When RuPaul and Michael Patrick King first began working together, they were pleasantly surprised to find they both had strong feelings for Preston Sturges’ 1941 feature film “Sullivan’s Travels” — so much so that it became an influence on their Netflix dramedy “AJ and the Queen” for both character and tone.
“Everybody thinks that to make a real impact in this world it has to be this [Martin] Scorsese dark, Oliver Stone, ‘This is an important film!'” RuPaul tells Variety. But, “the premise of ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ is laughter is the biggest spell you can cast; it has the widest net and the biggest impact. And understanding that — getting to that place — is such an evolved, zen destination.”
In the film, a privileged film director pretends to be homeless and travels the country, learning some harsh truths about the state of the world. The story is set during the Great Depression, King points out, which makes the world “sad and depressed and a panic state.” But along his journey, he meets an “unlikely femme fatale” and formulates an important bond, in order to still experience light and love, even during hardship. “AJ and the Queen” plays with similar themes, only “we just made it that the smart guy happens to be a little guy and the femme fatale happens to be a man,” King notes.
As the titular drag queen, a man named Robert who performs under the name Ruby, RuPaul is joined in “AJ and the Queen” by Izzy G., who takes on the role of his child companion. The two are New York City neighbors who get off to a rocky start in their relationship, as AJ is left to her own devices because her mother is an addict and a prostitute, and Robert is focused on opening a new business with his boyfriend. But quickly things take a turn, and Robert ends up conned, single, broke and forced to roadtrip in an RV to perform at drag clubs across the country, while AJ stows away inside, wanting him to take her to her grandfather’s house in Texas.
Although inspired by “Sullivan’s Travels,” “AJ and the Queen” also has elements of “To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar” (in which RuPaul also appeared), “Thelma & Louise” and, of course, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
The latter might be the most obvious because of how many alumni from the show pop up as various queens Robert and AJ meet during their road trip — from Bianca Del Rio to Katya Zamolodchikova to Chad Michaels to Latrice Royale and Trinity The Tuck. (That casting was “based on the city,” says King. “If you pulled into these clubs, these are the essences you would find there.”) But “Drag Race” also touches upon the “emotional life of the queens in the dressing rooms,” King notes, especially with its companion series “RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked.”
Although fictionalized, “AJ and the Queen” leans further into “taking what’s behind the curtain of drag into your living room,” King continues.
“That very first opening scene, Ruby’s on-stage performing and there’s millions of dollars flying down, and there’s lights and there’s glamour, and it’s gorgeous. And then the number ends, and what we do next is she gets down on her hands and knees, grabs a Glad bag, and has to scoop up her money. So that tells you the difference between what people are showing and what we’re showing. For us, to try to have all of the characters try to show what’s underneath was one of our missions. Ruby says to AJ in Ohio, ‘People are more than one thing,’ so we wanted to show that even the villains have a heart and a soul.”
While it was important to both RuPaul and King that the show have a glamorous feel to it — “almost like life dragged up a little,” says King — they wanted to balance the “crazy, hairpin turns” of plot and humorous moments with some very real, grounded emotions.
“When we started out, there was a question of if the real emotion would come through drag. It was a real interesting situation to see no one’s ever really tried to do that, but when you wind up and get to the last episode, you see the most emotional scene is through drag. I guess the spirit is bigger than the makeup,” King says.
Adds RuPaul: “Drag is all about creating a fantasy world that is commenting on the harsh reality of life, and that’s what we did with this show.”
RuPaul has acted in scripted projects from the aforementioned “To Wong Foo” to guest starring roles on television series including “Nash Bridges, “Port Charles,” “Girlboss” and “Grace and Grankie” through the years, but “AJ and the Queen” was his most immersive piece of character work to date. In part this was due to the length of the project (Season 1 is 10 episodes, which often saw him shooting 11 pages a day, in drag for up to 16 hours at a time), but it was also because he was creating the dual characters of Robert and Ruby.
“When it’s Ru performing, what you see on TV is fantasy and is all art directed. The difference here is that Ruby and Robert have emotions and heartbreak that is right out there for everyone to see,” RuPaul explains.
RuPaul also admits he was outside of his usual comfort zone with the romantic relationship between Robert and Damian aka Hector (Josh Segarra). But while it was “a challenge emotionally to be that open and intimate” on-screen, RuPaul says there was never a question that such a story had to be built into the fabric of the show.
“I understood that that story was very important because I can’t tell you how many drag queens have quit drag because they wanted to have a love life — because people in our culture, if a man is dressed in drag, they’re not going to get anyone who wants to go home with them. So for this character to have that was a huge statement in the show,” he explains.
For the character to also lose that love was, therefore, a scenario that RuPaul calls “gut-wrenching,” but it is also one that — despite the larger-than-life way in which it happens — he knows will be deeply relatable to the audience. “One of the other elements of the show is this concept of people who are courageous enough to fall in love, knowing what could happen. She gets herself in this situation, and she thinks it’s love, and she’s stabbed in the heart,” he says.
For the casting of Damian, King says they needed “a little sex, a hot guy, and yet he also had to be warm and a good actor — and I’m not talking about Josh, but Damian, the character, is a good liar.” Segarra is someone King calls “a demented Brando” and “a little bit unhinged in a very controlled way — and game,” which lent itself to the role of a man who would get involved with Robert under false pretenses but end up a more complicated part of his life throughout the season.
“He had to be valuable enough and hot enough and a good enough liar that we could press the wound for a long time. Because one of our big journeys on the show is we wanted Robert, who thought he had it all together, to fall because of ego. And then he learns how to start it all again with this other spiritual teacher, who’s this kid,” King says.
AJ has had a tough start to her life and adopts her own kind of drag: a tough, New York City city kid persona that presents more masculine at first glance. “We had to have a little girl that you would believe, Shakespearean-wise, was a little boy,” King says of finding the right performer for the role.
In order to track done such a chameleon, King and RuPaul watched “hundreds of self-tapes,” but the moment Izzy G.’s came in, King says they felt like “we found the new Dalai Lama; we found the child that can balance all of these things in the air.”
He continues: “We knew that his audience and our interest level would only be maintained if it was a little Jimmy Cagney, if it was a little ballbuster, if it was edgy. Ru has a huge bulls— detector and is a survivor, and it wouldn’t have worked if there wasn’t an equal being opposite him.”
AJ coming into Robert’s life teaches him about a different kind of love, and working on “AJ and the Queen” opened RuPaul up in a similar way.
“I’ve been doing this for 38 years in show business, and there’s a part of myself I’ve had to emotionally shut down to power through it. This is an opportunity to get reacquainted with those emotions and actually let them out in front of people,” he says.
“AJ and the Queen” streams Jan. 10 on Netflix.