Living through the first weeks of this decade has felt a bit like contracting the flu–it was way too hot, full of uncertainty, and the possibility of imminent death seemed ever-looming. If there were ever a time for a binge-watching experience to distract from all the queasy-making news, this is it. Netflix delivered such an experience with The Circle, an American remake of the UK reality television program of same name—and an unexpectedly delightful diversion in the nascent days of 2020.
The show, which premiered on January 1 and released its final batch of episodes today, pitted contestants against one another in a digital popularity contest, pushing its young players to rank one another based on looks and on how well they jockeyed for influence. Despite its hideous premise, The Circle and its participants quickly gained a following, with fans wondering whether favorites like witty Miami-based Sammie Cimarelli or sincere virtual reality whiz Shubham Goel would take home the $100,000 prize. Now, The Circle faithful have their answer.
(Spoilers for the season finale of The Circle follow.)
Sammie and Shubham came close, but the show’s ultimate victor was Joey Sasso, a 26-year-old Italian-American actor who started the series looking like an obnoxious long shot. (I accused him of having “based his entire personality off Jersey Shore reruns” in my initial review.) But Sasso won over his teammates with his honest and sweet-natured approach to the game, and ended up the most popular player of the bunch.
Filming for the show ended several months ago, and now Sasso can finally talk about his unanticipated victory. “Making it to the end was always my goal from the beginning. I never even thought about winning,” he says. “I was going for the after party, you know what I mean?”
WIRED asked Sasso about life on the show—and what happens now that it’s over.
What It Was Really Like Inside The Circle’s Apartments
The Circle seems to take place in a vacuum. It’s not clear where the contestants are, how long they’ve been playing, or how isolated they really are. Sasso says he can’t reveal the exact shooting location (other media outlets have reported that the American series was shot in the UK), but he was happy to speak about the enforced surreality of his day-to-day life.
“A lot of people have asked how long we were in the apartments. To tell you the truth, I don’t really know,” Sasso says. “Part of the agreement when we signed up for the show, to go along with the mental game that The Circle plays with you, is that you don’t know which day it is. You don’t know what time it is! So I can’t even answer how long we were in the apartments for, from start to finish. I know the entire experience, overall, was about a month.”
The contestants were required to stay in the apartment complex by themselves. No phone, no computer, no socializing with nonplayers. “We were all allowed a few minutes of roof time a day, just to get out and breathe for a little bit, and those moments were so amazing,” Sasso says. “You want to stay in the game as long as possible, but the longer you stay in the game, the crazier you end up going.”
The apartments were rigged up with intense lights to make sure the crew could accurately capture what the players were doing inside their rooms, which only amplified how uncomfortable the setting felt. Sasso says he’s been getting feedback from fans about his decision to wear sunglasses inside–and says it was a result of the lighting situation rather than a fashion choice. “Your retinas actually start hurting!" he says. "I was like, I don’t care if I look like the biggest toolbox in television history, I’m wearing sunglasses because my eyes are killing me.”
Dealing With the Fan Response
“Every single person judged me in the beginning, thinking I’m this douchebag Jersey Shore wannabe type of person, and then they got to see who I really am,” Sasso says. He’s been delighted by the memes fans have made of him, especially screengrabs showing him yelling about brussels sprouts and quoting Old School. “At the end of the day, let’s be honest, I’m a loud, stupid, proud idiot, and I hold it 100 percent near and dear to my heart. I get that I’m a character, and I love that people are having fun with it.”
He estimates that he has spent 12 to 15 hours a day on social media since the show has launched, in an effort to respond to every single person who reaches out to him, especially young, vulnerable fans. “I feel a responsibility to let these people know that I hear them, that they’re not silent, and that they are awesome just the way that they are,” he says. “How do you sit there and not start crying? I’m calling my mom and telling her about all these messages that I’m getting and we’re both the same type of person, so she’ll be crying too.”
Advice for Future Players
Being too paranoid can really bum you out. “I went in assuming that everybody was a catfish,” Sasso says. But when Antonio was eliminated after being accused of catfishing, Sasso changed his approach. “I was so devastated. I had firmly believed that he was not real. So I said, OK, for the rest of the game, no matter who comes in this frickin’ thing, they are who they are, whoever they say they are, I don’t even care, it is what it is.”
As four out of five of the final contestants were playing as themselves rather than as a catfish, Sasso believes in the the be-yourself strategy. But: “If you are going in wanting to catfish,” he says, “I would look at someone like Seaburn playing Rebecca as the best example, because you could just tell from watching him in his apartment that he was somebody confident and secure in himself just having the time of his life.”
“I think the difference for the other catfish is that they had insecurities and problems, which came out when they got eliminated. And it was upsetting, because I think any one of them would have been more likable and could have made it farther in the game if they had just come in as themselves. The main example of that would be Karyn. I can’t tell you how many people have said, I like her more as her, she should just be herself! I agree with that, she’s an amazing person.”
How The Circle Cast Stays in Touch
Perhaps inevitably, the cast stays in touch through actual social media. “We started an Instagram group, and we still talk,” Sasso says. “To this day, when I open up my Instagram, especially with everything going on, there will be like 30 messages from all of us.”
Sasso recently posted a screenshot indicating a long phone call with Shubham, and says that he is especially close with the final five contestants, although he gushes about the whole cast: “We all are honestly the best of friends. I know that’s something people say doing interviews, and a lot of times it’s not true, but this really is one of those occasions where we are all bonded.”
Sasso didn’t just win The Circle. He was also part of the only real romantic intrigue on the show. After he chose not to save her from elimination, his castmate Miranda Bissonette paid Sasso a visit before she left. The pair ended up kissing, and flirted when they were reunited during the finale. “A lot of people have asked about me and Miranda, and what’s going on with that. It’s hard because I don’t want to be coy, or not give a straight answer,” Sasso says. “But I know that once you confirm or deny something, it sets up expectations of something to come.”
“So what I will say with me and Miranda is that she is somebody that I absolutely love and adore. I have a relationship with her unlike I’ve had with any other person. We speak daily, and we’re definitely in each others’ lives. I’m so happy for this experience, and that she didn’t hate me after I didn’t save her in the challenge for who we were going to block.”
While Sasso is originally from Rochester, New York, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting when he was 18. He sees The Circle as a potential launchpad that will allow him to focus on acting full time. “I’m hoping that this experience will allow me to go from a bartender slinging drinks to survive to someone who is on set as much as possible, doing what I love,” he says.