Julie Halston puts the words in your mouth
by Randy Rainbow for HX Magazine
A founding member of Charles Busch’s famed Theatre-In-Limbo, Julie Halston has graced the stages on and off Broadway in Hairspray, Gypsy and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, just to name a few. Television audiences might recognize her best as Tina Carmello on The Class and as Bitsy Von Muffling on Sex and the City, a role she was set to reprise on the big screen later this month until just a few days ago, when she found out that her scenes had wound up on the cutting-room floor—that’s showbiz, kids! I recently met up with Halston at a Hell’s Kitchen coffee house to discuss her new book (penned with Donna Daley), Monologues for Show-Offs, which is quickly becoming a must-have resource for actors everywhere. As she sipped hot cocoa and thumbed through a Post, it became clear why so many in the biz refer to her as “the funniest person alive.”
Julie Halston: Oh my... oh no... tsk, tsk, tsk...
Randy Rainbow for HX: What is it, Julie?
It’s Naomi Campbell. She’s hitting people again.
God help us. So when did you come out of the closet as a gay icon?
Oh, very young. I think 12 or 13 when I realized I didn’t quite fit in with these straight soldiers. Then when Charles Busch and all of us formed Theatre-in-Limbo in the ’80s and we became really popular with gay audiences, we all sort of accepted our roles—our mantles as gay icons. We were very privileged and honored by it, because, you know—dare we say it?—gay people are usually a little hipper and more on the edge of what’s going down culturally.
So would you attribute your gay-centric career to Charles Busch?
I would attribute my entire career to Charles! I mean, I’ve been able to forge a career on my own, but he was sort of the beacon light to show me the way. John Waters once said that he knew his career and his life were always going to be inextricably tied in with Divine’s, even after Divine died. When people think of John Waters they think of his movies but also of Divine, who’s very much a part of his body of work. He said he was thrilled and honored by that, and I feel the same way about Charles. There’s just no way you can get around talking about a career like mine without mention of Charles Busch, and that’s the way it should be. He really helped give me a voice. In fact, the gay community as a whole has helped give women like myself a voice.
What has Charles Busch taught you about being a woman?
He’s much more sympathetic a person than I. I’m very judgmental. And because he does see both male and female points of view, he’s much kinder a human being. Where he’ll say, “You know, men have very fragile egos,” I’ll just say, “They’re assholes!” But he’s more compassionate about the human situation because he’s a writer, and has taught me to perhaps be a little more discerning. On the other hand, being judgmental is very funny. So as a comedian, I have to pick and choose.
You’re also a writer, and have just written a new book, Monologues for Show-Offs.
Yes! Oh, it’s so exciting. My friend Donna Daley, a great writer, and I have all these actor friends who were coming to us for help with auditions and things. If they needed an original piece to present, we’d write them something, and they always loved what we did. So we were at her house over lunch one day and just decided to do this project. Literally, this was our writing process: We’d have coffee... we’d talk about the world... we’d talk about Page Six... we’d bitch about our husbands a bit... then we’d write a little... then it was lunchtime... then another coffee break... then we’d talk about Britney... and then we’d write some more. And we wound up publishing this book of monologues.
Why has the response to it been so positive?
Because the world is changing, and for a while actors were doing material that was wrong for them and becoming discouraged by it. We were hearing that casting directors and agents, particularly out in L.A., don’t necessarily want to see something from a play. They want to see personality; they want to see range; they want to see a connection. They don’t need to see Mary Tyrone from Long Day’s Journey, okay? They saw Vanessa Redgrave! I think as the industry becomes more and more reality based, these original monologues will have a real audience. Plus, actors want something fresh and fun to work with. We were also fortunate to have some major industry professionals—directors, agents, producers and actors—come through who offer their expertise throughout the book.
And what conclusions did you come to about Britney?
I really think she’s mentally ill—and I know many mentally ill people. My wish for her is very strong medication, a little therapy and, uh, close ya legs for a little while. I mean, when you’re a manic bipolar, as she seems to be, life can be very boring when you’re not in a manic mode. She needs to be bored out of her mind for a while. I hate to say it, but after spending quite a bit of time in Hollywood, so many people out there are such lovely, beautiful, talented human beings, but some of them are not very bright!
I hear you have a story about one of those lovely, beautiful people in particular who couldn’t quite grasp the grueling eight-show-a-week work schedule of the Broadway kids.
When I was out there doing The Class—and first of all, I was the oldest person on that Warner Bros. lot, minus a few camera men, and I was definitely the fattest at 125 pounds—one day this very pretty, young, stereotypical valley girl came to me and said, “Were you in Hairspraaay?” And I said, “Yes, I was in it for two years.” And she said, “So, wait a minute... It’s, like, the same show every night? Like, you do the same thing every night? I could never do that! But you know what? Good for you!” And I turned to Jesse Tyler Ferguson and said, “I think I’ve just been dissed by a Valley girl.” We just howled with laughter! That girl will probably be running the studio in about two years.
Let’s talk Bitsy a little bit. Is it true that Michael Patrick King wrote that character on Sex and the City specifically for you?
He did! And it all goes back to Charles Busch, darling! Michael Patrick King was a good friend of one of our original cast members. He just adored Theatre-in-Limbo and became a big fan of the entire company. We knew him as this adorable, Irish wit who also wrote plays and did stand-up on his own, and thought he was fabulous because he was so lovely and supportive and would come to everything. Then, of course, he went out to Hollywood and became Michael Patrick King. Years later—I guess I was doing The Women with Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Coolidge—he came to me and said, “One of these days, Halston... I’m gonna come up with something for you.” And I said, “Yes, yes, whatever, darling. It’s O-kaaay. Let’s just go to Joe Allen’s and have a buuur-gah.” But then sure enough, one day I got a call, “They have these two great characters in mind and they want Nathan Lane and Julie Halston.” And so Bitsy Von Muffling was born. Thankfully people liked her, so they kept bringing me back.
What’s it like working on that set?
It’s so great. And there are always those rumors about how the ladies are constantly feuding, but I’ve certainly never seen it, and I’ve been around them a lot. I mean, if they were all a bunch of bitches everyone wouldn’t keep wanting to come back to do more. It’s really a trickle-down effect, which starts with the great MPK, who sets the tone; then, of course, you have Sarah Jessica Parker, who is just a real New York treasure. I think she’s one of those people who should have a key to the city or something—like, the Mayor... and Sarah Jessica. Such grace.
How’s it been working with Nathan Lane?
Oh, he’s one-of-a-kind. Such a generous friend and a generous artist. He embodies what it means to be a real star. I just adore him.
Do you have a personal stance on the relationship between Bitsy and Nathan’s obviously gay character, Bobby?
Well it certainly exists, you know. Years ago I might have said something like, “Oh it’s a sham! She can’t marry a gay man. Why would they do that?” As you get older, however, you realize that people make alliances. Life is a negotiation. I suspect there are many Bitsys and Bobbys out there, and I’m much less judgmental than I used to be.
You must have dated a few homos in your day. How many have you “turned”?
Oh yes. My first very serious boyfriend, in fact. He came out after we were together, and of course now we’re very close friends. I’ve always had many gay male friends, but he was actually the only one I ever dated.
Which reminds me: You did a pilot for CBS in ’93 with Harvey Fierstein called Those Two, which was sort of a precursor to Will & Grace. What was the deal with that?
It was terrible! That’s what it was. It just wasn’t really very funny, which is bizarre when you look at the cast. But we found out later that the writer was not well at the time, and it ultimately didn’t get the treatment and sharpening it needed. Also, CBS was going through a big management change, and our show sort of got lost in the shuffle. It was very difficult, and a very strange process. I was just grateful that it paid off my debts, paid for my wedding, and I got a car! And I became very close with Harvey Fierstein, who has remained a dear friend. So it was worth it.
Harvey and a car ain’t bad. You also played Electra in the 2003 Sam Mendes/Bernadette Peters revival of Gypsy, which these days seems almost a precursor to the show I refer to as PATTI LUPONE—Featuring the Score From Gypsy.
Well, right now New York is in the midst of Gypsy fever. And even though Ben Brantley called Bernadette’s performance “revelatory,” there’s a lot of badmouthing about our production. So I feel kind of badly about that, although I love Patti LuPone. But that experience was so great because Bernadette Peters, like Nathan Lane, showed what a great star is supposed to be onstage and off. She always had a genuine interest in her cast; we’d all get gifts from her on our birthdays... She’s a real class act. And it’s sad that the show got such bad press, but the experience of working with her and with Sam Mendes truly was tremendous—and Kate Winslet’s a doll, too. It was a real lovefest, and we’re all still friends. I still see Kate Buddeke and Heather Lee all the time—those two strippers. In fact, we’re getting together tomorrow night for drinks, darling!
Do you have a favorite gay nightspot in the city?
Charles Busch’s apartment. I can’t think of a better one. Now, when we were “young and gay,” as it were, we really lived at a place called McBell’s on Sixth Avenue. That was our hangout, and I miss it. Now we’re at Sosa Borella on Eighth a lot, which isn’t necessarily gay... but it’s gay. A lot of Broadway casts go there, and by 11:30… it’s gay.
Is there anyone in the business you’re dying to work with?
I would like to work with Jerry Zaks again; I loved working with Jimmy Burrows on The Class; I’d also love to do something with Robert Greenblatt, who produced Six Feet Under. I tend to be somewhat provincial and clannish in a way when it comes to all that. Maybe it comes from having a theatre company. I enjoy working with the same group of people. I’m also someone who, once she gets involved with a project—if it’s new and exciting, is pretty much up for anything. I just really never wanna cross paths with Naomi Campbell.
Monologues for Show-Offs (Heinemann) is out now.
Check out a shorter version of this interview in this week’s issue of HX Magazine.