Exclusive Interview: Emmy-nominated creators of HBO’s We’re Here Stephen Warren & Johnnie Ingram “we set out to tell stories that are being ignored”

With the first three episodes of season two of We’re Here now streaming on HBO Max—and new episodes airing on Mondays at 9pm ET/PT on HBO—The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with the show’s Emmy-nominated creators and executive producers Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram. They share their determination to go even deeper and richer with this season’s emotionally powerful stories as they continue their road trip to small towns across the USA with drag icons Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, and Eureka, spreading queer joy and helping to foster LGBTQ+ communities through the healing power of drag.

We’re Here creators and executive producers Stephen Warren and Johnnie Ingram. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: how important was it for you to return to Spartanburg, South Carolina for the opening episode of this season?

Johnnie Ingram: “It was heartbreaking to leave Spartanburg last May. I was there on the ground, literally bawling because this was our first season of a show that we care so much about and had all worked so hard to pull off. The world was falling apart around us and it was really emotional. Clearly, we all went through this crazy event together and first and foremost we’re so grateful to have a second season. The first thing that came to our minds was that we have to go back to Spartanburg because there’s no way we could have just left those stories behind. We needed to pick up where we left off. We already had the queens’ entrance looks made and they just sat in storage for over a year.”

“What we found particularly interesting was how the stories had evolved, even without us being there. It allowed us to tell the story in a way we hadn’t been able to before on the show, because normally we’re in a town for a certain period of time and then we leave. We’ve never gone somewhere, then taken a break, and gone back before. So it was a great episode to open the second season with.”

Stephen Warren: “One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the queer community is its resilience. Over decades and centuries, through the horrific oppression that queer people have faced, there has been a resilience that has allowed the queer community to get to the place where we are today, and hopefully we are going to achieve much more in the future. So on a much smaller scale, there was no way that we were not going to exhibit that resilience and get back to the people who we started with at the end of the last season when production was halted by the pandemic. Also, for ourselves psychologically, it was really important to be able to finish that story.”

We’re Here co-creator and executive producer Stephen Warren with Eureka. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

With the first episode of season two, and what became the finale of season one, I think it just goes to show the great framework that you’ve built for We’re Here , in that there is so much scope for flexibility within it. The series feels unforced and unhurried, there’s breathing space and a fly-on-the-wall documentary vibe to it. In terms of the format, we meet the drag daughters and there’s a drag show at the end, but apart from that we don’t quite know where it might take us each each episode.

Stephen: “Even more so than that, what we’ve discovered about the show is that it is its own entity. In the last episode of season one we didn’t even truly have a drag show at the end of the episode because we wound up doing the video. There are other ideas that Johnnie, the showrunner Peter LoGreco, and I have that show that we don’t have a strict format with We’re Here and that really allows us to be nimble and thoughtful about expanding our storytelling.”

Johnnie: “In terms of the fly-on-the-wall aspect that you mention, We’re Here is a temperature check as to what’s happening across the country for the queer community; the different people on the ground there and their experiences. It’s very much present day, but with a nod to hope for the future. Having a drag show that unites the Ls, the Gs, the Bs, the Ts, and the Q’s, and IA+s, emphasizes that as a community we’re a huge force. I don’t think people gather enough as a collective to celebrate each other’s differences and unique stories. Through this insane art form of drag, and these amazing performers that we bring to town, that’s something that we’re able to do. The queens’ extraordinary ability brings the whole community together for one night and it’s so important for us to gather like that more often.”

Bob the Drag Queen with We’re Here co-creator and executive producer Johnnie Ingram. Photograph by Greg Endries/HBO.

You have quite big personalities in Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka, and Shangela, but I love the fact that it’s really the drag daughters’ stories that shine through and that are centered on. There’s a sense that there are of course an infinite number of stories across the country to go out and find. How consciously were you looking for folks who are not only underrepresented on television and in mainstream media, but also often sidelined within the LGBTQ+ community itself? For instance, this season we meet Akeelah, a Black trans woman living in Selma, Alabama; James, a young neurodiverse queer trans man in Temecula, California; and in Evansville, Indiana there’s an older lesbian couple, Barbara and Yvon, and Kaïs, a queer Muslim refugee.

Stephen: “That is one of our proudest accomplishments with the show. We set out to tell stories that aren’t being told and that are ignored. We found so many rich stories that fit that mold and it makes us feel great that we’ve been able to give voices to these people. I hope that they will feel seen and that the world will change by seeing that these people exist and seeing the beauty in their lives.”

Johnnie: “We’re all so connected. We’re closer than six degrees from one another other. If you’re able to see people who you wouldn’t normally see within our community, as well as highlighting how difficult they may have had it in certain places and the battles that they’re fighting, I think it also reminds us that we can and we should support each other and celebrate our differences.”

Eureka is given the key to the city in Del Rio, Texas by Mayor Bruno. We’re Here, season 2, episode 3. HBO.

When I turned 18, I headed to London and a couple of decades on here I am living in New York and I never considered staying in my hometown in England, where there was no visible queer community when I was growing up and it didn’t feel safe to be out. Though when I was visiting last month I was happy to to see that there’s now a rainbow crosswalk there.

One of the things that I really love about We’re Here is that it highlights the fact that just because someone is LGBTQ+ that shouldn’t mean that they feel they have to leave their hometown and move to a larger more liberal city. I think that’s such a powerful sign of progress that comes out of We’re Here as we meet folks who help to make change within their communities by being themselves and being visible. We meet people who have never left their towns, or folks like Bruno in Del Rio, Texas who left and then returned to become mayor.

Johnnie: “In New York, LA, and Chicago, and all of the large US cities, we have queer icons who started the initial battle for our equal rights in those cities, and now look at how they’ve flourished. But there are many movements across the country. I’m also from a small town in East Tennessee and I had to leave. I’ve lived in Chicago, Toronto, New York, and now LA, in search of a home because I felt like I couldn’t be myself in the town that I was born in. But I always question, ‘Why did I have to leave?’ And I think that you’re exactly right, maybe you don’t if you fight hard enough.”

Stephen: “I’m from Rochester, New York and although there was no way that I was going to stay in Rochester I do have fond reminiscences about the place now. There’s an enormous pull for so many people to stay and to change their living environments and to make it better for themselves and for other people. I love that we get to show that on the series.”

Bob the Drag Queen, Akeelah, and Que in Selma, Alabama. Photograph by Connie Chornuk/HBO.

When it comes to the depiction of the towns you visit on We’re Here, the show doesn’t demonize the places or the people living there or generalize about it being a hostile environment, although often queer folks might be having a tough time there. I think that approach reminds us that it goes both ways and that we shouldn’t necessarily prejudge how people are going to react or immediately shut people out.

Stephen: “On the first season, I loved going into the barbershops where we’d generally find some of the most conservative people in town and when we actually talked to each other I found that they were different from what I’d expected. So it’s important to have that dialogue.”

Johnnie: “There are pockets of acceptance everywhere. I think we’re also fighting a war of words online which can be scarier than when you actually go out there in person and talk to people face-to-face, because often you’ll have a very different conversation.”

We’re Here. Shangela, Bob the Drag Queen, and Eureka in Evansville, Indiana. Photograph by Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

With We’re Here, those conversations are forced to happen in some ways aren’t they, by having these three amazing queens rolling into town in their fabulous drag vehicles?

Johnnie: “That’s the point of bringing such extraordinary, talented artists from our own community to these towns. All the people who have been oppressed, or not felt the ability to express themselves about their sexuality or their gender identity, see these queens arrive in town and it gets people talking. You have to talk about it, because the whole town is talking about them!”

Stephen: “By the way, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the queens’ cars have had a slight makeover for season two. They’re looking cute with their slight upgrades!”

Shangela, Bob the Drag Queen, and Eureka on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Photograph by Johnnie Ingram/HBO.

The Selma, Alabama episode, which airs on Monday November 1st on HBO, is extremely powerful. Why was it important for you to go there?

Stephen: “Peter LoGreco our showrunner was really the inspiration for that. That was the one place in the country where he absolutely wanted to go and he was sure that we’d be able to do something special there. We were shocked to see what the town looks like now, a town in the process of decay. There are some art studios and some places that are starting to pick up, but we were shocked to see what actually existed in a place of such historical importance and a place that’s also particularly relevant today because voting rights are under such assault. All the work that was done on that bridge in 1965 and for so many years in Selma, is being undercut right now.”

We’re Here. Shangela, Bob the Drag Queen, Bloody Sunday foot soldier Lynda Blackmon Lowery, and Eureka in season 2, episode 4. Photograph by Connie Chornuk/HBO.

“We loved the people in Selma and something special happened when we were making that episode. We took over an entire hotel that had just been renovated and we were able to bond as a crew and as a cast and as a town. COVID was a little bit better at that time and something happened there that launched us forward, it felt like the turbo fuel we needed. As we bonded with one another we found an even heightened mission. We were inspired by Akeelah’s story in Selma in particular, and also Joseph’s, and I think everybody put even more effort and passion into that episode and from that point onwards, because we knew we were on a roll, everyone felt it.”

Johnnie: “With drag, sometimes you can get distracted by the glitter, the glamour, and the amazing talent that we bring into these towns, but drag is also very political. I think with that episode in particular it was very important to us not only to tell different stories, but to be in a place that has such a significant political history. It was especially important for us to explore the intersection of the civil rights movement and the queer civil rights movement as a reminder that when we unite we can make true progress together.”

Shangela with her drag kid Kaïs in HBO’s We’re Here Season 2, Episode 5 in Evansville, Indiana. Photograph by Jakes Giles Netter/ HBO.

When it came to casting Bob, Shangela, and Eureka, I think you did an excellent job in picking those three amazing queens, but I wondered in what ways they might have surprised you in their willingness to really go there and be very open about themselves and be vulnerable with their drag daughters?

Stephen: “I think what happened this season was that the bond between the three of them strengthened, it really took root, and they were able to communicate that through what they were doing with their drag kids. This season there are many more interactions between the drag kids themselves and with Bob, Shangela, and Eureka. Those moments are so supportive and so beautiful. I think the three of them went to deeper levels partly because of the amazing reaction to the first season. We all received messages from people who’d seen the show about how it actually changed the way people were able to relate to their parents or with their kids. So going into the second season, the queens knew that it truly meant something to the people who were watching it. Everyone felt that and had a desire to continue on.”

Johnnie: “The authenticity of the show is really important to us and I think we learned a lot about Bob, Shangela, and Eureka in the first season as they opened up to us and to their drag kids. This season, we were able to take a lot of what makes them unique both as artists and also as human beings, and find places and people that they could genuinely connect with. I think it transcends the screen if they have a very genuine connection with their drag kids. Then within that, having the intersection of the community and the other drag kids creating their own community is incredible to see and I think that we were able to do that quite successfully in a lot of the episodes this season.”

By James Kleinmann

Season 2, Episode 4 of We’re Here in Selma, Alabama airs on Monday November 1st 2021 on HBO, and will be available to stream on HBO Max.

We’re Here Season 2: Serving Lewks in Selma, Alabama | HBO
We’re Here Season 2: Official Poster | HBO

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