Focus On the Most Honest Thing: An Interview With Drew Droege

Drew Droege has done a lot of things — he’s hosted podcasts; written for Netflix’s Big Mouth and Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street (to name a few); acted in countless shorts, films and television shows, including 2018’s Heathers TV reboot; and is responsible for your favourite Chloë Sevigny impersonation videos. But his latest work is his most personal.

For the last few years, he’s starred on-and-off in Bright Colours and Bold Patterns, an acclaimed Off-Broadway one-man show directed by David Horn and Michael Urie, which performed to sold-out crowds in both Los Angeles and New York, and was captured live for the screen in 2018. Also written by Droege, the show takes a head-on look at the ugliness of internalised homophobia. Droege plays Gerry, a gay man spurred to be furiously flamboyant after receiving an invitation to a Palm Springs gay wedding that discourages guests from wearing bright colours and bold patterns.

A solo performance, the whole play rests on Droege’s ability to sustain the manic, cutting, riotous, and heart-rending performance. It’s an impressive feat, and it’s no surprise that BroadwayHD’s recording of the play was the Centrepiece film at the 2019 Melbourne Queer Film Festival, a festival brimming with the jubilant energy of a country still fairly new to same-sex marriage.

On his first visit to Melbourne Australia, Ivana Brehas spoke with Drew about queer culture, artistic vulnerability, and being a big, loud, gay mess

Ivana Brehas: You’ve been in Melbourne for a few days now – have you had a glimpse of the queer scene? What’s your impression of it?

Drew Droege: I — sadly — have not gone to any gay bars since I’ve been here. I can’t believe that. Maybe I’ll try to go to one tonight, ‘cause I leave in the morning! I wish I could speak on that, ‘cause I’ve heard that it’s pretty amazing and wonderful. But I have a friend who lives here who showed me around, and obviously, I’ve been to six or seven films since I’ve been here. It feels very progressive; very open-minded; very live-and-let-live, which I love. It doesn’t feel aggressive at all. Coming from the United States… [laughs] it’s just really nice to come to a much more chill vibe where everyone’s interested in diversity within the queer community. It doesn’t feel very fragmented. Sometimes in the States, it can feel very segregated — not only between gays and lesbians and trans people, but just within the gay male culture. I’ve found the people here to be really intelligent. After my screening the other night, people had really interesting observations and questions for me. So it’s very stimulating here, and it doesn’t feel pretentious or stuffy at all.

IB: That’s really nice to hear. The reason I ask is, it’s really cool to get to discuss this show with you from an Australian perspective. We only got the ‘yes’ vote — to legalise same-sex marriage — in November 2017. Like, it’s been a year and four months. So the things that you were talking about in Bright Colors and Bold Patterns still feel very fresh. We’re still adjusting to that ‘new normal’.

DD: Yeah. I started this in 2013, when it was legalised in the United States, as sort of a reaction to that. It’s been interesting in the United States. When I first put it up there was some resistance to it, ‘cause everyone was very excited about marriage equality happening — which I loved as well, and I understood people going, “Wait, wait, wait, let’s not immediately criticise it.” Then in 2015, 2016, the show was really taking off, and people were really responding to it — and then we had our election from hell, and we got scared again, about our human rights and visibility. But I think it’s really important to not lose nuance and lose discussion within the community. I certainly don’t have any answers, but I wanted to create a discussion. I don’t think it’s a black-and-white issue. I mean, big picture, of course I’m very pro-marriage equality, and thrilled that it’s available. I think kids are gonna look back on this time and not believe that it was ever not available, you know? I think they’re gonna be like, “That was the weirdest thing in the world.

IB: But it’s that tension between what’s liberation and what’s assimilation. There were all these stereotypes and ideas perpetuated for years about queer people, that we are all one way — flamboyant, and wearing bright colours and bold patterns — and activists had to rally against that and say, “No, we’re not that.” But now we’re having to re-examine that and question, “Why is that necessarily wrong?” We shouldn’t feel ashamed if we do fit those stereotypes.

DD: Exactly. So much in the play is about being by us and for us. It’s my comment to other queer people, like, “Let’s celebrate our otherness, and our different-ness, and our diversity, and not feel like we have to straight-wash ourselves in order to fit in.” Because the straight people that I know and love — and I know and love many of them — they don’t want us to do that either. I wanted to call attention to that, and remind us that we have a lot of work to do, and a lot of love to give ourselves and each other. And space, as well. We’ve told ourselves all our lives, “We’re not going to fit in,” and so we have walls up, and when we see other people being fabulous around us, or acting a certain way, we sort of bristle at that

IB: There’s a point in the show where your character is talking about assimilation and normalisation, and you say “Yay?” with this upward inflection, like a question mark. I think that one word alone really captures how a lot of us are feeling at this moment in queer history. Like, corporations are realising that it’s profitable now to support us — yay?

DD: Right. Like, this is good, but let’s be careful, and let’s be vigilant, and let’s not forget where we come from with all of that. So, literally ‘yay’, with a period, and also literally ‘yay’ with a question mark

IB: So the show itself started out from a real invite that you got, that said not to wear bright colours and bold patterns to a wedding?

DD: Yes. I got an invite to my friend’s wedding in Palm Springs — a heterosexual couple — and they asked the guests not to wear bright colours or bold patterns. My friend, who I love to death, is just a control freak. She wanted really lovely, muted desert tones for her wedding, but I saw that on the invite, and it just struck me as such a title. It inspired me immediately. And as I was driving down to Palm Springs, I started thinking about these gay plays that I love, where it’s a bunch of gay men in a house together, having a wonderful, horrible, everything-in-between time — like Boys in the Band, or Love! Valour! Compassion!, or many others — and I wanted to write something that was in the vein of how my friends and I talk to each other, and what’s going on in our generation. My generation’s younger than those plays, but we’re also older, and we’re seeing the new generation come up behind us, so I was curious about that.

I started thinking about what that phrase meant, “No bright colours or bold patterns.” And then gay marriage became legalised, and I realised, this is the play — it’s about what we are doing to ourselves. ‘Cause I certainly didn’t feel, and I don’t feel, like my straight friends are telling us to be less bold and less bright. They love it. Straight people love Drag Race. You know, we do a live drag Golden Girls show in L.A. twice a year and it’s mostly straight people coming to that. And they crave that. They love it. I didn’t want some angry play about how straight people have held me down. It’s obviously a valid perspective for a lot of people, but I was just more interested in our own community. I created a character who was sort of my dream role — a big, loud, gay mess — ‘cause we don’t see that portrayed in our culture nearly enough. We have too many personality-free gay heroes, I think, in a lot of our entertainment spheres.

I’d thought about doing a play first, and then I just had the idea of, “What if he’s talking to people that aren’t there?” He forces you to look at him. If I’d cast people on stage with me, you would be looking at the hot guy in the Speedo. You would be looking towards the more quote-unquote “normal” gay guys, or the more successful, or the less obnoxious gay guy, and the character I was playing would be the sidekick. The clown. So I was like, “What if you have to only look at him, you have to see where he’s coming from, the whole time?” We rarely want to see that in our culture, or in ourselves. And I think it’s very much in ourselves. It always cracks me up after screenings when people come up to me and go, “Oh my God, that character’s me, I’m so that guy,” or, “I know that guy.” But also, I love that character. I mean, I think he’s a mess, but he’s a human being, and he’s masking a lot of pain, and I think he’s funny but he doesn’t know the line. He doesn’t know when to shut up, or when to take care of other people’s feelings, or his own feelings. He just knows how to show up and hold court.

IB: I loved the decision to make it a solo show with you talking to these invisible characters. I had that thought, too — “If the other characters were here, you wouldn’t really notice Gerry’s loneliness and defense mechanisms. He would just be this funny sidekick.” It kind of reminds me those YouTube videos where they edit the laugh tracks out of sitcoms, and it’s this weird, uncanny… like, Friends without a laugh track. There’s this absence that makes everything a bit sad or suddenly bleak.

DD: Oh, I love that. That’s so interesting. Yeah. That’s something I thought was really strong in the way that BroadwayHD captured the show — they wanted very much for it to feel like you were in the theatre that night watching the show, and they didn’t want to sweeten it and make it feel like a sitcom. I had a producer that really wanted to add a lot of laughter in places where I maybe didn’t get a laugh, and I’m so glad that BroadwayHD insisted on not adding any laughter. The laughter that’s in the film is just what I got. I mean, I love that observation that you have. I don’t know that I’ve heard that before. And I think that’s from watching this transfer to screen. Having performed it so many times, when first I watched it by myself, my first thought was, “Oh my God, this isn’t getting any laughs,” because when I do it on stage, the room feels a lot more alive, and it does feel a lot more like a comedy show, until he drops out and gets serious for the second half. But I think that’s really interesting, ‘cause you have to kind of be there with him.

If they had added laughs, it would have felt like a sitcom a comedy special, not a play. When I first did the play, it was maybe 45 or 50 minutes long, and I rattled through — I don’t think I took any breaths. It took a couple years of doing the show, but now it’s like 85 minutes, and I didn’t add major dialogue in that. I just added a lot of breathing and listening. And drinking and cocaine use. [laughs] But yeah, I was able to trust being there with him, as opposed to just rattling out words, words, words.

IB: It’s got a really great balance of comedy and poignancy at the same time. To what extent are you drawing from life to create these things?

DD: The Sunday school teacher named Mrs. Raper who called me a “thespian” – that’s all real, that all happened to me. You know, I can laugh at that now, because she wasn’t calling me a thespian; she wasn’t calling me an actor; she was, you know, gay-bashing me in church as a child ‘cause I was acting out. But she saw something in me that I hated for a long time, that I learned to love, and I thought that needed to be somewhere in the show. The other three characters are amalgamations of people that I’ve known all my life, and my relationships with them. I’ve also never really been in a long-term relationship, and I’ve been really interested in the why of that. And I go through long periods where I’m proud of that, and I really enjoy it — it’s not like I sit around and mope. I really do enjoy being single — and I feel like, so does Gerry. But then you have moments where you wonder, why? And what is that about?

I know a lot of it is from choices that I’ve made, or from sort of blurring the lines. I think there’s a thing in gay culture where we blur the lines with friends a lot of the time. We are very flirty with each other; we get very intimate with each other. Especially when you’re coming of age, you find that other gay person and you attach everything to them. I have fallen in love with a lot of my best friends, and I realise now, like, “Oh, God, that would have been a horrible relationship, had we done that.” But I definitely attach a lot of romantic feelings to friends that I’ve had over the years, because you find this closeness. And then when you’re used to being the one that makes everyone laugh, no one really understands that you might have feelings; that you might be hurt. You might be the one that is the life of the party, and then everyone at the end of the night pairs off and goes to bed together, and you’re the one that goes home alone, and everyone just thinks, “Oh, he’ll be fine.” So I was curious and exploring that side of myself.

I’m very fortunate that I’ve got to do a lot of acting work, but it’s almost always comedic stuff. I usually get hired to play really loud, angry, brash, terrible gay people — which I love, and I’ll happily do that for the rest of my life. But I wanted to explore levels in that, and play things that I’d never be cast in, unless I wrote it myself. I was also coming off my notoriety from my Chloë Sevigny YouTube videos, and I didn’t want to do that forever. I didn’t want to be a drag queen, mainly ‘cause I’m not a real drag queen. I’m always very touched when people really like the Chloë Sevigny thing, but I felt like it was limiting on some level, and I didn’t want to just be the guy who was doing that for the rest of my life. I wanted something else that would expand me creatively, both comedically and dramatically.

IB: I’m writing a play at the moment with a friend of mine, and we’re drawing on very personal things — our journal entries; our issues with intimacy and relationships. In terms of writing something that is a lot more personal than the things you’ve had the opportunity to do before — and starring in it, too — how did you negotiate those boundaries of challenging yourself and putting yourself out there, but also protecting your mental health; honouring your privacy and what is too much for you?

DD: It is really hard. I think that’s such a great question, and I don’t even know if I have an answer to that, because I totally understand what you’re saying. I’ve done two podcasts that over the years, and especially the last one that I did… you know, I’m very naked online with stories about myself, and when I hung out with my friend who lives in Melbourne on Friday, he was bringing up all these details about my life, ‘cause he listened to my podcast — stuff that I haven’t even told him in confidence. I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve told that to anyone who would listen.” I’ve been very open about so many things in my life. And I grew up in a world, in the South, where it was like, “You don’t tell anyone your business.” My mom’s still like, “Do not tell anyone our family drama.”

I’ve never gotten, like, professional therapy, and I feel like my podcast and my work is sort of my therapy, where I can work out some things. I feel like the more honest you are, the more people relate to you and go, “Oh my God, that’s me too,” — and then you feel okay, because you feel connected. You feel less alien. We’ve all gone through so many similar experiences, with different details. We’re all a lot more alike than we are different. So the truer the experience is, the more it resonates with people. And for me, it really helps. When I would do my podcast, I’d ask guests to talk about something that they’ve never talked about before. It was called Minor Revelations, and it’s like, it can be really tiny, but people brought some pretty incredible things to the table. And there were days when I would show up in the worst mood, but after an hour of us all talking, I remember leaving feeling so much lighter; so much more connected to them. I ended up hugging so many of my friends that came in — it became way more like an Oprah show than a comedy show. I usually had funny people on there, but you realise it comes from a real place of not only pain and sadness, but just humanity and real things.

For me, I know I’m a crazy-person magnet. I attract a lot of crazy people in my life, and the way I process it is, I end up putting them on stage in one way or another, or I put on a wig and play them. So I think it is really important, when you’re writing, to not worry about what would be funny, or what would be the most interesting thing — just focus on the most honest thing. That’ll never do you wrong. And it is terrifying to get up and say these things.

I was so scared when I was doing Bright Colors for the first time to just get up there and deal with these things. Some of my friends were characters that I put up on stage, and I was so nervous that they were seeing, maybe, a version of themselves up there. When my family came, I mean… there’s things that I’ve never told them that they’re having to watch. But it always ended up really great. All my fear was so much greater than the reality of watching it. People watched it and were like, “Oh, yeah, me too. I agree. Who cares? Big deal,” in a way that was very liberating. The world didn’t stop. People didn’t reject me in that way. Instead, they embraced me even more, the more honest I was.

IB: That’s really beautiful! So what’s next for you — what are you working on?

DD: I’m in the middle of doing a play right now in L.A., and then I’m writing a new solo show. I don’t even know what it is yet. It’s so messy right now, but I’m flipping the idea. Instead of doing one character talking to multiple people, I’m going to be playing multiple characters talking to one person. But I don’t want to be doing, like, an SNL audition, where I’m doing a million different types of characters — I’m going to do a night of gay men who are different sizes and shapes and ages.

Michael Urie, who directed Bright Colors on stage, talked in an interview about coming out as an actor, and how he was advised not to when he was doing Ugly Betty. And he said, “I have to. I have to come out.” He’s been out for quite some time, and he said the only reason he has a career is because he came out. He said, “I’ve played so many different kinds of gay men. I don’t feel like I’ve ever played the same gay man.” And, especially if you only know him from Ugly Betty, he’s nothing like that character. I was inspired by that. There is so much diversity in us, and also within that there are common threads, that we can draw from. We can see ourselves in, maybe, a 70-year-old man, or a 24-year-old. So I’m exploring that right now.

IB: That sounds so fun. Have you heard of The Butch Monologues?

DD: No, I have not.

IB: It reminds me of what you’re talking about. I saw it a few months ago here in Australia. Someone went and interviewed a bunch of butch lesbians and recorded them, and made it into a play.

DD: Wow, I would love to check that out. I’m really interested in that; that’s sort of the space that I’m in right now. Like I said, I’m very resistant to doing solo shows where they feel kind of masturbatory, like, “Look at all the things I can do.” I really am interested in us as a community. I think The Butch Monologues sounds great; I’ll definitely check that out. I wonder what its history is like in the States.

IB: Hopefully you’ll be able to see it; I thought it was awesome. Are you watching anything interesting at the moment? Do you have any recommendations?

DD: I just saw this film – I don’t know if you’ve gotten it over here yet, but it’s Sebastián Lelio’s remake of his own film, Gloria Bell, starring Julianne Moore. He’s Chilean, and he did a version of it in 2013, and they’ve remade it – of course, they had to do an American remake with a movie star. But Julianne Moore… she’s maybe my favourite actor. I’m obsessed with her. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve seen in a long time, and it really affected me. It’s a very small film, and a lot of people’s reactions have been a little minor to it, because it’s not a movie where a million things happen. But it’s a beautiful exploration of what it’s like to be single, what it’s like to find and lose love, and find and lose yourself. And it’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve seen on screen in years. I was gobsmacked by it. I think it’s just fantastic. I was like, “I want to meet this filmmaker and shake his hand and be like, ‘I get you, and I feel like you get me,’” which is always exciting when you see work like that.

Broadway HD’s recording of Bright Colours and Bold Patterns screened as part of the 2019 Melbourne Queer Film Festival.

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Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She is currently completing her MA in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.

Ivana Brehas

Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is a writer and filmmaker living in Naarm (Melbourne). She has written for Dazed, Much Ado About Cinema, The Big Issue, 4:3 and more. She is currently completing her MA in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Contact her at www.ivanabrehas.com.

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