Billy Porter’s “Kinky Boots” Character is Fierce, Sexy… and Gay

Will Billy Porter Take Home A Tony For “Kinky Boots?”

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Billy Porter commands the Broadway stage as Lola in Kinky Boots.

Take a true life story adapted from a beloved film, add one of the most successful Broadway director/choreographers (Jerry Mitchell), a legendary pop star (Cyndi Lauper) to write the score and throw in Harvey Fierstein to write the book and you have the Broadway sensation Kinky Boots.

But all those big names don’t fully add up until you have just the right actor breathe life into Lola, the fierce drag queen who partners with a straight businessman to create a custom fetish-type footwear for the drag community.

Enter Billy Porter, who you may know from theater productions like Angels in America and Grease, films like Twisted and The Broken Hearts Club or simply for his phenomenal singing voice.

Now what does that add up to? 13 Tony Award Nominations, including Best Musical and Porter for Best Actor In A Musical, that’s what! Nominations also went to Lauper, Fierstein, Mitchell (for Directing and Choreography), co-star Annaleigh Ashford and, in the same category as Porter, co-star Stark Sands.

After seeing the show on Broadway, I had to talk to Billy Porter – who has already won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for this role – about how he feels about the sudden Tony attention in his career, taking on the role of Lola and what he thinks of Fierstein’s statement that he wrote Lola as a straight man.

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Billy Porter

TheBacklot: Kinky Boots has taken you to a different place in your career with all the Tony nominations and the attention you’re getting. Is this time what you expected as far as being in the show?

Billy Porter: No. You can’t predict anything in this business. You can’t predict anything in this life. All you can do is show up and be the best version of yourself that you can be and hope for the best. As one gets older, one understands that more. And the pressure of it, the expectation of it having to be or live up to something is taken away. So the response that we’re getting and that the show is getting and that I’m getting, in particular, is all sort of gravy.

Talk to me about when you were shaping Lola as a character. I know you have been playing him for a while…Him? Her?

Whatever.

How did you find the right tone that worked for you and worked for the role?

Well, I saw the film initially and I kind of fell in love with the film. I fell in love with the character of Lola, and I thought if there is any role for me as an African American gay man, to sink my teeth into, it would be a role like that. So it felt natural even though there’s a lot of work that goes into it.

I am an actor. I am playing a character, all of those things. There are parallels in the character of Lola that are sort of close to me. So it was nice. It’s very rare to have a part that sort of fits likes a glove. And it just feels like you’re breathing your way into something. That is kind of what it feels like for me.

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Porter (r) with Tony nominees and co-stars Stark Sands and Annaleigh Ashford

Since it sounds like you relate a lot to Lola, are you learning things about her and about yourself with every performance?

Oh yeah. All the time. I mean, first of all, the courage that anybody has to live outside of the comfort zone that societal constructs put on you is something that I find very courageous and very empowering. So for a man to put on a dress and walk the street and vice versa is something that I don’t know I would ever be able to do in my own personal life, so it makes me feel very strong . It makes me feel very empowered

The other side of it is that I really related to the father part of the story, the estrangement of the father. This show has really helped me deal with a lot of issues that I had with both of my fathers. You know, my step-father and my biological father, who my relationship was…I was estranged from both of them at death and it’s very healing to play a character that has to go through the journey of figuring out how to forgive that and own that and love that, and move forward. So it’s a very healing story for me. But they’re both gone now…I feel like I’m honoring them in some way by being able to play this part every day and tell this story every day.

Seeing the musical was my first experience with Kinky Boots, but I loved that we actually were able to see Lola in men’s clothing as well as drag. Do you think that’s important that we saw the different side?

Yeah. I think when you have flamboyant characters, which is what the story is about in and of itself, we have a tendency to judge people at face value and they often don’t want to go deeper into the human being. I think that being a drag queen is very much an over-the-top flamboyant sort-of clown-type character. It could be perceived that way And what I love it that you do get to see all the dimensions of Lola and see that she’s a human being, and so you can’t just write her off.

Who were you channeling for a lot of Lola’s big moments in the show, or even the smaller moments?

I think, growing up and kind of loving all of my divas, I’m channeling many of them. And channeling, I think, is a strong word. I would say ‘paying homage to’ more than channeling, because I’m not trying to do an imitation of anybody. I’m not doing an imitation of anybody. But there are moments that kind of bring the spirit of many of the divas to the fore. A lot of the costumes and wigs kind of have a nod to those divas.

You know, it’s very interesting. It’s like a certain age group has a certain set of people that I remind them of. And the younger age group has a different set of people that I remind them of. So you know, let it be whatever it is. Who do you think?

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Who is Porter paying homage to in the show? He leaves that to you to decide.

At first, I did think kind of Whitney Houston or maybe even a little Diana Ross but Angela Bassett was in the audience that night so Tina Turner popped into my head.

Yeah, and I don’t want to limit that. Some of those in my brain and yes, some of them, I would never even think of. Men and women in their 60s say Josephine Baker and Eartha Kitt.  Younger kids say Beyonce and Whitney Houston and Mary J Blige. So it is more of a ’whoever you want it to be, whoever you think it is’, go on and think that.

I was reading an interview where Harvey [Fierstein] said he wrote Lola as straight and he thought it was funny that people had not really brought that up in talking about the show. I have to admit, I assumed Lola was gay even though there isn’t a romance in the show.

Here is the reality of that situation. Harvey wrote her as straight. I don’t play it as straight. And in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, we’re sort of in a fight about that because my version of Lola is not straight. She just isn’t.

And the reason why it doesn’t come up very often is that the story is not about his sexuality, his or her sexuality. The story is not about Lola or anything sexual. The story is a human story about two unlikely friends who have daddy issues, one of them just happens to wear a dress. So, it’s not really about whether he’s gay or straight. That’s just really not the point, and I think that the character, depending upon the actor, could be perceived as gay or straight. And ultimately, it doesn’t really matter and if you need her to be gay, please, by all means, let her be gay.

I am glad I read the Harvey interview after I saw the show because it didn’t enter my mind until then.

That’s the thing, when you see the movie and the fact that this is based on a movie, you’ll understand where that comes from because Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played Lola in the movie, plays it very much more like a traditional version of straight man in a dress. You know like, in the spirit of Some Like It Hot and in the spirit of all of the men in dresses that we’ve seen in the past. I don’t play it like that.

My Lola is very sexy. My Lola is very feminine. My Lola knows how to walk in her heels. And I don’t think that there is one moment of the show where if you ask anybody the question as to whether Lola was gay or straight, that you think my version of Lola was straight. I just don’t.

I have to agree with you.

Because she is just not. And as an African American gay man who has been out for my entire career, it would be irresponsible for me to show up wearing a dress and then say I’m straight. It just would be. That’s a whole other conversation.

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Got boots?

Tell me, what’s the biggest challenge of doing this show eight performances a week? Is it keeping your voice safe? Is it the boots?

I think it is just the regular challenge of any show we schedule. It’s just that we get grueling. It’s a hard thing to do. And so you just have to stay healthy. You just have to figure out a way for yourself to stay healthy. For me, I feel like it’s making sure that my body, that I physically stay strong because there’s a lot of demand on me physically.

Of all the songs you’ve had in your life, whether you perform them in this show or others or just been a fan of, is there one that just wrecks you every time you hear it or every time you sing it?

There are many. But in the context of this show, I would say ‘I’m Not My Father’s Son,’ because I just feel like it’s truly the moment where you get to step inside of the soul of Lola and all the artifice breaks away and you know, you get to really see who the human being is.

What are you wearing to the Tonys? Do you know?

Of course I know.

That’s the perfect answer.

Of course, are you crazy? I’m wearing a very high fashion suit by a designer, Wooyoungmi. She’s a French-Korean designer and that’s all I’ll say because it is actually an amazing suit. It’s very, very high fashion. I think people are going to like it.

I can’t wait to see it. Who will be on your arm? Can you tell me that?

My sister, my manager and one of my dear friends in the world.

Are you single? Dating? Taken?

I am single. I’m single. I am open. I’m looking for a husband. Somebody with their own job. Somebody with their own life. And somebody cute. [laughs]

 

Kinky Boots continues at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in New York City. For tickets, visit the website. The Tony Awards air Sunday, June 9th on CBS and are hosted by Neil Patrick Harris.