EXCLUSIVE: Colby Keller On Stripping Down On The Set Of HBO’s ‘High Maintenance’
Colby Keller has one of the most recognizable…faces in gay adult films. The strapping 6-foot-2 bearded hunk has appeared in over 90 productions since his 2004 debut, and along the way he’s become something of a thinking man’s porn star with his down-to-earth charm and refreshingly approachable sex appeal. That may be why artists and influencers outside the porn industry have started to take notice of the 35-year-old performer. This year, Keller appeared in iconic British designer Vivienne Westwood’s womenswear campaign, sporting thigh-high red boots in one image and a crocheted dress in another. And on September 16, he made his TV debut alongside Drag Race champ Bob the Drag Queen on the premiere of HBO’s High Maintenance. The show expands creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s original web series about the intersecting lives of average New Yorkers who are connected only by their weed dealer (Sinclair) to a half-hour format, exploring multiple stories each week. Queerty chatted with Keller the day of a special screening of the premiere — before he’d even seen it — about faking sex on film, his Hollywood prospects, and why he never watches his own porn.
Were you a fan of the original High Maintenance web series?
I was a big fan of the web series. I’d watched every episode, too. So when they asked me I was pretty excited.
So, they asked you to play this part? Was it something you had to audition for, or did creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair develop the character with you in mind?
They approached me about it. I think they had me in mind for the part. But I did go in for an audition. I went in and kind of read some lines. Which I’ve never done before! I honestly didn’t think they were gonna necessarily give me the role. I was like, This is new for me, doing an audition. Won’t this be fun! Like, I’ll have this experience. The fact that they then asked me to do it was pretty incredible.
Did you know Katja and Ben? I’m curious how they were familiar with your work, if you know what I mean.
I’m not exactly sure how I came across their radar. I didn’t know them personally, no. Only through the show, Ben’s character on the show. My imagination tells me that they wanted to do an episode that had gay themes and they wanted to bring in different well-known gay performers, and someone must have mentioned me. I’m not exactly sure. You’d have to ask them.
Your role kind of felt like a star cameo, but then I realized that not everyone who watches this show is going to know who you are.
Right, exactly. Well, I think that’s part of the role you occupy as a porn performer. Many people have this secret knowledge of you in one context that other people don’t necessarily have. Because most of the population isn’t consuming gay porn. But porn is a big part of a lot of people’s lives, including, I would say probably a majority of gay men. I think it’s time that we recognize how much sexuality factors into our culture and I’m happy to see a world where porn stars get more recognition for the kind of work they do. And I’m happy to benefit from that!
Well, there are obviously very real negative consequences to stigmatizing people in the porn industry.
Yeah, it’s a huge problem. There’s still a lot of work to be done and there are a lot of people working to kind of address that issue. But there’s still a lot of work that we need to do—particularly with female performers. They face a lot more hurdles than male performers, straight or gay, face in this industry. There are a lot of difficulties, being in porn. There’s not a lot of money there. I don’t make very much money. Porn is still my main source of income. One of the things I worry about doing these other projects, getting recognition for other things that aren’t pornographic — will it change the relationship I have with an audience that might be consuming my image as porn? Will it be harder for me to continue making porn? If that’s the case, I’m really screwed, because that’s how I make money.
Have you been pursuing non-adult roles?
I mean, I love opportunities when they come up, but I don’t actively pursue them. I think… This is difficult. I’ve been asked this question several times. “Are you planning to transition into acting or into modeling?” And I think the answer people often want is, “Yes! I would love that opportunity.” But the pitfall with that answer is that the reality is I’m a porn star and there are challenges to taking on those roles. It’s not like I’m gonna become a bit Hollywood actor, you know what I mean? And to say that sets you up for failure. People could look back and say, “See, that wasn’t a possibility for you.” And I think that’s really problematic.
So I love opportunities when they come about. I love engaging different types of performance. Because at the end of the day the thing that motivates me is curiosity. I love engaging with artists and it’s been really fascinating to get closer to the fashion world and see how that industry operates. But I don’t want to pretend there are possibilities there that might not be realistic for me.
What was it like on set filming a non-pornographic sex scene?
There’s a lot of differences! For one thing, my costar who I was working with in that scene, you know, it’s not like he does porn. So it was a very — I mean, I can’t speak to his experience, but it’s a different comfort level and there are a lot more steps you need to take to make sure that everyone is comfortable in that space. There’s also a lot more people on set than you’d normally encounter on a porn set. That was a challenge for me. All these professionals, professional actors who really have a handle on what they’re doing and have really strong, funny personas in this case. And I don’t! So being in that space was challenging in ways that, you know, on a porn set I know what I’m doing. I’m pretty comfortable with it, I have a lot of experience with it. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point, but I feel somewhat comfortable in that space. And being on a TV show for HBO is a very, very different context.
That’s so funny. I would have thought it would be, like, old hat. Like, I’ll just take off my clothes and do my thing.
Well, I did, and I felt very comfortable in that sense. But you also have to take into consideration that most people there in the room aren’t used to that. So, you’re also dealing with a lot of different types people who have different relationships to nudity, and it’s not like they see it every day. Whereas on a porn set you’re dealing with people who see the same thing day after day after day. They’re used to it. So there’s just a different energy, a different dynamic.
Of course, everyone on set was incredibly accommodating and did everything they could to make me and my costar feel comfortable. Almost in a way that was, like, too much, because on a porn set it’s like people don’t care! So you get a little self-conscious, because you’re like, Oh yeah, maybe I should put on a towel now. You become a little bit more self-aware, maybe because there are more eyes on you.
Did you do anything to prepare for the more traditional acting?
I’ve never taken any acting classes. My strategy was to try to approach the lines and say them the way I would normally, as a human being. And that’s the best I could do, because I don’t have any acting training. I don’t know any kind of methodology that would help me. All I knew was that I’m a person, this character is a person. [Laughs] That’s all I got and hopefully it works.
The problem is that I’m not an actor, so I don’t know how it comes across. It’s really a difficult process. I have a lot of respect for actors — not just being able to memorize and deliver a line, but being able to do it with some semblance of authenticity, like you’re not acting it. It’s really challenging. It’s a difficult balance to get that right. Hopefully I did a good enough job that the episode is successful and funny and people enjoy it.
Have you seen it yet?
I haven’t. I plan to see it tonight. There’s a screening tonight that I’m going to.
I wanted to get your take on watching your own performance.
I’m nervous about it. I’m really nervous about it actually. [Laughs] Because I’ve never watched my own porn. So it’ll be a little strange watching myself. I probably won’t. I’ll probably cover my eyes.
You’ve never watched your own porn scenes?
I think one time I have. And I was horrified and I never did it again! [Laughs]
Your character is sober. Are you?
Am I sober… I do drink alcohol and I do smoke marijuana. So, I think that would qualify me as not being sober. Right now I’m sober! [Laughs] So, I’m a big advocate particularly for marijuana legalization. I think it’s a plant that can help a lot of people. We need to be open to those possibilities. I could do a lot of good for our culture, and I think we’re finally getting to a point where we can recognize the therapeutic benefits of marijuana. It’s definitely safer for people that alcohol is. So I’m encouraged by the direction we’re going as a nation, but we could definitely get there a little bit faster.
Bob the Drag Queen also makes an appearance in a few of your scenes. But what was it like working with him?
It was really incredible. I mean, there’s a whole crew of people in this episode who are really talented, funny, amazing people. Jack Ferver was also in the scene. Just being around them, I mean I wish you could see that, the process, this group of people engaging with each other. Bob is an incredible, generous person. He’s really kind. I think he could probably tell that this wasn’t a space I’m used to and might be a little uncomfortable. He did a really great job of making me feel welcome and part of the group and engaged.
Did you root for her on Drag Race?
You know, I am a Drag Race fan, but I actually never saw that season, because it was while I was on the road filming my own project, Colby Does America. So I never actually saw it, unfortunately. It’s the one season I haven’t seen.
Speaking of Colby Does America, last I read you’d had sex on camera with someone in 49 different states.
Well, I have filmed a video in all 50 states. There are some states I’d like to revisit. I’m not really happy with the content I was able to get. But I’ve run into a funding roadblock at the moment. I haven’t really had any funding come in for the last few months or so. I wouldn’t say the project is over or shut down, but we’re in a moment of hiatus. But people are continuing to edit videos. There’s a whole team working on the project every day. So it’s not finished at all.
What’s the endgame?
What’s the endgame? I think it remains to be seen. There’s a lot of room to continue working with the content, to continue generating content for it. It could be a project that doesn’t necessarily have to have an endpoint. To me, more isn’t a problem. I don’t think I necessarily have to think about an endpoint or and end product. If anything I think that might be a problem. We tend to think about end results as opposed to a process. For me the project is a process, and keeping that process open is really important. At this point I don’t see a reason to close it.