Billy Porter’s “Kinky Boots” Character is Fierce, Sexy… and Gay

Will Billy Porter Take Home A Tony For “Kinky Boots?”

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Billy Porter commands the Broadway stage as Lola in Kinky Boots.

Take a true life story adapted from a beloved film, add one of the most successful Broadway director/choreographers (Jerry Mitchell), a legendary pop star (Cyndi Lauper) to write the score and throw in Harvey Fierstein to write the book and you have the Broadway sensation Kinky Boots.

But all those big names don’t fully add up until you have just the right actor breathe life into Lola, the fierce drag queen who partners with a straight businessman to create a custom fetish-type footwear for the drag community.

Enter Billy Porter, who you may know from theater productions like Angels in America and Grease, films like Twisted and The Broken Hearts Club or simply for his phenomenal singing voice.

Now what does that add up to? 13 Tony Award Nominations, including Best Musical and Porter for Best Actor In A Musical, that’s what! Nominations also went to Lauper, Fierstein, Mitchell (for Directing and Choreography), co-star Annaleigh Ashford and, in the same category as Porter, co-star Stark Sands.

After seeing the show on Broadway, I had to talk to Billy Porter – who has already won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for this role – about how he feels about the sudden Tony attention in his career, taking on the role of Lola and what he thinks of Fierstein’s statement that he wrote Lola as a straight man.

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Billy Porter

TheBacklot: Kinky Boots has taken you to a different place in your career with all the Tony nominations and the attention you’re getting. Is this time what you expected as far as being in the show?

Billy Porter: No. You can’t predict anything in this business. You can’t predict anything in this life. All you can do is show up and be the best version of yourself that you can be and hope for the best. As one gets older, one understands that more. And the pressure of it, the expectation of it having to be or live up to something is taken away. So the response that we’re getting and that the show is getting and that I’m getting, in particular, is all sort of gravy.

Talk to me about when you were shaping Lola as a character. I know you have been playing him for a while…Him? Her?

Whatever.

How did you find the right tone that worked for you and worked for the role?

Well, I saw the film initially and I kind of fell in love with the film. I fell in love with the character of Lola, and I thought if there is any role for me as an African American gay man, to sink my teeth into, it would be a role like that. So it felt natural even though there’s a lot of work that goes into it.

I am an actor. I am playing a character, all of those things. There are parallels in the character of Lola that are sort of close to me. So it was nice. It’s very rare to have a part that sort of fits likes a glove. And it just feels like you’re breathing your way into something. That is kind of what it feels like for me.

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Porter (r) with Tony nominees and co-stars Stark Sands and Annaleigh Ashford

Since it sounds like you relate a lot to Lola, are you learning things about her and about yourself with every performance?

Oh yeah. All the time. I mean, first of all, the courage that anybody has to live outside of the comfort zone that societal constructs put on you is something that I find very courageous and very empowering. So for a man to put on a dress and walk the street and vice versa is something that I don’t know I would ever be able to do in my own personal life, so it makes me feel very strong . It makes me feel very empowered

The other side of it is that I really related to the father part of the story, the estrangement of the father. This show has really helped me deal with a lot of issues that I had with both of my fathers. You know, my step-father and my biological father, who my relationship was…I was estranged from both of them at death and it’s very healing to play a character that has to go through the journey of figuring out how to forgive that and own that and love that, and move forward. So it’s a very healing story for me. But they’re both gone now…I feel like I’m honoring them in some way by being able to play this part every day and tell this story every day.

Seeing the musical was my first experience with Kinky Boots, but I loved that we actually were able to see Lola in men’s clothing as well as drag. Do you think that’s important that we saw the different side?

Yeah. I think when you have flamboyant characters, which is what the story is about in and of itself, we have a tendency to judge people at face value and they often don’t want to go deeper into the human being. I think that being a drag queen is very much an over-the-top flamboyant sort-of clown-type character. It could be perceived that way And what I love it that you do get to see all the dimensions of Lola and see that she’s a human being, and so you can’t just write her off.

Who were you channeling for a lot of Lola’s big moments in the show, or even the smaller moments?

I think, growing up and kind of loving all of my divas, I’m channeling many of them. And channeling, I think, is a strong word. I would say ‘paying homage to’ more than channeling, because I’m not trying to do an imitation of anybody. I’m not doing an imitation of anybody. But there are moments that kind of bring the spirit of many of the divas to the fore. A lot of the costumes and wigs kind of have a nod to those divas.

You know, it’s very interesting. It’s like a certain age group has a certain set of people that I remind them of. And the younger age group has a different set of people that I remind them of. So you know, let it be whatever it is. Who do you think?

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