When Nico Tortorella and I connect by phone, “The Following” alum is still uncovering the silver linings presented by Coronavirus. “I’m trying to focus on the weird built-in blessings like spending more time with my partner. We’re able to work on at-home renovations, stuff we’ve never really had the opportunity to do before.” Over the course of our conversation, we explore Nico’s path to acting, their new AMC show, “The Walking Dead: World Beyond,” and their longtime relationship with cannabis.
Growing up, did you always know you wanted to pursue acting or was it something you developed an interest in over time?
Nico Tortorella: I grew up north of Chicago where everyone in my family was a hockey player. It was sort of a right-of-passage. If you could walk, you’d put on skates. But me and my brother were obsessed with the arts, and he and I were constantly creating, even though we didn’t really come from a creative family. My mom, coming from a big Italian family, wanted us to be more extroverted. She was like, “You gotta go audition for ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ it will make you a louder person.” So we auditioned and both got cast as Munchkins. While that wasn’t the goal, there was no looking back for me. The second I hit the stage, [acting] was a no-brainer: “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” There was never a question of “Am I going to be able to do it?”, it was more “This is who I am and this is what I do.”
So there was alignmentment within yourself at a very young age.
Nico Tortorella: I kind of knew early on that if I developed any sort of Plan B, I would be putting energy into an alternative manifestation, which would be counterproductive. So I never really entertained the idea of doing anything else. Ultimately, my path led me to Los Angeles, and once I was there, I just started working.
How did your path lead you to LA?
Nico Tortorella: I’d performed a bunch of children’s theater and started working in professional theater in Chicago, where I wound up getting an agent, and was in art school there for a year before transferring to a business school in Los Angeles. I had white-kid dreadlocks at Loyal Marymount—a Jesuit university—and was like, “This dosen’t fucking match.” After three-quarters of a semester, I dropped out and received a Ford Modeling contract. My agent in Chicago had a sister agency in Los Angeles and they were able to connect me out there. It was probably six months of auditioning before I was working, and I’ve been working ever since.
That’s amazing. Would you say that was the first major sign signifying you were on the right path?
Nico Tortorella: It was a series of wins for sure. I don’t think early on there was one big job that changed everything. There were a couple of [projects] I got really close [to booking] and there was a Nickelodeon pilot that didn’t get picked up…as an actor, there are these weird wins that might end up as projects or shows that never see daylight. Early on, it was a lot of “one step forward, two steps back,” but my perseverance and willpower were always at such a high level. As an actor—or really anyone in the arts—the amount of “No’s” we get on a daily basis, for whatever reason…you’re too tall, you’re too white, you’re too good-looking, you’re too fat, etc, etc…it’s a lot. It’s a lot of fucking pressure and it never really phased me. I always knew my place was [to act], it was just a matter of when and where.
Flash forward to your upcoming show, “The Walking Dead: World Beyond.” What can fans of the franchise expect from the new series?
Nico Tortorella: This is the first cast on “The Walking Dead” that is primarily teeenagers who don’t remember what life was like before the sky fell. For the most part, they’ve been living in this self-contained community their entire lives, and they don’t know what life is like outside the walls. Right after the first episode, they’re outside for the first time and seeing the world in a whole new way. It’s a world that we’ve gotten used to as “Walking Dead” fans, but this is their first time out.
My character ‘Felix’ is really—I like to joke that he’s the Rick Grimes of the show—but in so many ways, he is. He’s the protector, he’s the glue that holds everyone together and he makes sure everyone is on top of their game, smart, safe and loved.
You’ve also had success in other mediums. What inspired the creation of “The Love Bomb” podcast?
Nico Tortorella: Really just people. I got sober from alcohol six years ago and started taking my life more seriously. I started questioning who I was and where I fit into the world. I started questioning how we got to where we are as a society and why certain loves and identities are accepted while others are not. I really just started looking at my own queer identity and trying to navigate my own being. I started having conversations with all of my friends—queer people that I’ve looked up to for years. One of my good buddies who I’d grown up with was just starting a podcast network. I’d never even listened to a podcast at the time, but he asked me to come on and have a conversation with him. It was the first time I’d had a public conversation about gender and sexuality. The second we stopped recording, he was like, “Dude, do you want your own show?” And I was like, “Fuck yeah.” The first season was very much my growing up in and around the queer community through that show and it really established my voice.
Do you think the honesty of it all is what resonated most with people?
Nico Tortorella: For sure. I think there’s something really special about that podcast where it feels like you’re eavesdropping on two friends having a conversation. I was never pushing any sort of messaging on the fans, it was really just a creative outlet for me. I miss that podcast.
Truth be told, there’s actually a new podcast in the works right now and I’m really excited to get back into that space.
Creatively, how is cannabis part of your process?
Nico Tortorella: Cannabis has been part of my process since freshman year of high school and it’s definitely shaped everything that I am today. It demanded I look outside myself while simultaneously looking deeper inside myself.
My use of [weed] has shifted over the years, but it’s been a creative outlet for me such a long time. Senior year of high school we had an opportunity called “Senior Project,” where you would take the last quarter off of school and work on whatever project you could convince the school to let you do. Most folks would find internships or assist someone somewhere. I convinced the school to let me paint a giant twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot mural in my garage, which was just me painting for six weeks and smoking all day everyday. It was fucking fantastic.
I’ve always been very vocal about my usage of cannabis, even from an early age. It’s like you get to put on these glasses where you can see something from a new vantage point, whatever it is that you’re working on. My parents knew that I smoked and I’ve smoked with them a ton over the years. Even just on a public level, I was never shy about using, and it’s opened up opportunities and spaces to explore other plant medicines. Mushrooms became a huge part of my life and they very much still are. I’ve drank ayahuasca twenty-two times and I’ve spent a lot of time down in the jungle. Plant medicine is very near and dear to my heart, and without it, I don’t know that I would have found any of my other teachers.
It sounds like you have a more spiritual connection to the plant.
Nico Tortorella: I’m a firm believer that every plant that exists has its own spirit and its own medicine. When working with a specific plant, you can tap into [those healing properties]. There are ways to benefit from that spirit or be harmed by that spirit, no matter what it is. Ultimately it comes down the intention you’re bringing into the union and asking, “What am I looking to get out of this?” If you’re just looking to get fucked up and party [the plant] will treat you a certain way. That beats you up long term. But if you’re looking to actually gain something and learn and have a profound experience, the possibilities are endless.
Pivoting from plants to people, why is it hard for people to wrap their heads around the idea that they don’t need to get everything from one person?
Nico Tortorella: I think it’s taught behavior. We have been taught one thing for eons. Through colonialism and coercive religious indoctrination, monogamy has been set up as a way to keep us in order and keep us in place. There haven’t been positive poly role models in the world, which is why it’s been so important for me to live as public and outward as possible in my relationship with myself, in my relationship with my partner, and my relationship with my secondary partners. I want to be the role model that I didn’t have when I was growing up, and hopefully effect some change elsewhere.
That being said, do I think polyamory—non-monogamy—is the only answer? No, absolutely not. There are plenty of people who need monogamy and thrive off of it, it just never really worked for me. There were years and numerous relationships where I was not treating my partners well—and not treating myself well—because I didn’t have the basic knowledge and language to navigate who I was.
So essentially having a deeper understanding of oneself allows them to figure out what the best relationship for them could be.
Nico Tortorella: Totally. And doing the homework. Looking to see what exists. Seeing why certain systems have been built. Asking what you want to get out of life. What it all comes down to is honest communication with yourself first, and anyone you’re starting a relationship with. I am a firm believer that you put it all on the table from day one. Because what’s the point any other way?
Then your true self is just there, and you’ll either vibe with the person you’re presenting your true self to, or you won’t.
Nico Tortorella: And that’s totally fine. If more people were non-monagomous or poly-curious, imagine how much less divorce there would be in the world?
My first poetry book is called “All Of It Is You,” and it really celebrates this oneness and connectivity that’s in everything. We are all—in one way or another—exactly the same, as is everything in the universe. We are all, in one way or another, derived from the same origin, and it should all be treated the same.