Lea DeLaria is having a pretty good year.
At the beginning, she started filming a TV show you may have heard of—Netflix’s new series, Orange is the New Black.
“When we finished shooting that in mid-March, I got cast as Vera Charles in Mame [with Andrea McArdle at Bucks County Playhouse], then went right into The Caucasion Chalk Circle with Christopher Lloyd at CSC. Then we did ‘So Over the Rainbow’ with Scott Thompson, Sandy Bernhardt and me,” at Le Poisson Rouge, she says. DeLaria and Maggie Casella followed with a July residency downtown at Dixon Place, “and then I went right into filming season two.”
DeLaria had a positive feeling about OITNB from the start: “We had [the show’s creator] Jenji Kohan; the cast is so good it’s insane. That’s 2/3 of the way. Then there are the directors and writers…I knew it was going to be good.”
Just how good, DeLaria realized as they got further into production. “Around episode six, Kate Mulgrew and I were sitting there on our little cast chairs, and I opened my mouth to say something and Kate looked at me and said: ‘don’t jinx it!’”
And within a few days of the show’s premiere, DeLaria was asked to autograph her first screwdriver, by a woman who ran out of a hardware store with the tool in her hand.
“[Orange is the New Black’s popularity] has happened to so quickly,” she said. “It literally blew up in about 6 weeks, and now everyone is trying to play catch-up. Luckily, I have a smart manager and this is my third feeding frenzy: The first one happened when I went on The Arsenio Hall Show and became the first openly gay comic on [a late-night talk show], and that ended up taking me all over the world to perform. The second one was when I did On the Town in Central Park and on Broadway. With OITNB, this one’s bigger than any of them. There’s no way to describe it.”
While exact numbers of viewers for streaming content are hard to come by, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that in less than two months, OITNB has become one of the major pop culture phenomena of the year, reaching fans internationally and in Bushwick. DeLaria has anecdotal proof of both: “I’ve got Twitter flirtations going on with girls in 20 different countries,” she said. “Girls from Norway who are, like, 18. They don’t know how much danger they’re in!”
DeLaria’s clearly enjoying the ride, but recognizes that the critically acclaimed series has sparked a serious discussion about social issues. Set in a fictional minimum-security federal prison, Orange is the New Black presents the community of incarcerated women as a microcosm of American society. The show has brought more critical attention to women in prison—who they are, why they are there, and what conditions are like for them.
“I knew we got it [right] when the Women’s Prison Association started following me on Twitter,” DeLaria said. Out and politically active for her entire career, she appreciates how the show draws the viewer into issues of sexual orientation, race, class and privilege.
“We’re asking people to think here. People are used to being spoon-fed what to think from the moment they’re born. This show makes people think, in the way a Tony Kushner play makes people think. It’s raised the level of what you can do and see on TV” in both its themes and content, DeLaria said. “From the fisting scene in the pilot, to me getting to MacGyver a screwdriver into a dildo and having an orgasm on camera—this is breaking new ground, hell to the yes! And the exploration of racism is right there. It’s an extension of a conversation I’ve been trying to have for years in America. And look at how it’s addressed: Gina [Abigail Savage] says to Piper in the first episode, ‘it looks like racism, but it’s not: it’s tribal.’ The nuances. That’s what I love to explore.”
One of the most heartbreaking scenes of the first season (spoiler alert) occurs when Taystee (Danielle Brooks) gets paroled, but ends up back in prison because, as she tells her best friend Pousséy (Samira Wiley), she can’t figure out how to live outside of prison.
“I can appreciate both aspects of that,” DeLaria said. “And Pousséy calls her on it. She says to Taystee, ‘you have to take care of yourself.’ That’s something I can identify with. I worry when they tell kids ‘It gets better,’ because sometimes it isn’t true, sometimes not for a long time. Sure, there’s poverty in America, I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up poor and black. It was bad enough to grow up poor and white. But you have to do the best you can, somehow. You can’t be going back to prison because you can’t take care of yourself.”
DeLaria makes it clear she’s not blaming the victim; she’s talking about how people have to find the strength and savvy to survive in a world where they face oppression. She’s blunt and often upsets people, and she has no patience for that. In a recent interview with Autostraddle, she commented about co-star Laura Prepon “I’ve wanted to get my dick in her mouth forever!” and set off a reaction from people both in support of, and freaked out by, the idea.
“As an out dyke comic for many years, sometimes I think there’s no respect for where a person has come from,” she said. “It’s like Groundhog Day for me: I’ve been followed and yelled at by lesbians for years. Of course there’s a reason I said that—a lesson, a reason. I can peel that onion in about five different ways, ranging from the idea that butches have dicks, that we’re women, and that we want to fuck other women.”
“I’m tired of people saying that intent doesn’t matter, that context isn’t important. If people are ‘uncomfortable’ with what I say, and say it’s the same thing as an assault, well hello Putin! That is exactly what he says about Pussy Riot.”
DeLaria could never be mistaken for a shrinking violet. She’s not only unafraid of controversy; she courts it. In her live act, in interviews, and on Facebook to Twitter, she has a reason and purpose for every incendiary word. Where others, in their arguments, might go straight to the denouement with no beginning, middle or end, DeLaria methodically aims for the jugular.
“When I write a show, I say fuck, I say cunt, I say fucktard. And I go from point A to point Z, because I know how to do it,” she said.
The strong sense of herself and her career has helped DeLaria ride the latest surge in acclaim. Her inbox is suddenly jammed with opportunities for performing and advocacy. “They are offering me roles and not asking me to audition. I’m saying ‘no’ to some of it. But I always was a ‘no’ person if I thought it was stupid. Now I have more things to say no to! Host a lesbian pool party: No! Be the keynote speaker at a lesbian conference: Yes!”
DeLaria is utilizing her current clout in other areas of her career: in her recording career, she’s working on House of David, her album of jazz covers of David Bowie songs, and talking to labels about its release.
And, of course, people are asking her to autograph screwdrivers on the street. She says she’s ordered a box of them to sell at her shows: for $10 she’ll sign them and pose for a picture, and give the proceeds to charity. She’s getting used to the fact that she will be recognized (and be asked to sign screwdrivers) wherever she goes.
“On the subway, I’m happy to have a 6am call because at that hour on the train, no one is looking. If it’s a 9 or 11 am call, then I’m getting my picture taken and people want to talk,” she said. “I have to wear a hat and glasses, but once they see the tats, they know it’s me. The other girls on the show have their tattoos painted on, I don’t. And of course, this is my trademark.” DeLaria holds up her forearm and displays the one that says BUTCH.
Despite her notoriety as fictional felon, DeLaria enjoyed a quick break from her prison role in early September, when she walked the red carpet with good friend Jesse Tyler Ferguson at the premiere of her new film, Dear Dumb Diary. In the tween-centered musical, she plays a different kind of intimidating authority figure: a junior high school lunch lady.
Dear Dumb Diary, based on the popular series of books by Jim Benton, premiered on the Hallmark Channel in September. Aimed at girls 11-14, the film follows the adventures of an imaginative adolescent girl and her best friends as they try to negotiate the tricky currents of junior high school.
“I play Miss Bruntford, the lunch lady, who’s a nemesis to the main character,” DeLaria said. “I keep trying to make her eat meatloaf.” And, she points out, “I am the only adult who has a song.” DeLaria says she loved working with her young co-stars—“after all, I am just a big kid.”
Then it was back to Brooklyn, where she’s currently ensconced with her girlfriend, Chelsea Fairless, who works for V Magazine.
“Yes, now, I’m in Bushwick,” she said, singing a few bars of “What I Did for Love.” Formerly a resident of the Upper West Side (in a doorman building, she points out), she’s happy to be in a new relationship and living in a cool walkup in a neighborhood that’s getting trendy around her.
“I love her, I love this place,” she said. She teases her fashionable lover about the latest styles, including the voluminous dresses the girls are wearing this summer. “They are so big! I kept asking her why are the dresses bigger? They are so big, I could dress up in them, and I’m a big butch dyke! I was giving her shit about these big dresses, then I put on one of her dresses, and then because she works at a magazine, she started art directing it…so I put on 4 or 5 of her dresses and we couldn’t stop laughing.”
DeLaria is laughing a lot these days. “I’ve gotta say, somewhere in the last ten years of my life, I became such a grownup, doing and saying grownup things, that I sort of forgot to be me. And I stopped doing that. Now I feel like I’m completely me. And the me that I am is a 16-year-old boy.”
LEA’S RAP SHEET:
1993 –––––– Becomes the first openly gay comedian on American
television on The Arsenio Hall Show.
1993 –––––– Solo show, “Muff Diva,” named Best of Fest, Edinburgh.
1993 –––––– Comedy CD, Bull Dyke in a China Shop.
1994 –––––– Hosts Out There, the first gay special on Comedy Central.
1996 –––––– Plays Elise’s Fan in the film The First Wives Club.
1997 –––––– Comedy CD Box Lunch.
1998 –––––– Plays Jane in the off-Broadway production of Paul Rudnick’s play The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.
1997-98 –––– Plays cab driver Hildy Esterhazy in the musical On the Town in Shakespeare in the Park and on Broadway; appears in national tour of Chicago.
1999 –––––– Plays Angie in the film The Edge of Seventeen.
1999-2012 -– Portrays Madame Delphina (and Professor Delbert Fina) on One Life to Live.
2000 –––––– Plays Eddie/Dr. Scott inThe Rocky Horror Show on Broadway.
2000 –––––– Publishes Lea’s Book of Rules for the World (Dell).
2001 –––––– Releases Play it Cool, a CD of jazz standards.
2003 –––––– Releases Double Standards with jazz versions of rock songs.
2004 –––––– Plays Joy in Cinderella at NYC Opera.
2005 –––––– Plays Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at McCarter Theater.
2006 –––––– Releases The Very Best of Lea DeLaria CD.
2006 –––––– Plays Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days at CSC.
2008 –––––– Releases The Live Smoke Sessions CD of live jazz/standards.
2010 –––––– Appears as Force in the American Repertory Theater’s production of Prometheus Bound.
2013 –––––– Plays Carrie “Big Boo” Black on Orange is the New Black.