Nowadays she’s known as Big Boo, lesbian godfather of “Orange Is the New Black.” But to longtime fans of the utterly kinetic force that is Lea DeLaria, she will always be the powerhouse singer and blue stand-up comedian who hoofed it for years before breaking into the mainstream.
Created by Jenji Kohan, “Orange Is the New Black” was one of Netflix’s first truly big hit shows. Much of its success came from serving an audience that had been ignored for years: Lesbians. In addition to DeLaria representing butches, (delivering mainstream TV’s first-ever strap-on sex scene), the show featured a racially inclusive cast, full of juicy parts for women of all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, Big Boo was written off the show’s sixth season, appearing only in one episode. In an interview with IndieWire, DeLaria was mum about whether or not she would appear on the show’s seventh and final season, which is filming currently.
While the fans are up in arms, DeLaria had nothing but positive things to say about the series. She now has the time (and more importantly — the money) to fulfill a lifelong dream: Opening a cabaret club in Provincetown, a popular gay vacation destination and her home away from home. DeLaria is re-vamping what was until recently the town’s last remaining lesbian bar, Pied, a choice piece of property with a deck overlooking the ocean. She has renamed it The Club, and will open the new venue on Memorial Day weekend with a big show. (First up, she’ll work out some of her material this weekend with a show at SUNY Purchase’s The PAC.) DeLaria said she plans to bring a higher caliber of performer to the seaside town, with shows on the books from Alan Cumming and “Orange” co-stars Uzo Aduba and Danielle Brooks.
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Indie filmgoers recently saw another side to DeLaria in Andrew Bujalski’s understated “Support the Girls,” a day-in-the-life dramedy about about the staff and customers of a Texas topless bar. She has also appeared in IFC’s criminally underrated “Baroness Von Sketch Show,” staying true to her comedy roots. Her involvement came about because she was such a fan of the series, which is written and performed by four Canadian women over forty.
DeLaria spoke with IndieWire recently about her jazz and comedy beginnings, how lesbian characters are faring in Hollywood, and the pride she takes in representing fat butches everywhere.
You started your career in stand-up…
When I first started doing standup comedy back in 1982 … no one ever saw a woman who behaved the way I behaved. My head was shaved and I had big chunky boots on and piercings everywhere and safety pins in my clothes and I was stomping around the stage and just screaming dyke and cunt and fuck at the top of my lungs. …I’d been singing with my father since I was a kid, so I incorporated jazz into my standup…and it worked like a charm. So if it ain’t broke — lo, these 35 years later or however many years later — I do the same thing, only more elaborately now cause I can have a quartet onstage with me.
You really were — and still are to this day — the definitive pop culture butch.
Oh, without a doubt. Is there another pop culture butch out there who identifies as a butch? I think that’s the issue. I would say there are several pop culture butches out there, but they won’t identify as butch. They’ll call themselves androgynous or whatever. My entire career has been don’t judge a butch by its cover. People see a butch and they expect something very different than what I am.
Because [the media] has always portrayed us as stupid, fat, truck drivers, uneducated, causing bar fights, and beating our girlfriends. …But enter “Orange is the New Black.” Now people see us as human beings. … My whole career has been dedicated to that. So being able to do that in “Orange [Is the New Black]” was like I had died and gone to lezzie heaven. It was fantastic.
And you felt that the writers and producers understood that, and had your back?
Oh, obviously they did. Look at what they wrote. Look at Big Boo’s backstory. All butches have a shared life experience, there are certain things we go through and every single one of them was in Big Boo’s backstory. Our parents wanting us to wear dresses…and then we find our community and even our own community doesn’t accept us. “Why do you have to be the poster child for everything butch?”, that character said to Big Boo. … Not only is Big Boo not stupid — she’s the smartest person in that prison, and I don’t think anybody would argue with that. The other thing about butches is that we’re not sexy. There’s nothing sexy about a butch.
You know what I hate? Sometimes people will be like, “Oh, you’re not that butch,” as if it’s a bad thing.
That’s infuriating. Oh my god! Do they not hear themselves? Do they not hear how offensive that is?
It’s just like how people say, “Oh, you’re not that fat.”
Infuriating. How can they live in fucking 2019 and make a statement like that? And as a proud fat woman here, they say that to me all the time, because I’ve lost 50 pounds. I’m 5’1 1/2″ tall. I weigh 175 pounds. I am fat. I refer to myself as fat because there’s nothing wrong with fat. It’s the same thing as butch dyke. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s who I am. If you get an email from me right now, it says, “Sent from one pissed off fat dyke.”
After I lost the weight, girls on the set would say “You’re not that fat.” Meaning, “You’re not fat anymore. Lea, you’re not fat anymore.” Yes, I am.
Right. And I loved myself before just as much as I do now.
As I’m fond of saying, I got just as much pussy when I was 50 pounds heavier and long before “Orange Is the New Black.” I was never at a lack of pussy. I can assure you.
But the show must have helped a little bit, no?
Go watch my response to Jason Biggs on “Conan” about that, because it’s pretty good. It’s a classic moment. It’s a classic moment on American television. It’s like Lucy in the candy factory.
There is sort of a moratorium on talking about weight in the industry, but it is so pervasive.
Oh, completely and utterly. Even with their diversity in different shapes of women’s bodies, which “Orange” did, now it’s pretty much, as far as I can see, back to the thin girl thing.
How did you feel when you learned you would be written off “Orange Is the New Black”?
It’s just showbiz. It’s just what happens. It’s neither here nor there. I worked before “Orange Is the New Black,” I’ll work after … and more, because “Orange” … really raised my queue. … I had five years. That was a good run on a fucking hit show. We can’t all be my best friend Jesse Tyler Ferguson [of “Modern Family”] who works for a decade on a hit show. Some of us have to be the working horse actors. I’m a working horse actor and have been my whole life.
And it’s almost over anyway.
Yeah, I missed two seasons. This is no big deal.
Are you optimistic about the roles currently being written for lesbians in film and television?
They are writing new roles for lesbians, but the roles are not being written by lesbians. We had a brief period there, thanks to “Orange,” where lesbians were in the writer’s room and lesbians were portraying lesbians, and they even had lesbian directors I was so lucky to work with. Jodie Foster was really fun, FYI. … But now I think the pendulum has swung back and we’re looking at this lesbian chic again, which happened in the ’90s. The parts are not being written by us, the parts are not being directed by us, and the parts are most definitely not being performed by us. It’s all these straight girls. So what’s happening, essentially, is I’m being erased from my own narrative.
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How do you counteract that as an actor?
My niche in the ’90s was I was the lesbian who inappropriately hit on straight women at every function. That was my job in the lesbian chic era. And then I just stopped doing it. I just would say no. Politically, I just didn’t want to do it.
Then along comes “Californication,” and that’s when I sort of changed my tactic. I’d been saying no at this point for about seven or eight years, maybe even longer, and there was something in the script that pissed me off. I knew it wasn’t written by a lesbian. So I said to [my manager] Jeremy [Katz], “I don’t want to do this.” …And he goes, “Well…maybe it’s about you telling him you’re going to do the part and then you get on the set and you befriend the director and the writer and the producer…” He was basically like, “get on the set, change the line.” And it worked.
Do you remember what the line was?
Oh, absolutely. I remember it as if it was yesterday. “My wife occasionally likes to fuck men. She’s one of those dykes.” And we’re back to that. …Why does every lesbian have to fuck a man? …Of course in my head, it was like, well, if she wants some dick, why don’t I just strap it on and give it to her? I’m a butch fucking dyke.
So what did you change the line to?
Real dick. “Once in a while, she wants some real dick.” It’s still somewhat offensive, because my dick is real, but the point got across.
And it makes it so much more specific.
Here’s the thing — if you’re doing a show that takes place on a military base, you’re going to have a military consultant. You’re going to have 20 military consultants. If you’re doing a show that takes place in a swamp, you’re going to have someone — a swamp person consultant. Why is it that whenever they write anything like this — and this is just queer, period, not just lesbians — why don’t they have a dyke consultant?
Sounds like a great job.
For example, when we did Big Boo’s backstory on “Orange,” the writer had written it for Big Boo to strap her dick on over her underwear, and I was like, “No, absolutely no one does that.” And they were like, “Well, your experience is not indicative of everyone.” And I was like, “Yeah, actually it is.” No one does that. And the reason they don’t do it is because you won’t derive any pleasure if you put your underpants in between the strap and your fucking clit. I’m sorry, I’m being really direct. It’s IndieWire, though.”