Interview: Payton St. James for DEATH DROP GORGEOUS

I recently had the chance to chat with Payton St. James from queer horror gem Death Drop Gorgeous. We discussed the film’s success, some of the issues facing the queer community today, what drag looks like in the world of lockdowns, and how it feels getting sticky on a horror set. Check out my review here, and be sure to catch the film when it hits digital and on demand this Friday!

Note: this interview contains some spoilers. 

First of all, congratulations on the movie getting picked up for distribution. That’s amazing. 

Payton St. James: It’s incredible, isn’t it? Thank you. I think it’s so exciting. So exciting.

Yeah, I first saw the film at Salem Horror Fest, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since, especially your performance. So I’m super excited for lots of people to see it. 

PSJ: Oh, that’s so nice of you. Thank you. 

So this is obviously a low-budget labor of love. There were a lot of people doing multiple roles, things like that. How does it feel to see people embrace the movie so much and have so much success with it? 

PSJ: You know, it’s a little bit surreal, to be honest with you. It was one of those situations where we worked on it for so long. And I kind of…it’s funny, you get accolades for — or I get accolades, I should say — for my performance and all that. But there was so much more that went into it. I mean, I am, like, a drop in the bucket compared to how hard everybody worked on this for so, so long. And in the beginning, it was one of those situations where, like, your friends say to you, “Hey, we wrote a movie.” Yeah, sure, you know, and you think: “What’s it going to be? How’s it going to turn out? And is it just for fun and whatnot?” I was absolutely gobsmacked when the whole thing came together, and how amazing it was and how it looked and how it sounded and how incredible everyone did, you know? It just…it’s still a little bit surreal to me that it’s a reality, you know, that it’s a real movie. It’s like a proper movie, you know? It’s amazing. Absolutely amazing. 

So, your friends just said, “Hey, we’re making a movie. You want to be a part of it?” What did you think when you saw the script or when you saw the set? Because I know you used — it’s a real club…I think it took you a year and a half total to make it. Is that right? 

PSJ: I believe so? Yeah. Yeah. 

So, what was it like just working on it for so long? And what were your first impressions when they first came to you and said, “Hey, let’s make a movie”?

PSJ: When they first came to me and brought up the idea, it was one of the — they’re such good guys. They’re so fun. They’re so sweet. They’re so kind. I had no idea that they are as talented as they are. I had absolutely no clue. So, my first thought was, “Yeah, I’ll do it. You know, it’ll be fun. And we’ll get to hang out. It’ll be a good time.” I read the script. And I got about three pages in, probably, and it just struck me. The way that it was written, the way the dialogue presented itself, and it just made me say, “I’m in. I don’t care what this part” — I hadn’t even gotten to my own part yet — “I don’t care what it is, I don’t care what they want me to do. I’m in. I need to be a part of this.” And that was kind of my first inkling how talented they were. And that this wasn’t just a fly-by-night, you know, “let’s make a movie” kind of thing.

I was curious: was there any improvisation on set? Because there were a couple of times in the movie where it felt like something happened in the spur of the moment, rather than scripted, but I don’t know if that was because of the performances or what. 

PSJ: So, I can only speak for myself on that. And there was — everything was scripted. And they gave me, really, a tremendous amount of leeway, a tremendous amount of freedom to just kind of do what felt right, and that I thought was really respectful. Because I am a performer, but not necessarily an actor, you know what I mean? So, everything that — in drag, things tend to be very organic, rather than scripted, and you just kind of go with the moment. They gave me a huge amount of leeway to do that. So, there are absolutely some things that for various reasons — either it felt right or I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to say and didn’t want to stop the whole thing and call for a line every single time — and some of that made it into the movie. And there were certainly other times where they stopped me and said, “Okay, we really need you to say this and get this out,” rather than my own kind of whatevers.

A still from Death Drop Gorgeous. Gloria Hole sits in front of a vanity wearing a multicolored fur coat and a polka dot hat with matching gloves. She holds a cigarette and smiles at someone off-screen.

Yeah. The movie deals a lot with ageism in drag and kind of appearance and body issues in the queer community overall. Can you talk a little bit about how you view the movie in that context?

PSJ: It does, it deals with a lot of things, and that being very prevalent among them. And it was an issue that I had seen in real life. And…I don’t think that there’s anyone in any community that doesn’t deal with ageism, sexism, racism, body issues, everything under the sun, you know. So yeah, I’d seen it, having been doing drag for almost 30 years. And, you know, my whole philosophy, maybe about 10 or 15 years into doing drag, was: you really, you have to realize that, when you’re young, it’s okay to just be pretty. And then after a little while, you’re maybe not so pretty anymore, so you better be talented. And then at a certain point, your body starts to give out and you go, “Okay, I’m not as pretty as I was, I’m not as talented as I was; I better be something else, I better reinvent myself.” And that has kind of carried me through this whole, you know, the last 30 years or so. And so, that kind of idea, I think really helped me to kind of navigate through the film and through feeling — sometimes it hits a little bit too close to home. Sometimes it gets a little bit too real. Too real. So, navigating through the script and being a has-been, being, you know, not the prettiest girl on the block, not the most talented girl on the block, I’m really glad that I had that philosophy kind of going into it, because certain things that you have to say, or are said to you [in the film], well, it’s not real life. Sometimes it hits you right in the middle of your gut, you know? And I think they did a brilliant job, being respectful of all of those issues and pointing out things that are not so great in the queer community, or at large any community, but in this particular case, I think they did a really good job being respectful of that, and showing the not-so-pretty side of things. But in a very human way, that I think, depending on — no matter what side of that spectrum you’re on, you can definitely see it. So maybe it helps some people that are dealing with feeling too old or too fat, or too this or too that, you know. I think the movie, in an odd kind of way, was very human and very true to that, I think could definitely help a lot of people navigate through.

Yeah, I feel like, kind of the heroes of the piece are the misfits within the misfit community, which is really beautiful to me. And I loved that. 

That kind of leads me into another question I had. Gloria Hole has this very classic diva persona. And I was trying to find some performances of yours, some videos of your real drag, just because I was such a fan of you from the movie…what I found was a lot of classic divas like Liza, Judy, Bette. So, how much do you relate to Gloria kind of dealing with these Instagram, TikTok girls coming up? 

PSJ: Oh sure, sure. Absolutely, absolutely. It’s funny, I do absolutely relate to her on that level. And, you know, I think the difference is, I see what’s happening in drag now or has been happening for a while, where I’ve always kind of skewed towards the — classic drag is what I am comfortable with. It’s what I love. It’s what I think is entertaining. But by the same token, I fully embrace everything new, no matter how avant-garde it is, how weird it is, how out there, how crazy it is. I think it’s absolutely amazing, what certainly people that are slightly younger than I am are doing, you know. And that’s, I mean, that’s obviously a huge difference between Gloria and I. Yeah, I mean, I do certainly relate to it. And that’s certainly not to say, either, that — there are things that I see that happen in drag now that I just, I have to shake my head and just look into my purse and pretend until it’s over, and then politely applaud at the end. You know, it’s not all hearts and flowers, by any means. But yeah, it’s…drag is one of those things, it’s like everything, it’s constantly evolving. It’s — there’s never going to be a new idea. Whatever seems new and bright and shiny at the time has been done before by someone else at some other time, maybe in a different form, but…I do see a lot of younger performers who maybe don’t realize that. They don’t realize that there are a lot of people that came before you, and what you see as this incredibly new exciting thing that only you have ever done — you know, sometimes you’ve got to learn your history a little bit.

Yeah. This movie was refreshing to me for many reasons. It was this smart, funny queer horror movie that I just loved. But also, I kind of got to live vicariously, because I miss going to drag shows. Because we’re in a pandemic, I haven’t been able to go out. And I love just being able to watch drag performers. So on that note, what’s it been like, as a drag artist, with people staying home and not going to shows? 

PSJ: It’s been tough, I’ll tell you in, in some ways. So when COVID first kind of happened and everything shut down, everything went digital, which was a huge savior to a lot of people. I count myself very lucky that drag, while I’ve been doing it for quite a long time, is not my primary job. It’s not, I don’t rely on it to make a living, kind of thing. And I’m very fortunate for that. But there are so many people that do, so digital drag was amazing. It was something that was completely foreign to me. And I don’t, it was never comfortable to do. Because the biggest thing in performing live is your audience, is what you’re getting from the people that are right there in front of you, you know? So, when you set up this whole thing in your basement and you’re performing your heart out, and the only thing that you’re getting back is the camera…it was difficult. I found it very, very difficult, and I found it very awkward. Very, very awkward. Like almost being too aware of yourself and too aware of every movement, everything that you’re doing, you know? Which, in live performing, you just go. You just do it. And what happens, happens; you don’t get a second chance to make it perfect. And so for me, it was difficult, but certainly it did save a lot of people in a lot of ways: financially, mentally, spiritually, physically, like the whole gamut.

A still from Death Drop Gorgeous. Gloria Hole stands in a white room with a cigarette dangling from her mouth in surprise. She wears a strawberry blonde wig and a colorful caftan.

Yeah, absolutely. So, there are a lot of practical effects, a lot of gore in this movie — 

PSJ: (Giggles).

— what was it like getting sticky at times?

PSJ: Let me tell you. So, I am no fan of horror movies. At all. I don’t watch them, I don’t like them. I’m very easily frightened. So, not having to be intimately involved in a lot of the gore stuff was great for me. When I saw it, I was amazed that it was so realistic, and there are many times when I have to just look away. Like, I can’t. I can’t do it. The one kind of gory part that I had to do, the big thing, I guess, was at the end in the bathtub. And I really didn’t know how to deal with it. It was one of the last things that we filmed. And again, the boys were incredibly respectful. Because, like everyone in the world, I have body issues, and I don’t — you know, I wear a bathing suit in the shower all the time. So it was very nerve-racking. And I really stressed out about that particular part of it. Plus the gore factor of it, which I’m not a huge fan of anyway. And I’ll tell you, that one scene: if I do nothing else in my career, that one scene is enough for me. Having been able to do that? It was incredibly cathartic. Completely, unexpectedly cathartic. And I could have filmed it over and over and over again. That’s how amazing it was to be able to just shed your skin and just do something that is outside of yourself and outside of my comfort zone and all that. And again, to their credit, they knew how I felt about it. They made it as easy as possible, as comfortable as possible. They just, it was amazing. It was amazing. For something that I really don’t like. (laughs)

Yeah. I love hearing that, though. I’m so interested because, you know, I’ve watched the movie several times, just because I love it so much. But now I kind of want to watch it again, knowing that it was so cathartic for you.

PSJ: It really was. Yeah, it was, again, completely, unexpectedly. Like I said, I really — it was the one thing that I kept thinking, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” and then because of how generous and kind and understanding they are, I could. And I did. 

Another scene I wanted to ask about was Gloria’s “modern” performance. Can you tell me about that scene? …You’re so funny in every scene, but that one especially…that and flicking the cigarette at the baby —

PSJ: Oh!

— are two of my favorite bits.

PSJ: The flicking the cigarette at the baby may actually be my favorite moment. The modern performance. I am very, very lucky. So, I have an absolutely incredible, wonderful, fabulously talented drag daughter. Her name is Kira Stone, and she is an amazing performer. She’s a dancer, you know, she does everything that I can’t do. So what I did was, for that I just — I watched and watched and watched and watched how she did things and how she, like, what her whole process was…something I had seen 1000 times but had never really paid attention to it. And so, I just kind of took that idea and said, “Okay, if you were to try to do this —” which I never would in real life, ever, because you have to know what you’re good at. That wouldn’t be it — “How would Gloria do this? How would she give it her all?” You know, Gloria is a lot of things. A lot of things. But she is, at the end of the day, she’s a trouper. She’s a hard worker, she’s a survivor. So, she would have to take this challenge and embrace it the best that she possibly could. And it was never going to be good. It was never going to be entertaining. It was never going to be anything, but she was going to do her damnedest to survive, you know? So I have Kira to thank for a lot of that, including the costume. Yeah, that whole scene was, it was something to film, and the very end of it, actually, is another of my kind of favorite moments where — Gloria knows. She knows it was bad. Bad, bad. And it’s just finally — that’s just, it’s got to be enough. Like, end the torture, you know? Yeah, that was something.

Besides the bathtub scene and flicking the cigarette at the baby, what stands out to you the most from the movie? Or what do you want people to take away from it the most?

PSJ: I guess if I had to say what I would like people to take away from it is, I guess: no matter what, no matter what life throws at you, no matter what obstacles you have, no matter what challenges you have, you can survive it. You can overcome it. You can make your life what you want it to be. And it sounds strange to look at that kind of movie and what happens in it and get that out of it. You certainly can’t go about making things happen by killing your rivals, running people over with cars, and all that kind of stuff. But I guess that, to me, is kind of the underlying message to it. You know, anybody is going to take whatever they want to out of it, for sure. If you don’t get anything out of it other than it’s a love letter to the queer community, it’s a labor of love, it’s a passion project, it’s all of those things — then take that away from it. Or take away the fact that these gentlemen had an idea that they wanted to make a movie. And they did it on their own, with hard work and determination and grit and all of that. So, you know, I think people should take away whatever they want to. But for me, I would like them to take away the fact that you can overcome anything in your life.

Yeah. Thank you so much. This has been such a pleasure. 

PSJ: My pleasure. 

It’s been so nice talking to you. I was so thrilled to get the opportunity to talk to you, especially about this movie, because it’s so good.

PSJ: I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. It was thrilling to do it. And the fact that people enjoy it and embrace it and it means something to them — it means the world to me. 

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