Dana Delany: “If I Were a Lesbian, You’d Know It”

The “Collective Rage” star talks sexual fluidity, bad gaydar, and pussy power.

Dana Delany is still a total Betty, but she’s nobody’s desperate housewife.

A two-time Emmy winner for playing a Vietnam War Army nurse on China Beach, the 62-year-old actress returns to the stage in the off-Broadway premiere of Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties. Written by Jen Silverman and directed by Mike Donahue, the comedy celebrates the feminist strength of five disparate women named Betty who find each other and themselves.

Before revisiting titillating roles in Desperate Housewives, Exit to Eden, and The L Word, Delany delves into what might be her queerest exploration yet—including that time a gay icon gave her crabs.

Collective Rage/Joan Marcus

The full title of Jen Silverman’s comedy is Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties; in Essence, a Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were in Middle School and You Read About Shackleton and How He Explored the Antarctic? Imagine the Antarctic as a Pussy and It’s Sort of Like That. That’s quite a mouthful.

I know, right? I love that title.

Some people are more comfortable than others with the p-word. Are you reclaiming it?

Yeah, “pussy” is our word and it we need to take it back. It should be celebrated. God, we talk about penises all the time, why shouldn’t we talk about pussies?

Especially in an era when our president wants to grab ’em. What does Collective Rage add to the #MeToo and #TimesUp conversations?

Well, that’s really why we’re doing the play right now. The play was produced a couple years ago in Washington, D.C. Then Trump and #MeToo happened, and it felt like the right time to bring it to New York. It’s about female empowerment, and it’s just a great time for women to stand together in a very celebratory way. Even backstage with this group of women, we’re all so different but so supportive of each other.

It’s refreshing to see a mainstream production of a feminist play by a queer playwright. It’s also rare to see so many queer women represented on stage.

It’s funny, because sometimes we have these talkbacks after the show. Twice so far we’ve had a middle-aged white man say that the play would be really interesting if five men played the roles and talked about their penises. Like, right, because that’s never been done before. That’s only the entire Western canon of theater.

Collective Rage/Joan Marcus

Tell me about Betty 1.

My Betty is the average theatergoer’s way into the play. She’s the Upper East Side, white, rich, unhappy Betty. It’s a recognizable archetype and certainly one that I’ve played before, but she’s not what you think. She’s a woman who was assigned a role early in life, and when she got out of college she felt she had to get married. Personally, I don’t relate to that.

Betty’s rage seems triggered by watching the news. Can you relate to that?

Yeah, I feel like we’re all being held hostage by the news. But underneath all that, it’s really not about the news for Betty. It’s her own rage, her own unhappiness about how she’s been boxed in by marriage and the choices she’s made. It’s up to us to get out of those boxes, and every woman in the play is in the process of that change.

Your Betty takes up boxing to work through her rage. How do you work through yours?

I’m the opposite. I do yoga and meditate. I get really quiet and still. For me, the answer is always inside.

You trained for the show at Women’s World of Boxing with Nola Hanson of Transgender Boxing Collective.

Yeah, up in Harlem. Nola was a great trainer, and it was really fun. The whole experience felt very inclusive and positive.

Betty 1 develops an intimate relationship with Betty 5, a butch lesbian played by out comedian Chaunté Wayans. How did you build that chemistry?

I’d worked with Chaunté’s aunt and uncle—Kim Wayans was in China Beach, and Damon Wayans was in Sweet Surrender, one of the first sitcoms I ever did—so I kind of felt like I knew her already. First day of rehearsal, Chaunté got up and hugged me, and we’ve just had great chemistry from day one.

Kissing a lesbian every night in the heart of New York’s West Village, you’re really cementing your queer street cred, Dana.

[Laughs] I’m very happy about that. And Chaunté’s an excellent kisser.

How do you see Betty 1’s sexuality?

As I’ve learned, you don’t have to define yourself with one word. I guess she’s fluid? I’ve talked about this with gay women, but some women reach a point in life when they’re no longer run by hormones or the need for somebody to support them, so they’re just looking for an emotional connection. My Betty feels better when she’s around Betty 5, and it’s that simple.

Have you ever explored an emotional connection with a woman?

I’ve certainly been open to the possibility. I will say that at this point I would rather hang out with women because I find women infinitely more interesting than men. But what I still find attractive about men is their otherness.

View this post on Instagram

#cubbycuties

A post shared by Cubbyhole bar (@cubbyholebar) on

Although you’ve dated some very handsome guys, you’ve never married. Do people ever assume you’re a lesbian?

Oh, I hear that rumor all the time—that I’m secretly a lesbian. Honestly, if I were a lesbian, you’d know it. It’s not like I’m one to hide things about my life.

You seem like a fiercely independent woman who isn’t defined by men.

It was always very important to me not to be defined by a man. Most women of my generation were defined by men, but it didn’t seem to make them very happy, so I didn’t want to go down that road. I feel like I fell into a good life, maybe by chance, maybe by choice. When all of my friends started getting divorced in their 40s and 50s, I thought, Hey, I never had to go through that!

I saw a recent photo of you hanging out at Cubbyhole, a lesbian bar not far from your theater.

Yes, I went with my castmate Lea DeLaria, lord of the lesbians! She’s a riot, and that woman has stamina like no one else. Deb, the Cubbyhole manager, came to our show the other night, so I think Cubbyhole is going to become our clubhouse.

You may get hit on.

Nah, everybody’s very respectful there.

Exit to Eden/Savoy Pictures

It’s fun to see you explore sexuality in Collective Rage. There was a time after you did Exit to Eden and Live Nude Girls in the ’90s that you shied away from sex-focused material and famously passed on playing Carrie in Sex and the City.

Right. I’m finally at the point where it doesn’t really matter what I do in my career anymore. Thankfully, I’m going to work no matter what, and at this point it’s not about being famous or successful, so it’s about doing whatever I want.

You played a dominatrix in Exit to Eden, which was a notorious flop. Was the film unfairly maligned?

It was less about what we did and more about people’s reactions that reflected a different time in Hollywood. There was a backlash going on in the ’90s. Remember when Madonna did her Sex book? It was around then that people went “Whoa!” and we got conservative again. Our country has always been so weird and puritanical about sex. I’ve always felt more European in that I believe sexuality is human, so we should express it and celebrate it. There’s nothing dirty about it.

Collective Rage may raise some eyebrows, but you’re no stranger to edgy theater. I wish I could’ve seen you in the 1983 off-Broadway premiere of Blood Moon.

That was a great experience. I played a medical student who gets raped by her uncle’s friend, and then she gets revenge by inviting them for dinner and serving them her aborted fetus in the manicotti.

Is that a feminist act?

Well, it’s one way of doing things. Medea would certainly understand. By the way, the prop master from Blood Moon came to see Collective Rage the other day. After the show, he was like, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I made your baby-manicotti!”

Desperate Housewives/ABC

Back to fluidity, let’s talk about Katherine Mayfair, your Desperate Housewives character. After running off with a lesbian, Katherine returned to Wisteria Lane in the series finale. “I decided I just wasn’t into women anymore,” she said, explaining how she broke up with her girlfriend and started a business. How did you feel about that?

I was disappointed she came back from Paris basically saying she wasn’t gay anymore. I thought it sent an odd message. But who knows? Maybe she was lying.

You’ve said that when Desperate Housewives creator and showrunner Marc Cherry asked if you wanted Katherine to be gay or straight, you made it clear you wanted her to be gay. Why didn’t he honor that?

It was Marc’s show, Marc’s ending. He told me Katherine wasn’t going to come back from Paris as gay because he had too many loose ends to tie up and didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole, so he just wanted her to come back as successful. I was like, “Okay.” But hey, that doesn’t mean she didn’t return to Paris and find another woman.

After playing a bisexual senator on an episode of The L Word, did you notice your queer female following become more fervent?

Yeah. I remember a lesbian comedian once said in her stand-up act that she went on a lesbian cruise and they were playing that L Word episode on a loop. Apparently I got a lot of new fans on that boat.

You’ve talked about how Jennifer Beals didn’t want your characters to kiss, so you had a sensual almost-kiss. But whose idea was it for you to suck her finger?

I believe that was in the script.

The Parisian Woman/Henry DiRocco

Before the play came to Broadway with Uma Thurman, you starred as D.C. socialite Chloe in The Parisian Woman at South Coast Rep. Although she has a husband, Chloe has an affair with a woman. Did you see her as fluid or just manipulative?

I definitely saw Chloe as bisexual—that’s how I played it. I felt her relationships were men were about power, but her relationship with the senator’s daughter was actually her true love, and she sacrificed that for more power.

Am I forgetting any of your queer roles?

I recently remembered that I did the Maria Irene Fornés play Fefu and Her Friends when I was at Wesleyan, and that was the first time I’d played a lesbian. So I guess I’ve been at it a long time.

When did you become aware of your LGBTQ audience?

Probably during China Beach. A lot of lesbians who had served in the military would get in touch and talk to me about what the show meant to them. I’ve always been very appreciative of the support from that community.

I remember watching China Beach with my family. You were an actress I thought I had a crush on, but now I realize I just wanted to be you.

[Laughs] I get that. I’ve had those same situations. I’ve had crushes on guys, actually, and then realized I just wanted their life.

China Beach/ABC

If you hadn’t already been aware of your gay following, you would’ve found out from your pal Jeffery Self.

I adore Jeffery. We met through Twitter back when Twitter was fun and became quick friends. We’re both Pisces and we both like staying in bed. He’s just the sweetest guy, and I really love his husband, Augie. They’re a great couple. I went to their wedding, actually.

You’ve become embedded in queer pop culture. Drew Droege’s solo play Bright Colors and Bold Patterns even has a line about how it’s irresponsible not to know the origins of Dana Delany. Did you know about that shout-out?

Yeah, Jeffery actually told me to see the show when Drew was doing it in L.A. I’m sitting there in this tiny theater, Drew says that line, and I turned beet red. Afterward, I asked Drew, “Did you know I was in the audience? Do you change the name of the person every night?” He was like, “No, that’s in the script!” I was like, “Oh, thank you!” Drew and I have since become friends. I’ve probably seen the show four times now.

You also did a memorable Wisk detergent commercial in the ’80s with gay Marlboro Man and Friday the 13th Part 2 hunk Tom McBride. What do you remember about him?

I actually have a funny story about Tom. While we were shooting the commercial, I saw something moving in his sideburn. I pulled him off to the side and said, “I hate to tell you this, but I think you’ve got crabs.” He said, “Oh, I thought I got rid of them!” So I ended up getting crabs from the hairbrush the hairdresser used on both of us. I was dating Treat Williams at the time, so I gave him crabs! Then he broke up with me—not because of the crabs—and I got cast in an off-off-Broadway play with Tom McBride. I told Tom the story and he was so excited that he had given Treat Williams crabs.

Did you know Tom became the subject of the AIDS documentary Life and Death on the A-List?

Yeah, I knew about that. Tom was a darling guy. I heard he’d gotten sick, and then I heard he’d died. I was doing China Beach when his friend was making that documentary, and he wrote me a letter asking if he could use our Wisk commercial in the film. He told me about how iconic Tom was in the gay community because he could pass for straight and was always cast in straight roles.
 

But you knew he was gay?

Not at first. We met on the set of that Wisk commercial. He was really tall and handsome, and I remember thinking, I’d go out with him. We went to lunch and he was telling me about living on the Lower East Side with two gay roommates who shared the other room. I was like, “Oh, does that bother you?” He was like, “No, because I’m gay.” I was so naive! It never even crossed my mind.

Your gaydar hadn’t developed yet?

Well, in my world, growing up in Connecticut, nobody admitted to being gay. I didn’t know one openly gay person—not really until I’d graduated college, moved to New York, and ended up reacquainting with a kid I’d grown up with, Michael, who had gotten sick with AIDS, and I’d had no clue he was gay, either.

Working in New York during the ’80s, you must’ve lost a lot of friends to AIDS.

Oh, yeah, and it was such an ugly period in the way people acted, mostly out of fear. I remember some friends of mine were having a dinner party, and they invited a gay journalist. The woman used plastic forks and plastic plates just because this guy was gay, and I remember thinking, I cannot be friends with these people anymore. It was horrible and humiliating.

David Livingston/Getty Images

As an active supporter of LGBTQ rights, you notably donated your time and money to fight Prop 8. Why was that an important cause for you?

I have so many friends who are gay, so it just felt like the right thing to do. Maybe it’s in my astrological chart or something, but ever since I was a kid, justice has been very important to me, and I’ve always appreciated the underdog.

Now you’ve become politically outspoken on Twitter.

Sure, but because social media and our president have become so ugly, just ranting on Twitter doesn’t work. You have to be productive, you have to donate, campaign, and do things that will actually make a difference.

Tough love, Dana, but your Instagram needs work. What’s the problem?

I know. It’s weird, because I’m a very visual person, but I didn’t really like Instagram. It felt a little too personal and invasive. You know what else really affected me? I knew L’Wren Scott, the fashion designer who was Mick Jagger’s girlfriend. I met her in the ’90s when she was an incredible stylist, and I wore her clothes almost exclusively on Body of Proof. Before she committed suicide in 2014, she had created the most perfect-looking life on Instagram. I used to say to her, “God, I want your life!” That’s the dangerous thing with Instagram—people’s lives aren’t always what they appear to be.

Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties runs through October 7 at MCC’s Lucille Lortel Theatre in New York.

Celebrity interviewer. Foodie and Broadway buff in Manhattan. Hates writing bios.
@brandonvoss