In the new web series Self Ctrl, it's 29-year-old Nicky's birthdayand he'll cry, laugh and fall apart if he wants to.
Self Ctrl spans seven episodes, and the finale dropped Nov. 29. But the entire show takes place in just one day. Along with creating and directing the series, Elias Rios plays Nicky, who tries to turn his life around in the face of chaos.
"When you have a character's birthday, it's the most important day of their year," he said. "There's this extra level of sensitivity and resolution and manifestation that is involved. I thought it was a great way to have this day be a catalyst for a dysfunctional character to start working toward addressing their issues."
Through Self Ctrl, Rios said he hopes to carve out a space for himself and his community. It's rare to see a nuanced Latine character on screen, much less a queer one, he said. Rather than just be behind the camera, he wanted to get in front of it.
"I feel seen," he said. "I made a point to like to stand in front of a light and say: 'Hey, I'm here. People like me are here. My story matters, and there needs to be more of them."
Much of the show is pulled from Rios' own experiences, from his habits and interests to how he approaches relationships. But the most impactful moment to write and watch back was a reflection on his coming out experience, Rios said.
Growing up with a church background, Rios spent a lot of his life trying to suppress his queerness and date women. His last relationship with a woman lasted three and a half years, but as it got serious, he realized it wasn't what he wanted. At 28, he said the only way out was to break upand come out.
That's the subject of one of the episodes, which Rios said is somewhat of an apology to his ex and explanation for what he was thinking at the time. Coming out isn't always rainbows and parades, he said. It's complex, and he wanted to demonstrate that in Self Ctrl.
"For a long time, I struggled with whether or not I was even going to film the episode," he said. "But something that I've been learning more and more is the things that scare you are the things that you should do. When you face your shame, you can eradicate itit was important for me to make, and now I can kind of really move on."
Self Ctrl is also more than a coming out storyit's about growth in general, whether that's discovering an identity or showing up to work on time, said actor Terry Guest, who plays Damien.
The show's coming out narrative is also unique, he added. Most center around teenagers or people in their early 20's, so it's refreshing to go beyond that, Guest said.
"This is a story I don't ever really hear told. There is something particularly heartbreaking and transformative about coming more into yourself when you are a little bit older," Guest said. "It's also so dope to see someone I care about complete this project that is so important to him."
Actor Rich Williams, who plays Thaniel, said he was honored to be part of such a personal storybut also valued how collaborative the process was. Rios brought together people from across Chicago's comedy scene and beyond for Self Ctrl. Despite dipping into serious subjects, the web series carries humor at its core.
"Taking his script and concept, I could see the story, but then also there's a ton of room for play. There's a ton of room for jokes," Williams said. "Being able to find those as you're in production is the most fun part."
Beyond Self Ctrl's actors, the show is filmed and edited to create comedic, campy effects. As he came into his identity, Rios realized he'd been depriving himself of colornow, the show is full of it. He said his favorite visual moments are the ones painted in neon.
Filming, however, didn't come without challenges. With almost no film experience, Rios said he had a learning curve. On top of that, the pandemic paused their production. It took about three years to finish.
But like Nicky, who chugs through his day even as the worst seems to happen again and again, Rios redoubled his passion for the project. Watching it back now, all he can feel is joy.
"I worked on it for so long that I want people to see it," Rios said. "I want to connect with others. I want to build a career for myself. I want to make my family proud and I wanted to prove to myself that I can complete something."