Tony-nominee, or “one-time Tony-loser” as his husband Gerold apparently likes to playfully tease him, Rory O’Malley recently returned to the role he took over from Jonathan Groff on Broadway, King George III in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. While the nation’s theatres were dark, one of the things that helped get O’Malley through the loss of live performance was his co-starring voice role in the hilarious adult animated comedy series, Chicago Party Aunt which premieres globally on Netflix on Friday September 17th.
Ahead of the series debut, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Rory O’Malley about the writers’ handling of his character Daniel’s sexuality, his own connection to the world of the show, what it felt like to tread the boards again, why his Chicago Party Aunt co-star RuPaul is a queer hero to him, and he recalls a memorable encounter with gay icon Bette Midler.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: why was Chicago Party Aunt something that you wanted to devote your time to being a part of?
Rory O’Malley: “Well, first of all I’m from Cleveland, so telling a very Midwest story was exciting to me. I love the fact that it’s really a love story between an aunt and her nephew. I have a whole pack of aunts who took care of me. My mom was a single mom and there was a bunch of women in my life who, related to me or not, were my aunts. I think it’s such a great relationship that really doesn’t get explored too often. It also happens to be hilarious, it’s so funny. It was also was an amazing gay character. Daniel is a 18-year-old gay kid, and it’s not about him coming out. Clearly his family accepts him, but it’s moved past that and it is about him becoming an adult and figuring out who he is even beyond his sexual orientation. I was so appreciative that they cast a gay person in a gay role. It’s always nice when that happens.”
Yeah, it seems to be part of a new trend or a new phase in introducing LGBTQ characters into shows that aren’t specifically LGBTQ without making a big deal of it. Aunt Diane mentions that she’s seen the peach scene from Call Me By Your Name on Daniel’s computer and then Daniel starts talking about having a crush on a guy. So that’s how we as an audience find out that he’s gay, it’s all very casual, there’s no inner turmoil or big coming out moment.
“I’m sure one day there could be a flashback episode with Daniel saying something like, ‘Mom, Dad, Aunt Diane, I’m gay. Moving on.’ Clearly it was not something that was too big of a deal for this family. I think coming out stories, especially ones that are difficult, are so important to tell but it’s also important to tell the stories of gay people who are in families that are absolutely accepting of them to show what that looks like. To say, this person didn’t have a difficult time with their parents and everything was fine. To move on from that and to actually talk about becoming an adult, because yes, being a gay person you have to encounter different struggles, but you also have to learn how to get a job and to feed yourself when you’re 18, or when you’re out of college. Those are big, scary things for everyone and I think it’s great to see it through a lens of a character who is gay, but not necessarily have that be what the entire character is about.”
There’s also an older gay character on the show, Diane’s boss at the hair salon where she works, Gideon, voiced by RuPaul, and at one point Diane mistakenly outs him to his mother. So it’s kind of balanced out and set in the real world where not everyone necessarily feels comfortable about being out to everybody in their lives.
“Yes, it’s a generational change and it’s happening so quickly. I’m right in between that. I’m not 18 and I’m not RuPaul’s age. I think that the gay community and gay culture has really influenced generations differently. I go back to my high school now and there are gay kids there who are wanting to ask their partners to the prom—and I went to a Catholic High School and you didn’t even want anyone to know you were gay—so things have changed so much. They changed when I was in high school too. So obviously a gay person’s relationship to their parents or to society is going to be different based on when they grew up. I think you’re right, having those two gay characters and their experiences juxtaposed next to each other is really telling, it’s such smart writing. It’s a really great group of people who put this show together and I know that it was a priority for them to get that right.”
It is hilarious at times, but there are also some poignant moments in there too. Tell us about Daniel and if there was anything in particular that you homed in on as you were going about creating the characterization and voice for him?
“Something that I learned from Lauren Ash, who voices Diane, and from Matt Craig our showrunner, and the writers, was that there are a lot of times where his aunt puts Daniel in situations that make him incredibly uncomfortable and he’s pushed to his limits, sometimes for the better and sometimes it just seems cruel! But at the end of the day, I had to remember that Daniel loves his aunt. It isn’t like, ‘Get her away from me!’ He says in the show, ‘Sadly, you’re my best friend.’ I think it’s very true that his aunt—no matter how wild and crazy she is, or how uncomfortable she makes him—is his best friend. He has to be able to laugh about some of the things that she does. She’s not always disgusting to him. Some of the things where I’m like, ‘Ooooh!’, for him, he’s like, ‘My aunt’s crazy!’ And he just laughs about it. So that was something that I had to remember playing a younger character. Then at the end of the day, the rest of it was just me going back to my younger days in Cleveland and remembering all too well the anxiety that I had back then.”
As you say, that aunt/nephew dynamic is not one that we see very often, so it put me in mind of Auntie Mame, if she was living in Chicago in 2021 working two and a half days a week as a hairdresser!
“Yeah, that’s it, absolutely! I cannot believe I didn’t come up with that comparison myself. It is the Chicago, modern, Auntie Mame. I’m going to tell all my gay friends that’s why they should watch.”
That will definitely draw people in I think! Did you get to have any kind of interaction with Lauren Ash, or with any of the other voice cast or were you always working in isolation?
“We were always working in isolation to a degree, just like everybody else over the last year and a half, but we’ve gotten to know each other over video calls and through our performances, and table reads. It really saved me because I was doing Hamilton here in LA and it got cancelled because of COVID, and so all of a sudden my creative outlets were completely gone. So being able to come into my garage, where I recorded all of the episodes from home, and have a laugh with these amazing writers and this cast was such an incredible experience. It got me through the last year and a half, and I’m not just saying that, this show has such a special place in my heart because of that.”
A lot of people are still having a tough time as we’re not out of the pandemic yet, so this show is a really joyful thing to watch and we still need these shows. While we haven’t had live theatre or cinemas to go to people have been very grateful for the TV that we’ve had that’s lifted our spirits and I think this is another one of those shows.
“Everyone jokes, ‘I got to the end of Netflix!’ And I did, we got to the end of Netflix! And I’m so glad to report that on September 17th there’s something else to watch and it’s a really funny show that will bring a lot of joy to people and make everyone feel good.”
You mentioned Hamilton, and obviously you had a very long hiatus, as so many people who work in theatre did, so what is it like to finally be back on stage playing King George III?
“Every night, hearing an audience laugh and applause coming at you is just surreal. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s been about two weeks of performances and I still haven’t accepted that it’s actually happening. It felt like for a while there that it might be several more years before we could come back together as a community and celebrate the medium that I love most, live theatre, so it’s electric, because it’s not just us on stage who are celebrating, it’s the audience members who can’t believe they’re back.”
“You always have to work hard to be at Hamilton, whether it’s paying for tickets or waiting for tickets, you have to figure out so much just to get there, but now you’re wearing a mask and you’re vaccinated and showing a vaccination card too, and it’s very safe. I’ve never loved a group of audience members more than I have these people who are showing up and taking care of us, taking care of other audience members, and demonstrating physically how much they love theatre. So it’s beautiful and it’s hard for me to even talk about.”
One of my favorite sequences in Chicago Party Aunt is the Halloween gay club, and if you’re looking at the background, the detail in those costumes is amazing. I wondered if you had a favorite scene, either because of the voice work that’s in it or just visually, when you look back at the finished show now?
“It’s weird because maybe it’s the only action scene I’ll ever do and it’s in a cartoon—because no one would actually put me in an action movie—but there’s a scene where Daniel is working on a tower in the lake and Diane has to come and save him because it’s burning down. She comes on a helicopter and he has to be taken off. I was like, ‘This is amazing. This is the biggest action movie I’ll ever be a part of!’ Luckily, I didn’t have to do any of the stunts, just the screaming!”
Why do you think this material lends itself well to the adult animated form, rather than doing a live action series?
“Because the possibilities are limitless, you can do anything in animation. I think especially with the speed of what this comedy is and trying to put so much of Chicago and the heart of it into it, animation lets your imagination run wild. It’s why animated adult shows are so funny and such a great escape because it’s nonstop comedy. You can go anywhere, including on a helicopter or driving high speed chases or just over to Roscoe’s gay bar and have a scene there. You can do anything and be anyone.”
Can I ask you for your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“Whether he was in the show or not, RuPaul Charles is very important to me and I’m so lucky that I’ve gotten to be in a project with him because watching Drag Race has made me a stronger person. It’s given so much strength and power to all of us who grew up thinking maybe we were less than, or weak, because we were more feminine, or you know, what the idea of masculinity was, especially growing up in the Midwest, where everyone loves sports. I wasn’t that kid. I loved musicals. And if you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love anybody else? Can I get an Amen?! RuPaul has done so much for the gay community with that TV show and you better believe that I’m just grilling him constantly for spoilers of Drag Race! So definitely that and then Bette Midler. I’m a Bette Midler gay from Beaches on!”
Me too, wouldn’t it have been great to have been there at the Continental Baths to have seen her back in the day?
Because you know that she loves us right back.
“Oh, absolutely! I performed at a birthday party for someone, and she was a guest, and I was doing a dance number and we all went out into the audience and I found her and I just shimmied in front of her face and I said, ‘This is the greatest moment of my life!’ And she said, ‘Me too!’ And that’s it. That’s my only interaction with Bette Midler and I don’t need anything else. That was amazing.”
Chicago Party Aunt premieres globally on Netflix on Friday September 17th 2021.
Watch the full interview and trailer below: