When Indiewire got Lea DeLaria on the phone yesterday morning, the “Orange is the New Black” star had been doing interviews all day… which meant she didn’t know that just an hour earlier, the Netflix series had received its first nomination for Best Drama.
After going over what other shows got nominated, DeLaria spoke as frankly as you might expect from the lady known to “Orange” fans as Big Boo; about the lack of a “dramedy” category at the Emmys, about getting her own flashback episode in Season 3, why she wove her talents as a jazz singer into her early work in stand-up comedy and why refusing to be invisible is so important.
So, you were doing interviews during the Emmy announcements?
Yes, I had no idea.
Congratulations! Best Drama!
Oh, great! Anything else?
Uzo [Aduba] for Best Supporting Actor, and probably some other stuff in there.
I’m sure there’s some technical stuff, I’m hoping. You know, casting, and set, and wardrobe and stuff like that. But Best Drama, fantastic! Who are the other nominees?
Let’s see if I can do this at the top of my head—
Let me tell you! Let me tell you. See if I’m right.
“Game of Thrones.”
“House of Cards.”
No, not this year.
Oh, “Good Wife” didn’t make it this year. Okay, “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” I’m trying to remember. There are five, right?
And “Mad Men.”
Yeah. “Mad Men,” and also “Better Call Saul.” I’m giving you that one.
Oh, oh! God, for some reason I thought that was a comedy.
No, I mean, well at the very least it’s an hour long.
Oh, well, there’s that stupid thing that the Academy has done, right? Because you can certainly tell the difference between a comedy and a drama by how long it is. That’s the major indication of whether or not something is a comedy or a drama: its length.
That’s the only rule.
Fucking ridiculous — sorry, but that’s just — you know, these old guys at the Academy, what’s wrong with them? Why won’t they just have a dramedy category?
I mean, I guess then you’d have to quantify what a dramedy is.
But we all know what a dramedy is, just like we know what a reality show is, and we know what a comedy is, and we know what a drama is. If it’s got equal parts of both, it’s a dramedy. I mean, we can look at, okay, “Better Call Saul,” “Nurse Jackie.” I mean, dramedy has been a part of American television since “Saint Elsewhere” in the 1970s. Why in the world— [laughs] why is it we have a reality show category, but not a dramedy category? It’s just bizarre to me. Reality shows have only been on American television since the ’90s. All those shows like “Saint Elsewhere,” “Hill Street Blues,” all that stuff, those are all dramedies. Comedy and drama.
I wouldn’t have thought of “Hill Street Blues” as a dramedy, but I see your point.
Yep, absolutely. Honey, if they have comic relief characters, then it’s a dramedy. [laughs] If it’s got a character whose sole purpose is to make you laugh, it’s a dramedy.
That said, the thing with “Orange is the New Black” that I find really interesting is that you can’t really say that any one character is only the comic relief.
No. Well, you’re right, absolutely correct. Absolutely correct. Although, I do believe that some of us are more inclined— are more there for comedy than for drama. I include Big Boo as one of them.
I was going to say. Congratulations this season on finally getting your own episode. Did you know that was in the offering?
I found that out at the premiere of the second season. That’s when I was told that Big Boo was going to get her backstory in the third season. I was very excited. And then, when I read the episode, oh my God.
Yeah, what was your reaction to reading it for the first time?
It’s such an amazing, powerful episode. I mean, I was getting emails from Kate, Kate Mulgrew, and from Jill and from Natasha and Karen going, “Your episode, your episode,” because Lauren Morelli went whole hog in this episode. I guess she trusted that I would be able to do all the things that she asked me to do in this episode. And, I run the gamut. They really, really wrote an amazing episode. Also politically, I just was so excited for what it was politically, and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I hope that that episode does for butch lesbians what Season 1, Episode 3 did for the trans community. I hope people can have a very clear understanding of what it’s like to be, how I grew up, as a butch dyke, through the Boo story.
Did it match really closely with your own experience?
Yes, because butches have a very shared life experience. There are certain things that generally— you talk to almost any butch of any age, and they will tell you:
One, they kept trying to make me wear a dress when I didn’t want to wear a dress. [laughs] That’s a big part of who we are.
Two, ostracized by family, and by society, but also by our own community. Now that’s something that’s really difficult and is very common, especially since there’s been sort of a mainstream, middle class, assimilationist, more conservative queer rights movement that kind of thought of butch fags — I’m sorry, butch dykes and nelly fags — as pariahs. They wanted us to change who we are. They wanted us to be palatable. You know, when that girl says that to me, about, “Of course people spit in your face, what do you expect when you are the poster child for all things butch?” And I spent my entire life carrying stuff like that from the queer community. So, yeah we have that shared experience. So, tons of stuff in that episode were things that happened to me that I completely and utterly related to.
The major difference being — and I really want to bring this up because I think it’s important, especially for a young gay teenager — my parents and I, my mom didn’t die with us being estranged. My parents and I were able to work out our differences. And we had a loving relationship until the day they both passed.
I don’t want to play therapist, but how tough was that journey?
Well, the thing about me and I think that some people get, is that even within my family, I’m very, very, very, very [laughs] comfortable with my own skin, unapologetically who I am. My last fuck ran out years ago, if you know what I mean, and I basically forced the issue with my mom and dad. If we were talking on the phone about something, I would say to my dad, “Oh, by the way, Kelly’s doing really well.” You know, talking about my girlfriend. I wouldn’t let them do that Catholic thing where if you ignore it, it’ll go away. I wouldn’t let them do it.
And finally, I mean, it took a while, but finally everybody came around. For example, my mother really hated swearing, she hated it. I can judge the difference between talking about who I’m in love with and swearing, so I knew not to say the word “fuck.” And mostly I would say the word “fuck,” in front of anybody, I don’t care. Again, don’t give a fuck. I wouldn’t do it in front of my mother. My mother didn’t like swearing, so I wasn’t going to swear in front of my mother.
However, I knew that it was difficult for them to talk about whatever relationship I was in. I knew that I could go so far with it, and I sometimes pushed that envelope a little further. I just didn’t allow them to ignore me. And, what can I say, I learned things about them, they learned stuff about me. We came to a good place in our relationship. That can happen, and I really want younger people to know. It can happen.
I mean that, of course isn’t what happens with Boo’s character. Was that hard to play?
Not really, because unfortunately, what happens to Boo’s character is all too common. So, I know this story, I know what I went through when I first came out to my parents and was able to apply all of that, to what went down. So, yeah it wasn’t particularly hard to play because I’d had the experience.
Interesting. It’s such an interesting moment for the show, because you have this character — I don’t feel like you get that very often in a drama or a comedy or a dramedy — a character just boldly declaring who she is.
Yeah, I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about “Orange is the New Black,” is its representations of just people. How should I put this; if you’re an African American, if you’re Asian, you don’t have to say, “I’m this. This is who I am.” Everyone accepts it. But that’s what is uniquely weird about the queer community. We have to say it all the time because people think the dumbest things. They think we’ve chosen to be this way. Who the fuck would choose this?
I mean, I look at what Caitlin Jenner went through; who would choose that? People are literally saying about Caitlin, “Oh, she’s doing it for a television show or for publicity.” Who would do that for a television show or publicity? Are you insane? I think people who have no understanding of how difficult this road can be. So whenever, with us, with queer people, we have to constantly say, “This is who we are.” And the best way to do that is by not being invisible, I feel. And I’ve just lived that my entire life. So that’s why I’ve taken that hashtag from the show, that line from the show, “I refuse to be invisible.” That line resonated with a lot of people, I mean the tweets and the direct messages that I’ve gotten about it. So, I instituted it into a hashtag that I use quite a bit. So there it is, I refuse to be invisible. And that’s why visibility is so important, I think.
What’s been the toughest part about playing Boo for you?
To me, the toughest part about Boo are the differences between me and Boo. It’s very easy for me to just be Lea. I have to consider how Boo would feel in a situation. In a scene I had yesterday, without giving away any of the scenes, there could have been an altercation. Lea DeLaria, although does not shy away from language, I will try to avoid any kind of physicality, I won’t go after a fight. If somebody comes at me, I’m the first one to stand up, like that preacher on the subway. That asshole on the subway. I’m the first one that’ll stand up, but normally I don’t go looking for that, whereas Boo, I feel, does. [laughs] Boo will not shy away from a fight. Boo will pick a fight. Those kinds of small differences are the hardest thing for me to do with Boo. Like remember that Boo, because of the way Boo was raised, she would say, for example, “ain’t,” in a sentence. That’s really hard for me, because Lea DeLaria would never say “ain’t.”
Lea DeLaria has good grammar.
Yes. Lea DeLaria has good grammar. That’s good. Lea DeLaria gives good grammar.
Gives good grammar, there we go.
She certainly tries to, anyway.
You could have a series of books with that, teaching grammar to the people.
Well, I do have that “Book of Rules for the World.” So, maybe I’ll make a grammar book, the next one. “Lea’s Book of Grammar Rules for the World.”
Speaking of your other projects, I got a chance to listen to a bit of your David Bowie album. It’s really lovely. But in terms of diversifying like that, is it simply that you just have all these interests, or is there something behind it?
Well, the thing is, and anybody who’s seen me live as a stand-up comic knows, like, even when I hit as a stand-up comic. Anybody who saw me live as a stand-up comic knows that I also sing. Because singing was heavily incorporated into my stand-up comedy. And mostly jazz, because my father was a jazz pianist, he taught me how to sing jazz, and I sang with him in clubs as a young kid. So, basically the first thing I ever did in front of an audience was sing jazz. Before I ever did stand-up.
Yeah, so I have this background. Now, when I went into stand-up — I mean, this is sort of the progression — when I went into stand-up, my stand-up was different than the stand-up of the day. The stand-up of the day was more matter of fact, more a person sit there in one spot, and kind of talked. My stand-up was built entirely on rage. So, when I would walk out on stage — in 1982 I walked out and I paced around the stage — I screamed, I yelled, it was all very funny, and it was all very fast, and it was all like, at you, at you, at you, very in your face. Nobody was doing that kind of stand-up then, it was like, the audience was like you could see that they liked it, but you could also see that they grew weary of it after about five minutes, 10 minutes. It was too much, you couldn’t take it.
So, I had this skill where I could sing jazz. So I incorporated that into my act, almost immediately. Maybe two months after being a stand-up, I incorporated music into my act, which meant I was able to access the audience longer, because the music gave them a respite from me going, “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.” The best for me to say this is I would lull them into this kind of false sense of security because I would sing this nice little jazz standard that they all knew, whatever that jazz standard was, “The Way You Look Tonight,” whatever it was, I would sing it.
And at first they’d go, “I can’t even believe that this bald chick with safety pins and boots stomping around on stage can actually sing like that.” That’s the first thing, and she knows that song. That would be the second thing. And then they would forget what I looked like, and they would just go into the music and they would love the music.
And then, as soon as it was over, they would be smiling and happy again, and then I’d start screaming “dyke” and “fuck” and “cunt” at them. Again, “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah” for about another 10 minutes. So, this has always been a part of me as an entertainer.
People who are into Broadway, they all know I can sing because I played major leads in Broadway musicals and off-Broadway musicals since 1997. So those people all know I can sing. And of course, the jazz world knows I can sing because I have five records out on the Warner Jazz and Classics label. It’s just that I have a new group of fans, a huge group of fans. They don’t know I can sing, but they’re finding out.
When are you going to sing on “Orange is the New Black?”
Who knows? Who knows?
It could happen at any moment.
It could happen at any time. We have the most amazing writers, so it might happen, who knows. And it may never happen, who knows. I don’t frankly care, I am ready and able to do anything that they write because they are amazing writers. We have the best writers in the business, period.
Awesome. I think that’s my time with you. Thank you so much for hopping on with me.
Absolutely my pleasure. Absolutely, this has been a lovely day and I’m very excited at how people are loving Season 3, I am getting stopped left [and right]. Well that’s been going on since the show dropped, but I’m really getting stopped left and right, right now. People really love that episode, so it’s just a real joy for me to sit here and have this conversation.
“Orange is the New Black” Season 3 is streaming on Netflix now.