How Jason Sherwood Is Bringing Queer Opulence to the Oscars

The Emmy-winning set designer hashtags the ceremony “#OscarsSoGay.”

The Oscars aren’t until Sunday, but set designer Jason Sherwood has already won big.

An Emmy winner for his production design of Fox’s Rent: Live, Sherwood has lent his golden vision to high-profile theater, musical TV performances, and world tours for Sam Smith, Sara Bareilles, and Spice Girls. This year the New York-based creative director has partnered with Swarovski to make the Academy Awards ceremony sparkle like new.

Sherwood, who is also collaborating with Tyra Banks on her upcoming ModelLand experience, gives NewNowNext a preview of the Oscars eleganza that will have audiences gagging.

Congrats on the Oscars gig!

Thank you. I’m a lifelong movie fanatic, and I grew up watching the Oscars every year, so it feels like a beautiful full-circle moment. It’s a gold-standard job in the land of production design, and everyone I’m working with is at the height of their game. I really love that it’s a television show that celebrates movies that takes place in a theater and features music performances, so it’s virtually everything I’ve ever cared about.

You’re only 30. Are you the youngest person to design the Oscars set?

I don’t know if that’s true, but a lot of folks who have worked on the Oscars for many years have told me that—like our lighting designer, Bobby Dickinson, who has designed the show maybe 35, 36 times. I’m certainly among the youngest.

Do you ever feel underestimated or at a disadvantage because of your age?

The industry is full of forward-thinking people interested in digging deeper and finding the next idea. I’ve mostly encountered people who are excited about new possibilities, new thoughts, new points of view. When I’m in a room with people who have tons more experience than me, people who have generously brought me into the fold, I benefit from their experience. It’s tough to subvert something, to take it to the next level, if you don’t really understand the standards and why they’ve been that way for so long.

Your roots are in theater but you’ve also designed the People’s Choice Awards and an opening number for the Grammys. Was it always a goal to design for awards shows?

The worlds of television and live music yearn for theatricality, so they’ll often dip into the theater designer pool to look for designers with the ability to reach beyond the stage and connect with an audience. When I have first meetings about those projects, these people are always seeking that ephemeral essence we create in the theater. My goal as a kid was to design for Broadway, and up until three years ago, I never thought about designing for live television or pop stars; all of this has happened organically. The day after the Oscars, I’ll fly home to design a show at New York Theatre Workshop. Hopefully I’m lucky enough to keep spinning all of these career plates.

Jason Sherwood Design

This year’s Oscar nominees are pretty straight. Are you at least bringing a gay sensibility to the design?

Let’s be clear—there’s nothing I do that isn’t incredibly gay. [Laughs] The nominating committee is one thing, but what’s great about the Oscars is that the director, producers, and designers get to create a show that’s reflective of what we care about. So, yes, we’re honoring the nominees, but we’re also creating a space for presenters, performances, and a general sensibility that will celebrate inclusivity, diversity, and queerness in a really specific and exciting way. I’ve actually been joking that it’s #OscarsSoGay.

What’s your set serving? Opulence?

Well, the category always has to be opulence and glamour at the Oscars. But this year I was interested in breaking the traditional presentational quality of the show, which usually takes place in a beautiful little frame with the stage in one section and the audience in another. I saw an opportunity to create a physical stage that would feel as complex and encompassing as this past year’s best movies.

So you were inspired by the nominated films?

The visual theme is inspired by the impact of those films. I wanted to create something that would celebrate that impact, that would explode this huge range of movies in a more dimensional way, so the design features a sculptural cyclone element that takes the movie images out of their standard little rectangle and brings them into this swirling visual, a living film reel, that surrounds the stage and the audience.

You won your first Emmy for the production design of Rent: Live. How did it feel to help bring that show to TV audiences?

I’ve been lucky to be a part of a lot of things with a queer element, but yeah, Rent: Live was such an impactful moment for me. I remember seeing Rent on Broadway as a kid, and “I’ll Cover You” was the first time I saw two queer people sing a love song to each other. So to put that show on television for millions of people across the country to see, to do work honoring a generation of people that we lost to the AIDS crisis, meant so much to me.

You did the set design for the off-Broadway premiere of The View UpStairs, a musical about the deadly 1973 arson attack on a New Orleans gay bar. Last summer you created the Pride Arch for World Pride. Are you drawn to projects that have a social impact?

I’m attracted to projects about authenticity. A lot of those projects have come to me naturally, but I definitely put it out there at every opportunity that I’m a gay designer and a millennial gay man. It’s been an honor to work on projects that represent me and my community.

You’ve worked with Sam Smith on many TV performances and their The Thrill of It All world tour. Why does that partnership work?

Sam and I were a match because they were looking for a theatrical sensibility for their performances and tour. I really respond to the emotional rawness of Sam’s music, and they respond to the way I’m able to translate that into a physical space. When we first met, we talked about our shared interests, our individual coming out experiences; we made a personal connection and formed a friendship fairly quickly that has aided in our collaboration, which relies on mutual respect and understanding. I think it’s been valuable to have other queer people around Sam, people who understand those feelings and that isolation, to help provide a platform for their music and talent.

That said, your queerest collaboration yet might be the Spice World tour.

[Laughs] Spice Girls was actually the first concert I ever attended as a kid. I remember delighting in the experience, and then growing up to appreciate their legacy as gay icons. With Spice World, we wanted to create a nostalgia bomb, a giant celebration where anyone could come as they were and be themselves. The girls were so embracing of that idea, and it was really exciting and special.

Most people who enjoy your designs may never know you created them. Do you mind that anonymity?

I’m friends with and work with a lot of artists who are very well known, and I don’t envy that kind of recognition at all. Part of what appeals to me about my job is that the work is varied and complex and transformative, so to be identified as a person within the work would be counter to the work itself. If you walked into a theater and said, “Oh, Jason Sherwood did this,” then perhaps I lost my flexibility and hadn’t stretched the bounds of my imagination.

The 92nd annual Academy Awards air Sunday, February 9 on ABC.

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