At Monday night’s New York City premiere of the Netflix Original Limited Series Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, The Queer Review spoke to Tales’ showrunner Lauren Morelli, executive producer and director of three of the ten episodes Alan Poul, plus cast members Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Charlie Barnett, Murray Bartlett, May Hong and Garcia.
The Queer Review’s James Kleinmann began by asking Alan Poul, who was a producer on all three previous TV incarnations of Tales of the City, why 2019 felt like the perfect time to return to 28 Barbary Lane.
“I think this felt like the perfect time because there’s a young generation that isn’t of the same cloth as the characters in the original series, because a lot of time has passed. These are people who came into a world in which coming out was not necessarily a big deal and also in which they didn’t feel the need to fit into certain binary categories because of the lack of the outside culture oppressing them. So you’ve had this blossoming of gender fluidity, of non-binary thinking, of people who don’t want to have a label attached to them and I felt that it was very important to honour that generation and to bring them into the Tales tent and show them in the same loving way that we showed our original characters twenty five years ago. At the same time I feel like in our culture at the moment, in our country and to some extent around the world, some of the same currents that were in opposition to the original series are having voice again. The way the world is tilting right now, I feel we could all use a dose of Armistead’s vision of humanity.”
How intentional was it to not specifically reference the current US administration?
“Very intentional, ” Poul continues. “It would change the show into something else. We didn’t do it in the original series. And we’re not doing it now. There are so many dots that you can connect if you want to. We don’t need to connect them for you. It’s like Barbary Lane is a magical place where we don’t get dragged into the muck of the day!”
Poul was then joined on the red carpet by Olympia Dukakis, who originated the screen portrayal of Tales’ majestic matriarch Anna Madrigal in 1994 and returns to play her for the fourth time in this new series.
James Kleinmann: “Thank you for returning to the role it was a dream come true to see you play Anna again. What was it like stepping back into 28 Barbary Lane?”
Olympia Dukakis: “Wonderful! It was just wonderful. After such a long period of time to go back to playing the her again. It was great.”
Alan: “This friendship has gone on for twenty five years.”
Olympia: “Can you believe it?”
Then Dukakis, who turns 88 later this month, just two years shy of her character’s age in this new series, was called away for red carpet photo duty. Alan Poul continued by telling The Queer Review about creating the 28 Barbary Lane set for the fourth time.
“We made it bigger and better than ever. We had a bigger and higher stage than we’ve ever had before. The other great thing, apart from the set being magical, is that we used the original plans. In the Nineties when you were shooting a set like that if you looked up you were shooting the ceiling of the soundstage and there was nothing we could do about it. So if you look at the old series, we always had to stay at eye level with the characters when they were going up and down the stairs. Now we live in the world of wonderful CGI and digital VFX and so in this iteration we were able to do low, wide angles for the first time. We see the city and we see the sky. We have been able to place Barbary Lane very solidly inside San Francisco and that was a big thrill!
Stepping back on to that set as Mary Ann Singleton was Laura Linney, also an executive producer on the series.
James Kleinmann: Four years ago in London we were chatting and I was pleading with you to do more Tales.
Laura Linney: “And now we have, it took us a while, but we got there!
Mary Ann says when she’s sitting back in Anna Madrigal’s living room in the first episode “this is surreal.” What did it feel like for you returning to Barbary Lane?
“Oh, it was surreal and nostalgic and exciting to have Tales of the City and 28 Barbary Lane in a whole new context of a modern sense of the LGBTQ community, it was really wonderful.”
Mary Ann is the original LGBTQ ally in some ways isn’t she?
“Well, she’s one of them, literary wise, one of them certainly. And I’m very proud of that.”
Garcia, who plays one of the new residents of Barbary Lane, Jake Rodriguez a trans man who lives with his girlfriend Margot, reveals that they were initially completely unaware of Tales of the City.
“I had no idea about it,” says Garcia, “I started doing research immediately when I got the audition. The amount that I’ve learnt since then is mind-boggling. Learning about Armistead and his books and the history behind it and what it’s meant to the people of San Francisco and all over. Every time it’s been done there have been changes and tweaks and now here’s a whole new revitalised queer story. It’s awesome, I loved it!”
What did you enjoy about portraying your character Jake and his journey?
“That it’s authentic, it’s relatable, it’s honest and emotionally vulnerable for Jake, who he is and who he’s trying to be in the world. So to play that was scary but it was also exciting and now it’s like amazing thinking someone is going to watch this and hopefully connect to it and fall in love with it, or if they have a critique maybe do it differently themselves. Tales does this wonderful thing of telling multiple queer stories across a spectrum, but it’s not all of the stories out there, but I think it’s only going to help further push things and open those opportunities and for people to write those stories and present them.”
What about portraying how Jake’s transition has affected things in his relationship with his girlfriend Margot?
“Jake is starting to gain an interest in men and what does that mean for Jake and Margot’s relationship and how the world perceives him? And for him and his own sexuality and sexual identity. That’s exciting, but it’s nerve wracking and it’s scary for Jake, meeting men and what that means for him. Being inside of it, its overwhelming in the best sense that someone would want to write this and write it so well. The writers’ room did a phenomenal job with every character, of not tokenising, or sexualising or censoring, but just representing each queer person as a person.”
The intimate scenes and the sex scenes are so character driven and integral to the story aren’t they. What did you make of that aspect of the series?
“I think throughout time, in our media trans people have been represented poorly, have been sexualised, have been narrowed down to just their genitalia or their body parts, have only been validated through surgery and that’s obviously not true. People are starting to learn more and more that anyone can be trans, you don’t have to have an operation or be or look a certain way to be non-binary, to be trans non-binary. Ellen Page’s character Shawna is one of my favourites because she doesn’t identify at all throughout the series, but she is just living her best life. It’s so normalised and I think that’s what the is behind Tales, we’re just people and it’s normal, we’re just showing it to you on a screen. I think that queer people watching it can hopefully identify and people who aren’t queer or who maybe are but didn’t know about a certain aspect about the community are now informed. I hope it opens the floor for conversations, especially uncomfortable conversations, because we need to start having them. I only hope it starts to open civil discourse among us all.”
What did you think about this series of Tales of the City’s inclusion of some LGBTQ history, especially something that many people wouldn’t have otherwise known about, the Compton’s Cafeteria riots in San Francisco in 1966?
“I had no idea about it. I was like ‘what this existed?’ You know these aren’t things they teach you in school, they don’t teach queer history, and especially trans women’s history, so to learn about that it just enforces that notion that we’re not new. Trans people didn’t just start popping up out of nowhere, non-binary people didn’t just start popping up out of nowhere, or queer people. We’ve been here and we’ll always be here. Way before you were born. We’re now just finally starting to be given a platform and be given the spotlight in mainstream media and so what does that all mean? Who knows, but hopefully it all means good things!”
Alan Poul expands on the decision to include the historical event of the Compton’s Cafeteria riots in the new series.
Alan Poul: “We decided to build a mystery around Anna and in looking into the missing chapters in the life of Anna Madgrigal we discovered that the timeline coincides with the Compton’s Cafeteria riots, and boom, that’s how that episode was born because it’s a piece of history that’s not well known enough yet.”
Another new resident at 28 Barbary Lane is Jake’s girlfriend Margot, played by May Hong, who was also initially unfamiliar with the Tales novels and previous TV incarnations.
May Hong: “I knew about it but I had not seen the show. It was fun to binge something that was not binge-able at the time and it’s really fun for people to be able to binge it now, because it’s so juicy as all of Armistead’s stories are.”
What was it like portraying Margot and Jake’s relationship? Jake has transitioned during the relationship and is exploring his interest in men.
“It’s a story that has not really been told, certainly not on a platform as big as Netflix. This series of Tales of the City really hits on a lot of things that have not been talked about before on such a big platform. With the relationship between Margot and Jake though, in some ways it almost didn’t seem exclusively like a trans or LGBTQ story, because everyone’s experienced what it’s like to have changes in a relationship and trying to cope with that and trying to adjust, to be good to your partner and vice versa. It’s kind of like also how Margot’s Asian American identity isn’t really talked about, the fact that everyone is queer is just part of life and to not have to point it out is what’s beautiful about Armistead’s world.”
What do you think Tales of the City does for Asian American representation on screen?
“It is accurate, for San Francisco especially, there are three Asian characters living at Barbary Lane, which would make sense. That is an accurate representation of the population of the city I would say!”
The Barbary Lane set is really beautiful to look at on screen, and to visit as a viewer, what was it like to work on as an actor?
“It was like I had a second apartment, it was so fun! I’d never seen a build out that fully fleshed out, it was so impressive and so fun to spend whole days in it. It was like it was my home, and then the ceiling can come out!”
Did you get any insight into the Tales world from the actors who’d played their characters before and were returning like Laura Linney?
“They were so, so incredibly generous with their time and open to talking. Laura would check up on me, knowing that I was new to the industry in general and she was really aware of that. I could not speak more highly of Laura. The first time we met, she took my phone out of my hand and said ‘here’s my number, call me if you need anything, anytime’. That’s just an example of how she is all the time. It’s really magnificent.”
And you also had some great scenes with returning cast member Barbara Garrick who plays Dede.
“Barbara is fantastic and hilarious. I really enjoyed working with her. It is an honour to have such a close connection to an original cast member. It was really interesting to talk about when she did the show. I’m the same age as when she did the first season twenty five years ago. It’s wild to think about.”
Another new Tales cast member is Murray Bartlett who becomes the third actor to portray Michael “Mouse” Tolliver on screen (following in the footsteps of Marcus D’Amico and Paul Hopkins).
What was it like taking on such a beloved character?
Murray Bartlett: “I was super excited, I love Tales of the City so much, I saw it in the Nineties during my first trip to San Francisco. My friend had it on VHS and I watched it and fell in love with it. It also intermingled with my first impressions of San Francisco and so being able to step into that world myself was such a joy and surreal.”
Did you go back and read any of the original novels or rewatch the previous TV adaptations?
“I’d never watched More Tales or Further Tales, for some reason I’d never made it to them. I’d watched the first season a number of times, but I didn’t want to go back and watch any of them before we started filming. It had been a while since I’d watched the first one. But I did read all the books and tried to wipe my mind clean of everything else and just let Armistead tell me the story and tell me the character.”
I know Armistead was on set at some point during filming because he has a cameo in the series, we won’t give away the scene he’ in, but did you get to hang out with him and talk about the character?
“We got to hang out but we didn’t really talk about the character that much. One of the wonderful things about Armistead is that he’s such a loving compassionate man and I feel like he really trusted all of us and we had an amazing writing team who wrote the characters really well. I didn’t have any big questions, I felt like having gone back and read all the books it was all there for me, he’s already told us what the world is and who the character is. Armistead is such a wonderful man, he’s so generous and if I’d wanted to ask anything he was there. He was like the best godfather ever and it was always an extra thrill to have him there on set.”
I love the friendship between Mary Ann and Mouse as we see it in this series. Can you tell us a bit about creating that on screen relationship with Laura Linney?
“I mean Laura is just awesome! She’s such a wonderful person and such an extraordinary actor and she’s so familiar with the story and the characters, so I kind of did what I could, but I let Laura take the lead. She’s one of those actors when you look into her eyes there’s no filter, she’s actually communicating with you and talking to you. Having been a fan of the original Tales TV adaptation with her in it, and with it being the first thing I’d seen her in, there’s always a little bit of Mary Ann in Laura for me whenever I see her. So being on set and doing those scenes with the real Mary Ann, played by the real actor who originally played Mary Ann, was surreal and kind of like stepping into a dream, it was surreal!”
I like the intergenerational aspect of the show, which is an aspect of Mouse’s relationship with his younger boyfriend Ben isn’t it?
“Yes, there are interesting things to explore with an intergenerational relationship I think. Especially as Mouse is HIV positive, Ben is negative and they both have a very different relationship to HIV and sex. Mouse went through the AIDS epidemic and lost a lot of the people who he loved and faced his own mortality and he carries a lot of fear and baggage from that time. So navigating through some of the things in our relationship where Ben doesn’t have any of that baggage, particularly in terms of navigating it through sex and that negative/positive dynamic was interesting. Even though we’re in this new era of more sexual freedom, because of PrEP, which is wonderful, Mouse is still carrying all this baggage and it’s fascinating having those two perspectives come together. But the main thing for me that we were really keen on was to just make this a really loving relationship, because I don’t think we see enough gay relationships on screen where you just feel that love and it inspires you to be that.”
I think the intimate scenes and the sex scenes are dealt with really interestingly throughout the series, they are character driven and move things along, there’s always a narrative there, there’s always something going on.
“Yeah, they were all really well written into the story, all very functional in the story, drove the story forward, and that was always our focus, it wasn’t about making them like a super hot, sexy scene although that’s an OK side effect if that happens! We wanted to make them tender and loving and about he connection between these two men, so that was the intention in all those scenes.”
Charlie Barnett, who plays Mouse’s boyfriend Ben Marshall, agrees. “That’s something that Murray and I were very particular about and talked with Alan Poul and Lauren Morelli about. We knew that Alan, Lauren and particularly Armistead even more, were wanting to make sure that sex was an important part of the show, because it wasn’t allowed to be referenced on the PBS series and then Showtime kinda went a little crazy with it. We wanted to make sure that we kept it relative to the story and kept it as passionate as possible, but as personal as possible too. You know, it’s hard to put a weight, a significance behind sex and bodies, but it can be there. I’m sure that all of us who’ve had sexual experiences can think of times when it was that, it was so personal or even traumatising. I just want to see more of that reflected through a sexual lens.”
How aware were you of Tales of the City before you auditioned for the role of Ben?
Charlie Barnett: “I was not aware of its large impact and I wasn’t aware of how much it could have given to me at a time when I probably would have loved to have read it.”
What impact do you think seeing this new show would have had on you when you were younger?
“Although it deals with such difficult things, this show specifically provides a warm, safe, loving embrace. You get to see the simpler sides of people or maybe even the more relatable human parts that we all have to deal with. Relationship struggles, distance, time, sickness and age. Shit that every human deals with. I wish I would have had that, you know as common as it was for people to watch Friends back in the day and to have had that safe place, this would have been it.”
Your character Ben is not a big fan of Mary Ann’s, but what about you getting to create that on screen relationship with Laura, what was that like?
“Oh God, I’m such a huge fan of Laura Linney’s so that was a struggle to pull off! She plays Mary Ann so well. Mary Ann reminds me so much of Jonathan Groff’s character Patrick in Looking, just blissfully white and unaware, you know what I’m saying, and I mean that with utmost respect because I have a lot of friends who are as ignorant and it takes time and love and patience and education with some of those people. I think that’s kinda of where Ben is coming from, he’s frustrated by her inability to understand her impact, but he still understands what she represents for Mouse, so he has what he considers to be the utmost patience with her.”
Did you get to spend any time with Armistead Maupin?
“Oh yeah, I love him. You know Ben is based on Armistead’s husband. I keyed in, trying to find out what I could get from their relationship that could influence my portrayal of Ben and Mouse’s relationship. They are incredible, such beautiful human beings. Armistead has such a great grasp on people. Even though Tales is about an LGBTQ experience, it’s so much more about humanity and you forget that it’s centred around anything about sexual orientation or identity and it really becomes about these people. And I feel that in my own experience and my relationship with Armistead. He loves to understand and not judge and hear stories and then he filters that back through his own arc.”
As the premiere screening is about to begin, the final word goes to Tales of the City showrunner, executive producer and writer Lauren Morelli.
This series will be on Netflix, it’s going to be sitting there at the top of people’s screens when they turn on Netflix, what does that mean for the audience that it will bring to this show and what might that do for LGBTQ visibility and representation on screen?
“The idea that this gets realised worldwide still kind of melts my brain! As far as we have to go in America for example, obviously we enjoy so much privilege that so many people in the rest of the world don’t enjoy, and I’m really excited to remind them that these queer communities exist and that we’re here for them and that we can hopefully continue pushing the bar forwards on human rights on their behalf.”
Tales of the City launches globally on Netflix on Friday 7th June 2019. Head to Netlifx.com/TalesoftheCity for all the details and to watch the series.
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City Official Synopsis: Inspired by the books of Armistead Maupin, Netflix Original Limited Series Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City begins a new chapter in the beloved story. Mary Ann (Laura Linney) returns to present-day San Francisco and is reunited with her daughter Shawna (Ellen Page) and ex-husband Brian (Paul Gross), twenty years after leaving them behind to pursue her career. Fleeing the midlife crisis that her picture-perfect Connecticut life created, Mary Ann is quickly drawn back into the orbit of Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), her chosen family and a new generation of queer young residents living at 28 Barbary Lane.