By Cathy Anderson
As Carrie “Big Boo” Black in the smash Netflix comedy-drama prison series, the actor, comic and musician is brash and outspoken, unapologetically gay and a teensy bit intimidating — just as she is in real life.
And that’s not by accident. DeLaria originally auditioned for a part of a female guard, but OITNB creator Jenji Cohen asked her to read for a larger role as a prisoner.
But that part didn’t quite fit either, and when producers told her manager they’d be back in touch, DeLaria thought, “Yeah, right.”
“I knew I had killed the audition, so when my manager said, ‘They loved you, they are going to write something for you’ I was so done,” DeLaria says. “I have been promised that so many goddamned times that I can’t even tell you. I am still waiting for them to write that part for me on Law & Order and that show has been off the air for five years.
“I said, ‘If they are making a TV show that takes place in a women’s prison and there isn’t a part for me, I f—ing quit’.”
She needn’t have worried. Cohen came through and created Big Boo, a street-smart woman with self-confidence to the eyeballs who’s equally at home firing off razor-sharp barbs to prison guards, attempting to charm the pants off hot new inmates but also adopting a motherly persona to more vulnerable characters.
DeLaria has won two Screen Actors Guild Awards for her role, gathered 1.3 million Instagram followers and helped make OITNB Netflix’s most-watched program, not to mention a swag of Emmy Awards and Golden Globe nominations.
DeLaria says playing Boo allows her to rewrite the stereotypes of lesbians who present themselves in a more masculine way.
“That has always been my mission — to teach people to not judge a butch by its cover, if you know what I mean,” she says.
“I am entirely Boo.”
“Butch dykes are smart and funny and this concept that we are all stupid and truck drivers and don’t give a f—, that’s not us.”
DeLaria turns 60 this year and, like many famous actors, such as Morgan Freeman and Jane Lynch, it could be said she’s hitting her stride later in life.
In terms of opportunities, it’s been a slog. She was the first openly gay comic on US TV in 1993 — before Ellen DeGeneres came out four years later — and it was a lonely place compared with the number of diverse roles now available to her on TV, film and in theatre.
“At that time it wasn’t as easy in my industry — or in any industry — to be out and to be proud,” she says. “I spent a lot of time playing P.E. teachers and police lieutenants and the lesbian who inappropriately hits on straight women at every function — that was my Hollywood niche.”
OITNB has been lauded for its diversity, giving equal airtime to women of colour as well as its leading roles for gay and transgender women. Trans actor Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia Burset, is the first trans person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award and has since starred in films such as Grandma with Lily Tomlin, Freak Show with Bette Midler and TV series Doubt.
Lea DeLaria is bringing her show to Melbourne next month. Picture: Kharen Hill
DeLaria says this change is not just about awards or critical acclaim — it’s literally about people on the street.
While walking in her self-described New York “ghetto neighbourhood” of Bushwick, a group of young Hispanic men started pointing at her. It made her nervous. When they crossed the street and surrounded her, she tried to calm herself, thinking,
‘This is going to be OK’.
“And then they were like, ‘Are you on Orange Is the New Black?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah’,” she says. “And then they were like, ‘OMG, it’s Boo!’ And they wanted to get their picture taken with me and hug me.
“In the old days, if a group of teenage boys were going to cross the street, they were coming to spit in my face and call me ‘dyke’. So yeah, I think this show has done a lot for us and I am really proud of being the one to be able to embody that for them.”
While most people know her as Big Boo, DeLaria has also had a successful career as a jazz musician. Her love of the genre was inspired by her father, also a jazz muso, and she has released five jazz albums through the Warner Classics & Jazz label.
In fitting DeLaria style, she likes to do things her own way, and her sixth album, House Of David: delaria+bowie=jazz is a contemporary jazz interpretation of classic hits by music legend David Bowie.
Crowdfunded and released six months before Bowie’s death in January 2016, the record was fully endorsed by the late singer.
“He was a huge supporter of the album, he encouraged people to crowdfund with me and it was kind of awesome the way he put me up on his website.”
“I love when people ask me, ‘Why David Bowie?’ Why the f— not David Bowie?” she laughs. “The guy spanned five generations — he has been a star since the 1960s.
“And as a young queer performer in the 1970s, growing up in the midwest of the US, David
Bowie was the first person to say to this queer artist, ‘You can be anything that you want to be. Look, I’m a man in a dress’.”
DeLaria’s shows are a uniquely noisy mix of bold stand-up comedy and jazz tunes, and Australian audiences are set to get a taste when she plays at the Melbourne Recital Centre next month.
Her sense of humour is incredibly honest, cheeky and fiercely political, but that’s the way she likes it. And Aussies like it, too.
“My comedy has always been really brash and in-your-face and loud and vulgar and crazy-wild-funny, and that meshes with Australia so well,” she says. “You Aussies love my humour. I love the way Aussies love me. It makes me so happy.”
Audiences will be treated to Modern Love as a gospel song, Let’s Dance as a swing tune, while The Jean Genie is given an acid jazz rock fusion makeover.
“It’s all reinvented and changed and we do that interspersed with a lot of political comedy, because I’ve got a lot to talk about right now,” DeLaria says of the US’s Trumped-up politics.
“I put in music to just give people a break. Because generally people can take it for five minutes and then they are like, ‘Mummy, make it stop. It’s too much’.”