SHOW FOLK: Lea DeLaria on “Iceland”, Dream Roles & Loving Jewish Girls
In a world of cookie cutter show biz types, Lea DeLaria is a true one-of-a-kind. From her boundary-busting stand-up to her Broadway barnstorming (and Drama Desk nominated) debut in On the Town, she has blazed a career that includes acting, writing and singing while remaining true to her outspoken, “Bulldyke in a China Shop” attitude. And we wouldn’t want her any other way. [Which should be fair warning that the following interview includes more than just a little salty language; Victorian maidens beware.]
Now, she’s back on the New York stage in the romantic comedy Out of Iceland, as a mythical imp (don’t call it a “Troll”!) who adds a twist to the proceedings. Just before the show opened, she shared her thoughts on her swinging London life, her dream roles and the joy of kissing Brooke Shields.
You hear a character described as a “flamboyant Icelandic troll who crawled out of a television” and I’m not sure you think, “Lea DeLaria, of course!” Seriously, what was your response to hearing about this unusual role and what convinced you to play the part?
OK the “TROLL” thing is really starting to annoy me; I DO NOT PLAY A TROLL!!!! I play a “HIDDEN PERSON”. Hidden People in Iceland are like Leprechauns in Ireland. Hidden People HATE trolls, we hate them. So to be clear that description is incorrect and both the author and I are losing our minds over it. Once I read the script I could see an unusual quality to this play. It is a romantic comedy with a twist and I play that twist. What’s not to like? The character I have created is a combination of Bugs Bunny, Beetlejuice and Grouch Marx…so, the comedy is broad and old school and I get to ad lib.
There’s a mystical, modern fairy tale quality to Out of Iceland. What were your favorite fairy tales as a kid?
My favorite fairy tale was The Bible.
Speaking of lands across the Atlantic, you’ve spent a fair amount of time in England of late, what draws you to London?
I call myself a NYLON because i live in both New York and LONdon. My girlfriend is a fairly well known British composer and musician so the two of us are a kind of a power dyke couple. But let’s be clear, I’m the top. I’m always the top. I am signed to Warner Jazz UK because there is no US division anymore so I sing there all the time. In fact I have a steady gig there entitled wall2wall. On the third Tuesday of the month I do a different song book with a guest. It’s turned into a bi-monthly because I am over here as much as I am over there. But if you are in London the third tuesday of May come see me do “The Swinging 60’s” songbook.
You’ll be performing at the new “54 Below” Nightclub in NYC this summer, what have you got up your sleeve for that show?
It’s a show I have been working on for a few months entitled The Last Butch Standing: the adventures of an old school butch in a post Ellen modern queer world. You know, a typical Lea show: political/social observation combined with music and sex toys.
With the passing of One Life to Live, I suppose we’ll never see your awesome Madame Delphina ever again. Was there ever a time in your own life that felt like a soap opera?
Are you kidding I’M A LESBIAN!!!! Haven’t you ever heard of dyke drama? My entire life is a soap opera…except for no hunky shirtless men, unless I am brunching in Chelsea.
One of my first jobs was as a cocktail waiter at a comedy club in Chicago and I saw first hand how tough the life of a stand-up can be. What were your secrets to surviving the club scene on the road?
The truth is, honey, I never really played the comedy clubs. When I started they wouldn’t let queer comics on stage. I guess that’s my gift to the world. I have given gay comedy to comedy clubs. I performed mostly on the small theater / college circuit. However, I was and am on the road all the time. My secret to survival is random and frequent sex with straight Jewish girls.
You broke through barriers as the first out gay comic to appear on a late night talk show in 1993. What boundaries are still out there that you hope to crash through?
Here’s the thing: when I did The Arsenio Hall Show it was the number one late night show in America, watched by millions all over the world. It wasn’t like I did The Sally Jessy Raphael Show at 1AM in Sheboygan. Between my 5 minute set and my 6 minutes on the couch. I used the words dyke, fag or queer 46 times (I didn’t count that, in fact a journalist did.) So I didn’t just open the door for people to come through, I fuckin’ kicked it in. I am proud of that accomplishment, perhaps more proud of that then anything else I have done…although making out with Brooke Shields was fun, too.
With such a wildly diverse career from stand-up to jazz to Broadway, you seem fearless, but is there any part of show business you haven’t tried and would never want to try?
I would not want to be on Lockup.
Fantasy time: you can sing a duet with any performer (living or dead), who would it be and why?
You can play any great role (male, female or troll) on Broadway, what would it be and why?
My actual fantasy is a new musical that someone will write for me, someone like Michael John LaChiusa or William Finn or Jeanine Tesori or David Yazbeck. but it’s your fantasy rules: Mama Rose Gypsy, Vera Mame, Emcee Cabaret, Pseudelous A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Mikado The Mikado, Beetle Sweeney Todd, Barfey 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Nicely Nicely Guys and Dolls, and Stanley A Streetcar Named Desire.
Out of Iceland runs through April 22 at The Culture Project.