On Location: In ‘Rotting in the Sun,’ Jordan Firstman Confronts the Role of the Mexico City Tourist

Content warning: This story contains a mention of suicide.

Mexico City has always captured the hearts of Americans looking for fulfillment—creative or otherwise—south of the border. Long before digital nomads began descending upon the megalopolis for lower cost of living and a 24-hour nightlife scene, William S. Burroughs charted a similar journey in his 1950s-written novel Queer, which saw a lonely, gay American expat named William Lee drink and sleep his way through the Mexican capital in the ‘40s, often treating the city as a playground for tourists, much as many do today.

It's hard not to draw parallels between the misadventures of Burroughs' troubled protagonist and that of Jordan Firstman, who plays a fictional version of himself in the forthcoming Rotting in the Sun. The writer and Instagram comedian, who rose to fame in the depths of 2020 for his front-facing videos, has ventured to Mexico City many times—first for play, and now work. His character is a needy partier so persistent in his solicitations for validation that one might find themselves admiring his audacity. A failed cruising attempt at a Oaxaca nude beach—which remains unnamed—sees him chase Sebastian (the film's director, Sebastian Silva, playing himself) to the city in the hopes of a collaboration perhaps more corporeal than creative. Silva, meanwhile, is obsessed not with sex but suicide—in Mexico, it is easy to obtain a lethal dose of phenobarbital—but when he goes missing from his Roma apartment, Firstman resolves to solve the disappearance and turns his suspicions on Silva’s maid.

With the exception of that first meeting on the coast, the film very pointedly takes place within a one-block stretch of the wealthy well-touristed Roma neighborhood—where Firstman and Silva snort copious amounts of ketamine and gaze dazedly at their feet, and unabashed American finance drones loudly take their work calls in English. We sat down with Firstman to talk about making the movie, and get to the bottom of his own relationship with the city, as well as travel more broadly.

SAG-AFTRA members are currently on strike; as part of the strike, union actors are not promoting their film and TV projects. This interview was conducted under an interim agreement.

Director and actor Sebastian Silva costars as a fictionalized version of himself.
Director and actor Sebastian Silva costars as a fictionalized version of himself.
Courtesy MUBI

Let’s talk about where you shot this movie.

I have to let you know now—we purposely didn’t call the beach in the film by its actual name in order to protect it. If you know what it is, which you probably do, can you not say?

My lips are sealed. It’s something I think about a lot working at a travel magazine: when should you blow up the spot?

It’s definitely funny to me to have a travel piece about this movie, which is very anti-travel. Something that we wanted to do was bring as much critical thought to the audience as we could.

Let’s start from the beginning—how early in the writing process for this film did you get involved?

This morning, I looked back to see if there were any pictures from the first dinner I had with Sebastian, and there are. It was at Rosetta, which is the most popular restaurant in Roma. It’s funny that we had it there. I remember railing on Rosetta the entire night. I actually realized that that should’ve been in the movie—the white guy saying, “Rosetta is not even that good!” The butter is not good.

I was in Mexico City in April of 2021; I was definitely part of the problem, like all the Americans were, because the COVID restrictions kind of didn’t exist. People were depressed and just went to Mexico where it was seemingly a lot freer than it was in the US. But I was hooking up with this guy, and randomly showed him Sebastian’s movie Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus. I hadn’t thought about that movie, or Sebastian, in many years. I didn’t know that Sebastian was living in Mexico City. The morning after, the guy went to walk his dog and I met him at Plaza Río de Janeiro. When I got there, he was flirting with someone—as I got closer, I recognized him to be Sebastian Silva! I played it very cool, and then a mutual friend set us up for that dinner. A month later he called me with the seeds of a story that was missing something—it was missing me, and he had looked at my Instagram. I kind of encapsulated everything he hated and wanted to make fun of and so he wanted to know if I’d be part of it.

How did that make you feel?

I was really over the internet at that point, and I resented all of my followers. I hated them, actually. I like them a little better now. I met one of them yesterday at Equinox [in Los Angeles]—some guy just like, came up to me while I was on the machine. “You're the guy, you're the guy.” I don’t understand what people want out of that.

That happens in the movie and you have sex with the guy who does it.

This is true. So I was interested in exploring the impulse, and when Sebastian called me he said, “Dude, I just looked at your Instagram. It’s, like, super embarrassing. Are you embarrassed to be posting all that?” And I was in the middle of doing some Pride campaign in West Hollywood and I was actually embarrassed. It didn’t hurt my feelings. It wasn’t until I saw the movie that my feelings started to get hurt. He was sensing way deeper vulnerabilities that I wasn’t aware of.

The film was shot almost entirely in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City.
The film was shot almost entirely in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City.
Courtesy MUBI

When you started making the film, what was it like to live in Mexico City properly?

I got there right before Thanksgiving in 2021. I had a little tiny apartment two doors away from Sebastian's in Roma where we shot the whole movie. We really didn't leave that plaza at all—it's either in the apartment and Plaza, even the art gallery is right across from Rosetta. It's all in a one block around La Casa de Las Brujas, which is supposed to be haunted. There’s one place where Martina [a friend of Jordan's] and I get a facial that was a little farther away—it’s where the rich white Mexicans get their facials, a little outside Roma. Everyone hates it because it feels like a morgue.

What is your relationship to travel?

I didn't see my place in it as an American. A very American quality is that a lot of us can remove ourselves as individuals from the situation, and be like, “Well, I'm not like the annoying American that’s talking about how cheap Mexico is, so I’m exempt.” I had gone to the nude beach in the movie a couple times before meeting Sebastian, and it’s a very magical place. But I’ve seen it change a lot—the energy is still there, but it feels endangered.

Travel is a hard one if you start to think too much about it. People work very hard to be able to travel, and in and of itself travel is an amazing, beautiful thing.. Even when I was 19 and had $20 to my name, I would still figure out how to travel. I remember when I was like 20, I did this Grindr tour of Europe where I was just finding my place to sleep every night through the app. I guess it's prostitution, but I didn't quite see it like that. I've just always figured out how to do it and I've met some of the most important people in my life this way—my boyfriend and I met while traveling. But the Mike White effect of White Lotus looms large. Americans will be fed something in culture that’s completely taking them down, and they only want to do it more—more people went to Hawaii after that first season! It’s a lot of taking.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler