Tomás Matos is very clear about the difference between “work” and the slang term “werk.”
As the co-star of the widely praised new movie “Fire Island” broke it down: “So, work is you’re going to work. You’re going to your 9-to-5, you’re going to collect your coin, do your thing. But when you werk," Matos — who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/them, said, " nobody can tell you what you’re doing because you are fab. Period!”
Matos is stealing scenes in “Fire Island,” now streaming on Hulu. “It feels really good for it to be out, and not only out but so well received by everyone. The love is definitely pouring out this Pride, which feels really good.”
A graduate of New York City’s LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts — long associated with the popular 1980 movie "Fame" — Matos is already leaving their mark in the entertainment industry. “Thankfully, because of the training I received at LaGuardia, I didn’t need to get a college degree in the arts,” they said. “I just went straight forward, and rest is history.”
Matos has appeared on Broadway in “Diana: The Musical” and “Hadestown.” Matos has acted in regional theater, danced on “Saturday Night Live,” modeled in campaigns for Tiffany & Co. and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty line and is active on Instagram.
Even before “Fire Island” premiered, Matos seemed to have a knack for standing out. Matos was profiled in The New York Times in 2021 and featured in a video about dancers vying for a spot in the ensemble of the 2018 Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. And during the pandemic, when Broadway was temporarily shut down, Matos started their own company, making and delivering empanadas all over New York City.
In “Fire Island,” Matos plays ‘Keegan,’ who spends a week at the LGBTQ getaway spot with a group of longtime friends. Keegan spends virtually the entire movie making wisecracks, taking selfies, and wearing outrageous outfits. Matos does a memorable karaoke number (backing up SNL’s Bowen Yang), and a wild impersonation of Marisa Tomei from “My Cousin Vinny.”
In its review of “Fire Island,” the Hollywood Reporter praised the film as “delightful,” noting that it “brings surprising heart and even sensitivity to its affectionate observation of gay men of color navigating relationships.”
For Matos, working on the film was both stressful and rewarding. “I think the reason why it was stressful for me was because, it was like uncharted territory for me stepping into such a fabulous film,” they said. “Being able to step into the spotlight in this role has been a dream of mine. ... Thankfully, I was surrounded by people I call family now. So it felt really, really safe.”
Andrew Ahn, the director of “Fire Island,” told NBC Latino in an email that he cast Matos because the actor is uniquely talented and charismatic. “Tomás’ star power is undeniable... I loved how much joy Tomás puts into their work,” Ahn wrote. “This felt so important to the character and to our movie. “Fire Island” is a celebration of queer joy and Tomás embodies that.”
Ahn added that directing Matos was fun because the actor was so collaborative, inspiring, and surprising. “They understand how to use their body as an instrument for expression. This technical training combined with Tomás’ sense of fun really makes Tomás the full package.”
“Fire Island” is unique because the film is centered on LGBTQ characters, and because the LGBTQ characters are primarily people of color. Although representation of LGBTQ characters reached record highs during the 2021-2022 season, a University of California, Los Angeles, diversity report found that only 7% of film leads were Latino in 2021.
Matos described their heritage as Puerto Rican, Black, Cuban and Spanish.
Monica Trasandes, director of Spanish language and Latinx media and representation at GLAAD, which works to promote acceptance of the LGBTQ community through media, said that a mainstream project like “Fire Island” with a diverse LGBTQ cast was very welcome. “Historically, actors from the LGBTQ community are often overlooked; it’s great to see talented actors offered interesting parts that they can bring their perspective to.”
In terms of LGBTQ visibility, she said that progress is happening, citing shows such as “Love, Victor,” “L-Word: Generation Q,” “Vida,” and “Dafne and the Rest.”
“Television and entertainment tell the story of our culture,” Trasandes noted. “If you are invisible in the stories being told, how does that make you feel?” The media, she explained, plays an important role in making viewers and audiences feel like they belong and are a part of this country. “Shows that go beyond coming-out stories show that LGBTQ people can be funny, can be romantic, and can lead lives just lives everybody else.”
Matos believes that fully inhabiting their identity and gender expression helped lead to success. “Something happened in my career, that I been noticing, is as soon as I (stepped) into my authenticity and just started expressing myself without the barriers to try and fit myself into boxes that have been created systematically, I flourished ... And it’s because I was unapologetically being myself.”
Matos credits performers such as Laverne Cox, Billy Porter and MJ Rodriguez for paving the way for other nonbinary artists.
Matos recalls that, growing up on Staten Island, a borough of New York City, they often felt like a “suppressed individual.” But the arts, as well as embracing their heritage — Matos identifies as Afro Latiné — afforded them a path to self-acceptance. “There is definitely pride in owning who you are. I think the reason I feel so grounded and so secure in who I am today is because I am able to be unapologetically myself.”
“Pride for me is 365 days of the year,” Matos said. “I am just happy that we have a month that is celebrated for our community to really thrive, shine, and step into their spotlight.”