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November 15, 2014

Lea DeLaria: On Career, Character, and Holiday Celebrations


Feature Photography by Denis Largeron


Known by many for her infamous role as Big Boo on Orange Is the New Black, Lea DeLaria has won the hearts of millions of viewers worldwide. Her talent is, indeed, remarkable. But perhaps what’s even more remarkable is her work as a longtime activist and advocate for the lesbian community around the world. From headlining fundraisers to her own personal project, “People Lea Like,” DeLaria dedicates her time and talent to enriching the LGBTQ community.

Throughout the span of her 32-year-long career in the entertainment industry, DeLaria has graced the Broadway stage; written a book, Lea’s Book of Rules for the World; recorded multiple jazz albums; and performed comedy around the world. Preaching feminist politics from the butch perspective, she has revolutionized the way that all parts of the entertainment industry portray butch lesbians. She’s loud; she’s proud; and, she’s one of the most talented lesbians, both on- and off-screen.

What was it like growing up? Did you come out in high school?
I’m a lot older than people realize. In the early ’70s when I went to school, nobody was out in college, much less high school. We had a whole different way of being back then. I always knew I was gay, and I told my family when I was in my 20s.

When did you realize that you wanted a career in the entertainment industry?
I started in San Francisco in April 1982—April 20, to be exact. At that time, in the United States, comedy was the hottest thing there was—even hotter than pop music. Comedy was really, really big. It was also the most effective tool for change in terms of pop culture, so I was really interested in it. I was always told that I was funny. I went to Catholic school for a long time, so I figured that if I could make the nuns laugh, they wouldn’t beat me up.

What made you decide to transition into acting?
Oh, honey, no one decides that. The jobs are just offered. At that point in America, if you were a successful comic, you were given your own sitcom. After I did The Arsenio Hall Show, everything changed. I got an agent, and they started giving me roles.

Did you ever feel like the industry treated you differently because of your butch identity?
Of course. I was in Hollywood. I was typecast to play the police lieutenant, the gym teacher, and the lesbian who inappropriately hit on people at any function. That was my thing. As far as how I was treated, I’d go with poorly, a lot by queer people. Historically, they didn’t like [who they were]. And, even to this day, they don’t like who they are. They’re so busy assimilating and changing into what heterosexual society wants them to be that they forget who they are. That’s why my entire career has been dedicated to putting a positive face to butch.

Lea-Delaria-Tagg-Magazine-6How do you think your career has impacted butch-identified lesbians?
There are two things that I’m proudest of: never being in the closet and never turning my back on butch. I’m always me, whether I’m acting a character or walking on the street. We live in a day of social media. Butch lesbians direct message me on my Instagram. I get about 20 or more of these messages a day, and I answer every one of them. The best thing about social media is that I get to touch them, and they get to touch me I think that it’s having a great effect on them, and in fact, I hear that I’m their spirit animal, hero, or icon. It’s the culmination of a 32-year career.

You’ve managed to juggle so many projects during your career. Which one is your passion?
Performing and politics are my passion. Every job I say yes to, every time I do stand-up, it’s all political. I breathe and shit feminist politics from a butch perspective. I have a lot of words for the queer community right now. I feel the movement has been taken over by mainstream middle-class assimilationists, and I think what’s going on is really dangerous. We have to keep our eyes on the prize.

What is that prize?
That we can do anything that any other citizen in the world gets to do.

Absolutely! So let’s talk a little bit about your role on Orange Is the New Black. How were you approached for the role, and how did you come to accept it?
Jen, the casting director, had her eye on me for a while. Originally, they had me read for the prison guard. They loved it and thought I was better suited for a prisoner, not a guard, so then I read for Anita DeMarco. They said I didn’t look old enough for the part, which is funny because I’m older than Lin Tucci, who was cast for it. They told me they were going to find a part for me. I’ve been in this industry a long time, and when someone in the industry says that, they never do. Believe me, I’m still waiting for that part in Law and Order they said they’d write for me, and the show’s been off the air for four years now.

So, when they said that [they wanted to cast me in OITNB], I exploded. I packed up all my stuff and moved to my house in London. As soon as I got off the plane, there were a thousand messages from my manager. They wrote me into a role.

And, that role is so perfect for you. Everyone knows the infamous peanut butter scene and my personal favorite, the screwdriver scene. What have been some of your favorites?
Sometimes, I think the writers come up with the craziest thing they can think of and think, “Hey, let’s give it to Lea. She’ll do anything!” When I read the peanut butter scene, I could see exactly what they wanted. The director and I saw eye to eye on what would be crossing the line, and everyone was on the same page. That one I had to think about a little bit, but the screwdriver is my favorite, without a doubt. The whole time you’re watching, you think that Boo is gonna shank somebody, but instead, she turns around and makes it a dildo. It was just hilarious.

I had the privilege of watching you and the other cast members on the Conan O’Brien show. Are you all really close? Who are some of your favorite cast members on and off the set?
This is hard because I love everybody. And, when you say that we seem really close, we are. We adore each other. Some people think it might be put on, but it’s not. Why do you think we have so many pics on Instagram? We go places together. It gets harder and harder, but we try to. One of our executive producers, Lisa Vinnecour, organizes group activities, like going to a pumpkin patch for Halloween or seeing a Christmas show. And, [they’re] not just for the cast, [but] the crew, too.

How has the show changed your career?
In terms of my career, it’s completely changed everything. From the moment the show hit the air, I can’t go anywhere without a thousand people wanting to take my picture. It’s crazy. I made the mistake of walking down Castro Street, and someone asked if they could take a picture. I always say yes. The next thing I know, there’s a line down the block. I was like, “Oh my God, what have I done!”