When “King Cobra” director Justin Kelly first learned that Garrett Clayton used to be a Disney Channel actor, he said he assumed Clayton would not fit the movie’s gay porn star lead role. But Kelly’s assumptions proved false, and Clayton now has a new role to add to his repertoire.
Clayton, known for Disney Channel’s “Teen Beach Movie,” is shedding his nice-boy image—and clothes—for only a speedo as he stars in Kelly’s new thriller about a murder in the porn industry, premiering Oct. 21 on IFC Films.
The film, which also stars James Franco, Christian Slater and Keegan Allen, premiered at Tribeca Film Festival April 16. It also screened at Reeling, Chicago’s LGBTQ International Film Festival, Sept. 29 to a sold-out advanced screening featuring a panel with Kelly, Clayton and producer Scott Levenson.
Based on real events and the 2012 book “Cobra Killer: Gay Porn, Murder, and the Manhunt to Bring the Killers to Justice” by Peter A. Conway and Andrew E. Stoner, the film tells the story of fresh-faced San Diego native Sean Lockart, played by Clayton, who is turned into a gay porn star by a closeted producer, and adopts the alter ego Brent Corrigan.
Played by Slater, the producer becomes protective of Corrigan when rival gay porn producers, played by Franco and Allen, want him in their films. The story turns grim when Slater’s character is murdered over Corrigan’s contract.
“The biggest thing I needed out of an actor, aside from the look and vibe, was somebody willing to take the risk and be comfortable in simulating gay sex scenes,” Kelly said of Clayton, adding that he was not afraid to commit to the role.
Clayton said the sex scenes were the most challenging and he still cringes watching himself simulate them on screen, but he wanted to break free from his Disney days.
“[Corrigan is a] very layered character I could sink my teeth into, and he gave me everything I was looking for,” Clayton said.
Clayton said playing the part required perseverance and he prepared for the role by researching his character’s life and watching his films, but the two never met.
Because the story covers serious subject matter such as porn addiction and murder, Clayton said he was careful not to make a joke of Corrigan’s life but to respect the work.
“A lot of people have too strong of an opinion when it comes to these subjects,” Clayton said. “It is not my job to judge; it is just my job to tell the story.”
Chicagoan Todd Burbank, who attended Reeling’s advanced screening of “King Cobra,” said the acting was strong, but he wished the movie was more intense in its treatment of the subject matter. However, the attraction of big Hollywood names such as Franco and Slater pull people in, he added.
“Names like that draw in people that are not gay and have friends that are and have seen these actors do other movies,” Burbank said.
Brenda Webb, executive director of Chicago Filmmakers and founder of Reeling, said having big actors in an independent films bolsters theirappeal. Because of the movie’s mainstream connection, she said Reeling was curious to show the film, and the story was interesting to the festival’s audience.
“Actors play an important role in getting these more independent films into the mainstream [world],” Webb said.
Webb said Sean Paul Lockhart, on whom the book and film was based and who now acts in independent films, came to Reeling a couple of years ago and it wasinteresting to see “King Cobra” be part of Reeling 2016.
Kelly also expressed Franco’s support of his work and called him a mentor.
“He loves cool, controversial subject matter, and so do I,” Kelly said. “We have connected on that and want to keep rolling with it.”