Southern Baptist Sissies is a film based on the play of the same name by the ever talented Del Shores (Daddy’s Dyin’: Who’s Got the Will?, Sordid Lives). The film features Emerson Collins, William Belli, Matthew Scott Montgomery, Luke Stratte-McClure, Newell Alexander, Rosemary Alexander, Bobbie Eakes, Ann Walker, Joe Patrick Ward, with Dale Dickey and Leslie Jordan.
The film, which is not an adaptation of the play, but a recording of it, deals with four gay boys growing up in the church. It follows the struggles of all four characters to embrace their true self while struggling with ideals taught from an early age. The story takes the viewer through a range of emotion and opens up the mind to acceptance for people of all walks of life. Recently it was awarded the Audience Award at NCGLFF.
You are both originally from Texas. What did you love most about growing up…Texan?
Del: The food! The people. Well, most of them.
Emerson: There is a special pride Texans take in being “Texan” and I was definitely raised with that. My father used to say that because we were the only state that used to be its own country, many folks felt it was alright to act like it. The “everything is bigger in Texas” applies to everything – hair, food, wide open spaces and personalities of course!
Your father was a Baptist preacher. For those that might now know what is it like growing up Baptist? Was he was one of those fire and brimstone types that get all out of breath?
Del: Conflicting. The people (mostly) meant well, but so much self-hate generated because of the anti-gay scriptures. So much fear instilled in me. Later, rage was a result of all the damage. But I still love the hymns and there are so many good memories.
My Dad wasn’t as bad as the stereotype. But he believed that way. He was a good man though and helped so many in need. He was an amazing pastor to his churches.
Was it difficult to come out to him?
Del: Extremely. I had been married to a woman and had two young daughters, two and five. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Do you think religion in general often teaches judgement and strays from the message of tolerance?
Del: I don’t actually like the word tolerance. I don’t want to be tolerated, I want acceptance and equality. Christ actually taught the opposite of judgment – Matthew 7:1 “Judge not lest you be judged.” Unfortunately, many Christians ignore that scripture as they cherry-pick others. So many stray from the message of love.
Emerson: I don’t personally believe that “religion” teaches anything – people do. And just as there are so many types of people in the world, there are so many types of religious people in the world. In that, there are many religious people who focus on the personal aspect and journey of their religion, be they Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu and so forth. However, each religion has it’s ideologues and fundamentalists who seem to spend a great deal of time focusing on judging the behavior of others according to their religious doctrine. Unfortunately, these voices often tend to be louder and given more attention as they misrepresent their own faith. Those who live according to their religion and focus on love and compassion are just as great in number, they just don’t receive the same attention and coverage as those who seem to spew judgment and hate.
Why do you think the most important message of love is often so widely overlooked in religious circles.
Del: That’s a tough one. I believe it’s mainly because that many religions and their leaders teach hate, not love. I also believe that many justify their own hatreds… homophobia, racism, you name it by justifying with scriptures. Hell, if you wanted to hate overweight people, there are many scriptures you could quote.
When did you first get the idea to write Southern Baptist Sissies? What compelled you to get it out there to the world?
Del: The death of Matthew Shepard. I was reading an article in Newsweek about the murderers and there was a picture that haunted me. It was a picture of Jesus in one of the killer’s homes. I wondered if they had been taught to hate in pews. Then all the damage was unleashed and anger fueled my play. I had to tell my story.
You have worked with Del quite often now. What have you learned from the experience?
Emerson: My journey with Del has been fascinating. I met him while I was performing in a production of Southern Baptist Sissies in Dallas. He flew in to see it and later asked me to come be in his own Sissies revival in Los Angeles. I moved to LA to join the cast and began working backstage on the other shows. I quickly joined the team as an associate producer for those shows and doing some assistant work for Del on the side. When we did the national tour of Sissies and Sordid Lives, I was onstage in Sissies but because of my experience with large scale theatre I helped produce the tour as well. When we did Sordid Lives: The Series, he wrote a role for me and brought me on as a co-producer. We have continued producing together since to where we now work as equal partners. The experience has been amazing and inspiring on so many levels. He is incredibly respectful of my work as an actor, while teaching me so much about the nature of the entertainment industry and then providing me the opportunity to grow as a producer. Most importantly of all of it, he has become one of my closest friends through the process.
Why did you choose Emerson for the lead ?
Del: He is the perfect Mark. I love his work, I love him as a person and he understood every part of Mark. He was able to embody and capture this complex character beyond anything on the page. In my opinion, his performance is perfection! He grew up Baptist, is Texan, went to Baylor, is so smart and a bit of a smart-ass – and Emerson has a kindred spirit with the character.
When did you first know you wanted to be an actor? Who were some of your largest influences?
Emerson: It took a while for me to decide firmly that I wanted to be an actor. I started as a child in the Christmas pageant at church, then I was in plays and musicals in high school. When I started college, I was not sure the route of an actor was the best option as I was being challenged by many to “put my intelligence to better use.” I also was not sure what my motivation was. Did I want attention? Was I doing it for the applause? In forty years if I was still doing community theatre, would I be happy and satisfied with that? Frankly, I did not want to be an actor seeking approval or fame, because then your life’s happiness is dependent on success. My sophomore year in college I finally came to the realization that my answer was finally yes – I would be happy if I had spent my life doing community theatre (and I have worked for amazing community theatres) because I truly knew I wanted to spend my life performing – and the success would be in doing the work, not in the money or the applause. That left me free to pour all of my attention into truly beginning the journey of being an actor. Influence is a strange thing, because the answer is everything really. All of the experiences of my life and personal journey contribute to my ability as an actor. Both of my parents sing, and we sang as a family growing up. I come from the theatre and love it more than anything. The experience of sharing live art with an audience that responds in the moment is like nothing else. As I venture into film I’m finding new and challenging way to communicate with the audience through the intimacy of the camera and it’s exciting in a different way.
Can you tell us a little about your favorite scene from this project?
Del: My favorite scene is the breakup scene with Mark (Emerson) and T.J. (Luke Stratte-McClure). It is simply staggering and devastating. It may be my favorite scene of my career.
Emerson: I’ll answer this two ways. My favorite scene in the film is more of a moment than a scene. After spending the entire film laughing with Peanut and Odette as they tell their hilariously tragic stories, when the moment arrives where Dale Dickey as Odette finally puts down the façade and tells her true story of why she goes to the bars – that sequence all the way through Peanut’s discussion with Andrew – watching these comic characters bare their souls in the hands of two truly genius actors is stunning as an audience and a master class as an actor.
My favorite scene to perform was the breakup scene in the loft between Mark and TJ. It’s one of the most challenging scenes I’ve had the opportunity to say and being given the lines, “Well then I think that God’s wrong because I know how I feel, and I know I can’t help it and I love you…” that is the core of so many religious gay men’s problems with church judgment was amazing. Luke Stratte-McClure and I spent a great deal of time really working on that scene and the incredible turmoil these boys were experiencing between what they were taught and what they were feeling to make sure we got it right.
Why did you decide to do this one as a play and not as an adaptation?
Del: Cost. Budget. We were able to tell this story by filming the play for a fraction of what an adaptation would cost. Sissies would have never been made otherwise and I am thrilled with the results.
You often work as a producer. Was it nice to change things up and be in front of the camera for awhile? Do you enjoy one more than the other or do you love both equally?
Emerson: I am first and foremost an actor, and they say the best way to make sure you work is to create your own work. I’ve been fortunate to do that with Del. I like producing; I have a skill set that suits it well, but my true passion is being the actor. I will always want to produce work I feel strongly about, but it is an enormous amount of work, so I won’t ever be a producer for hire. So yes, it was amazing to do all of the production work necessary to make the film happen, and then set all of that down and step in front of the camera to do my work as the actor.
Any interesting stories from the set that you could share with our readers?
Del: My favorite funny moment was after a very sensitive scene where Leslie Jordan actually dropped a tear, I asked him how he did it. He said, “I thought of Florence Ballard’s funeral. You know, the forgotten Supreme. They fired her! Then she died broke. And Diana Ross showed up in a mink coat! I just imagined Diana walkin’ into Florence Ballard’s funeral in that mink and the tear fell!” Leslie Jordan is a mess!
Emerson: Well, it was a hurricane process to rehearse the play to get it ready to shoot. Then we shot four live shows in two days, which is incredibly draining for the actors, and then shot 8 days of film coverage. The entire film was done in 10 days. I guess an amusing story is that I accidentally allowed someone to throw away a pair of Willam Belli’s Christian Louboutin shoes. With our tiny budget, I did not want to replace them, so there I was, the producer and lead of the film, taking of my shirt and climbing into a dumpster the day of the first live performance trying to find his shoes. It’s a glamorous life!
What do you hope audiences learn from this particular body of work?
Del: That we are all created perfectly just the way we are. I hope that it reaches those who need healing from the damage they’ve incurred because of the churches – and that it also reaches those who need a change of heart.
What were the most challenging issues you faced while filming this project?
Del: We are still working on getting all the money! We borrowed 50K to finish the film which has been financed through crowd funding. Please share our latest campaign. We are passionate about this film and want to reach as many as possible. The entire movie was made for $185K.
Emerson: The speed of the project was a challenge, but with the incredible talents of the actors and the incredible crew who gave their time for far less than we would usually make, it was doable. The real challenge, as it always is, was ensuring we got all of the equipment and crew we needed to ensure the final film was beautiful and operate within the budget we raised from our funding campaign.
How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?
Del: I spin daily, love reality shows and my dogs.I enjoy watching films and engaging with fans and friends via facebook. Feel free to like me at http://www.facebook.com/delshoresfanclub.
Emerson: When aren’t we working?( smiles)There aren’t really “days off” and we have to remind ourselves that some things can wait till tomorrow. I’m fortunate to have friends that pull me away from work time to be silly and downtime for me tends to be an afternoon trip to the beach where I leave my phone in the car, or pool time or a book!
Are you pleased with how the public is receiving Southern Baptist Sissies so far? Have you had to deal with any angry Southern Baptists (there do seem to be so many of them)?
Oh yes! They come to my facebook page and do exactly what I’ve written about in Sissies spewing hate in the name of the Lord. But I know the scriptures too, so bring it on!
Anything you’d like to say before you go?
Del: Thank you for the interview. This has been fun!
Emerson: We’re excited to be sharing this piece. The universal nature of Del’s message applies far beyond the gay community regarding universal acceptance. The film provides healing for those who experienced this growing up, it provides insight for those who may not have understood the kind of damage the church can inflict when the message is presented in judgment, and we hope it gives an opportunity for members of the religious community to realize that their words and message have an enormous impact. Above all of these, this film is for gay youth, adolescents and young adults growing up in the church who will be able to find the DVD or rent it on Netflix or iTunes by themselves and realize that, though it may feel that way in their conservative family, community or church, they are not alone, they are loved and they are perfect exactly the way they are. There is no reason any kid should ever end up like Andrew again.
For more on Del Shores please also see: An interview with Del Shores