Catching Up With Charles Busch

11.22.2011

By Jerry Portwood

The legendary performer explains how he channels Katharine Hepburn in preparation for a reading of 'Tea at Five.'

Charles Busch is known for the particular way he captures the look and feel of broads from the classic era of stage and screen—when genre films had class, glamor, and plenty of camp. After his long run in his play The Divine Sister, he's ready to tackle a completely different sort of project when he takes the stage Nov. 28 in the one-night-only staged reading of Matthew Lombardo's one-woman show, Tea at Five. "This is kind of a first for me. In the plays that I write, I’m playing a fictional character I sort of weave in," Busch explains. "I tend to evoke famous actresses. I’ve never done a play that’s a specific parody of one movie; it’s a movie genre." Tea at Five starred Kate Mulgrew when it was last staged Off-Broadway, an actress Busch has worked with himself in the MTC production of his play, Our Leading Lady. We caught up with the Out100 honoree (see his image in the slideshow here), following our Nov. 17 gala event, to ask him what he thought of meeting Adam Lambert, his other obsessions, and a few of the other tricks of the trade when it comes to assuming the role of an iconic ol' dame.

Out: So, I know you wanted to meet Adam Lambert. Did you get your chance at the Out100 party?
Charles Busch: I met the peerless Adam. That was my whole goal of the evening. It’s easy for me to sit back and complain that there’s no one to replace all the greats, the stars that have passed. But when I saw Adam Lambert, I was so excited about it. He’s openly gay and sexy. It’s outrageous!

Well he seemed to have on three-inch heels, so that may have helped.
He’s about 6-foot-2 regularly. He’s like one of those guys in Avatar. He’s so huge! I was going to somehow meet him, and now it’s, "Mission achieved!" And Andrej Pejic: He’s so extraordinary looking. And then the other one, Raja. These wild showgirls. I was in heaven. I’m just hopelessly addicted to reality competition shows. But I’m very picky. I don’t watch Housewives and those things; I like the competitions. I loved seeing all the kids from Project Runway. I watch all the dance ones, Dancing With the Stars, all the cooking ones.

Wow, you really do love reality TV. But I agree—I prefer the competitive ones.
I need a 12-step program. For me—and I don’t think I’m alone—I feel like I’m in grad school. Seriously, I’m not being campy. I feel like I’ve learned so much about modern dance, ballroom dance, cooking. I’m trying to teach myself to cook by what I've learned on Top Chef. Work of Art, it educated me on conceptual art. I’m so retro, so, in its own way, even Idol keeps me abreast of what’s going on in pop culture. Survivor! I live my life by the rules of Survivor. Every time I’m in some group interaction, people will say, "You handled yourself so great." And I say, "I'm using the rules of Survivor in my own life: I’m learning not to be kicked off the island."

Did you see Tea at Five when it was Off-Broadway?
I hadn’t seen it. It’s sort of one of these odd six degrees of separation. Matthew Lombardi had worked with Kate Mulgrew on it. I worked with Kate in Our Leading Lady. He had also worked with Kathleen Turner in High. I've worked with Kathleen Turner. So we share the actresses. But he’s never worked with this actress before. So watch out!

So how did all this come about?
I didn’t know Matthew, but he and his friend Robert Jarrow, they came to see me in The Divine Sister. We went to dinner afterward. I was just showing off at dinner and launched into the seven ages of Katharine Hepburn over the course of the entrée. I was showing off. You gotta watch what you do over your linguine! Now I’m doing a reading of it.

Ah, so you do a Katharine Hepburn impersonation? Was there any other research for the part?

All the research I’ve done on actresses and Hollywood film was done by the age of 12. By watching classic films on TV. Growing up, my sister, she would do James Cagney, and I would do Norma Shearer. I have a really great ear for celebrity impersonations. I’m not one of those people who can do their friends—I couldn’t do you for example—but I can channel these women. But it's strange. When I’m in performance, I'm in a certain emotional track of what the character and I are feeling. It's also like there’s a movie playing in my head of a Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell or Bette Davis. I’m watching them in a movie while I’m acting.
You've mostly performed your own material. Is it a different experience acting in a play written by someone else?
I’m very spoiled because I've mostly performed my own writing. It’s tailored for myself, and I know how it's meant to be. This takes more of me interpreting Matthew Lombardi's words and understanding what he wants. I have to work with actors in my own work to make sure they respect the punctuation that is written. The great challenge of course is to read the playwright’s mind and use the periods and the commas as clues. It’s like a script to a treasure map and every word is a clue. Now, I have to practice what I preach.
How is this different from an impersonation? I figure you must be actually doing more than a camp impersonation of Hepburn, correct?
Sometimes I read these reviews of shows about famous people. The critic will say that it’s marvelous that they don’t try to do an impersonation. How do you do a person with a famous voice and not do that? I try to recreate Katharine Hepburn's voice, inflection, and physicality, and I make it seem like I'm not doing a cabaret impersonation. I’m trying to recreate her emotional feeling. That takes it to a different place. It's supposed to be an emotional piece. I have to become her.
Fortunately, I have to tell you: YouTube is just the greatest tool in the entire world. For supposedly a very private person, she did a lot of TV interviews. It’s all available on YouTube. Watching her on Barbara Walters or Phil Donahue or, who else, Morley Safer. Or Dick Cavett, of course: She did three hours with him. You can really study her and the way she’s phrasing and so many different colors of her personality and physicality. I’ve always enjoyed this in my female characters. I enjoy playing women who have a certain gender ambiguity. She’s kind of butch. I’ve lived my life as a man. I like playing parts where I’m playing a woman dressed as a man. Shaking it up. It’s fun playing a woman who is not so concerned with her gender.
 
Did you see Cate Blanchett do Kate Hepburn in The Aviator? What did you think?
She was terrific, wasn’t she? I thought she was great. That was wonderful. She got to the essence. It’s particularly hard to do younger Hepburn. Most of us, as we get older, we become caricatures of ourselves. When these women get older, their personalities become calcified into mannerism. What’s fun in Tea at Five is that she’s sort of talking like this [does the shaky-voiced Kate], and then the younger kind of voice comes out during a flashback moment.
 
This is a benefit for the Ali Forney Center. Is it an organization that you have worked with before?
Matthew and Rob said that I could choose any organization I liked. There are a number of charities that I’ve been particular active with: The Actors Fund and Broadway Cares, and they have these great big galas. So, I thought maybe I should find a smaller group that could be very enthusiastic about this. I’ve really admired the Ali Forney Center.
I was every lucky, for the longest time I was sort of milking my tragic childhood situation for sympathy. I had a free-spirit father who was in and out of my life, and I was raised by my aunt. I realize how really fortunate I was: I had parental figures who absolutely adored me and thought anything I did was great and wonderful. There was no attempt to get me to fit into some notion of what a “normal” boy should be. Consequently, when I hear about teenagers who have been abandoned by their families because of who they are... It’s incomprehensible that they would throw away love. Because it doesn’t fit into their religious doctrine or preconceived notions of sexuality. I’m so touched that the Ali Forney Center is doing what parents should do, providing home and encouragement.
 
So you seem like you're always extremely busy. How do you do it all?
People seem to say, "He's indefatigable. Won’t he ever stop?" In my own self-image, I feel like I spend so much of my time lying down. I have to keep putting new blankets on the sofa because of the ass mark. I find myself lethargic. In the past year, I decided to say, "Yes," to almost everything. I am writing the book to a children’s musical that deals with the camp sensibility of an eight-year-old. I have a new play that we’re going to do in the spring and another camp genre parody that's a biblical epic based on the story of Judas. It’s going to be fun. We won't invite any critics. We’ll sell it through Facebook. 
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