Orange Is the New Black star Lea DeLaria — on heroes, trailblazers and an ‘eternity’ in front of the camera
First the screwdriver, then the peanut butter.
But Lea DeLaria’s love for Orange Is the New Black goes beyond the craftiness of her shenanigans with both a hand tool and a classic sandwich spread as a regular on TV’s Emmy-winning prison drama. Sure, Netflix has afforded the veteran actress a deep cargo-pocket of outrageous antics, but Orange isn’t only here for your amusement. More importantly, the series and DeLaria’s riotous, randy character, Big Boo, are part of the show’s heralded inclusivity.
Breaking ground as the first openly gay comic to perform on American television, in 1993 on The Arsenio Hall Show, DeLaria is still carrying the torch on TV two decades later, representing a deeply unsung subset in the queer community on Orange: the butch lesbian.
As the show embarks on its icy fourth season, the 58-year-old called in for a tell-all interview about the “lesser known” controversy surrounding her historical TV debut: How the Fox network was not fond of the actress’ lavish gayness and wanted to put the brakes on her groundbreaking Arsenio appearance. Who stepped in to fight Fox’s resistance to the landmark stint? Why has the actress turned down so many gay roles since then? And why does she think we should drop the community’s longtime collective acronym, LGBT? Read on as DeLaria reveals all.
— Chris Azzopardi
Dallas Voice: Orange Is the New Black is now in its fourth season. Is that hard to believe? DeLaria: It’s really shocking for me to believe it’s our fourth season. I thought I’d have way more money by now!
What about this fourth season stands out from the past three? I think what people are going to find about the fourth season is that it’s darker than the other seasons. They really explore some of the shitty things about being in prison. There’s a lot I can’t talk about. I think it’s going to be much darker than you’ve seen in the past. Still funny, but there’s definitely a darkness involved. But Boo is going to be Boo as Boo always is.
You get to do some crazy stuff on this show. What’s your relationship like with peanut butter at this point? Yeah, I can’t eat peanut butter at all, as a matter of fact.
Seriously? Yeah, I don’t really eat peanut butter. But yeah, I believe that the writers sit around and go, “What’s the fucking most insane thing we can think of? Let’s give it to DeLaria!” They know I’ll do anything for a laugh.
When it comes to acting, you’ve been at it longer than most people know. An eternity, right? It feels like an eternity.
You don’t look like an eternity. Good genes, I can assure you. It’s certainly not from taking care of myself, as anyone who’s seen me in the West Village, drunk on my butt at 4 in the morning, knows.
How is post-Orange life different from pre-Orange life? Are you recognized more often on the streets? Oh yeah, I’m recognized nonstop. Before — first of all, not everybody was carrying their camera with them like they do now, so I would get stopped… I’d get stopped enough. I wouldn’t say frequently, and I wouldn’t say infrequently; it was somewhere in the middle. Generally, it’s “Hey, you’re Lea DeLaria; can I have your autograph?” Now I can’t even walk out of my front doorstep. It’s like, “Oh my god! Orange is the New Black!” It just goes on all day.
Can you still even go to gay bars? All the time. I could never go to a gay bar before! I mean, before Orange that would be the one place everyone knew who I was. I made the decision very early on in my life that I’m going to live my life, and if people come up to me, I’m going to be friendly and charming the way I am. I don’t want to lock myself in my room. I just don’t want to do that, so I’m out all the time.
How does the treatment of LGBT characters and sexuality on Orange compare to your previous lesbian roles, both big and small? What’s different about it more than anything else in the world is that it’s real. Believe me, as you’ve said, I played a lot of them, big and small, and I can assure you I’ve said “no” more than I’ve said “yes” to these roles. A lot of roles I say no to are because they’re just so completely stereotyped and bullshit that I won’t play them anymore.
You say “anymore.” What changed? When I started out in the business, I played them because it was work. And then it just got to be ridiculous. I just said, “This is it. I can’t do this anymore unless someone is going to give me a real character.” Like the chick I played on Californication! If you’re going to give me a real character, I’m going to knock it out of the park for you. If you’re just gonna make it the same ol’ stereotypical bullshit butch, I’m not interested.
But that’s what’s great about our show, and not just with the queer characters but with what it does with women, what it does for trans people — what it does for everybody. We’re real. We’re three dimensional. We’re honest. We cry. We laugh. We talk about life, you know? That’s the biggest difference. And not to mention the very warm, friendly, three-dimensional positive portrayal of a butch dyke that is incredibly unique and unusual, and so I’m loving doing that.
As a butch lesbian yourself, how do you think Boo is opening doors for the butch lesbian community? I know that she is because I get direct messages on Instagram. I get, like, 150 of them a day from all over the world, from all these different women saying, “Thank god for Orange Is the New Black, thank god for Big Boo. I now know that it is OK for me to be who I am,” and they’re not just talking about being gay; they’re talking about being a butch. I get constant messages about it. Constant! And then people come up to me on the street. I’ve had really hard-ass butches cry when they talk to me, which is… trust me, it’s hard for us to cry. So finally somebody is putting out there who we actually are. I feel like Season 3, Episode 4, which is the Boo backstory episode — I believe that’s done as much for butches as Season 1, episode three, did for the transgender community.
Do lesbians send you letters from jail? I don’t get letters from people in jail. What I do get are the conversations with them after they’re out. I hear from guards, from COs, from wardens, from assistant wardens and from ex-prisoners on the street telling me how much our show hits the nail on the head. It’s very real. It’s very much like that. I think that’s a really intense compliment. I’m not that kind of actor. Like Taylor [Schilling], who is an amazing actor, she went to a women’s prison. Kate Mulgrew went to a women’s prison. To look at, to get the feel, to get the backbone of their character. I watched Lockup.
What’s your earliest memory of subverting gender norms? Were you a tomboy? Yeah, I was what we called a tomboy back then. It’s very interesting… when I went to a thrift store and got my first suit and put it on for the first time, it was like putting on my own skin. I was 17.
When did you get the “butch” tattoo on your forearm? It must’ve been the ’90s.
What’s the story behind it? I like tattoos! I’ve got a lot of ’em. I just wanted it to say “butch,” and I went in and told [the tattoo artist] what I wanted. After we got done, I couldn’t see it because of the angle, and he goes, “It’s fantastic! It says ‘bitch’ perfectly!” And I went insane. “You put bitch on there?” And he laughed — he got me so good. He laughed soooo hard at me. He totally got me. But he was just messing with me — he knew better than to put bitch on my arm.
So 1993 comes around and you’re the first openly gay comic to break through the late night talk-show circuit with an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. It was more than that — I was the first openly gay comic to perform on television, period, in America. I mean, it was late-night, which was really huge, but yeah. Nobody. It was me.
What were you feeling in that moment? Scared as shit! Terrified, just terrified. All I could think was, “What if I bomb?” And I had 20/20 following me. So I wasn’t just doing The Arsenio Hall Show — I was also doing fucking 20/20. It was craziness because it was such a big deal. I’m not sure how it happened but the universe aligned and the planets aligned perfectly and I killed. It was nine and a half minutes of television gold, so yeah, I was lucky. Could’ve gone either way. The audience could have hated me. I was not lightly gay, if you know what I mean. I wasn’t gay-lite. I was as queer as it gets.
They did an article in The Advocate right after it happened. They taped it and apparently I said the words “dyke,” “fag” and “queer” 47 times. I mean, it was the second sentence I uttered: “Hello everybody, I’m Lea DeLaria. It’s the 1990s, it’s hip to be queer and I’m a big dyke.”
We needed somebody to be that person. I think that was probably right. It was the early part of the ’90s, so we were having that rift about the words queer and dyke and fag. The lesser known story is that they almost didn’t air it because I said queer and dyke and fag. The lawyers called Arsenio in and said, “We don’t think you should let this go out.” They were trying to pull it and Arsenio — again this is the lesser story that people don’t know — had a fit and said, “She’s a dyke. If she wants to call herself a dyke then it’s none of your fucking business.” He fought for it and got me on the air. The lawyers at Fox were saying, “Noooo.”
It was a big deal at the time; now it’s ho-hum. But back then it was huge. You gotta remember, Ellen [DeGeneres] wasn’t out yet. Rosie [O’Donnell] wasn’t out yet. None of these guys were out yet.
Shifting gears: Let’s talk about your cameo in one of the gayest classics of all time, First Wives Club. What’s an onscreen scolding from Bette Midler like? Just like an offscreen scolding!
Wait wait, there’s a story there. I gotta say, you must be about my fiancée’s age because everybody of her generation — she’s 31 — loves that movie. That’s her favorite movie. I’m like, mine’s Rebecca. I’m just saying, First Wives Club is your favorite movie?!
The best thing about First Wives Club, though, beyond the fact that I got to be in it and beyond the fact that Paul Rudnick wrote that for me, which was very cool, was getting to work with Bette, who is my hero and one of the reasons I went into show business. But more than that was becoming friends with Goldie Hawn. Goldie is just an absolute unbelievable doll. Talented. Brilliant. Charming. Just a lovely human being. I had a blast doing First Wives Club.
More recently, you called out a preacher while on the New York subway. That guy? It’s an insult to preachers to call him a preacher. He’s just a homophobic asshole.
It went viral. It went viral so fast I couldn’t believe it, in fact. I was on TMZ within a half hour. That was the thing: I was on a subway on my way to the studio — we were filming — so what had happened, I got out of the subway and I called my manager. I said, “Look, I had a confrontation. Somebody pulled out their phone and they videotaped it soooo there might be something on social media.” Twenty minutes later, he called me and said, “You’re on TMZ.” It was hilarious! It just went nuts.
You famously dropped out of Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 2014 because of their womyn-born-womyn stipulation, which discourages transgender people from attending. And you’ve spoken many times on the topic of “infighting,” saying once, “We queers need to find a way to stop this fighting and work together towards our common goal.” In the years since canceling your MichFest appearance, have you seen any noticeable change regarding the unification of the queer community? Absolutely not. I speak at universities now because apparently I’m a role model. It just makes me laugh. Like, honey, if I’m a role model, queers are in a lot of fucking trouble. I speak about it a lot, but when we come together and don’t infight we get a lot done. That’s how we defeated DOMA, that’s how we defeated Prop 8, that’s why the SCOTUS decision happened.
But in the midst of all that I still find myself constantly dealing with the more conservative queers and the more radical queers like myself, and as I said in the statement when I pulled out of MichFest: How fucked up is it when I’m the voice of reason? You’ve got to be kidding me that you guys can’t see this. When Lea DeLaria and Larry Kramer are the voices of reasons, people are fucked. ’Cause we’re the two biggest bitches on the planet! We’re little brats. We scream and yell until people listen to us, that’s who we are.
This is the biggest issue we have in the queer community to date and will continue to be the biggest issue until we learn to accept our differences, and that’s the issue. And part of me believes that this inclusivity of calling us the LGBTQQTY-whatever-LMNOP tends to stress our differences. And that’s why I refuse to do it. I say queer. Queer is everybody.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2016.