MASTERCLASS: The Importance of LGBTQ+ Characters in Film
L’hospitalet de Llobregat International Film Festival 2021
The New Current spoke with the award-winning icon Jeza Belle ahead of her essential Masterclass The Importance of LGBTQ Characters in Film which takes place on the 15th September as part of L’HIFF in Barcelona.
Well hello Ms Jeza Belle, thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you held up during these very strange times?
It has definitely been a rollercoaster! It feels like the earth is heaving on a political, environmental, and an almost existential level. Two things have kept me grounded though, humour and endless streaming of films and television shows! Mercy, I have been attached to my Roku box this past year and a half as if it were an IV stuck in my arm, and it’s been just as necessary for my survival during the pandemic as a mask or food!
Have you been able to use this time to explore any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
I’ve been working on a new comedic book that addresses weight loss from the perspective of a fat person. While I did what most people did at the beginning of the pandemic and ate everything in sight, I eventually decided to use this time to overhaul how I was looking at food and health. I lost 65 pounds, or 4.5 stone, so far, and that fuelled the idea for a comedic weight loss book. In addition, I’ve been working on a few new screenplays that I hope to get produced.
What was your first time out on stage?
Oh lord! I was a nervous wreck. First, I’m a total klutz, so between the high heels and my hair, I was afraid I’d wind up falling off the stage. Second, I didn’t know the song lyrics, and I am really not much of a lip-syncher. Essentially, not much has changed over the years. I still prefer to live-sing, if you can call it that, as my voice can peel paint. I also still can trip over my own shadow in flats. Only now my hair, hips, and mouth are bigger.
You're going to be in Barcelona at the L'HIFF with your workshop The Importance of LBGTQ Characters in Film, what does it mean for you to be able to create such a unique workshop?
I was so excited when L’HIFF asked me to be a part of their festival! LGBTQ people, in general, are really in an interesting moment in time. In the United States, while the past decade led to some major wins, it also led to new legal and political battles. Pretty much across the globe, there’s a two-tier system developing for LGBTQ people. On the one hand, you have movements toward greater acceptance and yet on the other, many of our community are literally fighting to stay alive, nevertheless be recognized. Films are an incredibly powerful tool for increasing not only the visibility of LGBTQ people, but for making us less scary and for showing our humanity to not only strangers but to ourselves. That’s why I am so humbled and give enormous props to L’HIFF and their Festival Director, Darwin Reina, for embracing the idea of this class and for wholeheartedly supporting the notion that art has the power to make a difference in the world!
Growing up do you remember who the first LGBTQ+ character in a film you recognised and connected with?
For me, it was Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy, which was based on his play. OMG! It was such a powerful film. If anyone hasn’t seen it, run out now and find it! We take for granted how “out” many of us can be today, but when this movie broke, it spoke to the incredible debt of gratitude we owe the prior generation(s) for literally kicking down doors so that people can feel comfortable today preening in front of their cameras dressed in rainbow flags for their IG fans. Instead, they paved the way with blood, sweat and tears and this movie, and Harvey’s character was like looking in a mirror and truly seeing myself and some of the gay people I knew and loved for the first time. This story has love, family drama, and drag queens. What else could one need?
How much would you say representation and visibility of LGBTQ+ characters in cinema have changed over the years?
I think it’s a two-fold change. First came primarily straight and cis-actors representing us, and that made your average Joe become slightly more comfortable seeing us, then came LGBTQ actors playing straight, cis and our own roles. The latter has predominately been more recent. Not that LGBTQ people haven’t been playing parts for years, it’s just that today there is slightly, and I do mean slightly, less of a battle over it. You don’t just have one solitary token LGBTQ character or actor. There still is a long way to go through. Maybe one day we will be taken seriously, and it won’t feel like such a risk to embrace us in all aspects of the industry.
A lot of gay characters in film are usually played by straight men, as we move forward championing representation and visibility do you feel LGBTQ+ roles should/could only be offered to actors from within this community?
I actually will touch on this, albeit briefly, in the class. Essentially this is a topic that in itself could be a whole workshop, so we at least will tip our hat to it, but save the bigger debate for another time. Interestingly, I surveyed LGBTQ people around the world in preparation for this workshop and asked them to tell me the characters and films that had the biggest impact on them, and fascinatingly, I’d say about 90% of them referenced films where LGBTQ characters were portrayed by straight or cisgender people. Thus, I’d say on the one hand there’s definitely a place for straight and cis actors to act in any part and on the other, as we continue to become more visible, LGBTQ actors should have more opportunities to play our roles as well. I don’t think it has to be a hard or fast rule that falls strictly on one side or the other. But a little more parity would be nice!
Where did the idea come from for Jeza and the Belles and would you consider revisiting the series?
When I wrote the series about three drag queen superhero sisters that save mankind from themselves it was born out of the recognition that the things we disparage the most can often be the things we find meaning in. Jeza and the Belles were meant to counter the idea that LGBTQ people, and frankly people of different races, were weak victims and that they were throw-aways in our world. Instead, I took a biblical she-devil by name and made her and her sister's heroines. By poking fun at sexuality, race, and gender, I was seeking to reclaim ownership of all the stereotypes that mankind has and holds over marginalized people. Instead, these are the very people that you need and from whom salvation and hope can emerge. I would love to revisit the series at some point, perhaps in film format. I’d like to think my humour has evolved since then, but the basic concept would remain the same!
The reviews for your award-winning book The Harlot's Guide to Classy Cocktails are amazing, how did this book come about and what’s your favourite cocktail?
Basically, the book came about because I love to drink. LOL, Everyone must have a vice or three and a good cocktail is one of mine!
Favourite? I have FOUR! On your average day, though it’s obnoxious to say it, I really just love champagne. In fact, true story… when the pandemic hit and everyone ran out to buy up all of the toilet paper, I had a panic shopping run and brought home bottles and bottles of champagne. I figured if we were going to die, I’d go down with a champagne flute in each fist!
If you catch me sitting at a bar, I will likely have a very Dirty Martini. For day-drinking, I like Bloody Mary’s… by the gallon! Finally, if I’m entertaining, I really love my Pink Panty Dropper, which you can find in the recipe in the book. While it doesn’t take much to get me to drop my drawers, this perfect summer cocktail helps move things along!
"In all seriousness though, the one main thing I would say is knowing your character well and what drives them."
Was it easy to convince Lady Bunny to write the into for your book and are there any plans for a follow-up?
Lady Bunny very graciously agreed to write the introduction on the first ask. To me, Bunny is the epitome of what a drag queen should be! Larger than life, absolutely sick and hilarious, and yet underneath it all, someone who really cares about mankind…emphasis on “man.” I’ll always be eternally grateful not only to her but to all of the queens who participated!
I’ve been working on a second book this past year and had hoped to put it out this fall, but now it’s looking more likely to be sometime in 2022. This book will include easy tips that I used to lose weight during COVID coupled with hilarious stories that happened to me as an obese person. I’ve always wanted to see a book for fat people by a fat person! It’s incredibly annoying to get weight-loss advice from skinny people who never could pinch an inch or have never known the difficulty of trying to tie one’s own shoes while being fat! This will be a real and practical guide to anyone who wants to lose weight without the stress of following anyone’s program, peppered with true fat-stories that will make you laugh off a few pounds!
What advice would you offer emerging screenwriters and directors when they are creating LGBTQ+ characters?
You will have to come to my Masterclass at the L'HIFF to find out! Trade secrets my dear! LOL! In all seriousness though, the one main thing I would say is knowing your character well and what drives them. This would be true from the early stages of writing to the final cut of the film. Doesn’t matter if it’s a comedic or dramatic piece that you’re developing, honesty in who they are will make that character authentic, and that matters.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from your workshop?
I hope that people leave my class knowing that having LGBTQ characters in the film can literally help change the world. Visibility can have a huge impact on acceptance and even safety for our community and thus, I hope writers, producers, and directors embrace these characters knowing that giving our stories life could impact or even save someone else’s.