At 57, newly-engaged actress-singer Lea DeLaria is at the top of her game
Since the ’90s, Lea DeLaria has established herself as a standup comic, actress and jazz singer, but the past year has certainly been a banner one for the self-identified butch. Starting in January, when she shared a Screen Actors Guild award for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy series for the Netflix’s women’s-prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black; earlier this summer, she reprised her fan-favorite character Big Boo on the third season of that show; and earlier this month, she dropped House of David (Ghostlight Records), her fifth jazz vocal album in which she covers a dozen David Bowie songs including “Space Oddity,” “Starman,” “Fame” and “Modern Love” (the cover photo is a recreation of Bowie’s Changes One).
Yet one of DeLaria’s biggest upcoming projects will be the icing on the (wedding) cake: she will wed her fiancée, fashion editor Chelsea Fairless; Sandra Bernhard will officiate, although DeLaria is keeping mum about the specific date for now.
While taking a break from shooting the next season OITNB, DeLaria chatted about her album, new transgender icons Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, and losing her bachelor status.
— Lawrence Ferber
Dallas Voice: You’re shooting season four of OITNB. Can you share a tease of what to expect? Lea DeLaria: This is what I can tell you: I’m in it and it comes out sometime next year. I can’t tell you anything! What the fuck! Jesus!
When you first auditioned it was for another character, but they never called you back for it. I auditioned for Anita, the role Lin Tucci got. The casting director goes, “Oh my god, we love you Lea, you’re exactly what we’re looking for.” Then when I got to my manager’s office he was on the phone with the casting director and they said basically none of the parts were right for me but they would find something. I’ve been told that so many fucking times in my career! I’m still waiting for that part they were going to create for me on Law & Order and it’s been off the air since 2009! So I went ballistic and had a hissy fit. They’re making a show that takes place in a woman’s prison and there isn’t a part for me?!? Fuck show business, fuck Broadway, fuck all of it. I flew over to London where I have a standup and singing career and got off the plane and there were a thousand calls from my manager, like this time it came through and they did create a part for you and now you have to come back. [Creator] Jenji Kohan took a part that was really tiny for a couple of episodes and expanded it and gave it to me. This was that magical showbiz thing that only happens now and then.
You had your first sex scene in Season 3. Is Orange The Warmest Color, as it were? Instead of Blue? Blue isn’t the warmest color. You don’t even want me to go off on that movie. What a piece of shit. When are we gonna stop letting men have anything to do with lesbian movies, with all due respect? There are plenty of lesbian writers, actors, directors out there. So is Orange the warmest color? Fuck yeah. Because Orange has actual lesbians involved in their lesbian stories.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about life in prison for women while making the show? I’ve learned that it’s really bad for transgender women in prison. I guess I always assumed that, but now I know it for a fact. I have also learned that butches are treated especially badly in American prisons. There is literally a prison where they separate the butch dykes from the rest of the population. I intend to do something about that. Once I get the facts and specifics, I’m going to start talking more heavily about this prison.
Laverne Cox is one of the show’s breakout stars. Any memorable experiences working with her? Especially when they take us on press junkets, Laverne and I adore each other. We will end up at the bar together and we tend to have better stamina than the rest. We will sit around and talk. On our first red carpet, I kind of photo-bombed her when she was being interviewed [you can see the clip on YouTube]. She says something rude to me and I say, “Don’t make me tell the subway story” and she breaks out laughing. Laverne’s a doll, I love her, what else can I say?
Did you watch Caitlyn Jenner’s speech when she won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs? If you look at my latest Instagram post it’s a picture of the whole thing and me going and then this happened at a major sporting event. I absolutely cried. I burst into tears. How emotionally draining it must have been to be the picture of masculinity in America, when in actuality it all felt false to you. In the 17 years I forced out who I was as a lesbian it sucked my soul. So imagine what Caitlyn had to go through for all these years.
I think Jenner should take advantage of her newfound pedestal to remind people she was in Can’t Stop the Music and get a new audience for that film. She’s squandering the opportunity! Yeah! I think because she hasn’t been a member of our community, actively involved like Laverne has been her entire career and life, it’s gonna take time for her to get to that sarcastic funny queer community way of dealing with things. Although I have to say she started out with that fabulous joke about the nerve-wracking experience of trying to pick out a gown. Brilliant.
Let’s talk about the album. Was it difficult to whittle down the song selections for House of David? Oh, so fucking hard! There are so many Bowie songs that are awesome. The guy’s oeuvre spans four decades. We thought we had it all figured out and the producer came at me with a couple more! Jesus. That was the hardest part. Only doing 12 songs. I might have to do Changes 2!
So where does one go after Bowie? A Madonna covers album? No. I’ve already done pop covers. My second album, Double Standards, was alternative and college rock tunes that I swung. My versions of Blondie’s “Call Me” and [Neil Young’s] “Philadelphia” were really huge hits on jazz radio and still are played all the time. Now maybe I would do Mingus or Monk. Something really wholly and totally jazz.
You’re getting married! Let’s imagine you could have anyone you want attend your wedding — not just people you have a direct connection with. Who would you like there? If you’re saying in fantasyland who would I like to have come to my wedding? Meryl Streep. Eleanor Roosevelt. I want Ella Fitzgerald to sing. Anita Bryant so I can pelt her to death with oranges.
You’ve been reluctant to talk about the specifics of the real-life wedding so far, and won’t divulge the date. The reality is, I have a lot of friends, a good amount who are in the industry and well known, so that’s why I am being terrible about the wedding and how we approach it. And let me say this. It’s also really difficult for me to talk about because I’ve been such a bachelor for so long I’m used to getting that pussy wherever I go! You know, I love Dan Savage, the man’s a genius, and he says he has been invited to many poly weddings but never a three-year poly wedding anniversary. [Laughs] We are queer people and do have a different way of running our lives, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an open marriage or what happens with two individuals and how they view their marriage. So don’t be surprised if I have an open marriage, I guess is what I’m saying!
I recently re-watched a clip of you performing standup at the 1993 March on Washington. Now, here you are the star of an internationally known, award-winning series. Do you have any moments where you say, “Look at where I am now?” I’m having it right now! I’m looking at a fucking SAG award! It’s sitting on my mantle next to my TV! It’s a SAG award! Are you kidding?? That’s what the last two years have been to me. I went to some NYC deli recently and these tourists walk over — they’re from Colombia – and it’s a father and two teen daughters. They want a picture taken with me! Here’s this man pushing his two teenage daughters next to me to get a picture! At that moment I asked myself, “Is this actually fucking happening?” The next thing, a grandmother with granddaughters, pushing them next to me to get a picture taken. Five years ago, if I went anywhere near those girls, grandma would have slapped me! “Get away from my granddaughters, you big butch dyke.” Because I’m going to recruit or take advantage of them. Did I think any of this would happen in my lifetime? Fuck no! I thought the next generation would get to see what we worked so hard for, like the SCOTUS decision, yet here it is now. In my lifetime. And take away all the queer stuff, and make me a 57-year-old woman and this isn’t supposed to happen to you either! To suddenly become a TV star at 57! A monster butch dyke! So all I do is go, “What the fuck!”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 24, 2015.