One-on-one interview with Priscilla: Queen of the Desert stage actor Scott Willis

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By Adam Brinklow

With the US touring production of “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” (the Tony-winning stage adaptation of the classic drag road trip film) stopping in San Francisco, we sat down to talk with leading man and/or leading lady Scott Willis about playing Bernadette on stage.

What Willis didn’t know is that the questions we were asking were ones that had all previously been fielded by Tony Sheldon, the actor who first played Bernadette in the show’s world premiere in Australia and went on to do the role on three continents, and by Terence Stamp, the British actor who played Bernadette in the original film in 1994. So how does this all-American Bernadette’s take on the role stack up next to the Aussie’s and the Englishman’s?

429Magazine: How did you feel about the part when you were first cast?

Scott Willis: Wonderful. I was always a fat kid who got the fat kid, comic relief character parts; once I lost 90 pounds I became a leading man. So now I love playing parts where people can’t recognize you. I had never done drag before, but I’ve played Santa Clause at Radio City, and that’s just a different sort of wigs and padding. I’ve encountered so much warmth doing this.

Terence Stamp: I don’t think I have ever have been so frightened as when I was playing Bernadette. I kept hoping it would go away. I was in this bar with a broken heel, in tights and a wig, a middle-aged man dancing and lip-synching “Shake Your Groove Thing.” Playing a woman is not for wimps. (Slant magazine interview, June 2013.)

429Magazine: Was there anyone you modeled your performance on?

Tony Sheldon: Lauren Bacall, Celeste Holm, Greer Garson, Kathleen Turner, even Cate Blanchett. I think Bernadette would have gone to see all those movies and patented herself on those women. There’s a bit of everyone in there. (Broadway.com interview, March 2011.)

Willis: I have a beautiful mom who is very gracious and loving. Bernadette is true to herself, and she’s very strong and feminine, and she’s the mother hen and when the going gets tough she steps in to protect the chicks, and my Mom’s that way.

Also, my very first tour, “42nd Street,” opened in San Francisco, and Elizabeth Allen was our leading lady. She would have made a great Bernadette, if she’d been a man. She was that classic beauty of the 40s and 50s, with the hourglass figure, and Bernadette is very much someone from another time.

429Magazine: Does the wardrobe cause any problems for you?

Sheldon: The shoes are almost impossible to walk in, let alone dance in. And of course, I’m in a corset all night, and the huge headdresses. I’m constantly trying not to fall over, and at the same time look comfortable and elegant. (Broadway.com)

Willis: The drag isn’t a problem, it’s just clothes. The heels are no problem. I’m a dancer, so I have no issues with falling over. It’s like skiing, you know: I’m not a good skier, but I can feel exactly what my body needs to do to not fall. I’m just focusing on portraying Bernadette in the most feminine way a man can.

429Magazine: What do you think of the movie? What’s the secret of its appeal?

Willis: It’s universal. It’s just about friendships. Neither the movie nor the stage show were written to raise consciousness in anyway, we just set out on this adventure and we have a lot of fun, and some unfortunate things happen, and we bond and let our barriers and prejudices down. It’s a party.

Stamp: The fact is, because it was so silly people overlook the fact that it was a masterpiece. It was a perfect film, but in a way that’s not obvious. I’ve never met anybody who didn’t enjoy it, so to me it’s one of the great classics, and I’m so happy that I’ve had the confidence to address my own fears about a full-body wax and high heels. (BBC interview, February 2013.)

429Magazine: How does the show compare to the movie?

Willis: The movie is a little grittier, but this is written by the same people, so it’s a really true adaptation. The stage show is a little more optimistic, but it’s very true to the movie, and it’s really just a change of medium.

Sheldon: We’ve—what’s the word?—not sanitized, but softened it. The film is an abrasive movie. We’ve felt from the beginning that we wanted to hit a wider audience and didn’t want to offend anyone, so we’ve softened the edges. It’s not a Broadway musical—it’s an Australian version of a Broadway musical. (Broadway.com)

429Magazine: So what’s the craziest road trip you’ve ever taken?

Sheldon: Nothing that crazy. I’ve done the Melbourne to Brisbane trip, but that’s along the coast so you’re always in sight of beautiful scenery and spectacular beaches. Inland [Australian] trips are not recommended because you can die if your car breaks down. You’re literally in the middle of nowhere. (Broadway.com)

Willis: I went to Ayers Rock, thousands of miles out in the most desolate part of Australia. It’s the exact trip from the show. That’s one of the highlights of my life, and to do a musical about the same trip is a really incredible.

“Priscilla” plays in San Francisco through August 31, then moves on to Denver Sept. 3-15. Willis and company will do eight more cities before finishing out in Seattle in November.

Tour site: http://www.priscillaontour.com/

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