RuPaul & Michael Patrick King have a lot in common. Both grew up as the only boy in a family with three sisters. Both chased dreams of stardom: RuPaul as a performer, King as a writer. And both hit it big.
Michael Patrick King has enjoyed a long career writing for TV series such as Cybill, Murphy Brown and 2 Broke Girls, which he also created. His biggest success came with Sex and the City, writing a full 31 episodes of the series. He parlayed that success into writing and directing the feature film version of the show, and its sequel as well.
RuPaul, is, well, RuPaul. As the world’s most famous drag queen, Ru holds status as a style icon, hit recording artist, and the host/executive producer of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The reality competition program became an unexpected smash and netted RuPaul six Emmy Awards.
Now the pair embark on a new collaboration: co-creating and co-writing the Netflix comedy series AJ and the Queen. RuPaul also stars as Robert/Ruby, a popular, middle-aged drag queen who has all her money stolen by a scheming boyfriend (Josh Segarra). Dejected, he crosses paths with AJ (Izzy G.), a spunky 10-year-old living on the streets. With the two misfits both hoping for a better life, they embark on a cross-country road tour of drag clubs and learn to love themselves again. Little do they know that a filching assassin named Lady Danger (Tia Carrere) has her eye set on destroying the duo. The series also stars Adrianne Barbeau, Michael-Leon Wooley and a host of Drag Race alumni including Ginger Minj, Katya, Latrice Royale, Valentina and Bianca Del Rio.
We managed to get a few minutes with RuPaul & King to discuss the new show, Ru’s transition to drama and the series’ outrageous premise. AJ & the Queen comes to Netflix January 10.
So how did the two of you get paired up?
MPK: Um, the universe? It slowly, slowly directed our paths to run into each other. We’ve been watching each other for years. Or, I’ve been watching Ru for years. Maybe he just watched me for a week, I dunno…
I asked Ru to do The Comeback. That was my first foray into approaching the entity. And it was fantastic. Then Ru called and said “Do you want to do something else?” So that was our time to work together.
Ru: That’s exactly right. I couldn’t be happier.
The show very much reminds me of the movie Paper Moon, which also happens to be a favorite. So what made you want to do a Paper Moon-type show about a drag queen and genderqueer kid? It’s an odd premise.
MPK: Here’s the interesting thing. Whenever I start to do something, I think what do we have that is special? How do we make it more special? RuPaul is the greatest drag queen ever. When he’s sitting across from you, you think what’s the show? Ru was talking about the rabid Drag Race fanbase, which are adolescent girls. It became clear to us the two entities in the room were RuPaul and this very unique audience for him. What about that contrast is interesting? So we made the girl (AJ) not just a girl, but a boy and a girl because it’s more interesting story-wise and because someone that young does not think in terms of gender language. So it just became an interesting thing.
MPK: Once we thought about those two elements, we did reference Paper Moon and Sulivan’s Travels which is a great Preston Sturgess movie from the 30s. So you start to just pull on the energy that is in the room at that moment. From the time we started talking about that combination, it just came to us.
Ru: That’s exactly right. We just made space in our consciousness for infinity to walk in and guide us. And that’s what we got.
MPK: When you’re writing something and creating characters you want opposites. So we thought about this very worldly drag queen who thinks he knows it all, and then a 10-year-old with nothing, and the contrast that the 10-year-old might be wiser than the drag queen was interesting. So we had a lot of options. They don’t belong together, but they should be together. That’s what’s exciting for us. And what they find out along the journey is that they are equals.
I love that.
MPK: They learn from each other. And in terms of where the world is now versus when they did Paper Moon, Addy’s character [the spunky kid, played by Tatum O’Neal] was not as exposed to as many difficulties as kids are today. We wanted to create a more complex backstory for AJ.
AJ definitely has a Tatum O’Neal vibe in the show.
MPK: The thing is, we saw a million girls. There’s only one Izzy G. The minute we saw her on film in New Orleans, I sent it to Ru saying “I can’t believe this. I believe her.” She is this boy and this girl. And she has a lisp.
That adds to the cute factor for sure. Now Ru, you’ve acted before of course, but it’s a very different thing to play a supporting character as opposed to carrying a show. Were you nervous? How did you prepare?
Ru: I was very nervous about it, but I knew that with Michael Patrick King I would be safe. I trust him. I’d done The Comeback with him years before. And just from a small adjustment he gave me in that scene, I knew that he was someone I could trust, and I knew how talented and smart and compassionate he is. I knew I was in good hands.
How did the role challenge you?
Ru: Well it proved to me I’m not dead inside.
Ru: I’ve read that on the internet several times. Honestly, it was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my entire life, my entire career. I had to show many different vulnerable sides to myself and let it all out. But I figured, if ever there was a time I was going to show it all, it would be now. And I was in good hands, so it felt really good.
One of the most telling lines in the show is when Robert says he had to create his drag persona to protect himself. After years of putting on a drag persona, is it difficult to strip down to become another character?
Ru: I think we all put up roles to protect ourselves. We do it throughout our lives. For me to do it at this point was important. I’ve had lots and lots of therapy. I understand there are things about this world that are important in terms of survival. For me to do this show was important in my own growth as a human on this planet for the next part of my experience here. It’s important on many different levels.
MPK: I want to add that having watched the entire performance that it was always risky. It was emotionally naked. Ru did the work. It wasn’t just something where he just showed up. You have to dig for this stuff. And he showed up prepared. And don’t forget Ru & I wrote this for him, so he knew what he needed to do. The whole show is based on the excavation of this drag character inside until we see Robert, and what he needed to learn from his little teacher, AJ. So Ru was fully aware in his head what needed to be done. Then he really brought it. There are times where Ru is just effortlessly open. It’s quite a breaking down of the drag persona.
The role does afford him a lot of range to show off his skills.
MPK: To see, in one episode, he’s no makeup, rock bottom. And then in the next scene, he’s doing Cher. He’s a leading man and a leading woman, which I think is really interesting.
That’s good segway. Michael, you’re someone who has made a career out of writing shows with a slightly camp sensibility—Cybill, Sex and the City, The Comeback, Murphy Brown. That said, those shows focus almost entirely on women. Were you excited to have the opportunity to write a show about a man and a kid?
MPK: What I mostly write are emotions. Everything you mention references characters with a lot of emotion. It just so happens that in literature and scripts women traditionally give more voice to those emotions. I also wrote Mr. Big [in Sex and the City] who also was shut down in his emotions. So the idea of emotions is important to me, and the idea of Robert having an emotional life that is destroyed and having to build himself back up is very interesting to me. I also love the idea of the emotions of a furious 10-year-old. So I was thrilled, though I will tell you there is something in the show that I can’t put my finger on that moves me. Deeply.
MPK: I think it’s something connected to me subliminally that I’m thrilled to be writing. There’s something about the connection of emotions between Robert & AJ that I find thrilling and really sophisticated to experience. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s really special.
I want to discuss that a bit more in a moment. But before we get there, the series also includes a plethora of Drag Race alumni. You also include a lot of out-queer actors: Matt Wilkas, Patrick Bristow, Jimmy Ray Bennett. Was there a conscious effort to hire people from within the community?
MPK: I don’t think like that. It’s really great that when you get to Jackson [Mississippi], everybody around the table in that episode is queer, except for the mother. I love that stuff. I love that Matt is out. One of the thoughts of the show is nobody is just one thing. I don’t think actors should have to play just one thing either. They’re many things as well. It’s fun that there are so many gay men playing gay men. It’s also fun that those actors are playing characters who don’t quite express who they are. But we never had a conscious effort to only hire queer people for queer parts, but it’s fun that they are.
Ru: We wanted the best. We wanted people who could move the story along. But we also wanted to reflect the America that we experience. Obviously, in the show we go from city to city. America has that interesting tapestry of personalities and colors. That’s what we wanted to reflect.
The idea of doing a show about a drag queen and a kid is kind of radical, even by today’s standards. This is a very diverse cast, and that extends to the drag performers. In fact, we live in politically volatile times. Drag story hours at libraries have really come under fire. And you’re doing a show about a drag queen and a kid! What is so scary to some members of the public about the idea of drag queens interacting with children?
Ru: I don’t think it’s that scary for most people. I think that the news media like to take a bite of something and make it into something. There are people who think it’s scary but for the most part we here in America are more open than the local newscast would have you imagine. I think most people in this day and age are willing to accept more than the local news would have us believe.
MPK: That’s one thing as the characters moved across the country we constantly made choices to show that it was all-inclusive, that we weren’t pushing anyone out of the family. The show is not made for one group of people. We made it for everybody, to be as entertaining as possible. Hopefully, anyone who watches the show who even has that thought, they’ll see early on that Robert is loving and protective. If anything, the drag queen should be scared of the kid.
MPK: I think they should flip things and say “Drag queens: be afraid of 10-year-olds!”
You might be on to something there. Both of you are ridiculously successful. I recently chatted with several other ridiculously successful people about the feeling that whenever things are going great, it means something bad is about to happen. How do you avoid that feeling of the worst is yet to come?
MPK: First of all, the show starts with someone thinking he has it all, and it blows up in his face.
MPK: If you have been in a career as long as I have, you have successes and endeavors that are perceived as not as successful. That’s your journey. As a writer, you’re just trying to work out your feelings and what could happen to you as an individual. Who knows what’s coming? All you know is you just leap and follow creative impulses. When you have someone like RuPaul with you, it’s easier to leap. His impulses are so genuinely special and true that I feel like if he’s safe to go there…so am I. And who’s to say what success is? Some success doesn’t manifest itself in the moment, but it manifests itself later, in history. So once you start thinking about that idea, you’re dealing with something that falls through your fingers. Anything new is always looked at curiously.
Ru: I agree with all that 100%. I feel like I’m a success for having gotten out of bed this morning. Seeing a newspaper, you think can I do it again today? But if you live long enough on this planet, you realize you have to define success for yourself. It’s not based on what the neighbors think or what the newspapers say. It has to do with you. We’ve both been very fortunate in this business to have failure and success. Honestly, being here, right now in this moment, is the greatest success. To be able to be in the moment and appreciate great health and the creative spirit is all fabulous.
So last question: do we know about Season 2?
MPK: We do not. But we’re excited. The season ends wide open, so we have plenty of ideas as to what would happen to AJ and the Queen.
AJ & the Queen comes to Netflix January 10.