The new film Stage Mother tells the story of Maybelline (Jacki Weaver), a church choir director in Texas whose life gets upended when she inherits a drag club in San Francisco from her recently deceased son. Although Weaver takes the dramedy’s spotlight, she’s surrounded by a game cast, including the Independent Spirit Award-winning star of Tangerine, Mya Taylor, and legendary drag queen Jackie Beat, who breathe life into the film and Pandora’s Box, the struggling bar where it’s set. While both performers have kept themselves quite busy during quarantine—Taylor’s a full-time nurse in North Dakota, and Beat’s remained active with digital drag performances—the pair was gracious enough to spend time with The A.V. Club to talk about their new film and the challenges of learning choreography on the fly. Taylor also opened up about her “double life,” and the two shared their hopes and dreams for the road trips they’d love to take, just as soon as it’s safe to be in public again.
The A.V. Club: Of Stage Mother’s eclectic cast, Jackie, you’re definitely the drag pro. Did that make you the de facto “drag mother” on set?
Jackie Beat: I guess so! I mean, everyone seemed to know what they were doing.—[drag] is not exactly the mystery it used to be. You know, people watch Drag Race. But, thinking you know drag and knowing it are two different things. So occasionally there would be something that I would maybe correct them on or say, “No, it doesn’t really work that way.” But yes, maybe because I’m not just a drag queen, but I’m a drag queen of a certain age, I do gravitate towards that maternal role.
AVC: Did Jacki Weaver need any specific pointers then? She looked like a natural.
JB: She sure did, didn’t she! She’s not exactly shy—I just tried to support her as much as possible and give her the supportive energy she needed, but then she was surrounded by people who were helping her with the look and all of that. And, to be honest, she didn’t need my help.
AVC: Mya, performing drag was new for you. You’re a singer, and we certainly got to see you showcase that in Tangerine, but how was this different? What went into finding your character, Cherry?
Mya Taylor: It wasn’t too hard because it was known that I was transgender in the film—I was a transgender drag queen. But you add in all the really hard performances.... drag is not easy! When you see those girls get on stage and perform, a lot of them do it back-to-back, like Jackie. She does it back-to-back, and I’m sure she’s tired! Doing those performances, and doing all the makeup, it’s a lot! It’s a lot, trust me. And then, the corsets that I had on and everything, I couldn’t breathe! But a bitch looked good, okay? I guess the hardest part was the platform heels. They made me, like, 7 feet tall—I’m already five-foot-nine! The hardest part is dancing in those.
JB: Now, see, something like this would come up: I would have to kindly explain to Mya that saying I’m “tired” is actually an insult to a drag queen.
MT: [Lets out a high-pitched squeal.]
JB: I know what she meant, but actually....
MT: But that Mariah Carey note that I just hit though!
JB: Only my dog heard that!
AVC: Mya, you mentioned that your character is transgender, and it’s refreshing to see such a confident and talented transgender woman portrayed in film. Was that part of the appeal of the role for you?
MT: I think what interests me most in the role are a few things. One, the subject matter, because I grew up with my grandparents, and when I came out in 2009, I thought that I wasn’t loved anymore by my grandmother, which wasn’t true. She still loved me, which I found out years later on. And you see an element of that in the film with Maybelline and [her son] Ricky, although it’s too late for them, since Ricky is gone now. The second thing for me was the fact that it’s acting and singing—those things combined? It was like a dream come true.
But what made me nervous was the dancing. As a professional performer—period—everything doesn’t always go the way that you think it’s going to go. When we did our performances, we literally got choreographed maybe 30 or 40 minutes before. You’re filming back-to-back, day to day, and sometimes you just have to learn stuff right then and there. “Okay, you have 30 minutes to get this done—no pressure!” So, we’re going to get on stage and perform, and you just have to get it right because you only have two hours [to film at a specific location]. It’s a challenge, but it’s exciting to me because it’s challenging.
AVC: Stage Mother mostly takes place at a bar called Pandora’s Box, and it’s supposed to be in San Francisco, but you filmed in Halifax. Did Nova Scotia seem to have a pretty active LGBTQ+ community?
MT: When I was there, because I filmed so many days, I didn’t really go out to explore. I was there for 26 days, and almost every single day there we were filming. You can be working 12, 14, 16 hours, you know? And then when I get back to my hotel room, I’m doing auditions—sometimes three, four auditions. So there’s really no time for fun, outside of the performance aspect of it.
JB: I didn’t go out either, and, listen, as somebody who makes their living in clubs, theaters, and venues, the last thing I want to do when I’m done working is go to a gay bar.
MT: You know, I have a funny story about you the first day that we filmed together: You were all up in it. You have this beautiful, stunning blonde wig on, your makeup was just done for the gods. You stayed until we wrapped for that day, and then we all got back in the van to go back to our hotels. And by this time you had de-dragged. Like, all the makeup was off, the wig was gone, you were in some boy clothes. And I leaned over to [Allister MacDonald] and said, “Who’s that?” She was like, “Girl, who?” I said, “Who’s that back there?” “Oh, that’s Jackie!” I didn’t know!
AVC: So, Jackie, did Pandora’s Box feel like an authentic drag bar to you?
JB: Yeah, it really did. I’ve been involved in a few projects where they think they know, you know what I mean? But they did their research—the writing and the directing, and the art direction. Obviously they had done their homework. Or maybe they really have just spent a lot of time in some drag bars.
AVC: Shifting gears a bit, Mya, you had a fantastic interview with Indiewire the other week where you talked about balancing your acting career with nursing, which you currently do in North Dakota.
MT: I do live a bit of a double life. Because when I go to work every single day, there’s very few people that know I’m an actor. And the only reason why they know is because they’re familiar with my work, and they’ll come to me and tell me, “Oh, I saw your movie!” And I’m like, “Shh! Don’t do that up in here, girl. I don’t want everybody to know my tea.” [Laughs.] Not when I audition, but when I do applications for any job or whatever in my normal life, I don’t let them know that I’m trans. I live in North Dakota, you know? So I feel like I would not get hired if they knew. Because, on my ID and my social security card, it says, “Female, Mya Jeanette Taylor,” and we leave it at that. So that’s what I mean by living a double life. Like, my neighbors, they don’t know. I keep that to myself. I don’t feel like this is the safest place to do that. You know, it’s not to say that there’s bad people there—there’s bad people all over the world. So I know who I am. I know that I’m a trans woman. I know I’m proud of who I am, but that doesn’t mean that I have to let everybody else know because it’s not any of their business.
AVC: Jackie, how has the quarantine been impacting your career? Have you been surprised to see how many queens have adapted to “digital drag?”
JB: Obviously it’s a learning curve, and at first I was kind of panicking, but it reminds me of the very first time I came from Los Angeles and went to New York. I was so nervous! But then, when I was in New York for less than a week, it just dawned on me that I was going to be fine, that I was a naturally funny, entertaining person, and I was going to do just fine. And that’s how I feel right now. I feel very blessed that I can do digital shows. And I don’t want to ever put anybody down for lip syncing, but, you know, when you’re watching it on a computer screen and you’re not at a bar and you’re not drunk and feeling that energy, let’s be honest, it can only be so entertaining. So, the fact that I sing live and do song parodies and write my own material, I just feel like it has translated really well.
And I need to do it for my own sanity. It helps to have a creative outlet, and to be honest, people tip me and some of the platforms you can actually sell tickets. So I feel like I’ve kept busy. Ultimately, my job is to make people forget about their problems for a little while. And I can tell you, I get so many messages, like, “You are literally keeping me alive.” When you get a message like that, it really hits you like a ton of bricks.
AVC: If someone were to snap and just make COVID magically disappear, what’s the first thing you’d do?
MT: Oh, my god, I’d have to pack me up a small suitcase—with just what I need, like two outfits or something—and I would get in my car and take a trip all the way to L.A., which is, like, 22 hours away. I would hit up all the shopping. I would go to the beach. I would see my best friend, Alfred Lopez. And the reason why I said “two outfits” is because I’m going to do some shopping while I’m there. It’s a sedan, you can only fit so much [Laughs.].
JB: I have a guest room, Mya!
MT: Oh, I would love to, oh, my god. That would save me some hotel money [Laughs.].
JB: Well, because I can’t tell you the real story of what I would do... use your imagination. I’ve been a very good girl, and I’m not usually a very good girl, if you know what I mean? I will just say similar to what Mya said, but instead of the small, little bag with two changes, I would have a steamer trunk with, like, 15 costumes, and I would just hit the road, like some bad movie. And I would just perform for people anywhere. I would just show up at Denny’s and do a number or two. And then I’d get back on the road to start doing shows at Costco and Walmart.
AVC: Maybe you two could pull a The Holiday and just swap lives like Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet did in that movie. I’d watch that!
JB: No, we shouldn’t swap places—if you looked up and, suddenly, I was your nurse in North Dakota? You’d be like, “Um, okay, I’m feeling better, goodbye!”
MT: But, yeah, I want to take a trip to L.A. I miss L.A. so much.
AVC: That reminds me, again, of Tangerine, which, only five years later, already feels like a quintessential L.A. movie. Although unfortunately Donut Time is no longer Donut Time.
MT: Yeah, it’s not the same place. Isn’t that just awful? But, you know what? At least I’ve still got my Independent Spirit Award!
JB: It is sad that that place doesn’t exist anymore, but that is so L.A. Everything is temporary here. I mean, the Brown Derby, the Ambassador Hotel, all of those legendary places. And I do put [Donut Time] in the same category.
MT: Sadly, it’s been a while since I’ve been there. Is there still Club Rage, or The Abbey, or Club Magnum?
JB: Oh, you’re just making me miss being able to go anywhere!