Interview with John Waters

When it came to finding a big name to play the Groom Reaper on the Court TV series ’Til Death Do Us Part, it’s easy to imagine the cable channel’s execs deciding that if they couldn’t get John Waters, then maybe they didn’t have a show. ’Til Death, you see, is a show about married people who kill each other — with stories pulled from real-life cases. Who else but Waters could make the morbid scenario seem like a party?

"It’s a good question," Waters said over tea in his suite at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. "Who else could they get? I don’t know. I’m starting to take it personally because I was recently cast as the undertaker on My Name Is Earl, too. Am I looking like Lon Chaney? I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t get Botox or a face-lift." Yes, it is a good thing, because this show sounds like fun. What exactly do you do as the Groom Reaper?
John Waters: Every week, the show opens with a wedding or reception, and the Groom Reaper is there. He’s a time traveler who knows they’re going to murder each other, and I confide in the audience my feelings about it.

AE: And what are your feelings?
JW: I’m basically a snob. I look down on people that are getting married. I know gay people want to get married. Why? The whole wedding experience is such a terrible, corny, hetero tradition. First of all, they all have hangovers at the wedding because they got drunk at the rehearsal dinner. The parents don’t get along. They’re mad because all the girls had to spend money on a dress they would never wear again. The boys went out and got blown by hookers the night before, and the girls went to the male strip clubs and vomited.

So they get married, and the dresses are hideous. And you can’t have fun with your friends in front of your parents. And there’s liquor involved, so you’re dead drunk when you leave. So the wedding night, you’re going to have a tough time performance-wise. You’re puking, and you can’t get it up. Then you have to go to some foreign country where you can be robbed. The whole thing is a very, very terrible situation.

AE: Do you feature any gay weddings on the show?
JW: Not yet. If it was a gay wedding, it would have to take place in Massachusetts as it’s the only legal place. Plus, we don’t do famous couples, and the first gay couple — where one spouse kills the other — will be famous, so we have to wait till the eighth or ninth one when people don’t care anymore.

AE: That’s when we’ll know we’ve arrived. Are you a fan of true crime in general? Did you follow the O.J. trial religiously?
JW: I watched, but I wasn’t obsessed. The Johnny Walker Lynd trial was more for me.

AE: What trial would you have liked to have been a juror on?
JW: I’d never want to be a juror. I’m too much of a wimp. I can’t be responsible for somebody being thrown in jail. I’m not saying people shouldn’t go to jail, but I can’t be the one to send them there. I’ll pay taxes, but I can’t do that job. I don’t think I’d be fair to have on a jury. You’d see 11 angry men … and me.

AE: Do you have much say in the writing of the show or do you just show up and say your lines?
JW: I show up, basically. If I have problems with a line, I think I could discuss it with them, but I like the lines. A lot of people have said, "Did you write that?" which I think is a compliment because it means the lines sound like something I would say. I show up, get in the outfit, and wait in a trailer all day. I have new respect for actors that have to do that. But I had fun.

AE: Star Jones is back on Court TV.
JW: We haven’t met.

AE: Maybe you can hang out at the Christmas party or the company picnic.
JW: Maybe. Nancy Grace is the one I’m afraid of. We won’t agree. I believe in rehabilitation of criminals, and she doesn’t a lot. Does she think anyone should get out? If you get a parking ticket, you should get the death penalty? I always joke that Court TV has Star Jones, Nancy Grace and me — that should be enough to scare any criminal straight.

AE: I went to Provincetown for the first time this year. I got out of the taxi on the first day and almost walked right into you on your bike. So I just want to apologize for that.
JW: At Provincetown, you see everyone in one minute. I love it there. I’m going back this summer. I’ve written half my movies there. It’s a great place to write. And there are a few murders there, a few.

AE: If people they watch this show, will they want to kill their spouse just to get on it?
JW: No, because they all get caught on our show. But you get 15 to life, which isn’t so bad. Fifteen years for killing your wife. That’s almost worth it … if you had to pay alimony for the rest of your life. It depends, really.

AE: Your movie Hairspray spawned a Broadway musical which is now being turned into another movie. Is that surreal?
JW: It’s like becoming a grandfather.

AE: Are you involved at all in the new film?
JW: Peripherally. The director came to Baltimore, and we met. I read the script. I think I helped talk John Travolta into it a little bit. I think it’s going be good.

AE: Divine, Harvey Fierstein and now John Travolta have all played the role of Edna Turnblad. If the three of them were in a room together, would they get along?
JW: They would get along, but not if they were all competing for the same part. For Divine, Hairspray was the best thing in his career because before [that role] he was thought of as this character that was totally fictitious — this Divine character that we thought of.

Hairspray was so against type, and he got the best reviews of his life. Unfortunately, he died a week later. And Harvey Fierstein … Broadway was his world, and he totally made it his own. And with John Travolta it’s a new version, which it should be. Imagine John Travolta playing a fat woman that can’t dance and suddenly gets up and can. That sounds crowd-pleasing to me. It’s a different kind of wild hog. Isn’t that the name of that movie [that Travolta is in right now]? Edna is a wild hog of her own.

AE: Did you visit the set?
JW: I did. I play the flasher in it the first 30 seconds of the movie. It was strange to see a 70 million-dollar re-creation of Baltimore in Canada .

AE: What do you think it is about this story that resonates through the different generations and the different incarnations?
JW: Ask any person that’s really fat, and they’ll tell you when they walk down the street [that] no one will look at you. Every person averts their eyes. I don’t think people feel as uptight about being fat as they did when I was growing up, but still, a fat girl never gets the guy in a movie. And she does in this movie, so she stands for every kind of outsider there is, beyond race, beyond gender.

AE: Have you seen those features like on Entertainment Tonight, where they take a hot chick like Vanessa Minnillo and put her in a fat suit and send her out into society to experience life as a fat woman?
JW: Oh, sure. They’re so offensive. I think Eddie Murphy lost the Oscar because of that movie he did, Norbit. That billboard was all over L.A. when every woman was voting for the Oscars. I didn’t see the movie. Maybe it’s funny.

AE: Is it true that your movie Cry-Baby is also heading to Broadway?
JW: It is. We’re doing a casting session this week. It’s quite far along. I’m going to a workshop this summer in New York , then it will play in the fall out of town somewhere, and then hopefully, if we can get the right theater, open on Broadway at the first of the year.

AE: What’s it like for you to go in and watch people singing and dancing to your stories? Have you always had an affinity for musicals or is it a bit foreign?
JW: I hated most Broadway musicals, like those horrible over-produced power ballads.

When I was young I liked Gypsy, but then I didn’t like anything for a long time. But the people that I’m involved with — they get it, and they want to keep my sensibility. But also, you have to turn it into a Broadway show. You gotta sing it out which you gotta hear in the last row, and that’s kind of amazing to me. I’ve learned so much about something I knew almost nothing about: Broadway.

AE: Have they found their Johnny Depp yet?
JW: They’re not gonna find Johnny Depp, but let’s just say we have a lot of people in mind. It is not decided yet.

AE: With Cry-Baby, you were one of the first people to put Johnny Depp in a movie … and look at him now.
JW: At the time, he was a big teenage idol on 21 Jump Street, and he hated being that. So it was like, "Come make some movies." Traci Lords did it. Patricia Hearst did it. You make fun of what you can’t change, and then they can’t use it against you. And now Johnny [Depp] has the finest career of any actor. He’s a great guy. He’s funny. He still signs letters to me "Cry Rimmer."

AE: What does that mean?
JW: He didn’t know what "rimmer" meant when we were making the movie. So his code name was always Cry Rimmer.

AE: If I got a letter from Johnny Depp and it was signed "Cry Rimmer," that would make my whole week.
JW: And he calls me "Mr. Walters," too, because people always say my name wrong. I collect limo signs that say "Walters" at the airport. Maybe I’ll do an art project with them about low self-esteem.

AE: I’m waiting for Pink Flamingos: The Musical. I want the 11 o’clock number to be giant turds on Segways.
JW: I think it’s an opera. I was going do a sequel where Divine s—s, and then basically I think I’ve had enough of that. Pink Flamingos is on Sundance Channel playing on regular television now, uncut. How could that be? It’s amazing to me. That’s the weird thing, that Pink Flamingos can be on television, and I have trouble with my last movie, A Dirty Shame, getting an NC-17 rating when I don’t even show anything. It’s easier to get things on television than it is in the movies now.

AE: Who’s been your most surprising fan?
JW: I got a letter from a major who’s in Iraq right now. He told me his whole squad or troop or whatever they call it are big fans, and they watch all my stuff. I felt like Joey Heatherton, you know, so I sent them big gift baskets with of all my movies, and they wrote back and said they were bombing while watching Female Trouble. It was very touching that they were sitting there in Iraq watching Divine.

AE: Speaking of fans, what is something that people might be surprised to know that you’re a fan of?
JW: That I like demolition derbies? That’s hardly surprising.

AE: I read in your bio that you subscribed to Variety at 12. Is that true?
JW: I don’t know that I subscribed to it, but I started reading it at 12 because there was one copy that was delivered to the department store near where I lived. I was always influenced by it and always got a bad review in Variety. I learned the business from reading Variety. If you’re going to make any kind of movie, you’ve got to also learn how it works.

AE: What’s the nuttiest thing a fan has ever given you?
JW: A fan recently sent me a statue he made of Divine smashing a Christmas tree with blinking Christmas tree lights. It’s in my house.

AE: Here’s some random things in the culture I want to get your take on, starting with Borat.
JW: I liked it, thought it was funny … and you wrote your own self in that movie, if you were a hero or a villain. It was mean-spirited, unlike Jackass Number Two, which was the most like Pink Flamingos of any movie, I thought. Those Jackass movies work on several levels. They’re so subversive. It’s amazing that a movie made for straight teenage boys is mostly about men nude putting things up their ass.

AE: OK … eBay.
JW: I police it every day to stop the pirated things of mine on it, movies that I still own the rights to. If I don’t stop it, then it becomes legal.

AE: Celebrity mug shots.
JW: You have to give it to Mel Gibson that he can look good in his mug shot. James Brown was probably the most mortifying.

AE: Not Nick Nolte?
JW: Nick Nolte looks like that anyway. I’ve met him. I bet he likes how he looked in his mug shot.

AE: Ann Coulter.
JW: Which one is she?

AE: She’s the blond, right-wing pundit who made the joke referring to John Edwards as a faggot.
JW: Oh, she can call him a faggot, but he ain’t a bottom.

AE: Mary Cheney.
JW: Not one person bought that book. I bet she sold zero copies. Even her parents wouldn’t buy it. Talk about remainders.

AE: TiVo. Do you have it?
JW: No, I just have porno. But all the shaved muscle Marys these days — that doesn’t work for me. I like amateur straight porn best. Bobby Garcia, he’s my favorite. He does the marines. He goes from city to city being chased out. It’s always amazing to me when he says, "Nobody’s gonna see these." Well there’s a video camera there!

AE: Have you ever judged or hosted a porn awards show?
JW: I did one year, and they sent me crates of it. The nominees took it so seriously and people sobbed. For Best Specialty Film, the winning movie was called Piss, and the winner came out in a wheelchair, very ill from AIDS. He was crying, and he thanked his family — for a movie called Piss — with no irony, really serious.

And I’m always ending up sort of embarrassed that that film is in my porn collection, but I can’t throw it out because I remember him weeping.

AE: Here’s a final question for the Groom Reaper: Have you ever been in a wedding, like as best man or anything?
JW: Oh yeah, I’ve performed 13 weddings. I’m an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church. I’ve had one divorce and none of them have killed themselves, so I’m happy.