If you’ve spent any time on Gay Instagram, you’ve no doubt seen actor Tom Lenk’s WOWie Award-winning recreation of your favorite divas’ red carpet “lewks” made of household flotsam. Divas are very much in Lenk’s wheelhouse. Particularly Tilda Swinton.
“She’s like discovering this cool new band, so when people meet other fans they like to share the love of her,” he says. Lenk channels the ethereal actress in Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist, which has returned to New York following a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer.
In the play, through some spooky supernatural phenomena, Tilda alights on the doorstop of sad sack Walt, answering a rental ad on “the List of Craig.” While Lenk embodies Swinton’s unearthliness, he does it without actually impersonating the Oscar-winning actress, instead channeling a wide-eyed, spookier, Björk-impersonating-Helen-Mirren-doing-a-kind-of-a-Brunhilde thing.
Byron Lane effectively underplays the miserable Walt as an over-the-top Ms. Swinton tries to pull his life together. “What are you doing here?,” Walt asks after Swinton mysteriously appears in his apartment. “On this planet?” Swinton signs and scans her memories. “I’m still waiting for instructions. I think I’m part of a sleeper cell again.” She’s deliriously untethered.
Whose brainchild is this show?
The writer, Byron Lane, who also stars in the show, he came up with it. He has a dog named Tilda Swinton who is blonde and beautiful and has one eyeball. I think he had just sort of been generally obsessed with her for many years. He wrote the play a couple years before he sent it to me. By page three I had emailed him and said, “Yes! Let’s do a reading of this.” I knew the Celebration Theatre had to cancel their mainstage production for the summer, so I was like, “I think there’s a theater where we can do it,” and then we just did it.
The thing that really got me was that there are all these subconscious Mary Poppins references. He wrote they were on Merry Wood Lane, and Mary Poppins took place on Cherry Tree Lane, and I added Tilda’s big bag—I wanted her to bring a coffee machine out of the bag. I love it because having done New York musical theater in which the show is frozen, your responsibility is to maintain the show’s consistency, and what we have is a different style of theater, which is a little different every time we do it, and we improvise and break the fourth wall.
There’s a movement section and we’re have different time restrictions at different venues so sometimes we have to get it in under an hour. The monologuing is a little different. We change a lot of Tilda’s jokes to fit the audience in different states and countries.
Do you know how many times you’ve performed it?
I have no idea. We’ve been doing it for two years. I guess we did it 30 times last summer in Edinburgh. Then we did a bunch in San Francisco… and two weeks here. At least a hundred!
Memorizing a show that length, does it invade your dreams? Does it run through your head?
We’ve done it enough now that after a couple rehearsals, it’s definitely in there. Memorization used to be a big issue for me. But when I finally did Buyer and Cellar at a couple of regional theaters, that’s like an hour and 45 minutes—no intermission—that was terrifying but it completely broke my phobia. Once I realized I could memorize 60 pages, then I can literally do anything [in Tilda Swinton voice].
For some reason it’s the shoes and the hair—which is a wig now—and I’m ready. I had a really bad wig then Trixie Mattel gave me a lace front that I cut myself.
You style you own wig?
I can’t seem to find a wig person. I’m putting the word out. I also make my own costume, I know that’s shocking. I make a new coat of bubble wrap in each city because it’s cheaper to buy the bubble wrap when I get there then to take up space in my luggage. So it has a slightly different shape every time. I wanted something I could move in, do some light movement on stage, some space work, choreography.
Has Tilda seen the show?
She’s had some friends come to see the show—specifically the last version we did in London a couple months ago. Her stylist came, so I’m pretty sure she’s aware. Also I met her niece on the street, I accidentally handed her a flyer for the show when we were in Scotland. And she said, “That’s my auntie,” so I invited her to the show, gave her free tickets, and she enjoyed it. Maybe I shouldn’t say which relative. No! Who cares?
Speaking of Trixie Mattel, she presented you your WOWie. What’s the weirdest award you’ve been presented with?
Hmm. I have a couple here. “Comedic Mastery” from the Pasadena International film festival. I was like, OK?, I’ll come and get it, but like, I don’t know… Comedic Mastery? The other person receiving the award was Doris Roberts from Everybody Loves Raymond. I was like, Yes, obviously she deserves an award! She’s done some shit. I mean done some stuff, but I would really love to do more, the opportunity to get some more work. My favorite moment was when she got up to receive the award and—I think she’s dead now, right?—and she got up and said [in a droning voice], “Thank you for having me. I can’t stay long because we’re outside in the night air, and I’ve been very ill. Very ill. I was recently in the hospital…” I’m like, Oh, God, she just told us she’s ill.
I got a golden potato once from some publication in San Francisco. It’s on my mantle. The weirdest award was when the movie Argo won the SAG Award for best cast, so I was like, Oh, wow, am I technically a SAG Award winner? I was in the movie, mostly on the cutting room floor, but I still was in it. So I wrote an email to the SAG awards. It was in a particularly dark period in which I had recently auditioned to play a plate of nachos. I wrote, “Dear SAG Awards, I’m curious to know if I’m now a SAG Award winner, because if I am, one of lovely trophies would make me feel much better, seeing that I recently auditioned to play an anthropomorphic plate of nachos that eats himself. A cannibalistic plate of nachos in a commercial. Please let me know your thoughts. Love, Tom.” They sent me a message back and said, “Unfortunately we will not be sending you a trophy”—those are for the celebrities—“but we will be sending you certificate, and we hope it looks good on your mantle. And we hope you feel better as you Nacho your way to the top.” I can’t tell if they were torturing me or if they had a lovely sense of humor. I do have a framed certificate on my wall.
Directed by Tom Detrinis (Bright Colors and Bold Patterns), Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist stars Lenk (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rock of Ages on Broadway) as Tilda Swinton and co-stars Byron Lane, Jayne Entwistle (Feud, Desperate Housewives) and Mark Jude Sullivan (Pan Am) in performances through April 28 at The Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York.