Mink Stole has a devoted cult following that dates back to the 1970s, when she became an outrageously wacky fixture in the trash comedies of John Waters. The actress and singer is currently appearing off-Broadway in a rare production of Tennessee Williams’s affecting tragicomedy The Mutilated, directed by Cosmin Chivu and co-starring downtown performance artist Penny Arcade. Stole plays a wealthy woman who lives a lonely and secretive life in a run-down hotel in New Orleans’s French Quarter.
What is your take on The Mutilated, which opens with the line: “I think the strange, the crazed, the queer, will have their holiday this year”?
Tennessee Williams often dealt with the disenfranchised, with the odd ball, and the person who was trying and failing to connect with other people. And he dealt very well with women in this position. What I think the play is about for my character, Trinket, is the fact that when the play had its very short-lived run in 1966, breast cancer was something that we didn’t talk about. Mastectomies were a shame. Any loss of femininity was considered almost the woman’s fault and it was unseemly to discuss it. Trinket is dealing with this sense of shame of the actual loss of a breast. And for years she has been willing to support Celeste—the Penny Arcade character—just in order to keep her mouth shut and to also have somebody to share the secret with her, because it was a horrible burden to carry. Celeste has the secret to hold over Trinket, but Trinket has her wealth to hold over Celeste. So there’s a conflict between these two women. They are…the term now is “frenemies.” They need each other, depend on each other, and at some basic core level they love each other, but they resent each other at the same time. The fact that this play takes place on Christmas Eve adds a religious context—specifically Catholic, which is suitable for New Orleans. Whether or not the two women can stay friends or not is very open for interpretation, I think. And if we do our job right, we will make the audience wonder.
You mentioned 1966, the year the play premiered on Broadway. That was also the year you made your first movie, Roman Candles, and started your long collaboration with John Waters. How did it all begin?
I’m very lucky. There have been a few times in my life where I have been in the right place at the right time and met the right people. When I was 18 going on 19, in the summer of 1966, it was Provincetown, in Cape Cod. I was visiting my sister. I was at loose ends and I was looking for adventure. And along came John Waters, and it was perfect. We got along instantly. We had a lot of things in common. By that time I had long left Catholicism behind with a great deal of anger and bitterness toward it, and John had similar feelings. And we both came from Baltimore and from similar social backgrounds. He and I and my sister and about three or four other friends, we discovered this amazing place in Provincetown and we moved in together. Then, at the end of the summer, it was back to Baltimore; I moved back with my mum, he moved back in with his parents. Then he calls me up one day and says, “Do you want to be in this movie I’m making?” And I said yes, and that was it.
Does it bother you at all that people only associate you with the movies you made with Waters?
I’m very proud of the work I’ve done with John, so no, it doesn’t. I used to resent it because I felt that it cost me work. If I had known back in 1966 that I was going to be Mink Stole for the rest of my life, I might not have used that name; I might have chosen something that wasn’t so funny. Even now, as recently as two years ago, I heard somebody refer to me as a drag queen. For someone who’s actually been naked on film! It’s been often that, in work that I do in film or on stage, John Waters’s name will come up. And that’s not his fault, but every now and then I go, “John had nothing to do with this!” I think it’s unfair to producers and directors that I work with, and that annoys me. But I’m used to it, and, like I said, I’m proud of the work, especially in recent years, because I’ve been told by so many people what an impact this work has had on their lives. I mean, kids come to me and say, “If it weren’t for you, I don’t know where I would be.” I don’t mean me, specifically, but the films and the work that we all did together. We didn’t do it for that, but the fact that we have had that incredible impact is very touching and humbling and moving.
You also pursued a theater career in New York. Didn’t you work with Charles Ludlum?
That was in the early ’80s. I did two plays with Charles: Love’s Tangled Web and Secret Lives of the Sexists, which ran for months and months. And I also worked with John Vaccaro a couple of times back in the very late ’70s. By the time I knew them, they were already working separately: Vaccaro was the Playhouse of the Ridiculous and Ludlum was the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. I’ve always liked doing theater. The one thing that’s truly wonderful about theater is that you get to go in-depth into a script. With movies, sometimes you don’t even get a rehearsal. The more subtle nuances that only come from repetition, in my experience, I haven’t been able to achieve in the movies. The thing about theater that’s wonderful, and which is also terrible, is that it’s ephemeral. You see the performance that you see and then it’s gone. If John Waters had been directing plays, none of this would be happening. I mean, it’s just the fact that you can buy a copy of Pink Flamingos from Amazon, 40 years later, that has made it the phenomenon that it is.
Two years ago you did a strange and little-known play also by Tennessee Williams, Now the Cats with Jeweled Claws, at LaMama. How do you respond when some people dismiss that play and even The Mutilated as lesser work by a great playwright?
They’re different, and comparisons to plays like A Streetcar Named Desire are annoying. You may not like it as much, it’s not as linear, but to dismiss it as not as good, well, I don’t like dismissiveness to begin with. To try to keep any writer in a slot, I think, is unfair to the writer. In this particular play, Tennessee Williams wrote a really compelling story with a great deal of compassion. He does have a feeling for women’s fears and insecurities and, I think, an understanding of the general powerlessness of women in the world. What’s interesting is that in this play it’s two women who’re dependent on each other. The thing that’s so exciting for me is this is a really chewy part. I feel like I’ve played so much of my really good stuff was when I was in my 20s and 30s, so it’s exciting for me to have something this good to play with now as I get older.
Has working on this play whet your appetite for the theater?
Oh, I do like to perform live and I love an audience. There are two different things that I do now: I act in plays as a character and I front a band on stage, and that’s challenging in a zillion other ways. Being a character and being myself on stage, there’s no way to compare it.
How long have you been singing with a band?
I started singing about 12 years ago in Los Angeles. My friend Brian Grillo, who’s a musician, saw me in a production of The Winter’s Tale when I was working with the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company; I played Autolycus, the singing peddler. Brian was putting together one of those once-a-month beer bust Sunday-afternoon clubs at this leather bar in Silver Lake and he asked me if could sing a song that he had written. I said yes, and I had the best time. He introduced me to musicians, put a band together and started getting me gigs, and I fell in love with it. Eventually I put together my own band when I moved back to Baltimore. I call them My Wonderful Band. I had some money so I thought I would put together an album. I thought it would take about three to six weeks; it took almost three years and so much more money than I ever thought it would. So I did a Kickstarter to raise money and there were lots of delays. We just released the album, Do Re MiNK, at the end of May.
Is it true that you’re going to be in a new movie spoof of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte?
I’m booked to do Hush Up Sweet Charlotte and I’m very excited about it. This is a drag version by a man named William Clift, who did the drag remake Baby Jane? a couple of years ago. I’m going to do the Agnes Moorehead part. Varla Jean Merman and Matthew Martin are going to be in it. It’s been in the works for years and I’m very much hoping that it happens. I don’t do a lot of film work anymore; I’ve stopped doing the really low-budget stuff because it’s too hard. I have paid my dues in that department.
Do you miss those carefree days, being part of the Dreamlanders, when you started out with Waters?
I miss them on some level. But those working conditions were just awful. In Pink Flamingoes, for example, when we’re out at the site of the trailer, there was no heat, no food, and we were a quarter of a mile away on a muddy road from the closest bathroom. We were young and we could do that kind of thing and we loved it. It was “Yeah! Look we are doing movies!” Now that would be really hard on me. But I appreciate that enthusiasm in young people—so I say, go, do it, and have a great time, but without me!