One of the standout performances of Thom Fitzgerald’s uplifting comedy Stage Mother, which opens in select US theatres and on demand this Friday August 21st, comes from queer Canadian actor Allister MacDonald who portrays a talented San Fransisco drag queen with an inspired name, Joan of Arkansas. MacDonald appears in the movie alongside Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver, Lucy Liu on hilarious form, Entourage star Adrian Grenier and an array of LGBTQ+ actors including Tangerine‘s Independent Spirit Award-winning Mya Taylor, drag legend Jackie Beat and charismatic newcomer Oscar Moreno as Tequila Mockingbird.
Ahead of Stage Mother’s US release this week, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Allister MacDonald about growing up on a mountain road in Nova Scotia before moving to the big city to become a drag queen as a teenager, his first encounter with Jacki Weaver on set, the film’s celebration of queer spaces, his own favourite bars in Toronto and what he admires about Hedwig creator John Cameron Mitchell.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on Stage Mother. When did you actually film it, I guess it was quite a while ago now?
Allister MacDonald: “Thank you! Yeah, I think we started filming it in September or October of 2018, which is crazy! I was in a totally different place in my life then, so it’s so bizarre to watch it back and see that version of myself in such a personal way on screen, it’s pretty wild, it doesn’t even feel like I’m watching myself, honestly.”
So Stage Mother is set in San Francisco, but you you filmed it in Canada where you live. Can you tell me a bit about where you grew up, because that wasn’t a big city like San Fran at all was it, but quite a small place in Nova Scotia, right? What was it like to grow up there as a queer kid?
“I grew up in a small town called called Creignish in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. And when I say ‘small’, I mean tiny! I grew up on a mountain road, on a mountain essentially. The town is made up of a highway, a church, and a humungous pro life billboard, which I didn’t understand at the time. Now when I’m just even driving through that town I remember feeling so isolated and alone and confused. I did not fit in whatsoever. So in fact there are a lot of similarities to the way I grew up and perhaps how Ricky, Jacki Weaver’s character Maybelline’s son in the film, grew up as well. So when I read the script I was so drawn to the story of Maybelline, who comes from a small conservative town and embraces queer culture in such an open and amazing way.”
Yes, and in a way she’s too late because her son’s passed away, but she kind of makes up for it to some degree because she doesn’t just accept him, she really celebrates him doesn’t she?
“Yes, actually the director Thom Fitzgerald said recently that he hopes that people walk out of the film feeling like although you might be grieving and you might have lost someone permanently, maybe it’s never too late to embrace them for who they are and to find your love for them. Which I thought was really beautiful.”
I don’t know what the vibe is like in Canada, but here in the US there’s been so much divisive rhetoric over the past few years, with LGBTQ people often demonised by this current administration, so I find stories like this pretty hopeful. I think having preconceptions works both ways doesn’t it, because we wouldn’t expect this person from a small conservative town to be embracing of queer folks, but she is.
“Totally. I’m actually in Nova Scotia right now because I have a family wedding that I’m attending this weekend, so I got to come back here from Toronto and I am still finding myself having anxieties around my family about being accepted. I’m still finding myself hesitant in terms of approaching the really masculine men in my family, and I’ve come to realise that, to be frank, they don’t really give a shit! They’re really kind of lovely and that’s something that I have to work on because it’s very clear that they have accepted who I am. So, like you say, I think it does work both ways. I’ve certainly had fear of cis straight men my whole life, but there are some incredible cis straight men out there who are amazing allies. There are some who are not. I think the film really tackles two sides of the coin. The queens in the movie are not immediately accepting of Maybelline. So it’s really about two completely different worlds coming together to celebrate the love of their friend that they’ve lost.”
One of the first times we see your character, Joan of Arkansas, is when she’s singing in church, out of drag, at Ricky’s funeral. What was that scene like to shoot?
“Well, I was lucky enough at that time in my life to be starring as Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love at the Neptune Theatre, which is one of the largest regional theatres in Canada. The day of that shoot I had a matinee at 2pm, so I was picked up and shuttled to the church. We probably did two or three takes; that’s a live vocal and a live microphone, not pre-recorded. I finished and then I was shuttled back to the theatre for a second show! So that day specifically was a bit of a blur, and it was my first day on set with Adrian Grenier and Jackie Beat so I was very nervous because they’re both kind of legendary. But I just had to show up, because I only had a certain amount of time. But surprisingly it was really quite beautiful and eloquent and elegant in the film, but it certainly didn’t feel that way when we shot it because it was such a rush!”
You play a drag queen in the movie, was this your drag debut?
“Well, much like Ricky escapes to the big city of San Francisco when he’s young, I escaped to Halifax, Nova Scotia, when I was 18, which is the big Nova Scotian City and actually it’s where we shot the film. I was a bad boy and I was sneaking into all the queer spaces and met the drag queens and they snatched me up. So I had a two-year very young baby drag life! It’s how I made a living at the time and that’s how I got into performing. It’s how I discovered my love of the stage. Actually Chris Cochran, whose drag name is Elle Noir, she’s a very famous Canadian drag queen, especially on the East Coast and she was head of makeup on Stage Mother and also appeared in the film. She was my drag mother when I was 18 years old, so I had a huge full circle moment when I saw her; this incredible trans woman who was so important in my formative years – she really took me under her wing – and then all these years later she was back to doing my face for the film. It made the the experience so incredible.”
That’s amazing. Mya Taylor actually mentioned Elle Noir to me too and said that she got some tips from her on how to move around as a drag queen.
“I love Mya! Mya is awesome. I miss her. She always talks about how she was the classy sister in Stage Mother!”
As much as the film is about the acceptance of blood family in terms of Jacki Weaver’s character and her gay son, it’s also about chosen family isn’t it as well? And that’s kind of very evident there in the club scenes. Tell me about creating that on screen chosen family with Mya Taylor and Oscar Moreno as the other drag queens.
“Mya plays a drag queen named Cherry Poppins and Oscar Moreno plays a drag queen named Tequila Mockingbird, and we fell in love with each other. All three of us. We were together for two or three months in the studio lot 12 hours a day and the dynamics that you see on screen came out of our on set shenanigans! We became real life sisters; we fought, we joked, and we were naughty, naughty girls! But at the end of the day it created a chemistry that I thought brought a lot of nuance to the dynamic and the club scenes. In my opinion that came out of all three of us being part of the LGBTQ umbrella, so hats off to the director for casting three queer identified actors because it meant an immediate connection. There was not an ounce of competition on set. I’ve never felt so supported in my life working on a project than I did on Stage Mother, because not only is it such a queer story, but it was so queer making it; our writer is queer, our director, Elle Noir who was head of makeup, Jim, who did our costumes. We were one massive family.”
You have some really great moments with the mighty Jacki Weaver in the film, tell me about acting opposite her.
“My big scene with Jacki Weaver where she intervenes because my character Joan has a drug addiction was my first day on set. I was of course so nervous because she is a two time Oscar nominee and I had watched her in Animal Kingdom and she’s frightening in that film.”
Yes, I’m sure you think to yourself, if someone can bring that terrifying intensity to the screen then they’ve got to be a little intimidating in real life!
“Oh yeah, and she’s a very different kind of mother in that movie, a very different kind of stage mother in Animal Kingdom! But I was like, ‘What have I got myself into Ally? What are you doing?! You’re not ready for this!’ But I got on set and right before we started rolling for our first take I let her into the room and I was like, ‘Oh, I love your nail polish’ and she’s like, ‘Thanks, the colour is, I’m not really a waitress.’ And then, ‘my little secret, I usually like to wear black to let people know that granny likes to have fun!’ And I immediately fell in love with her. Then as the day went on we had some really tough, emotionally vulnerable scenes to shoot, and that woman just looks you in the eye and she is so emotionally available and present. Between takes she would come and rest her hands on my shoulders, or like cradle my face in her hands and just be like ‘you’re so good. Thank you for this.’ I felt so honoured to work with her, I felt so supported and it set the tone for the rest of the shoot. I was messaging her just two nights ago and we were telling each other how much we love each other. I feel really lucky to have forged that relationship and I think the love between us really shows on screen. So that’s a special thing to have in my life moving forward.”
One of the things that really struck me about the film was its celebration of the queer bar, particularly watching it right now with so many of our bars and clubs closed. I think they are particularly special to us in the LGBTQ community and you mentioned moving to the city and getting your start at a club; could you talk about how the importance of queer spaces is reflected in the film and what they mean to you in your own life?
“I live in Toronto and our queer village is at Church and Wellesley, and even right now I try to walk through there at least once a day because just being in the area makes me feel like I’m at home. I am personally someone who needs those queer spaces to feel fully myself. I don’t know if I quite realised when we were filming because I was just in it, but I think that the film actually really captures the truth of queer spaces. Like sometimes you go to a drag bar on a Monday or a Tuesday and you are one of the only people in the audience. There’s this weird grungy underbelly to queer spaces, but those nights are almost more fun.”
Definitely, I love going out during the week when there’s no one there!
“Me too, it’s like Friday and Saturday, not to knock university students, but it’s a younger demographic on those nights and as I’ve gotten older Thursdays and Sundays are my key nights to go out because you will always run into someone you love. I think queer spaces are are so important, it’s literally where you forge your own chosen family. I think that the film actually took a lot of that on and is a beautiful homage to queer spaces.”
Have you have you got a favourite spot that you like to go to in Toronto?
“Glad Day Bookshop, which is a café, restaurant and bookstore downtown in the village and it is the queerest space ever. And when I say queer I’m not just talking about gay white dudes looking to hook up, you go and it’s like the entire rainbow of diversity in terms of who they hire, in terms of the entertainment and the queens they bring in. I really love Glad Day, and you can just chill and read queer comic books. I really love that space. For nights that I’m raging, I really like Crews & Tangos; it is pretty grungy, but that’s my style. I really like how there’s just a little bit of everything happening there. There’s the upstairs space which plays very specific kind of music, the back room is the karaoke area and live singing stage and bar, and then the front room is the show room with all the drag. So Crews & Tangos is one of my favourite spaces in Toronto for sure.”
Well, thanks for those recommendations! That’s useful information for our readers and also for me when I’m next in town for Inside Out or the Toronto Film Festival. They’re both going to be virtual festivals this year, but next year I can check them out. Jackie Beat has sung live for 30 years as a drag performer, rather than lip syncing, but in the film it’s kind of flipped with her character bristling at the idea of queens singing live. Do you have a take on lip syncing versus singing live when it comes to drag performance?
“I’m a stage actor first and foremost so I have to sing live all the time in my profession. So I was just so excited to get to do that, but actually I got to do both. I got to open Jacki Weaver’s eyes to the club with my big inflatable lip sync to Joan Jett. Getting to sing the original music, and kind of spearheading a lot of the group numbers, was just such a great opportunity to show what I’ve got. The number where I have the white wig and the silver dress, Nathan’s Song, I actually opted to sing with a live microphone for that. I was feeling my Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper A Star is Born fantasy, singing live for a couple of numbers and that was a really special opportunity. I think some of the most beautiful scenes in the movie are the musical numbers.”
It’s great to hear Jacki Weaver sing as well, I imagine that quite a lot of people in the US maybe haven’t heard her sing before.
“Yeah, actually we when we were in Palm Springs she got asked, ‘Oh, we had no idea you sang’, and she was like ‘Well, I have a gold record!’ She has a gold record in Australia and she’s very proud of it.”
Do you have a favorite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, play, musical, book, artwork, or it could be a person; something or someone that’s really resonated with you over the years and made an impact on you? Or it could be something that you’re currently enjoying.
“Someone I look up to so much is John Cameron Mitchell. As an artist he is the definition of risk-taker. Obviously he’s an amazing writer and an amazing actor. He is everything I want to be and strive to be. As a filmmaker you think of Shortbus, and Rabbit Hole, and Hedwig, which has earned its cult status, it is a brilliantly made film. I think he’s not afraid to dive deep into the underbelly and be gritty and honest and really show his pain with a twist of humour. He’s also incredibly well-spoken and I think he’s just a gorgeous human being. He has no idea who I am, but in terms of queer artists, I think john Cameron Mitchell is incredible. He just encapsulates queer arts to me. I would love to meet him or work with him one day.”
We’re big admirers of John Cameron Mitchell here at The Queer Review. Hopefully he’ll read this and you’ll get connected! He’s also a great DJ, and talking of queer spaces, one of my favourite nights out in New York is his monthly night, Mattachine at Julius Bar, which is the oldest queer bar in the city and also the site of the historic sip-in staged by members of the Mattachine Society. So next time you’re in New York, once everything has reopened, you’ll have to go along to a Mattachine night at Julius. And also try the burger and fries, they’re great there too!
You recently made a short film, Liar, what can you tell us about that?
“Last year, my best friend Wayne Burns and I, we sauntered off to the library and we were like ‘let’s research some Canadian queer plays.’ We found one that we loved and we got permission from the playwright to adapt it. So we have a 20 minute film titled Liar, adapted from Brian Drader’s play about two queer men who meet on Grindr and go to hook up on top of a church. And that’s not what ends up happening, but it’s a very subversive, dark tale about grief and mental health and substance abuse; a very different role than Joan in Stage Mother. I’m so excited for people to see it. It was a real labour of love. We’ll have our premiere at Inside Out in October and then after that we will be on CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. They bought and produced the film so we will be syndicated on air and then on CBC Gem after the broadcast premiere. So that’s really exciting. This tiny little idea from two queer boys from Nova Scotia is really blossoming into its own thing which is amazing!”
By James Kleinmann, Editor
Stage Mother is released in select US theatres and on demand Friday August 21st 2020.
Watch our interview with Allister’s Stage Mother co-stars Jackie Beat and Mya Taylor here: