As one of the more theatrical performers in music today, it’s surprising that Jake Shears is just now making his professional acting debut. The 36-year-old singer, whose theater experience includes cowroting the score for the stage musical adaptation of Tales of the City in 2011, is on hiatus from his beloved pop band Scissor Sisters and is appearing in the Los Angeles revival of Bent, Martin Sherman’s emotionally-devastating 1979 play about the triumph of the human spirit during the persecution of gays by Nazis in pre-WWII Germany. Shears is also donning drag for the part of Greta, who runs a local queer hotspot frequented by the play’s protagonist Max (Patrick Heusinger, from Gossip Girl and Frances Ha) before he’s arrested and shipped to a concentration camp. The singer is naturally granted a star’s entrance as he descends from the heavens, framed in gold, to execute the show’s sole musical number “Streets of Berlin.” The play will be performed at the Mark Taper Forum through August 23. Queerty chatted with Shears about the excitement of making his professional acting debut, what he learned about queer people in pre-war Berlin and when we’ll hear new music from him.
Jake Shears: They came to me. They asked if I was interested in reading for the part and doing the show. At first I just assumed that if anyone was asking me to be in their play that it must be a really shitty play. [Laughs] I didn’t even look at who or what it was. I just saw an email that asked if I was interested in reading for the role of Greta. I didn’t know the play, but I didn’t even see the title in the email. I just saw the name Greta. I ignored it and they wrote to me again and I finally realized what it was. I saw that Moises Kaufman was directing and I love his work so much. I worked on the part for a few days on my own then went in and read for it.
Well, by now you must be familiar with the incredible legacy of the play.
Definitely. It’s such an awesome play. It’s been amazing talking to people who’ve seen it over the years. When I was writing the song for the show… The lyrics are in the show, but I wrote the music with Lance Horn, there were all these funny crossovers. We were writing one night and Alan Cumming came into the apartment. We sang it for him. He played Max in the West End in 2006. I’ve got a lot of friends who saw the original production on Broadway and told me stories about it. It’s been interesting. It’s a show that’s touched a lot of people. It’s been amazing to discover its legacy.
Greta is a drag performer who owns the club that Rudy dances in and Rudy’s boyfriend Max frequents the club and sells cocaine there. Greta is the mother of the house, but she’s also a businesswoman. She’s got a wife and kids.
Have you researched queer life in pre-war Germany?
We’ve learned so much about queer history in Berlin at this time and it’s way more complex than I knew. We had a historian come in who specializes in transvestitism in Berlin between 1910-1930. There was amazing stuff. People were discovering sexuality, but there weren’t words for it yet. Cross-dressers or drag queens or transvestites were considered their own group. Everyone wasn’t lumped together. There were so many different gay identities. There were all these different factions fighting for what it meant to be gay. It was very fragmented and there was a lot going on that was queer and gay and a lot of transgender things happening.
What was your acting experience before this?
Nothing, nothing, nothing. [Laughs] I hadn’t been in a play since high school. I’ve always told people I can’t act my way out of a paper bag and now I’m having to prove myself wrong. I never really tried acting after the musicals I did in high school. It’s been a learning curve. I was really intimidated when I started, but it’s starting to click. I also haven’t done drag since college, so this is a lot but I’m really excited about it.
It inspired me to possibly make more theater. I’m working on my second musical now, which is well under way. I’m doing it with Elton John, which is really exciting. I can’t say what it is or what it’s about, but it’s an original musical.
There were reports that you were attached to adapt Showgirls into a musical. What happened to that project?
Oh God, I heard that, too. [Laughs] I have a great idea for a Showgirls musical, but I’ve never talked to anybody about it.
I think you’d make a great Hedwig. I know that you and John Cameron Mitchell are friends so has this ever been discussed?
I think there’s definitely a Hedwig in here somewhere and I love singing the songs. I did my first solo show in Australia right before Mardi Gras and I finished the set with “Midnight Radio.” I love singing those tunes.
How did you celebrate the Supreme Court ruling for marriage equality last month?
We were working. Moises had a toast and it was amazing and beautiful and emotional. It had a lot to do with this play. At moments like that it’s great to think about those who came before us. We’re standing on the shoulders of people who suffered a lot and went through tribulations for us to get here. he took a moment to honor those people. I think that’s why this play is important. It’s an amazing, beautiful, difficult and upsetting. They’re very different plays but the only other show that’s made me feel this way is The Normal Heart. It sort of changes you. I think this is a show that changes who you are. The Normal Heart did that for me and I think this show has the potential to do that.
We never got married. Maybe someday. After eleven years, I’m a little bit superstitious. [Pause] We probably aren’t going to get married. We kind of made a conscious decision not to do it, but we’re very happy that we can if we want to.
Some people believe that with full equality some of the unique aspects of gay culture and sexual liberation are going to be lost to assimilation. What are your thoughts on this?
I think it’s bound to happen. I think queerness is not going to be so much about sexual orientation in the future. I think being queer will be more of a conscious decision. I think we need to allow space for those who choose to live outside the box and not get married and not have kids and have different sexual appetites. There’s still a whole world of people out there who don’t necessarily fit into that box. I’m so happy I’m gay. It gives us license to be whatever we want in a lot of ways. I feel it’s important that we don’t revoke that license.
About 15 years ago, you were a student and a dancer and now you’re rubbing shoulders with Kylie Minogue and Cher. How has success shaped the person you are now?
I don’t see it. It’s something that my partner gets after me about because I’m just the same person I’ve always been. I have more confidence about certain things now. I still have the same fears that I did when I was 21. I’m basically the same person I’ve always been. I’m drawn to creative people and people who are good at what they do and are good at it. Whether you’re Amber Martin at Joe’s Pub or whether you’re Elton John. Those are people I’m attracted to and love spending time with. I’ve always been like that, since I was a kid.
Are you still approachable when fans come up to you in clubs or at events and ask for photos?
Are you kidding? I’m thrilled that anyone would want a picture of me. Nobody knows who I am and that’s fine. That kind of fame is so fleeting and I’m thrilled if someone recognizes me and says they love my work. That makes my day. If you ever see me on the street, don’t be afraid to say hi.
There are no plans for a Scissor Sisters album anytime soon. It’s been great though, because Baby Daddy [Shear’s bandmate] got an apartment in L.A. and has been jumping back and forth more so it’s great getting to see so much of him. I’ve been writing a lot of music, but I don’t know what form it’s going to take. I really want to make a record. I write a lot of stuff and discard the majority of it. There are a handful of songs that I really love. I’m just going to keep writing. I can’t wait to make another record. I can’t wait to be on stage again. The great thing about being in Bent this summer is I get to be onstage again and sing in a completely different way that’s very challenging. It’s so exciting to work another part of your brain. At the same time, I get to do something I love and am very good at. It’s what I was born to do and if too much time goes by and I’m not performing, it affects me.
Watch Shears’ rendition of “Streets of Berlin” from Bent below.
Bent photos by Craig Schwartz