Over drinks (obvs), Ab Fab stars Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley dish on their gay darlings, drag doubles and being ahead of the queer curve
By Chris Azzopardi | Photos Fox Searchlight
How to be a free spirit, why a wallet, not a toaster, is better suited to carry cash, the power of a heavy pour – since 1992, fictional besties Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone, played by Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, respectively, have guided legions of outsiders into the light. (And not just after a late-night Stolichnaya vodka binge blackout.)
As the Absolutely Fabulous duo cheerfully imbibe from London, it’s a classic case of life imitating art – everyone wants to get these iconic ladies smashed as they “work” the promo for their long-awaited return to the screen with Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie. Oh yes, sweetie darlings, it’s a real thing now. Thank god; thank vodka.
The film is Edina and Patsy’s first time together since 2012, when the series celebrated its 20-year anniversary. In the first movie adaptation of the BBC series, Saunders, making good on her pledge to write more adventures for the delicious TV-born trainwrecks, stars alongside Lumley and a cast of familiar faces – Julia Sawalha as Saffy, Jane Horrocks as Bubble and June Whitfield as Mother, plus star cameos – as they continue to live their best, booziest lives.
Pour yourself a Stoli-Bolli and read on as Saunders, 58, and Lumley, 70, sip their signature cocktail and dish about their “great crash entrance” into queerdom, being post-gay before it was cool and how the LGBT community catapulted Absolutely Fabulous into a global phenom.
I don’t want to shock you with this news and I hope you’re sitting down, but gay people really like you.
Jennifer: (Both laugh) And we love gay people!
For both of you, what was your introduction to the gay community?
Jennifer: Oh! So long ago I can’t really think. It just seems like college; I had gay friends then. To be honest, I don’t know. It just seems to have always been there.
Joanna: But I think the great crash entrance was when we had Absolutely Fabulous and we were welcomed into New York to a certain extent. That was quite fantastic.
Jennifer: Yeah. And the first time we saw our drag doubles was startling! (Laughs) Because you realize quite how small we are, and short and insignificant, when you’re standing next to your drag doubles. They’re more glamorous than we could even hope to be!
Joanna: And occasionally with a beard!
Jennifer: And often with a beard; yes, you’re right! (Both laugh)
You just made an appearance during London Pride. Because the gay fandom for Ab Fab is so intense, I’m surprised you can go anywhere with a sea of gays and it’s not a mob scene. When gay fans see you in everyday life, what are those encounters like?
Jennifer: Really lovely, I have to say. Because people love the show and love the characters, I always get such a nice response.
Joanna: We get kissing and we get a bit of selfies, and it’s lovely.
Joanna: I think we’re recognized more if we’re together. The response is more extreme.
How did Ab Fab come to be so gay? Did you make the show for gay people?
Jennifer: No, we didn’t. And we’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think (the gay fandom is) because of the friendship and because they’re not in search of love – they’re not constantly looking for a man, they’re quite happy with each other. They live life to the fullest, they live life without brakes and the friendship is all (they need), I think.
Joanna: And I think because they’re glamorous. Edina always longed for (her daughter) Saffy to come out as gay and she’s very proud of having a gay son, Serge. But there were always gay people in the show, Jennifer; you always had them written in.
Jennifer: Yeah, ’cause it’s normal.
When the show ran from 1992-1995 the word “gay” was barely uttered on television. Then you two came along and changed the game.
Was it your intent to introduce queer themes and people into the television zeitgeist?
Jennifer: To be honest, we never analyzed it like that. It just seemed to me, if we were representing lives, especially those in the fashion world and the creative world – it’s full of gay people. And you know, Edina married one – one of her husbands was gay! (Laughs) It’s just part of the fabric of society.
But it wasn’t then, right?
Joanna: Do you think it had a way of making people feel more open toward gays, Chris?
I do think so. I also think it made gay people feel comfortable in their own skin. I know friends who call you their lifeline because they’re gay and grew up in small towns; they had no role models, no one who even acknowledged them or their sexuality. How does it feel to know that you and these characters had an immense influence on people in the LGBT community?
Jennifer: I feel incredibly proud, then. We have a lot to thank the gay community for, because I think the show largely started being popular in the gay community and through that into the wider community. So, it’s been a lovely relationship.
Joanna: We had the most wonderful award given to us in New York from the LGBT community (the 2002 Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Award) and I’m totally proud of mine. It’s a wonderful citation which has made us priestesses of New York forever. It came from them thanking us for exactly what you’re thanking us for and it makes me feel so humbled because Jennifer actually wrote these two characters and the characters are the people who have somehow become attached to us like an outer skin. It’s rather thrilling to be attached to those characters.
How attached are you to those characters?
Jennifer: Only in that it’s very hard to move without having a glass of champagne put into your hands. That makes life really, really nice. (Both laugh)
Are you drinking at this very moment?
Jennifer: We are! Hugely! She’s just poured a vodka into my champagne.
What cocktail do you recommend people order when they watch Ab Fab: The Movie?
Joanna: I think it’s gotta be the Stoli-Bolli cocktail. Stolichnaya vodka slipped into a glass of champagne – it’s almost half and half, actually, the way we drink it. (Both laugh)
Jennifer: It just knocks the bubbles out and puts a little bit more alcohol in.
Joanna: But as they would not add: Please drink responsibly.
Jennifer: It would damage your health. It would severely damage your health. (Both laugh)
Edina is always saying, “All my friends are gay.” How true is that for you in real life?
Jennifer: (Laughs) All my friends are gay!
Joanna, let’s talk about Patsy being transgender. Her gender change was addressed several times during the series. Why was it decided that Patsy should be trans?
Joanna: Yes, in series 2 (episode) “Morocco” we had a flashback to when Patsy had indeed been taking hormones and grown a mustache…
Joanna: And cut her hair off, had something switched on. Sadly, after a year, it dropped off and she stopped the hormones, had a quick shave and went back to being Patsy again. But she goes in and out of it. And I think she was slightly dreading having to do it this time (for the movie), which is why she tried to resist. (Slips into character as Patsy) “No, Eddy, no!” And indeed she managed to fool a very, very old almost-blind woman that she was a man.
Jennifer: She makes a very good man. We are basically like a married couple, Edina and Patsy, in a funny way. (Laughs) And they are sort of genderless.
Joanna: Indeed. In one of the New York episodes we got married by Whoopi Goldberg! (Both laugh)
I’ve always thought of you as gay men in women’s bodies.
Jennifer and Joanna: We are, yeah!
What advice do both of you have for gays who are on a quest to live their best life?
Jennifer: Don’t listen to anybody else. Kate Moss’s great thing: “Never complain, never explain.” That’s a very good way of living.
Joanna: She’s adapted it from the original quotation, which was from the 1930s: “Never apologize, never explain.”
Joanna: Never apologize – I think that’s a good one.
You’ve always had something to say about the PR industry on the show. What other business could use some mocking?
Jennifer: I think politics is just making a mockery of itself at the moment, so that’s not much help.
Joanna: Bankers have sort of been done, with things like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short and so on. All those that have kind of taken on the financial world. What else is there, Jennifer? Plenty?
Jennifer: (Laughs) I don’t know!
Joanna: But you didn’t really set out to make a parody of it – you just had that as the background.
Jennifer: Well, the great thing about PR is you can do anything. It can be any job; you can go anywhere. It’s such a wide, wide field, so it was the perfect job for (Edina) because it meant that during any show you could do anything – you’re not stuck in an office. But I suppose nowadays the thing is, nobody’s stuck in an office anymore. You know, anyone can live online, live at home, work at home, do their own PR via social media. You could honestly do your job from your bed, and that’s fantastic.
When doing Eddy and Patsy in drag what should a queen always keep in mind?
Jennifer: Ohh, well, you know, the funny thing is, when they do Patsy they used to always do kind of trashy dressing. But actually, I noticed yesterday at London Pride they were very well dressed. I think Patsys are becoming better dressed, and that’s quite important for Patsy because you’ve gotta start off looking good, like you’ve got somewhere to go. Always give yourself somewhere to go.
And then by the end of the night?
Jennifer: By the end of the night, you can be hopeless. I mean, literally. Spread eagle.
What about Eddy?
Jennifer: Oh, Eddy… everything’s gotta be too small. Wear shoes that literally hobble you and costumes that strangle you. Remember that Eddy has never woken and not been marked by her clothing; she’s always marked. Elasticated marks everywhere on her body from the clothes.
Where can we expect to see Eddy and Patsy in 20 years?
Jennifer: In a home.
Joanna: Attached to intravenous bottles of Stolichnaya and Bolly. Still smoking like chimneys. Organs removed.
Jennifer: But having a fabulous time.
Joanna: Still having a fabulous time.
Any final words for your gay darlings?
Joanna: We love you, sweetie darlings!
Kit Williamson: Living My Life Honestly
By BeBe Sweetbriar | www.bebesweetbriar.com
Living in New York, Kit Williamson (Mad Men, Eastsiders) has done a fair share of work on and off-off-off Broadway in his development of a thespian of stage, television, and screen. But in that development process, it probably wasn’t in the cards to become a master of internet TV. The bicoastal actor, writer and filmmaker has had his Emmy-nominated Eastsiders (co-star and creator) viewable on Vimeo On Demand, iTunes, Hulu, Amazon and most recently Netflix. Many openly gay actors have found a comfortable home on internet TV on a variety of web series, along with the word webisodes, a term we are becoming very accustomed of using when talking about one our favorite TV shows, like Eastsiders. “I have made a choice to be open (about being gay) my entire career,” says Williamson matter-of-factly. He continues, however, that “TV has come a long way though there are limited opportunities for gay actors.” Appearing in the crowdfunded indie film Retake (a gay drama about two broken souls driving to The Grand Canyon), I caught up with Kit while he was attending the film’s screening in San Francisco’s Frameline 40 Film Festival which was a week after the horrendous massacre of 49 gay, mostly Latin, brothers and sisters in Orlando. So, though we were understandably still a bit shaken by the previous week’s tragedy, Kit and I managed to speak about being gay in Hollywood, the hope that may lay in the hands of internet entertainment for gay actors, and what’s ahead after the Netflix deal.
BeBe: You are an openly gay actor, director and writer with much work we see on web television…shall we say you are the Parker Posey of web TV?
Kit Williamson: That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me. Parker Posey is my idol! I’m obsessed with Parker Posey.
BeBe: We are in the era of web entertainment television versus the traditional network television or the traditional silver screen, actually. There are films made to be viewed only through the web these days. The web definitely provides more access for the audience, an audience, it seems to me, to be more open minded making way for more diverse content. How will the entertainment medium play out for the gay artist?
Kit Williamson: I’m hopeful. I think TV has come a long way though there are limited opportunities for gay actors. People don’t want to talk about it because they can see gay celebrities, but a lot of (gaylebrities) got there while in the closet. I have made a choice to be open (about being gay) my entire career. In part because, I’m not trying to be anybody’s heartthrob and sell sex to a mass audience. I like to play all kind of parts, but we are living in a world that’s not reality. Call me when some of these (gay) celebrities are opening a blockbuster films where they are playing the lead and it’s opening internationally. That hasn’t happened to an openly gay actor. And in part because, I know how important representation is. I remember looking at Danny (Roberts) on the Real World: New Orleans (2000) and for the first time just seeing a normal gay person leading a normal life, and having that be revelatory for me. We are seeing more and more of that on the internet, and it is changing minds and making kids feel better about themselves. I’m not trying to be a role model, but a honest person representing who I am and what my life is about.
BeBe: You seem to have found a place on the internet as a vlogger with your husband John (Halbach), and you have been writing articles for various publications (Indiewire, The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, Huffington Post Queer Voice). What else have you been putting your creative juices?
Kit Williamson: I’m working on a feature film about the healthcare industry. It’s a story about an HIV+ patient who goes off his meds as a way to save money, and tells how people fall through the cracks. It’s called Cornucopia. I’m also very excited to be writing new stuff for Eastsiders and the shows presence on Netflix. Now Eastsiders is internationally accessible and translated 10 different languages with subtitles. In my mind Netflix is synonymous with HBO with the contest that they have, and the choicest make in creating acquisitions like Eastsiders. I feel it’s all for the same audience. If you like Orange Is The New Black hopefully you’ll like Eastsiders. There seems to be an overarching voice to what Netflix puts out there.
BeBe: You spent a lot of your acting career on stage and the theater. With all the internet vlogging, writing new Eastsiders episodes and more to surely come, does that leave any room to work back in the theater?
Kit Williamson: I don’t know! I got my start on Broadway and it was a huge part of my identity and who I was that I wanted to do stage and plays.
I think we can take that as probably a “no”, well at least for now because I will bet my bottom dollar that Kit “Parker Posey” Williamson will have his hands plenty full with internet TV, web series, and webisodes tomorrow, today and many more days to come in the near future.
Kit Williamson co-stars in his created Emmy-nominated web series Eastsiders now available on Netflix.