Sunday, July 24, 2005

Interview: Queer As Folk's Michelle Clunie

(Link) From her role as Dee Dee on "the Jeff Foxworthy Show" to Melanie on "QAF", Clunie talks about what she's learned and where she's going.

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JIC Post:

Portland, Oregon, native Michele Clunie was blessed with the sort of anti-establishment childhood that could only help prepare her for a career in entertainment. Despite rumors to the contrary, her Hollywood success did not begin with that other pioneering Showtime series Queer as Folk. Clunie first made her mark on prime-time TV in 1995 as the ragin' Cajun Dee Dee Landreaux on The Jeff Foxworthy Show. Prior to that, Clunie was best known as, well, slave no. 1 in Erotique and dark-haired camper in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. But it was her turn as producer and star of the play Comedy of Eros that promised lesbian fans what was yet to come for the actress. In Eros, Clunie played a deranged New Yorker who takes out her aggressions on men. The play earned her a Los Angeles Dramalogue best actress award and helped set the stage for her role as the first regularly recurring, always-has-been, always-will-be, dyed-in-the-wool dyke on TV. Now that Queer as Folk's days are numbered, we checked in with Clunie about her journey.

Your character, Melanie, has been really fixed in her sexuality. Has playing her all these years changed your perspective on sexual fluidity among women?
No. To be honest with you, I've never really put people or myself in categories and so I've always believed it's very fluid. Melanie's [sexuality] I don't think is fluid; Melanie is very definitely gay. There's no two ways about it. I do [still] believe that sexuality is so individual and so fluid, and so personal, and there are so many different shades and colors of it that I think it's really hard to categorize.

At Curve, we travel around the country to different Pride festivals and we always take the issue that featured you and Thea Gill on the cover. Pride readers always talk about the fact that Lindsay cheated on Melanie. I'm wondering, do you think we're more sensitive to infidelity?
Definitely. The strange thing is that after that story line aired, gay men would come up to me and go, "God, you're being such a bitch to her!" Whereas women would come up to me and say, "Don't you ever take her back!"

Is there something you've learned from being involved in this world for so long that you've taken with you to your personal life?
I'm sure a lot of what I have learned from the show I won't discover until months afterward. I have loved every second of playing this character. I've learned something from each and every person I've worked with. It's been a family for me. I think it's amazing that people can come together who aren't your true family and really become a true family. A lot of times, I try to opt out of groups ... I'm maybe a bit of a loner. This has forced me to be with this group of people for five years and ... it's made me believe in humanity a bit more.

That seems almost like a queer experience. When lesbians and gays are estranged from their families, they often build families out of their friends.
[I wish] I could put that first season in a bottle and just let people taste what it was like. It was truly an amazing experience. I remember when we got done with the season, we all went down to New York for three days, and there was this expo going on. ... I saw all these screaming fans. I mean, there was this one girl, tears running down her face, she was screaming ... and we were just in shock, utter and complete shock. I remember we all went out to the van after that, and you could hear a pin drop.

How will you feel when the show ends?
I've been checking in with myself this entire season ... because I don't want it to catch up with me afterward. I want to make sure I don't react by having separation anxiety and pushing people away. But this is the natural life of the show. It was meant to end after five years. I think when I look back, I'll look back on the letters we've received from kids who live in small towns across America. I feel like that's who we're doing the show for.

It sounds like you have a lot of these kinds of responses from fans.
A couple weeks ago, we had this lady who ... called the production office and said, "I want to donate a thousand dollars in each [cast member's] name. Because of the show I now have a relationship with my son." It just feels so good to have done something like that. We all know how important those relationships are, and when one of them is broken, it's a pain that some people never get over. It's a pain that can drive you to suicide. One day, I was talking to someone [who said] that since Queer as Folk has been on the air, the suicide rate in New York among gay teens has dropped significantly.

That's the kind of impact Friends doesn't have.
It might hit closer to home than [a show like] Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Not to say that it's not a good show, but [Queer Eye is] basically infomercials. I think that the beauty of Queer as Folk ... is that it depicts gay people with their problems, their flaws, their sexuality, struggling [in] life, trying to have families. Yes, there's drug use, and yes, there's sex. God forbid we do a show with people having sex.

And they're flawed people, too.
Yeah. We have some criticism within the gay community, but once again, I find that it's usually from people like L.A. or New York who ... obviously, they're way beyond being in the closet. They're way beyond not having anyone to talk to.

You've said that when you started playing Melanie, you experienced a strange sort of prejudice yourself.
I did. You know, in the in the industry sometimes, you may end up at someone's house, an acquaintance of an acquaintance, and so I was there. The woman knew I was on Queer as Folk and she knew I played a lesbian on TV. She started talking about when she went to Vermont to a bed and breakfast, and lesbians were all around her, and she started to talk as though she couldn't stand it — she had to get out of there. I was sitting there as she was talking, and ... my stomach was turning inside out, and I couldn't contain myself. I basically went off on this woman and then proceeded to say there was no possible way I could stay for dinner; I just couldn't eat her food. I couldn't even sit and talk with her.

Do you feel like this is going to be a darker season for Queer as Folk?
No, I don't. I wouldn't say darker — I would say deeper. In fact, there are quite a few things that are very funny. But I would say it's definitely going to be very deep and meaningful. I think the writers are doing a great job of leaving [the characters] in a good place, leaving all the story lines, however they turn out, in a place where people will feel satisfied.

Lesbian custody battles seem to really be increasing right now, so that story line is very timely.
I was going to say something similar. We never wanted our show to feel like you can pinpoint it to a certain date ... the episodes can be played at any time, and they're timeless. But this season we do get into politics. There is some Bush-bashing, which I'm so happy about.

The day after the election, people here in the office called it our "National Day of Mourning." Someone last week said, "When's our National Day of Mourning going to end?"
Oh, God, isn't it horrible? Absolutely. It's so hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that people can get so crazed over two people loving each other. These Republicans are trying to brainwash everyone.

What do you think will change that?
I don't know if it's going to have to get so bad that, God forbid, there's a revolution. I don't think America is the kind of place for that to happen. But at the same time, I think that if things get bad enough, it could. I think people are so passionate. I've seen people fight and yell at each other. I've been at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in New Mexico, and people drove by screaming ... "Viva la Bush!" I think the Democratic Party needs to change a great deal. I think it needs to grow some balls.

I'm wondering if that's even possible at this point.
At least Hillary has balls. I mean, you know, I can say that about her. I think she's strong.

Let's talk a bit about your future. Your dream is to develop a production company that creates strong film roles for women. Is this a project you're pursuing now?
Once the series is over, I'll have more time to focus on it. It's hard — when I look at scripts that come in, I don't find many of them interesting. I can't think of many scripts from women with really great female roles. ... I think it's something that I think I'll do after the series. I'm just starting to research different stuff that I'd like to explore.

Like what?
I [have] this thing about dominatrixes — I have been fascinated with [them]. I've never dabbled in it, but ... I think it's fascinating. I've just started to do some interviews. ... It's going to take maybe four to six months. It's going to be a process of just gathering information about it, and studying it and talking to different people before I actually decide to do a project about it. I want to make sure it's something I'm passionate about.

What do you think it will take to bring back great roles for women?
I don't have any answers, but I do think, in order to start a film company, the first thing you need to do is get a great script ... something that's interesting with a strong female character that we haven't seen before.

I think there's a great market for that.
Absolutely. You see it with Desperate Housewives. I mean, the fact that [there are] more and more women on TV — there a lot of strong women around. You see more women who are not afraid of their sexuality. I think it's great.

I actually remember you back when you were Dee Dee on the Jeff Foxworthy Show. When you were in that role, did you think, "I've made it"? Or did you not really think that until Queer as Folk hit?
I still don't think I've made it. I think when I got that role I was just really happy to pay my rent. I think that when I auditioned for DeeDee, I had like 20 bucks in my pocket and I was about to bounce on my rent check. When I got that job, I just fell on the ground, and I was like, oh, thank God. Because I had just quit my waitressing job and I really I was, like, fight or flight.

But today —
I have a certain foundation that won't go away, but I feel like there are so many things I want to do. The other night, I saw Million Dollar Baby with Hilary Swank, and I just think it was brilliant. I think her performance in that was so absolutely amazing, and when I see that, I go, God, there's so many things that I have left to do, so many roles to play, and so many great directors I want to work with, and I really feel like I'm just beginning.

So you were grand marshal of the Key West Pride parade and in 2003, San Francisco honored you with a Michelle Clunie day. Is this a bit like being the most popular girl in high school?
I don't know, because I would have no idea how that feels! [Laughs.] I wanted to get out of high school so fast I was running.

I love one of the charities you're involved with, the Destination Foundation, which offers chronically ill people a chance for renewal and respite.
A couple years ago, a friend of mine committed suicide, and it was a transforming experience. There's so much negativity in the world and so much darkness that it's almost like, I feel a duty to spread light wherever I go. I so understand now the effect that we can have on each other and — not to beat myself up, not to say there was anything I could have done, because I don't think there was, but I do [now] understand the effect you can have on people. The experience was definitely a turning point in my life. People come to me now, and if they're down or if they're having a bad day, I'm even more right there for them than ever. To go through life and not to realize that you have an impact on those around you — it's shallow. It's not an easy thing going through this life.

Absolutely. I had a friend who committed suicide several years ago. I did feel a great deal of guilt, a great deal of introspection that comes with that experience —
Introspection is the best [word for it]. That's exactly what it was. It really takes you inward, to see if there's any part that you played or anything you could have done, and it makes you question yourself on a deep level. ... Suicide is very different from anything that you can go through.

That's why it's all the more disheartening that the suicide rates among gay kids is so alarmingly high.
It is. I guess I have this in my mind because one of our extras committed suicide. He was 21 and he'd been with us from the beginning of the show, [when] he was like, my God, I don't know, 17, 18. Everyone has their own private pain that sometimes they just can't share, and we don't know what others go through when their lights are out and they're at home by themselves. When I think of the pain of someone feeling they can't live another second because they're in so much pain, it just kills me. If our show has made any teenager or anyone feel less alone, I feel like I've done a good deed.

So, let me make the last question a bit lighter. I know that you performed in Vagina Monologues here in San Francisco. What is your favorite thing about your vagina?
Oh, my vagina? Oh, my God. I think [laughing] the pleasure I get from it, for sure. Definitely. It's an endless source of pleasure, especially the older I get. It's true what they say!