Friday, July 13, 2007

MIDNIGHT MASS 10TH ANNIVERSARY WEEKEND—The Evening Class Interview With Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ), Pt. 1

Are you superstitious? No? Pity. Because—if you were superstitious—you would know that showing up at The Bridge Theater at midnight tonight on Friday the 13th will be nothing but fun luck. On the other hand, if you haven't already purchased your tickets, you're probably out of luck, you Silly Rabbit. Peaches Christ is launching her 10th annual Midnight Mass, with Mink Stole and Tura Satana tonight and an onstage appearance by John Waters tomorrow night. On the eve of such a celebratory occasion, I thought it would be a good time to interview Joshua Grannell (the alter ego of Peaches Christ), though I had expressed concerns that it would be like being an audience member at a televised tennis match.

I did not get a crick in my neck, however. Joshua was level-headed and polite, stared me straight in the eye and did not even shift his head from side to side. Every now and then, though, his infamous eyebrow would lift to the rafters. He informed me that Peaches Christ is an underground drag phenomenon, emcee, filmmaker, and actor. Ms. Christ currently resides in San Francisco where her Backlash Production Company and Midnight Mass movie series are based. Her Midnight Mass road-show and Short Film Retrospective have been on tour and appeared in Seattle, Berkeley, New York City, Brussels, Belgium, and Lausanne, Switzerland. Midnight Mass is San Francisco's hugely popular midnight movie event. It began in the chilly summer of 1998. The elaborate pre-show stage productions, guest stars, and drag spectacles continue to draw sell-out crowds.

Peaches also stars in a number of short films written and directed by Grannell. Three of these, which make up the "Tran-ilogy of Terror," reverently tip their hats to horror classics and include the titles "Season of the Troll," "A Nightmare On Castro Street," and "Whatever Happened to Peaches Christ?" All have become international hits at film festivals and on cable television. Grannell's fourth short film, "Grindhouse," is a gore comedy currently being developed into a feature-length film to be shot in the Bay Area.

Joshua and I met for Pellegrino waters at Café Duboce on a slightly windy day. I knew the meeting was going to be fortuitous because on the way to the café I found a glittery lavender pencil; an omen if ever I've seen one. I wore a red Girbaud denim jacket to be identified and Joshua did his best to avoid appearing ordinary and mundane.

* * *

Michael Guillén: In reading Eve's SFist interview with you, I was amused by her admitting she was intimidated to meet you. I was a bit the same at first … until this week. I don't know what happened. Something snapped. I figured if I could talk to Mink Stole and her alter ego Nancy Stoll and RuPaul and her alter ego R. Charles, I could talk to any split personality!

Joshua Grannell: That's so funny. I get that a lot. Not so much in interviews but people who come up at a show or whatever. I've been asking people, "Why is that?" What really spelled it out for me was I did a Vegas in Space reunion last Fall in honor of their 15-year anniversary and one of the queens in the movie came up to me and she was like, "I've always wanted to talk to you but I've always been super afraid to talk to you" and I was like, "Why?!" and she was like, "Because your pictures and your name and everything is so scary!" Like with the licking of the knife.

Guillén: That is a little offputting.

Grannell: Right.

Guillén: But then it was actually Mink Stole who said, "Oh, but you know what? He's the sweetest man in the world."

Grannell: Oh good. Okay.

Guillén: I was willing to approach you on the level of your humor alone; I think you are so funny. Have you had theater training? You have your comic timing down pat.

Grannell: Thank you. I grew up in Maryland and there was nothing to do so I was the kid in the drama club, just sort of doing theater stuff, like I was that kid who put on plays in the neighborhood and did haunted houses. We actually borrowed land in the neighborhood. I had to write and get permission and created this haunted trail through the woods. I was always directing the other kids in how to perform and I wrote scripts. My parents were so supportive but when I look back on that it's so weird that I was such a weirdo horror theater queen at such a young age.

Then in high school there was this great opportunity to become part of this thing called Peer Scene Theater where these professionally trained improvisational theater people were going to train a bunch of kids on improv theater. We had nothing like that in Anapolis, Maryland. Even in Baltimore and D.C. arts for kids and high school students, well, there wasn't a whole lot. I was lucky enough to audition and get cast in this little festival troupe and so in high school I had a lot of rigorous improv theater training. That's what really carried through and is a big part of Peaches.

Guillén: That's such a young age to get started. You basically began Peaches in your 20's, right?

Grannell: Yes, it was my senior year in college. I was 21 when I first did it.

Guillén: That's amazing when you think about it; that you had the courage to create and develop this drag persona at 21! Let's talk about your design campaign for the 10-year anniversary. It's fabulous.

Grannell: Thank you.

Guillén: Who did the design?

Grannell: That's one of those things that—whenever someone tells me how much they like it—I have to stop and say, "This is the story. The 10-year anniversary is the best example of how [Peaches Christ and Midnight Mass is] a collaborative effort; it is not a one-queen show. It never has been. What we did this year was a little different than in previous years, dependent upon timing and stuff because we knew it was the 10-year anniversary. I was actually able to sit down with my costume designer Tria, who's been my costume designer for 10 years; Chris Hatfield, who's been my designer for 10 years; and my stage manager and a big group of people and say, "Okay, what are we going to do? What is the campaign going to be? We met with Leo Herrera, the photographer, who is new to the city but we knew we wanted to work with him. He's a brilliant young photographer who has taken the city by storm. He's in his 20's. He and his brother are churning out such amazing work. They actually have a big new section on their website called "Peaches Christ As Muse", which I just clicked through. It shows how they moved here and became inspired by Peaches and started doing all this stuff. It's going to be really cool. I think it's going to go public next week. I'll send out a newsletter about it.

So we sat down and talked with everyone and all I said was, "It has to be cult and it has to be celebratory of 10 years. It has to be a cut above." They came up with the 50-foot Peaches idea and nailed it!

Guillén: And not only that, the burning city! It's not only that Peaches is 50-feet tall; the city's on fire!

Grannell: It's like she's taken the city by storm this year. I always feel like—when it's not my idea—that they thought of it, Tria came up with the costume—the shredded dress and the gold—she's the one who said Peaches needs to be gold and blonde; the look should be golden. Chris, my graphic designer, when he started he was a comic book artist who worked at the Bridge and in 10 years he's [become] a major graphic designer for Landmark Theaters. The Peaches website got him noticed by Barbra Streisand's people. They hired him this past winter to revamp her merchandise section. So it's just funny in 10 years … when we started … I still have the original flyers where he had cut-and-pasted everything himself. They weren't even done on the computer. All of his first flyers from the first year were like old punk rock comic book style.

Guillén: You're holding on to those, I hope.

Grannell: I have the boards. Something that the media doesn't really know yet but we're sending out a press release in the next week or so is that Friday, September 7, the deYoung Museum is throwing a big party called "A Decade of Peaches Christ" and a lot of that stuff will be on display. It's their attempt to have high society meet the artistic underground. They've been doing it more and more and with the Vivienne Westwood exhibit they really saw that—wow—we should be celebrating these movements that are right here in our own back yards. So they called me and, of course, I'm flattered and think it's hilarious and wonderful and exciting.

Guillén: It is! And I respect that you recognize the spirit of collaboration because I absolutely understand that. Everything creative that has ever happened to me in my life has been a collaborative process. My alter ego is Maya who's this gonzo celebrity journalist. I loved how you referred to my Evening Class sidebar of interviews as "a collection." Because that's how I feel. It's like, "Who do I want to talk to today?"

Grannell: Right!

Guillén: And the persona of Maya—any persona really—allows you so much freedom. Are you much different than Peaches?

Grannell: Yes!

Guillén: You're more shy, I take it?

Grannell: Yes. I mean, I'm more … well, I'm a bit of an introvert actually. There are so many great variations on drag as a costume. I would say that someone like Heklina—who's a great girlfriend of mine—is very similar whether she is in drag or out of drag. The humor is the same. She's just the same in or out of drag. For me it's a little different. When I'm doing Peaches, I think of it more as a character. Peaches lies all the time. I'm never really very honest when I'm Peaches. When someone asks me a personal question, I keep the two a little bit separate.

Guillén: Surprisingly—or perhaps not so surprisingly—when I was dealing with RuPaul, I didn't much care for her. She was a little too much of a diva for my tastes. And it wasn't until I ran into R. Charles at the Frameline closing night party that I actually felt any connection and considered that maybe we could conduct an interview afterall. The persona can be a purposeful interference.

Grannell: Interesting. People ask me to do a certain kind of interview and I have the same kind of issue as Cassandra Peterson; I know exactly what she's talking about. She said to me—and this is how I feel—if you interview Cassandra, you can get all the real take on it and the behind-the-scenes dirt and the real story—but if you interview Elvira, you're going to get a lot of one-line jokes about boobs and Valley Girl talk. I kind of think—maybe not to an extreme degree—but I relate more to that as Peaches and Joshua than I do, y'know, sort of like it being the same thing whether I'm in or out of drag. It is different.

Guillén: I know you've been asked this probably a million times but: where did Peaches come from? Who inspired this campaign?

Grannell: Well, it's obviously evolved a lot in 10 years. As far as my first time doing drag, I did it for a movie, I did it for my senior thesis film at Penn State. That was really the first time I was in drag.

Guillén: Jizzmopper?

Grannell: Exactly, Jizzmopper. The story goes that I did it to save the movie because the drag queen we hired was late and costing us money. We were shooting on 16mm film. It was a senior thesis film. There were deadlines, real concerns, and the administration—I don't think they ever really liked the movie. Most of the kids at my film school at Penn State were white heterosexual males. I was the only gay film student, which is insane when you think about that. We were the motley crew. The black girl worked on my sound design. The Christian freak that no one could understand was my cinematographer and we became close friends. The administration always dissolved one project and it looked like it was going to be ours because of this drag queen actor that wouldn't show up. So I stepped in and started playing the role to keep the movie going. I literally on set one day took those costumes, put them on me, changed the name from Coco to Peaches—the actor was Puerto Rican—and stepped in and played the part. My boyfriend always laughs, he says, "You tell that story and the truth is you were probably jonesing to do it." It's probably true. I don't think they had to twist my arm so much to do it.

Guillén: You had the name Peaches Christ in mind?

Grannell: No. The name was Peaches Nevada because Martiny—who's my sidekick who I met when I was 18, who makes me look fabulous and never gets as much credit for being a lot of the brains behind what we do; I'm sort of more the visionary and Martiny fills in a lot of the brilliant gaps—she actually said, "What about Peaches Christ?" because at the time it was really trendy for drag queens to—drag hadn't quite exploded, it kind of exploded right after that, it was exploding—but it was real popular for people to twist celebrity names, like here we have Syphilis Diller, Mildred Fierce, or whatever, [names] that were based on some other character, and I loved the idea of Peaches Christ; but, really, Martiny suggested it. The Christian cinematographer said, "Please, don't do that. My parents are paying for a quarter of this movie and they will freak out. They can handle the jizz but they can't handle the Christ. That would be more offensive." So we actually changed the name to Nevada. But that name [of Peaches Christ] was always there and so—as soon as Martiny and I got on the plane and started heading to San Francisco—we knew that I was dropping the whole Nevada thing.

Guillén: This was in Philadephia?

Grannell: No, Penn State is smack dab in the middle of the state.

Guillén: And you brought John Waters there, I understand?

Grannell: Yeah. That was part of our—in some ways—rebellion [against] the conservatism that was Penn State. Finally I was a member of the student film organization, Martiny was a leader of the queer organization, and so we put a grant together between the two of us to co-sponsor his visit. Because you had to raise the money and get his [honorarium] and the airfare and all that and we did. It was 1) a way to show that you could become a successful filmmaker making the kind of movies we wanted to make and 2) really just an excuse for us to hang out with our idol. We picked him up from the airport. We took him to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. We really got to spend a lot of great [time] because, y'know, we were the kids hosting his visit. And he loved doing that stuff. I think he probably still does it. He really liked going to the colleges and doing the university circuit. It's kind of like I feel with our deYoung Museum thing; it's like weird and hilarious but I'm certainly going to enjoy it.

Guillén: Absolutely. I imagine this feels wonderful then to finally bring him to Midnight Mass?

Grannell: It's a dream come true. Literally, in every way, he would be the ultimate guest for us to have on our anniversary show because he encouraged Martiny and I to move to San Francisco. We knew then that I wanted to be a filmmaker; but, we knew—after having just shot Jizzmopper in New York, all the exterior shots—New York was just starting to change; but, I wasn't ready for New York and I didn't think I wanted to live in L.A. and so we were looking at San Francisco as sort of a bridge to one of these other cities. I knew that I did not want to move back to Maryland, which John totally understood. There's already John Waters in Maryland. He and his friends did something so extraordinary [that] we knew we had to go someplace and figure things out. He told us about the Cockettes. He told us about how much he loved San Francisco. He really put the seeds in our heads for Midnight Mass and the fact that he's our guest for the 10-year anniversary is just perfect.

Guillén: And also that you'll have Mink Stole.

Grannell: I couldn't be more in love with someone. I just love her so much. You're telling me that she's saying such sweet things about me and I get choked up because it's like she was the first person willing to come to be the first big guest of honor. We called it "Idol Worship: Come worship at the altar of Mink Stole" and at the time I didn't know that she hadn't really been honored that way. It wasn't until she came here and experienced the show—we had Mink effigies and Mink blown-up on the curtain and "Hail Mink!" on a banner and put her on a throne and did this big tribute show. It wasn't until the weekend was over that she said, "Everyone does this for John. And certainly they did it for Divine. Whereas if we ever got something like this, it would be Divine and Edie and myself; but, this is the first time it's really been just for me." That was such an amazing revelation for me because I think she so deserves to be put up on a pedestal.

Guillén: Absolutely! I was a little bit on her case about writing down her memoirs. She really has to get that down because she's starting to forget things and lose her memories. She couldn't really remember how she first became involved with Midnight Mass. She remembered the second and third times because she was already here in San Francisco doing the play; but, how did you actually contact her that first time?

Grannell: I think through … y'know, it's sad, I'm losing my memory! [Laughter.] A lot. I'm not a nostalgic person really. My friends tend to be. They're really the ones who remember everything. When we're doing one show, I'm always thinking one show ahead and always kind of thinking about the next one and so—doing a lot of interviews lately—I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm really clueless. I need to have notes or something." But I think the way it happened was her website. She had a really cool website at the time. Her website now … well … we need to redo it. I'm trying to put her in touch with the right people to really make something fabulous. But she had someone doing a really cool website and I emailed them and they put me in touch with this guy who was kind of acting as an agent of sorts. He was helping her with gigs and stuff. She was doing other movies. I think she had a project with John going on. She was busy but we negotiated. The thing about Midnight Mass—it was true then and it's still very true now—was that nobody, including the celebrities, nobody has ever gotten paid what they're worth or what they could charge. [With] everyone it's a labor of love. Now, of course everything is very confidential, but I can say that everyone who has come—whether it's the people who work here in San Francisco on the costumes or the sets or anything like that or the celebrities who have come—it's always been a gift. To me and to San Francisco really because no one's gotten paid what they're worth. She was the first to really come and take that sort of chance.

Guillén: It's an aesthetic really. Again—in the spirit of collaboration—they're being true cultural warriors keeping that aesthetic alive. For some reason, I've always been a little bit scared of drag. I don't know why. I've been around plenty of people in drag but—for a long time—I was afraid to go to Midnight Mass. [Laughter.]

Grannell: I understand why and I think in the early years it was a lot scarier than it is now.

Guillén: But one of my closest friends has been following you since the get-go and he said, "I'm taking you to see Tura Satana. Tura Satana's going to be in town and you have got to see her!" and I'm like, "Tura who?" So her appearance was my first Midnight Mass. But your live performance before the film blew me away; it's fabulous!

Grannell: Thank you.

Guillén: If there's one thing I can honestly say to people who have never been to Midnight Mass, it's that you totally get your money's worth. It's so worth the price of admission. Not only do you get to see a classic cult film but you get all this on-stage theater. You perform consummately!

Grannell: We try. [Laughs.] We have fallen on our faces. Sometimes that's some of the best shows, when we fall on our faces. We just roll with the punches. That's the first rule of improv: you just keep going. In 10 years we've done some great stuff and we've made some mistakes but, y'know, no regrets.

Part Two of this interview can be found here.