GROUNDBREAKING

Meet ‘Big Boo’: OITNB’s Lea DeLaria on Her Backstory, That Strap-On Scene, and Living Out Loud

A candid, hilarious, and moving conversation with the actress—on everything from being the first out comic on late night to butch visibility, ‘OITNB,’ and strap-ons.

06.19.15 9:15 AM ET

“I’m pretty excited to be the fat butch dyke with the cock strapped on.”

A conversation with Orange Is the New Black star Lea DeLaria becomes very blunt very quickly.

But then again, being bold, cutting through the bullshit, and getting to the point has been the hallmark of the 57-year-old’s career, from her days in San Francisco performing stand-up under the name “The Fucking Dyke” in the early ‘80s to her groundbreaking appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show as the first openly gay comic to perform on late-night (“It’s the 1990s, it’s hip to be queer, and I’m a bi-i-i-i-ig dyke!” was her opening line) and all the way through to her current stint as inmate Carrie “Big Boo” Black on Orange Is the New Black.

In the just-released third season of OITNB, DeLaria’s Big Boo is the star of one of the prison dramedy’s famous “backstory episodes,” which explores Big Boo’s past in a way that eerily mirrors many of the things DeLaria has gone through in her own life. “I felt like Lauren [Morelli, who wrote the episode] had read my diary,” she says.

In the episode, Big Boo attempts to convince an evangelical reverend that she’s a reformed sinner in order to con him for financial support, but the charade stirs up memories of a lifetime of having to change who she really is—a butch lesbian—in order to be accepted by others, especially her own parents.

The story flashes back to being bribed by her father to put on a dress as a young girl, and, decades later, being asked by him again to change into more feminine clothes before her dying mother at the hospital. It all culminates in an emotional monologue, which DeLaria tells me might as well be from her own real-life backstory, as she’s had to live it every day.

“I’ve had to fight for this all my life, dad,” she says. “All my life—strangers, girlfriends, fuck, even my own parents—all asking me to be something I am not. Do you have any idea what that feels like? Like your whole fucking existence is being denied. ‘It’d be better off if you were invisible.’ I refuse to be invisible, daddy. Not for you, not for mom, not for anybody. So...I’m sorry.”

Then there’s the sex, a groundbreaking scene in which DeLaria wears a strap-on and has sex, as she says, “the way butches do it.” She goes on, “I don’t want to gloss over that because it’s a fucking important moment.”

Over the course of our conversation—possibly one of the favorites I’ve had in covering OITNB—we get to the crux of why this is such an important moment: “I really hope that this does for butch visibility what Laverne Cox does for trans visibility.”

We also talk about the career-long fight as a brazen out entertainer, the myriad connections between Big Boo’s story and her personal life, and a decades-long friendship with Modern Family star Jesse Tyler Ferguson—the greatest thing you’ll do in your life is watch the video clip below of them performing together in 1998’s Broadway production of On the Town—and their Instagram game of chicken.

(And for further proof of her diverse talents, she has a new album, House of David, a jazz rexamination of David Bowie's music, coming out next week.)

How did you find out you were getting the much coveted backstory episode, that Big Boo was going to have her Big Showcase?

I found it out at the premiere party for season two. Literally at the premiere party before we started shooting season three I found out I was getting my backstory. I was jumping up and down like a little girl, I was so excited. We were at a big party, it was the premiere, free food and booze. So it was a double celebration for me. I also love this: When other people found out they were getting their backstory that had sex in them they got a warning about it. Not me.

Wait—every other actress got warned about sex scenes in their episodes but you?

And I think the reason for that is one, no fucks given. And I think they know that about me, whereas other actors if they have to be naked they freak out and go to the trainer, you know what I mean? Everybody has this weird body image thing. I don’t have that thing. I’ve never had that thing. That’s not true, when I was younger of course I had that thing. But now I truly do not give a fuck. I made jokes about that for weeks. Really? I’m pretty excited to be the fat butch dyke with the cock strapped on. I’m very excited about that.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

“No fucks given” is one thing. But were you excited to have one?

Kevin, Kevin, Kevin. When I read that script, I went a little crazy. Because everything in that script mirrored my life. Everything. I felt like Lauren had read my diary or something. The only difference is that my parents came around. My parents didn’t make it so hard that I had to go away and never contact them. I think it’s important for people to know that. I think it’s important for people to know that lots of parents don’t come around, but a lot of parents also do. My parents learned. Love conquers all in that case. By the time both my mom and dad died they were completely comfortable with who I am.

Given that your parents came around, what was it like to deliver the monologue as Carrie to her father in the hospital?

That monologue that I delivered is something that I felt my entire life. You know what I mean? Honestly, it was easy for me to deliver that monologue because that’s how I feel. My entire career has been that monologue. It’s Lea DeLaria’s backstory, not Big Boo’s backstory. In Lea DeLaria’s backstory, I live that monologue every day.

Feeling so intensely and personally connected to it must have made delivering that monologue on a platform like a hit Netflix series even more of a “moment” for you.

It’s kind of been an amazing ride since season three has been dropped. I can’t tell you the amount of tweets and direct messages I’ve been getting. I’ve always been getting them, but quadruple it now. It’s a constant stream of butch dykes and trans people saying thank you to me. I really hope that it does for butch visibility what Laverne Cox did for trans visibility.

Having a sex scene as authentic as the one in the episode certainly helps.

It’s important to me. It’s never happened before on television. I think this is the first time you’ve seen that kind of sex on television. We’ve certainly seen dildos before, but not properly used. Not strapped on, not the way butches do it. To me, that was really important because 1) I love a good sex scene [laughs] and 2) because of the butch visibility. This is what we do, and a lot of people don’t know that. So in some respects, it was educational. It was sexy. And it was basically saying, “This is it, guys. It’s the same as everybody else. There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing. We all have sex.” I don’t want to gloss over that because it’s a fucking important moment, I think.

Why now? Like you said, butch visibility hasn’t been the best. Why is now the time that it’s happening?

There are a couple of things. First of all, butch visibility hasn’t been great because a lot of those images are controlled by heterosexuals. Two, the queer community basically puts us down as well. Butch dykes and nelly fags are the pariahs in the queer community. They would rather we didn’t exist. In fact, they’re kinder to the trans community than they are to us. So given those two things, it’s been a rough ride. I’ve been swimming up this stream for a long time, basically trying to put a human face on butch. My entire career has been, “Don’t judge a butch by its cover.” When people see me act, they’re like “really?” They have preconceived notions of what it is to be butch. Those notions are fueled by heterosexual media and queer self-loathing.

And the whole experience has to be even wilder given how much of the storyline mirrored your own experience.

There was stuff in my episode that went way past the gay stuff, too. The trash scene, for example, where I’m talking to Beth Fowler, who plays the nun. She originated the role of Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway and won a Tony for it. So here is Beth Fowler and Lea DeLaria hanging on trash cans—it’s our characters, but it’s us—talking about musical theatre. Then she has me say, “My people are stage managers.” She’s making fun of that stereotype. Because that’s being uttered by a person who can belt a G-sharp and has starred in several Broadway musicals. Honestly, I know when that scene happened and I said that line, somewhere in the world a queen was exploding.

Ha! I’d venture to say you’re right.

Just exploding. These fabulous little inside jokes. And the things she had me doing with the preacher, which was obviously a take on the Westboro Baptist Church. Well at that time, when we were shooting that, I was literally in a Twitter battle with the Westboro Baptist Church.

Really? You were fighting with the Westboro Baptist Church at the time?

It was fucking hilarious. They said something that really pissed me off. They took a past remark I had made about being sick of gay pride, it was a little joke that I had made. And they literally just put it up on Twitter and said, “We agree Lea DeLaria,” or something like that. And it started a Twitter battle between us. But I have so much history with the Westboro Baptist Church. In fact, I got the reverend thrown out of Gay Pride in New York City in 1993. I taunted him so badly that he tried to go through the police and hit me. As a result he was thrown out of the Gay Pride.

That’s awesome. That must be the other nice part of having this showcase. People who are younger or who may not be familiar with your past work and all the milestones you’ve made are Googling you and getting a sense of the whole breadth of your career now because of this.

Yeah, I have a lot of new, very young fans. Like you said, they’re finding these things out. Sometimes I look at my resume and I get really tired (laughs). I’ve been kicking around for over 33 years. It’s just—it’s very gratifying. Let’s just put it this way: when I started crying at the SAG Awards, that’s basically what it was about.

That was such a nice moment!

Aw, thanks. As a butch dyke, that was not one of my favorites. (Laughs) Just crying in public. A lot of people know that Jesse Tyler Ferguson is one of my dearest friends.

He was merciless Instagramming photos of you crying.

He was merciless, taunting me with those photos. And then he put them up again on my birthday like a little bitch. But we taunt each other on Instagram because we love each other so much. I love posting pictures of him when he played my boyfriend in On the Town. He looks like he’s 12. I find the pictures of us together from like 1997 and he looks like he’s 12. I actually have this really hilarious headshot of his from college. I text it to him and keep threatening that I’m going to put it up on social media.

I think we all would greatly appreciate it if you’d post that photo.

He will kill me if I do. But to get back to it, that’s why I cried. Like I said, I’ve been around a long time. I know this industry. What’s going on for me is so unusual. I’m 57-years-old. I’ve been perfectly happy doing stand-up, singing jazz, doing the occasional musical, maybe doing some independent films, filming guest spots. It’s been a lovely life. This sort of thing is not supposed to happen when you reach my age. Especially if you’re butch, if you’re fat, if you’re a chick. All that stuff. If you have the mouth that I have. All of that combination, none of this was supposed to happen, so when it culminated in that moment it was overwhelming for me.

It must be wild to think about how you started and where you are now.

I’ve never been in the closet, Kevin, ever. In fact, when I started performing in San Francisco in 1982, I didn’t even perform under my own name, Lea DeLaria. I called myself “The Fucking Dyke.” They used to introduce me at stand up and go, “Please welcome The Fucking Dyke!” I performed like that for over a year before I started using my name, and even then I was Lea DeLaria, The Fucking Dyke. I have never, ever, ever as an entertainer been in the closet. That was the choice I made from moment one. When I walked out onto the set of The Arsenio Hall Show as the first openly gay comic to perform on television in Mwerica and said, “Hello everybody. It’s hip to be queer and I’m a big dyke,” that was a moment, you know what I mean? It wasn’t, “Hi, I’m a lesbian, look at how nice we are.” It wasn’t that kind of moment. I didn’t just open the closet door. I took a fucking chainsaw to it. That’s where I’ve always been.

It must be wild to think of that 30 years ago and then look at this moment you’re having now, and think about what’s changed and what’s also not changed.

It’s crazy. I want to confess something to you. I watched the Harvey Milk movie with Sean Penn for the first time yesterday. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it before because I knew all those people. I was in San Francisco right after that happened. I knew everybody in that movie. Finally I’m on a plane and the Harvey Milk movie is there. This is how far we’ve come. I’m on American Airlines and they have movies and TV shows on their screen, and for the month of June they have a section called Gay Pride. I’m not kidding. In both television and film! Please print this, because I think this is the most amazing thing.

American Airlines is about to get a big shout-out.

It’s phenomenal. So I watched the Harvey Milk movie because I thought I’m on the plane so I’d be able to get through it without crying. Of course I’m balling my eyes out like a fucking bitch. So when I look at that movie and I think, to me, that’s the difference. That’s the fucking difference. Look at how far we’ve come. I was living in that conundrum. Here I am watching where I started as a performer in an airplane in a section called Gay Pride. Amazing. To get here, it’s taken 30 years. We know there’s a conservative element in this fucking world. We know that they’re fighting back all the time. We know that there’s a rise in gay-bashing as we get our rights, as we get what belongs to us. They are the ones now swimming upstream and they are going to be violent and crazy about it. It’s up to us to stand firm and protect our own. They’re going to try to repeal us. They’re going to fight us. We need to stand toe-to-toe, arm-to-arm as a community to continue this path so we can finish what we started.