"Queen of Woodstock"
He's played countless roles during his lengthy career onscreen and onstage"”from Sabretooth in X-Men to Shakespeare's Hamlet "”and while he has a small supporting role in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, Liev Schreiber leaves an indelible impression. Not just because of his intense, uncanny ability to inhabit a role, but because in this film, that role just so happens to be Vilma, an ex-Marine-cum-blonde drag queen in a frilly sundress who isn't afraid to show a little stubble.
For the 41-year-old thespian, drag wasn't a lifestyle that Schreiber was very familiar with. (Take that as you will.) Which is not to say he wasn't thrilled"”he was"”to tackle the minor, yet notable, role in Lee's filmic ode to Woodstock. It just meant he had his research cut out for him before filming began.
"I focused most of my research on what was happening in San Francisco at them, because I thought that was kind of the birth place in gay culture, particularly drag culture, which I thought was pertinent to what we were doing here,"Â he remembers. "Prior to the 60s, most drag queens either dressed as their mothers or iconic movie actresses. But in the 60s, you started to see groups like The Cockettes and The Hate as well as other kinds of drag shows where men embraced their masculinity and feminity.. You saw drag queens with bears doing the can-can without any underwear. That was carrying over into the streets. Around that time, people were now beginning to take drag culture, not so much as an act or a show, but as a lifestyle.
"Vilma was interesting to me because I had never seen that on film, that kind of character. So I was really interested in trying to pursue that and talk to Ang about incorporating that into the character. When a guy chooses to dress and live like a woman, there are certain organic elements that he can't control before surgery and all that other exfoliation
"Queen of Woodstock"
Of course, drag queens have had a colorful, if not exactly healthy, Hollywood existence. Dustin Hoffman's unprecedented, landmark turn in 1982's Tootsie proved that such portrayals could exist, and be accepted, on the big screen. Unfortunately, some of the larger films that followed in its wake depicted drag queens as comic caricatures (see: The Birdcage, Mrs. Doubfire, Too Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar). As a result, the lifestyle has achieved little in the way of earning the mainstream's respect as anything but an outré fetish.
Schreiber, however, wanted to take a different approach in portraying Vilma. Instead of glitter, sequins, and big, brash gestures, he aimed for nuance.
"You gotta be careful when you play characters that are so extreme that they don't become cliché. And I think one of the ways to do that is to try and stay connected to who the person is and what's their function in the story and the narrative. Lloyd Richards used to say that actors are vehicles for plays, and that's what they are. It's not really about what you look like and what your effect on the audience is, it's whether you're functioning as a mouthpiece for that playwright and that play. So, particularly when you're playing characters that run the risk of being cliché or over the top, it's very important to engage with what your function is there."Â
Of course, for someone who's masculine identity doesn't normally include cross-dressing, you wonder what he thought about inhabiting male character who dresses as a woman. Was he comfortable?
"No, but you know, it was also fun. I've never seen a man put on women's clothing and not light up like a lightbulb. Actors are a