I had the distinct pleasure and honor of sitting down with the legendary Charles Busch and Julie Halston after a recent performance of "The Divine Sister" at the SoHo Playhouse to talk about their long-time friendship, both professional and personal.
Charles Busch and Julie Halston have been performing together for over 25 years in such shows as "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," "Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium," "Times Square Angel," "The Lady In Question" (the original and 2007 revival in Sag Harbor, NY), "Red Scare on Sunset," "You Should Be So Lucky," and the currently running "The Divine Sister" (until May 1) as well as in numerous one-night only events! While both Charles and Julie are successful on their own, it's their performances together that make the stage extra bright! They have a very special and rare friendship, which is not only evident in their performances together, but also in their off-stage chemistry. I hope you enjoy reading their interview below about their long-time friendship, which the world is lucky to be able to witness!
1. How did you and Julie first come to work together? Charles: How do we tell this story without going into Julie: bits. Charles: We've been putting together a two-person show for years now about our friendship/relationship, so how do we not do the whole show in answering these questions...hahaha, but the jist is that we had a mutual friend who I went to summer camp with and Julie went to Hofstra University with and he kept telling each of us you gotta meet the other person. It was 1983 and I was a solo performer during that time and I was doing my act in San Francisco at this very strange former mortuary that had been remade into an semi-arts center and Julie came on a Monday night and did her, what was loosely called an act, and that's how we met. Julie: Yeah, Bobby wanted me to meet Charles for the longest time and he kept Charles about me, "Oh she's the funniest girl in the world," which is just the kiss of death and Bobby wanted me to do an act...Charles: She was working on Wall Street at the time. Julie: I was working on Wall Street at the time, I was trying to make money so I could be an actress, and Charles caught my act and it was the worst act...Charles: Most miserable act...Julie: It was a terrible act, but we met and Charles was then working on "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" and he lost his leading lady/co-star...Charles: We were doing it at this after-hours bar in Alphabet City in NYC called Limbo Lounge and we were supposed to do it for just one weekend for fun, not for any kind of career advancement, but it went so well that we wanted to do it for a second weekend, but the actress who was playing opposite me couldn't do a second weekend and I was so desperate for someone and everyone I knew turned me down and the final name on my list was that really unfunny blond girl that I met in San Francisco. I was like, does it really matter it's for one weekend, so I called her and she immediately, rather too quickly, said yes, and I said, "Have you ever acted before?"...Julie: I said, "Well, I played "Nina" in "The Seagull" at Hofstra...Charles: So I said, "Well maybe you should come over to my apartment and meet my roommate, Ken Elliot, who's directing the play. It's not an audition." Julie: "Just to meet the director." Charles: So she came over and she read a little bit of the play and she was worse than we ever thought and Ken had taken my word on this, so he said, "Uh Charles, can I see you in the kitchen for a moment?"...Julie: And the kitchen was right there, so I heard every word...Charles: Yeah, it was 3 feet away, just the tiniest, tiniest apartment. So Ken says to me, "Charles, she's terrible, she can't act." I said, "Well, she played "Nina" in "The Seagull" at Hofstra, so we're stuck with her...Julie: But here's the thing, I really got along with all the other actors, and I said, "Look guys, I know I'm really terrible...Charles: Cause she got worse...Julie: I kept getting worse and worse and I said, but "I know if you put me in a wig in front of 60 gay men, I'm gonna glow." I'm telling you I got out there at Limbo Lounge and it was like "Senior Follies" I got out there and...Charles: Yeah, we were shocked because she was so terrible, but she was so likeable...Julie: The audience was eating it up...Charles: The audience was really into her and she was shaking her fist at them and breaking the fourth wall and we were like what the hell is going on here. The thing was, and I don't want to take too much credit as her Svengali, but she was so funny off-stage, but when she was going on stage, she would eliminate all her funny personality and her Long Island accent and all her wonderful phrases that she used and just the way she expressed herself that were so funny. I had already had written another piece for us to do called "Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium" and our whole company just said, "She's so funny, you gotta write her in, you gotta write her a part." So I started thinking I had to put all the things she says off-stage that are so funny and do that lady on stage and I had to figure that out and over time she was recharged...Julie: Yes, I was recharged and I was just so fortunate that such a talented writer like Charles Busch would take me under his wing...Charles: Well, it was just so inspiring because she was so funny in real life...Julie: But, it was only through this man's voice that I found my voice and also through the gay community that this straight girl from Commack, Long Island, was also able to find her voice. Many times that voice had to do with rage and big emotions and some very epic kind of feelings in which women really weren't fostered in that way to express, so that was really, really, really the break through for me as person and as a performer....Charles: Then the years went by and she became my muse and after 25 years together...Julie: We just crack each other up...Charles: I just find her endlessly fascinating, endlessly amusing. It's just very fascinating for me to find different colors for the Julie Halston character. This summer we have a new play that we'll be doing at Primary Stages which starts performances July 26, which is why we had to close "The Divine Sister" called "Olive and The Bitter Herbs." I'm not in the play, but Julie will be in it, playing a quintessential Julie Halston character...Julie: Every character is fantastic and well-developed, who dare we say, has their arc, their journey...Charles: It's kind of in the vein of the "Allergists Wife," so it's not a genre parody, but there are a lot of lines I've taken from Julie's off-stage dialogue verbatum...Julie: It's a very, very funny show, but also has a real mystical/magical quality to it. It's funny because when we do the first reading of a show that Charles has written, I can't read me, it's so bizarre, which people find fascinating and I find fascinating, Charles has to read me in order for me to read me...Charles: Well that's because I hear her voice in my head and I know exactly how I hear her saying it and she would have to be a mind reader to know what I'm thinking, so now I just say "Julie you are going to do it like this and since there are so many colors to Julie, I know which kind of voice is needed for the character and then I tell her and she does it...Julie: I do it, no problem...Charles: You know, I've written so many parts for Julie that when I found out that Mark Brokaw, was going to direct "Olive and The Bitter Herbs", I was a little nervous because so many directors like to cast their own plays, but I had to find a way to let him know that Julie and I are an act and the part was written for Julie and only Julie can play it and I'll never be in a situation where Julie has to audition for a part that has been written for her. So when I first met with Mark, I thought, how am I going to bring this up and when we met he says to me, "Well, you know, I like it when the Julie Halston character has that big exit..." so it was sort of obvious that he knew Julie was going to be in it.
2. What do you like best about working together both now and in those early years? Julie: He's touched on it already, but we really endlessly find each other very, very amusing and his love of movies, which has been such a big influence on him, has also influenced me quite a lot too. So many of those characters from those movies I've just become so enraptured with as well that we have a real good reference point and we are almost the same age so we grew up in the same era, so many of our reference points are similar. He can say something about "Twiggy" or "Darling" and we can do the dialogue together or act out those scenes together...Charles: It's funny, after all of these years, we still surprise each other with stories. I get terrible stage anxiety before a show, not really stage fright, and it's gotten worse since I've gotten older, but I sit there before a show like I'm going to the electric chair...Julie: It's Barbara Graham in "I Want To Live"...Charles: I'm thinking in 2 hours this will all be over, maybe the theatre will burn down, you know real upbeat things like that and what helps calm me down and lift me up is, without sounding patronizing, Julie has this child-like glee in how much she loves being on stage...Julie: It's true, I'm such a show pony...Charles: and it's part of the glow that makes her so wonderful. She's just so much fun in the dressing room, putting on that red lipstick and talking about what's going on in her day...Julie: I just get so energized...Charles: It's kind of hard to sit there all grim faced when maybe the funniest woman in the world is there with you. We've been sharing a dressing room for years and it's the dressing room that...Julie: really fuels...Charles: the fun we have in the dressing room is really equal to the fun we are having on stage...Julie: So much of what happens in that dressing room will somehow inform other things that will happen along the way, friendship wise and theatrical wise...Charles: Yes, yes, yes, I'm a font of ideas, you know I come up with an idea everyday for a play or movie and most of them just drift away, but some of them stick, and I just think, "Oh Julie, you should play this or that," I always come up with ideas of characters she should play. I definitely think the MTA should hire Julie to be the voice of the subway...Julie: I wish I could be the MTA voice and I would say "What do you mean, I should...and he would say you know like when they give those announcements and I said oh you mean like when they say (in quintessential Julie Halston) "If you see something, say something." It's these kinds of things that we do...Charles: I couldn't imagine doing a show and not sharing the dressing room with Julie. Occasionally we go out of town to do a one night event together, and a few years ago there was this marvelous documentary made about me called "The Lady In Question is Charles Busch" and we went to San Francisco to promote the film. Now, I can say this, and nobody else can, but a half-hour with Julie Halston can be unbearable, you just want to kill her (we all laugh)...Julie: You just say I never want to see that woman again, get her out of the room...Charles: but a weekend with her is heaven and a month with her is just grand. We shared a house together in Sag Harbor and just had the most delightful time...Julie: Heaven, we had the best time...Charles: She's the most delightful, fantastic, warm, nuturing person and I can't think of anyone else like this, the more time you spend with her the more in love with her you are...her lucky husband Ralph Howard knows what I mean.
3. How do you think your friendship has strengthened and grown over the years? Julie: Well, we've gone through a lot, I mean at somepoint it probably will be addressed theatrically, but there was a time when we didn't speak that much...Charles: about 5 years, we had a bad 5 years. You know when you have a relationship that has gone on for decades, I think most, whether it's a marriage or friendship, go through a rocky period. In the 90s we had a rough period and got past it and are really closer...Julie: Closer than ever...Charles: and we've grown...Julie: Oh, absolutely, as people and artists...Charles: Eventually,we are going to take that silliness and exploit together in a show.
4. If your friendship could teach something to someone, what do you hope it would teach? Julie: Well, it's always good to talk things through. I think that would be very important, to keep communicating, pretty much like any relationship, like marriage. This is THE most important professional relationship I have, but also because it's so personal...Charles: Hopefully that you can gain some sort of insight into yourself that you realize at a certain point, it takes two to screw up a relationship, even if you feel at the time or for years in fact totally justified that you were 100% in the right, hopefully in time you'll see that life is much more complicated than that...Julie: Right, there is a lot of gray...Charles: Some relationships really should end and then there are others that should be fought for and I'm so glad that we...Charles and Julie together: fought for ours and that we are back to together. Me: I can certainly say that as a fan I'm glad you guys got back together because I've enjoyed seeing you in so many things together...Charles: I've never seen us perform obviously, but I have to think that our great affection comes through when we are on-stage together. Me: Oh, it does.
5. What attracted you to "The Divine Sister"? Charles: The whole point in doing "The Divine Sister" was just that I wanted to spend more time with Julie, so I wrote us a play where I would get her 8 times a week...Julie: We wanted to hang out and put make-up on.
6. If you each could be cast in a Broadway show together, what show would you want it to be? Julie: I've always wanted to do Strindberg's "The Stronger" with two ladies where one speaks and the other is silent and then to reverse the roles. Charles: For me, it's more that there are characters I'd like to see us play, which is why I'm always writing shows for us. For instance Marie Antoninette and Madame du Barry...Julie: I'd be Madame du Barry and he'd Marie Antoninette, one of his favorite characters...Charles: It's more like that than actual roles from an existing show, though it is funny I've played "Auntie Mame" and she's played "Vera," but we've never done it together...Julie: I did the musical in San Francisco...Charles: I did the straight play.
7. If you could be cast in any television show together, what show would you want it to be? Julie: Something that he writes. Charles: Well, we've tried. You know over the years I've had deals to develop series, but unfortunately the "Charles/Julie" show hasn't happened yet, but it's not for a lack of trying. Julie: I would love to do a "Battleship Galactica" kind of thing where we're from rival planets, but I just think us in crazy alien costumes would be hilarious....Charles: Well we're not giving up until our dying day, so it will happen.