Jinkx Monsoon Will Fight ‘Tooth and Nail’ to Keep Queer Talent in the Mainstream After Her ‘Doctor Who’ Arc

by 24britishtvMay 11, 2024, 9 p.m. 24
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For most of her career as a performer, Jinkx Monsoon had to create her own model for success. Whether it was in music, stand-up or especially acting, the acclaimed drag star almost always took a do-it-yourself approach to finding stardom — mostly because opportunities for a transfeminine drag queen were, at best, limited.

“I’ve been screaming it for years: ‘Give drag performers real chances to show what we’re capable of,'” Monsoon tells Billboard over Zoom from her well-appointed New York apartment. “Because for so long, it was just lacking.”

Lately, though, it’s clear that someone was listening to her plea. On Friday (May 10), Monsoon starred in the newest episode of the beloved British sci-fi series Doctor Who. Titled “The Devil’s Chord,” the episode revolves around The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and his companion Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson) traveling back in time to London 1963, intent on watching The Beatles record their debut album Please Please Me. But when they arrive, something has gone terribly wrong — The Fab Four, along with everyone else in the world, can’t seem to hold a tune.

Enter Maestro, Monsoon’s malevolent, scene-stealing villain. Described by the performer as existing “somewhere between Greek mythology and Lovecraft,” Maestro introduces themself as an eldritch deity who is the literal embodiment of music itself. Hellbent on hoarding the concept of music for themself to create a symphony out of the ending of the universe, Maestro battles against The Doctor and Sunday using the power of music itself, before being banished by a magic musical chord from younger versions of Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

“This episode is so over the top and so stylized and heightened, that I felt very honored to be invited in — because I did have confidence in my ability to do that,” Monsoon says. “There’s parts of it where it feels like Looney Tunes, which makes a lot of sense to be me because music was such a big part of those cartoons.”

Below, Monsoon chats with Billboard about creating a memorable villain for the show, her starring role as Audrey in the current off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors, and why she hopes her success opens doors for even more trans performers.

Before we get into Doctor Who, I wanted to say congratulations on Little Shop of Horrors! It’s such a great role — what has it been like for you to take on this part?

It’s been strikingly easy! Honestly, I was so anxious about this, and the reason why it’s been easy is because the cast and crew is incredible. They are the best. I was very blessed and lucky to come into a wonderful cast and crew with Chicago, and here I am, again, in another setting where everyone is just happily coming to work to put on a really incredible show. Now that I’ve worked with Corbin [Bleu], I can’t imagine anyone else having been Seymour. James Carpinello and I started our rehearsal process together, so we very much feel like we’re in it together. It’s just been a dream come true.

There was so much anxiety I had about being a transfeminine performer and a drag entertainer coming in to play the female lead and the love interest in a show like this. But no one in the rehearsal process or backstage shared that feeling. Everyone else was so certain that this was going to be a hit, that it was easy to let go of that insecurity. I’ve been in situations where I hide my gender presentation or I don’t enforce my pronouns, because I just don’t want to be that person, I don’t want to be the Norma Rae of everything. But this has been such an affirming experience.

Well, let’s get into your latest role as Maestro in Doctor Who — how did you get involved in this project?

[Showrunner Russell T Davies] came to see this show I did called Together Again, Again, which was written by me and music directed by my music partner Major Scales, where we play ourselves in a dystopian future in our 80’s, and Jinkx has become kind of a monster. Like, full-blown Norma Desmond, but with the brassiness of Rosalind Russell — she’s grand and delusional. Russell came to see that show, and I guess on the walk home he thought, “Jinkx should be Maestro.” Eventually I got the call and he was very forthright, and told me he got the idea from seeing me in that show. That kind of nipped my impostor syndrome in the bud, because my first instinct would have been to say “Oh, my friend is trying to give me a leg up in the business.” But I genuinely felt that Russell trusted me to handle this role.

I know you’ve been a fan of the series for a while — what in particular about the universe of Doctor Who attracted you as a fan?

I have very eclectic taste in television, and I prefer to live in the realm of fantasy. I like things that are over the top, even to the point that I like watching old sitcoms because it’s a very presentational style of acting. But what I love about Doctor Who is that it’s got good writing, good acting, wonderful guest stars, and captivating plotlines that are, of course, larger than life, but that have a purpose and a meaning. This episode, for example, shows us that music — and just artistic expression — is necessary for our survival. Without it, we would go extinct. I love getting to be a part of that message at a time when I hope we’ve realized how essential art is after a pandemic that shut the industry down.

This is a very wild character you’re playing. How would you describe the character of Maestro?

I see Maestro as the embodiment of music, and I see them as a god who would also be interpreted as a demon by many. They are an eternal force that exists in the universe. And when you play a character that is that powerful and has existed for that long, certain things come to mind. First, they create their own rules — we see it in Maestro’s gender expression and pronoun reference. Maestro doesn’t care about human rules and societal standards, because they’re a god. Second, I think characters like that must be really bored. When you’ve been alive for a long, long time, you get bored. So, the genuine excitement of meeting someone like The Doctor who actually gives Maestro run for their money — that’s very, very exciting.

Part of what I loved about your performance was your ability to balance the campy, very arch bits of the character, while also being genuinely scary. What was your approach to finding a balance there?

I like to think about the fact that music can be erratic — Maestro can switch on a dime. And one of the scariest things about a person is when you have no idea what they’re going to do next. And when you have a character like Maestro that’s capable of pretty much anything, but you have no idea what they’re gonna do — that’s terrifying.

When it comes to the campiness, I feel like my whole life has been about studying character actors who make big choices feel natural. I think Bette Midler as Winifred [Sanderson in Hocus Pocus] is a great example — everything’s Shakespearean and over the top, but like, do we get sick of it? No! So, specifically for the acting style for Doctor Who, I brushed up on Michelle Gomez as The Mistress. When she plays a villain, they are nuanced, and I love that she has flipped so many female archetypes on their side. I really wanted to bring that to Maestro.

It’s also refreshing to see a show letting a drag performer have a well-written, interesting role, rather than throwing together a collection of stereotypes to make a character.

Yeah, I was extremely honored to be a part of that. There was some anxiety, though, because I thought, “If I don’t deliver, does that mean there’s not going to be future opportunities?” Luckily, I got welcomed into a beloved, professional, incredible production. I’ve said the words trust and respect over and over, but that’s what it was — they trusted me to play this character, and they respected me enough not to tone me down. They weren’t interested in diluting my performance, all of the direction was to help me refine but not de-queerify things. That was incredible, because trans performers and drag performers before me have made things possible, so that I could take another step forward for the next generation of trans and drag performers to come in behind me. And it feels really exciting to get to pay that forward.

All of this comes amid a string of huge career moments for you — between Doctor Who, Little Shop, your return to Chicago and your upcoming debut solo show at Carnegie Hall. Especially as a drag artist, what does it mean for you to finally be acknowledged and welcomed in these spaces?

There were definitely points in my life where I did not believe in my lifetime that we’d see such progress and representation. And now that we have, I’ll fight tooth and nail to keep it there — I will not let our community be pushed back, because this is beyond my wildest dreams. I was very realistic in my early 20s, and I set attainable goals for myself. Now, I gotta set some new goals.

But I also feel like it’s about godd–n time, because queer people have been the backbone of entertainment this whole time. But for so long, we had to hide that part of us to be in front of the camera, because we were not invited. When we started getting invited, it was very homogenized and was very much for straight audiences. And now, we have reached a point where queer people are writing stories with a queer lens and casting queer performers to tell these stories authentically and genuinely. And that is incredible, but I also know the work that we’ve all put in.

Yes, I won season five a decade ago, and I experienced so many wonderful things because of that. But it was a completely different game back then, and I just grew to accept that we were considered a subsect of the entertainment industry. But then I got fed up with that. And then that’s when Ben and I created the Jinkx and DeLa Holiday Show, and that went to places we never imagined. I started to believe that we all do what we do, we just do it in drag. We’re showing the world that just because we do it in drag doesn’t mean we do it less than anyone else.

And that’s happening despite what certain right-wing lawmakers have to say on the subject.

They’re a dying breed, I gotta say. They might be loud, but popular opinion is not on their side. I honestly think with every swing they take at the queer community, it’s another nail in their coffin. And I didn’t always feel that way. But I do feel that way now. Our consciousness, our perspective shifting, and these people are getting desperate. When you try to you try to gather everyone against a marginalized group of people hoping that their shared bigotry will rally them behind you, that’s despicable. I can’t think of a lower way of trying to lead your people. I can’t think of a bigger bastardization of the job they were hired to do than trying ostracizing and attacking constituents that they swore to protect. It just sickens me, so I will do everything in my power to fight that.

You mentioned needing to set some new goals — with this windfall of success, what have you not yet accomplished that you want to get to in the near future?

You know, I don’t even know how to answer that these days. Because, honestly, like — I am so happy with the things I’ve gotten to do recently that I just want to do a lot more of it. I’m hoping to do a lot more work on stage, I’m hoping to do more work in front of the camera. I just love when I get to do this, and I want to do a lot more of it. So on my bucket list at the moment is a lot more of the same. I don’t feel like I’ve peaked or plateaued, but I’m not in a rush.

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