rejected.
JB: And scared of yourself too, right?
MA: Yeah. Scared of letting loose this weirdo energy. People would be like, “Oh, fuck. He’s so weird. And I don’t wanna be near him.”
JB: Which, honestly, in high school, could very well have been the case. Because that’s what high school is, because everybody is so deeply seeking to conform to some sort of standard. You don’t really get true individuals yet because at that point in psychological development you haven’t even really figured out what being an individual is.
MA: True. Yeah. And people are that way to me now. People are like, “Oh, you’re kinda weird, dude.” Like, they pull away. And now, of course, I will be like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t be so weird,” but also, I’m like, “Well, they’re just not my people. You’re just not for me. Okay, we don’t click. Okay, bye. Get my weirdos out here.”
JB: Well, you gotta find your tribe, right?
JB: You gotta find the people who you resonate with, who you connect with.
MA: Yeah. And it’s like, the people who reject me, I don’t wanna be friends with ’em. Fuck ’em. They’re probably boring. (LAUGHS)
JB: Yeah. And again coming back to the idea for this month, that’s another part of loyalty. One kind of loyalty, and the kind of loyalty that I think we in the company have talked about as being a negative thing, is when you just create this sense of loyalty out of a sense of obligation.
Like, I am adjacent to this, therefore I’m going to be part of it. Even if it doesn’t necessarily give me anything back, I need to be a part of this. And that’s so different from the kind of loyalty that you get to a group of people who are actually your people.
MA: Right. Totally true. And I just remember I had my friend Dan, who was, like, the nice guy. And people loved him because he was the nice guy. And we were very similar in height, and personality a little bit. And I’m a nice guy, but I’m not “the nice guy,” I’ve found.
But I tried to be like him. I tried to emulate him, be him. Because I knew that people respected him and people liked him because he was the nice guy. So I would do that. It was like acting. I would act like him to get what I needed, which was acceptance and, like, “Look at me.”
But it wasn’t genuine because it was coming from a really selfish place of, like, “Look at me. I need you to look at me.”
JB: Or, in the case of your play, you went to prom with this girl because you felt the need to be like, “Yes, I am a senior in high school who is a man. And I will go to prom with a woman.”
MA: Yes. Exactly. I’ll be like all my other friends and all my other peers, I’ll do that thing, because I wanna be just like them. I wanna be like a cog in that machine. Heteronormativity. But it was like, (IMITATES GEARS GRINDING).
And in a way, her doing what she did was a sign from the universe being like, “This is wrong. This is not right. You’re not being truthful to yourself, so here’s what you get.” And I’m not one of those people who’s like, “Everything happens for a reason,” but looking back, it’s like, “Well yeah, this happened for a reason.”
And honestly, I don’t know how she felt about me. Obviously she wasn’t attracted to me or wanted to get with me, but she could probably tell deep down that I wasn’t super attracted to her, you know?
So that’s what I deal with in the piece. She can understand implicitly that I’m not really trying to get with her. I don’t really appreciate her. So she’ll get with someone who she obviously likes and is attracted to, and will give her what she needs. ‘Cause I wouldn’t.