Olympian freeskier Gus Kenworthy sees at least one major similarity between acting and the snow sport he dominated in the 2010s.
“Acting is unforgiving and unpredictable, but skiing is also pretty unforgiving, so I was ready to shift gears and focus on something new,” says Kenworthy, who competed professionally for 15 years before retiring in 2022.
Along with the high highs—winning a silver medal at Sochi in 2014, becoming the first openly gay professional athlete in any action sport in 2015, and becoming the first out gay man (alongside Adam Rippon) to compete for the U.S. in a Winter Olympics in 2018—came the low lows.
Kenworthy suffered gnarly knee injuries, a broken femur, and several concussions, as well as the emotional wipe out resulting from homesickness and lovesickness for his partner, Creative Artists Agency executive Adam Umhoefer.
Après ski, he made a jump turn into entertainment. But fearing a face plant, he treaded cautiously. After several reality-show stints (“RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test”) in which he capitalized on his striking good looks and athletic prowess, he pivoted into scripted work, first winning notice playing jock Chet Clancy on American Horror Story: 1984. Three years later, he had a cameo in the sports-comedy film 80 for Brady, which garnered media attention after the athlete-turned-actor revealed that his gay-kiss scene was cut from the movie.
He shows greater versatility in his latest flick, The Sacrifice Game, coming to Shudder and AMC+ on Fri/8.
Director/cowriter Jenn Wexler’s contribution to the holiday horror genre (popularized by such movies as Black Christmas, Gremlins, and Krampus) follows a teacher, groundskeeper, and two outcast teenage students left behind at the Blackvale School for Girls over the 1971 Christmas break. Instead of a visit from Santa, they are confronted by four members of a killer cult with a thirst for innocent blood—and body parts.
Kenworthy, who plays hapless custodian and hopeless romantic Jimmy in the film, spoke to me about taking on the role, the types of projects he hopes to tackle in the future, and why San Francisco will always have a piece of his heart.
48 HILLS How did you end up being cast in The Sacrifice Game?
GUS KENWORTHY Jenn Wexler had seen me in “American Horror Story” and reached out to my then manager about potentially reading for a different character than I ended up playing. She sent the script over, and I was super excited, went back, and said, “Hey, I would love to do this. This project seems fun, but I would prefer this smaller role.” I read for the smaller role of Jimmy and met with Jen. She liked me, I liked her previous film, The Ranger—and that was that.
48 HILLS Were you asked to audition for one of the killer roles?
GUS KENWORTHY Yes. I know acting is embodying someone else, but I’m just a nice guy. I read it and was like, “I’m happy to work on this and work on these sides and go for this, but I feel like I would do a better job being this sweet groundskeeper. And I feel more drawn to it.”
This was filmed a year and a half ago—early in my acting era. I’ve been taking classes and fortunate to be on set but I am not trying to fool anybody into thinking I’m the best actor ever. And the angle I want to be going into is more comedy-specific. So I felt like Jimmy was safer, and Jen liked me for it, too. So I went in that direction.
48 HILLS So you feel like you identify with the Jimmy character?
GUS KENWORTHY I do. He’s sweet and loving. He’s in love with the teacher. I’m someone who loves hard and attaches to my person. So I was able to relate to him. With acting, that’s been my approach to any role I’ve had or auditioned for. It’s trying to find the thing that makes the character similar to me versus me trying to become the character because if I do that, it feels like I’m acting. Even if I can figure out the cadence and the spacing and the mannerisms and get comfortable with it, there’s something that feels off. If I can feel like I’m doing it more as myself, it ends up feeling and looking more natural.
48 HILLS Does your acting career feel random or predestined?
GUS KENWORTHY It feels random. I think back on my life and where I came from—a beautiful, idyllic town just outside of Telluride, which is like a ski Mecca and has the Telluride Film Festival. It’s a well-known place, an expensive place, and a wonderful place to grow up. But it’s also a town of 2,000 people, and I grew up in affordable housing. I don’t think I ever thought that I would be doing any of the things I’ve done.
I skied because it was there and everyone skis in the town—and I did end up falling in love with it—but I didn’t expect that it was going to end up taking me to three Olympics and the X Games and providing all these opportunities.
Then, with acting, I’ve had a ton of pinch-me moments where I can’t believe I’m on set because I grew up in a small town. I graduated from a class of 48 kids. I pictured graduating and going to college somewhere far away and coming out and then figuring it out. I wanted to go to college and do theater in school, but I didn’t necessarily have big dreams or aspirations for acting, and certainly didn’t have anything predetermined for me.
48 HILLS What would be a dream project for you in the future?
GUS KENWORTHY Billy Eichner’s Bros would be my ideal movie. I grew up loving rom-coms. I love the predictable story beats of two people who can’t be together that get together—and then it falls apart before coming together at the end. It’s a great avenue for comedies because you’ve got that predetermined formula and then you can end up having funny moments within that. That’s exciting to me. But honestly, any smart, punchy comedy would be what I would like to be doing.
48 HILLS Since The Sacrifice Game is set during Christmastime, I’m curious to hear how you spend the holidays.
GUS KENWORTHY I go home to Colorado. This year, we’re doing Christmas morning at my dad’s house. Christmas Eve, I’m having dinner at my mom’s. I just bought her a house this year, which was a big accomplishment for me, so I’m very excited to spend our first Christmas there. We do a white elephant exchange because I have a big family, so everyone only buys one person something.
48 HILLS I know you have all these causes you’re passionate about. Where do you get your philanthropic spirit from?
GUS KENWORTHY A lot of it comes from my mom. She does everything for other people and has never really had much financially but will spend whatever she has on others. She’s generous to a fault. I think of myself as generous and feel like I got that from her. But I also recognize the privilege that I have. I’ve been afforded a lot and have had a lot of incredible opportunities and things that have come my way. At a certain point in my life, it was take, take, take as things come your way. You have to do that. But I also think there’s an importance to stopping and seeing how you can be of service to other people.
And I have a big platform. So when I did the AIDS/LifeCycle ride, it was important to lean in and try to leverage that to get donations. I ended up raising $249,745 for my ride. It was a really good feeling.
That’s also why I want to get back to the AIDS/LifeCycle ride and start the Kenworthy Foundation as a 501c3 to bring in money from corporate sponsors and make sure that if I’m getting a fee, a portion of that is also going to a nonprofit, like Trevor Project, GLSEN, etc.
48 HILLS Aside from the AIDS/LifeCycle ride, which kicks off each year in San Francisco, what other memories or associations do you have with the city?
GUS KENWORTHY I like San Francisco. In my past relationship, I told my boyfriend I loved him but he did not say it back to me.
Then, we were in San Francisco a few weeks later, and he took me to this pretty rooftop bar that has this amazing view of the city. We walked in, and I said, “Oh my God, this is so cute.” And he said, “Yeah, I wanted to take you somewhere nice to tell you that I love you, too.”
So I feel like San Francisco has that for me—and I will never forget that. So it’s special. But also, the AIDS/LifeCycle was super special to me. I only did it one time but want to do it again.