'Orange Is The New Black' Star Lea DeLaria On Comedy, Jazz, And Being 'The Last Butch Standing'

Lea DeLaria in New York last October.  (Donald Traill/Invision/AP)
Lea DeLaria in New York last October. (Donald Traill/Invision/AP)

You probably know her from her role on the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," but in 1993, Lea DeLaria made a name for herself as the first openly gay comic to "break the late-night talk show barrier" with her appearance on "The Arsenio Hall Show."

Since then, she's performed on Broadway and released a few jazz albums before getting her role as Carrie "Big Boo" Black on "Orange is the new Black." While in Boston for a show at Scullers, DeLaria spoke with Radio Boston's Meghna Chakrabarti about her career:

Interview Highlights

On her decision to get into stand-up comedy:

My mother and father were always a big influence on me and they always taught me to think for myself, say what I thought, that there were more important things to do in life than to just pay bills. So when I got to be very outspoken, I mean the person that I am, the individual that I am, stand-up comedy was the biggest way to be able to put your voice out there and actually create change or a dialogue among people about something.

On her "Arsenio Hall Show" appearance: 

It was scary and exciting and all of those things at once. I mean, you don't start off doing what it is that I did in the 80s and expect it to end up on American television. The last 20 years of my career have all been a complete surprise to me. People who are as political as I am and as outspoken as I am, this stuff doesn't generally happen for them. So I couldn't be more thrilled. I'm tinkled pink.

On her latest comedy show, 'The Last Butch Standing':

I have been kind of quietly singing and acting for the last few years, and not doing a lot of stand-up. And one day I kind of looked around and did not like what I saw within my own community. And I just sort of said, wow you have been neglecting stand-up because someone needs to be out there talking to people about this. ... I didn't like, for example, the way butch dykes were sort of pushed aside by the sort of mainstreaming of our community, the middle class, mainstreaming, assimilationist sort of wannabe quote unquote gays and lesbians that are out there. They think of us sort of as a dirty word or a dirty name. That offends me. I have issues with that. So I am speaking out about that a lot.

On how she describes butch identity:

Butch identity is a very old school and I think important part of our culture. The reality is, we've always been around. ... But what I find is as we as a community start to get the things that we have been fighting for for so long — that we're able to get married, that we're able to have children, that we're able to just openly be a family and who we are — as we get those things, more and more we become complacent and find ourselves losing our own identity in search of being a part of the quote unquote norm of the world and I think that whenever any organization, group, community or individual forgets their history, they're in trouble.

On her 1998 Broadway debut:

Inside this big bull dyke body beats the heart of a vicious queen, trust me. I love musicals. So when that dream came true for me, that Broadway dream of being downstage center, I didn't stop the show eight times a week but I certainly slowed it down. That was a really, really exciting thing for me.

On her love for jazz:

It's America one true art form. It originated here. It's our identity as Americans. I love that you create it then, right as you're standing there it's created. That there's four, five, six, seven, how ever many musicians, all speaking to each other in a language that they all understand. And it's all happening before your eyes and when that moment happens it's gone, and you'll never get it again. That's why I love jazz.

On getting the role as "Big Boo":

They had me reading for the part that Cathy Curtin plays, one of the COs. And I got a call from my manager saying they actually love you, but they want you to come in in person and they wanna give you a different role. This isn't the right role for you, they feel they want a different type in it. So I went in and I read for the part that eventually was given to Lynn Tucci — Anita DeMarco is the role. So I go to my manager's office and he's on the phone with casting as I walk in and it didn't sound good. And he hung up the phone and he said they think that you're not old enough. I think people are always surprised when they find out I'm 55 years old, cause I just don't look it.

And I was screaming and yelling at my manager and I remember distinctly saying, if they are a writing a show that takes place in a women's prison, and there isn't a part for me, I quit. I'm done with this industry, I'm done with this business. If you need me, I'm in Europe singing. And when I got off the plane my phone machine was filled with messages from my manager going, see you had your little hissy fit and now you have to come back because they really did find a part for you."


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