Lea DeLaria on ‘OINTB’ – ‘Big Boo Is Me’
Lea DeLaria is a multi-talented performer, and has made a name for herself in comedy, music and acting. She’s also not one to take it easy.
She recently released an album called House of David, putting her unique, jazz-flavored twist on songs by the late, great David Bowie and is touring the country singing some of her favorite jazz and show tunes (she first received national mainstream attention for her portrayal of man-hungry NYC cab driver Hildy in the acclaimed 1998 Broadway revival of On the Town.) As an out lesbian, she faced a number of challenges getting her start, but fought through, earning the distinction of being the first out comedian on a talk show – The Arsenio Hall Show – back in 1993. Of course, most people would recognize Lea for her role as Big Boo on Netflix’s hit series Orange is the New Black. We were able to chat with this frank and funny woman about her career and her experiences working on OINTB.
Celebuzz: Let’s talk about your latest album, House of David. How did that project come about?
Lea DeLaria: Well, as anyone who knows my jazz stuff knows that I do really f—king weird jazz, I don’t do the “American Songbook” – I mean, I can do it and have done it – but, my records are all very unusual works done as jazz. And I am particularly interested in pop culture and using current music in order to expand the audience that listens to jazz. Like, for example, doing a piano voice jazz ballad duet of “Blank Space”. It totally works and it’s a song that a million people know, so why not do that rather than doing – once again – “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
So, I’ve been doing that forever and my most recent record is something I’ve been trying to get done since 2010, basically – and because of the changes in the music industry, especially jazz, by that I mean there are no jazz labels anymore, they’ve almost all gone under because of the digital age of music. So, one, because of that. Two, because not having the backing of a record label, which I’ve had for all of my other records (I was on the Warner jazz label), and then because of the success of Orange is the New Black, I couldn’t get this record made. That’s basically what was happening. So, once I clearly knew what my schedule was on Orange, very clearly knew I had this amount of time free, figured out how to crowd fund it – that’s what we did. And then it became a process of choosing the right tunes, I already had 7, I needed 12. So, between me, the producer, and the other arranger, coming up with those 5 more tunes – which we did. And then the standard “go into the studio, 3 days in the studio, a month afterwards” and then, bang! Here we are with House of David.
CB: Were you a fan of David Bowie’s work going into this album?
Lea: Oh, huge! I was a huge, huge, huge David Bowie fan. I was devastated by his death.
CB: It was interesting that the album was timed for release so close to his passing.
Lea: It was horrifying timing for me – I feel like I killed him! (Laughs)
CB: Besides David Bowie, what other musicians inspire you?
Lea: Mostly, I’m a big fan of instrumentalists. I listen to a lot of singers but, mostly, if you come over to my place, you’re going to hear John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie – you’re going to hear those guys. There are some singers I absolutely worship – some of them are from Broadway and some of them are classically trained and some of them are jazz singers but honestly I’m all about the instrumentalists, I love them. I sing like an instrumentalist. Like when I scat or when I sing, I don’t sing like a pretty girl singer, I sing like a musician.
CB: How did you start your career? Was it in comedy or theater?
Lea: I started in comedy and comedy led me to theater.
CB: What was it like as a woman trying to break into comedy in the 1980s? How hard was it for you to make your way up in that scene?
Lea: Pardon me, but not just as a woman but I was f—king openly gay! I was doing stand-up as a lesbian in the 80s! (Laughs) So how hard was that? It was virtually impossible. I couldn’t work the comedy clubs. I worked universities, small theaters, kind of the “art scene” circuit is what I had to work. I couldn’t even get booked in comedy clubs because of what I talked about. I didn’t start working in the actual comedy clubs until after I was the first openly gay comic to perform on television. That was 1993. And the same things that are happening now [with women in comedy] were still completely prevalent. You know, the classic that every woman talks about, where the club owner or whoever is putting the night together says, “We can’t have you on the bill, we’ve already got a woman on the bill.” – and 3 men! How come you can have 3 men on the bill but you can’t have 2 women? Like all women are going to talk about is their uterus. And why would that be different from men talking about their f—king d—ks? What’s the difference, right? In fact, I often say that stand-up comedy is last bastion of the straight while male. It’s the last place where they can go in front of people and say all the s–t he’s not allowed to say anywhere else because it’s so wrong, sexist, or politically incorrect. It’s still not easy to be a woman in comedy, don’t forget it. It’s still not easy to be a woman in Hollywood. It’s still not easy to be a woman in the world. We are oppressed! (Laughs) It’s really that simple, women are oppressed. Everywhere.
CB: I’m a theater nerd and you initially hit my radar when you played my second favorite role in one of my favorite musicals, On the Town. How did you make the transition from comedy to theater?
Lea: Well, once I hit as a stand-up comic in the 90s…it’s like the standard history of American television, but that was how you got a sitcom. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, you got a sitcom from being a really good stand-up comic. If you couldn’t get a sitcom because, say, you were me, like you’re a big dyke and you weren’t in the closet, you did a lot of guest spots. I guest starred on so many television shows in the 90s – I even recurred on Matlock for 2 seasons. So, I was acting already, but I was a television and film actor, not a stage actor. It wasn’t until On the Town that I became a stage actor.
CB: Did you go to school for acting?
Lea: Oh no, I really didn’t go to college. I did theater in high school! (Laughs) But, you have to remember, I started doing stand-up very young. I was in my very early 20s when I started doing stand-up, and I hit immediately. So, by the time I did The Arsenio Hall Show in 1993, I had been a professional stand-up for almost 10 years. I started in April of 1982 and quit my day job in September of ’82 – and I’ve supported myself solely as a performer ever since.
CB: You have joked that you started your film and television career playing, among other somewhat stereotypical roles, “the lesbian who inappropriately hits on straight women.” The visibility of gay and lesbian characters has definitely increased, but how do you think Hollywood is doing in portraying honest gay and lesbian characters and same sex relationships?
Lea: I think they’re at about a B+ now. I don’t think they’re making A+ and their certainly not going to be valedictorian because they still have a habit of having our characters being written by people who are straight and portrayed by people who are straight. It still happens.
The B+ comes from shows like Orange and Modern Family that have actual portrayals of what it’s really like to be these people written by the people who know what it’s like to be these people and acted by the people who know what it’s like to be these people. If there was a role written for a black woman and they cast me and painted me in blackface, people would be pretty upset about it. Well, as a butch dyke, I think it’s upsetting to cast a straight woman in the role of a butch lesbian who thinks that all you have to do is cut your hair short and put your hands in your pockets and that makes you a butch dyke – there’s a lot more to being who we are. We’re a different kind of lesbian, even. It’s complicated and it’s hard to bring up because then what’s going to stop them from saying, “Well, you can’t play a straight girl.” But frankly, they’ve said that to me anyway – even though I became famous as an actor playing a really straight woman – a straight chick who needed to get laid yesterday by a guy. Like a really horny straight girl. It’s great that my television show is a huge success – don’t get me wrong, I f—king love it, and I love playing Big Boo and it’s really exciting to bring this character to television. But then what happens is that now all they think all I can play is lesbians – and they won’t let me play a lesbian because they’re casting nothing but straight women in those roles. So, that’s why I say B+! We’re definitely better than we were 20 years ago, but we’ve still got work to do.
CB: How challenging was it for you to turn Boo into such a sympathetic character?
Lea: I think starting with the first season, it was very clear to people who Boo was. Boo has an element of danger as to who she is but also has kind of a heart of gold. Also, she’s not only probably the smartest person in the prison, [she’s] also fast with a joke, so I think those are the things that make people love her. The fact that she’s smart, the fact that she’s funny and what I think is fabulous about the way that works is because of the writing that’s done on our show.
I’ve been in this industry a long time and I’m one of those actors they hire when they want to make something that isn’t funny – funny. As in, “We want this to be funny, but this is all we’ve written.” So, they give it to someone like me or to Natasha Lyonne – there are a couple of people out there who are very good at that. “Give it to Lea, she’ll make it funny” – and I would do that. I don’t have to do that with Orange is the New Black. It’s f—king funny. When they write that show, it’s brilliant and, when they do something that isn’t a joke, the pathos is so strong. If anything, the thing that’s been harder for me on the show to do is that pathos. They expect me to really act. I’m not just getting by making a funny remark and walking away. I’m expected to really act on this show and it’s really helped me grow as an actor. And that’s all because of the creative team – not just the writers, but the directors and the editors and the line producers and the producers. I mean, it’s amazing, let’s put it that way.
CB: Since you were hired for your comic skills, are you given any leeway with the script? Is there any improvisation on the set?
Lea: Well, we have a really laid-back set and by that, I mean, adlibbing is generally discouraged in television. It’s more encouraged in film, but it’s generally discouraged in television. It’s very unusual to work on a set where you’re allowed to adlib. Now, having said that, there are creative people who are involved with our show that all they want you to do is give them 4 or 5 – or let’s say 6 – takes as written and then, if there’s time, they generally would go, “Have fun with this. Give us a loose take now.” Also, if we don’t get a “cut”, that’s just standard actor behavior. If you’re not getting a “cut” and the lines are gone, you just can’t sit there and look at each other – it’s not a f—king soap opera. So, if the lines are gone, some of us will do that. To be really clear, from day one of shooting, Natasha Lyonne and I were sitting across from each other and it became apparent that we were complete a—holes and we would do anything to make the other person laugh on camera. That’s just the relationship I have with Natasha. So, often we are just doing the craziest takes you’ve ever seen, because we are just trying to make the other person break. It’s really that simple. (Laughs) It’s very bad actor behavior. It’s very unprofessional, but it’s a lot of fun to be around.
CB: You can see on the show that camaraderie you’re talking about.
Lea: Oh please, yes. I think that anybody who sees a scene between Nicky and Boo, you can see that they just adore each other – no matter what kind of craziness they’re in (like the “F—k Off”), they adore each other. And it’s the same thing between Pennsatucky and Boo. Taryn [Manning]…I f—king love her as a human being. Taryn and Lea are good friends, and that clearly shows when they’re playing Boo and Pennsatucky.
CB: How much of you, Lea, is in Boo?
Lea: I am that character, are you kidding? Big Boo wasn’t even in the show [originally]. The part was written for me. Once [series creator] Jenji Kohan saw me, she wanted me in the show and created Big Boo for me. So, Big Boo is me. They know who I am and they know what I do really well and they write for it. So, yeah, I don’t have to do any preparation. (Laughs) It’s the least amount of acting I’ve ever done in my career and it’s what has made me most famous as an actor.
CB: You’ve do so many things – comedy, singing, acting, and writing – is there something you prefer doing over the others, or do you enjoy it all equally?
Lea: I enjoy it all equally. Normally, I would say I like being on stage more than I like acting on film, but the reality is I get paid way more to act on television! (Laughs)
CB: I saw on your schedule that you do a college lecture series called “A Man for All Seasons” which is promoted as “not your usual collegiate type talk.” Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Lea: I’m a stand-up comic, that’s my background. I’m just doing stand-up comedy. They call it a lecture, they hire me under the guise of it being a lecture, I stand up there for 20 minutes and make the students laugh. But, I’m also making them think while I’m making them laugh and that’s basically the concept, that’s the idea of that – to get them to see some things about the world and who they are. That’s it.
CB: You’re currently touring and performing songs from House of David. What can audiences at your shows, for example your April 9 show at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, expect?
Lea: Oh there will be lots of House of David in the show. That I can assure you. There will also be some of the more popular tunes off of my other records, for example, my version of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” off of my first album, which is very popular and my version of “Call Me” off of my second album, which is also very popular. They’ll probably get “I Can Cook Too” from On the Town because it’s a Broadway kind of house. That’ what I generally do. I pick the highlights, I feature the record that’s currently out, and I’m funny. Anyone who knows me knows it’s going to be funny, so there you go!
CB: You’ve done everything from comedy to advocacy for LGBT organizations. What has been the most rewarding thing you’ve done?
Lea: The most rewarding thing? Wow, that one’s hard. Rewarding is hard. It’s got to be Big Boo. I have to say that because my entire career has been based on the concept of “don’t judge the butch by its cover” so, Orange is the New Black and the character of Big Boo actually portray butches in the way I always thought we should be portrayed – instead of the way the media tends to portray us – which is stupid, fat, loud, beating up our girlfriends, truck drivers, causing fights in bars – you know, that kind of thing. It’s not really who we are and seeing us portrayed in a positive way is incredibly rewarding.
CB: Is there anything you still want to do?
Lea: Yes, I have to sleep with Sigourney Weaver! That’s all that’s left for me to do. I’m still waiting to bang her! (Laughs)
Get ready to see Big Boo on the small screen when season 4 of Orange is the New Black debuts on Netflix on June 17. Follow Lea on Twitter and visit her site leadelaria.com. For tickets to her upcoming show at the NJPAC, visit the center’s website at njpac.org.