For over 50 years, Mink Stole has been a regular member of Dreamland, the close-knit and dedicated team of actors and production crew who have worked tirelessly to help bring the work of cult filmmaker John Waters to life. From the early, bare bones 8mm and 16mm shorts and infamous “trash trilogy” Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living, to the pop-culture phenomenon-launching Hairspray and everything before, after and between, Mink Stole won the hearts of cult film fans with scene-stealing ease.
On May 9, Serial Mom, Waters’ wickedly funny 1994 send-up of true crime, gets the deluxe collector’s edition Blu-ray treatment courtesy of Scream Factory. Ahead of its release, I had a chance to chat with Stole about the enduring appeal of Serial Mom, making music, and what it’s like to work with John Waters.
Serial Mom comes across as an extraordinarily fun production, and it really seems like everyone had the time of their lives playing these characters. What are some of your memories of the set, and what was it like working with Kathleen Turner?
Mink Stole: A lot of people ask me what it was like to work with Kathleen, and the truth is that she was a joy to work with. I think for every performer, for every actor, when you get a part that you really love, it’s just great—the work is easier. I’ve rarely been on a set that was more good-natured. Working with John was always fun, always fun sets, but with Serial Mom it was even more, because we had a nice budget, and people were making some money, which is always a pleasant thing. And Kathleen Turner really was the leader of the pack, along with John, and we all had a great time. I love every line that I said. It had been a while since I had such good dialogue from John, so I was thrilled with my lines. With my favorite being the court scene.
You own that scene.
I had a really good time. You know, I was kind of overwhelmed, but not overwhelmed at the same time, by being able to call a major movie star a “pig fucker.”
Serial Mom is a celebrated film, and it’s probably the Waters film I most often hear cited as a favorite by fans. What is it about this film, do you think, that resonates with so many people?
Well, it’s John’s best film, unquestionably. I have two favorite films of John’s that I think are his best. Of the early works, I think Female Trouble is best, because the plot continuity is solid; you can follow it and the logic of it all makes sense. It’s a pretty solid film. And Serial Mom is one of those movies that when you watch it, the movie flows, it works, from the opening sequence to the end of it, it completely works. There’s not a moment too long, there’s not a note out of tune, it’s just seamless. So I think it’s a really amazing bit of filmmaking.
I completely agree, and I also think for some people watching it’s cathartic in a way, because we’ve all had those moments where we wish we could just take someone annoying out.
Yeah, that’s sort of the dream of everyone, to immediately remove the annoyances of life.
From Dottie Hinkle in Serial Mom to Marge in A Dirty Shame, to Peggy Gravel in Desperate Living, what speaks to you about the uptight, neurotic suburbanite character? Do you enjoy playing this type of role?
[laughs] Well, what happens is, John hands me a script, and I read it and go, “Yay!” He’s never given me a part that I didn’t like. The parts are varied types, but I’ve always enjoyed whatever he gave me. I’m not a neurotic type of person, but apparently I play uptight, bad attitudes pretty well! So he gives me those roles. I like doing them too, because they’re different from me, and I think every actor likes playing people who are different from themselves.
Right, because there’s a challenge in that.
Right, it’s a challenge, that’s what we do for a living. We get to be other people. So pretending to be yourself….well, you can’t. I don’t know how one would even do that!
Next month marks the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Desperate Living. This was the first Waters feature without Divine, putting you at the forefront. Did that change how John pitched the role to you?
He didn’t have to pitch it to me, I wanted to do it! I never said no to John. I never said, “No, I’m not gonna do this script.” I never, ever said that. I think I fell in love with the character. There are so many weirdnesses about Peggy Gravel.
First of all, she wears a leg brace for which there is no given reason. [laughs] It’s never explained, it was never explained to me, it was never explained in the script, I just wore it. It was just a given. I was a child that had a lot of tantrums, so when John gives me a role to play where I can throw a tantrum, I jump at the opportunity. For me, being angry, being really, really angry, is probably the easiest kind of acting. Because you can just throw it all into it, you know, and this violent stream of words comes out of you. It’s harder to play a nice person than it is to play an angry person. So, I really liked Peggy. She was fun. And I loved the evil queen. I thought that was really fun, I had a really good outfit for her. But the whole movie was cold. All of the scenes we shot in Mortville, it was the dead of winter, it was freezing cold, so there was some physical discomfort. But other than that….
Did you often film during Winter? I know Pink Flamingos was shot in the winter, too.
Well, it was a trend early on, because we’d spend all summers away. We’d spend our summers in Provincetown, and John still spends his summers in Provincetown in Cape Cod. So the only time available to film was Winter.
Watching these films, what really strikes me is that you have what seems like an intuitive grasp of playing to the lens and using facial expressions to emphasize the humor inherent in John’s dialogue. I’m curious if this a characteristic of your acting that you’ve consciously worked to develop, or is it something that developed naturally over time or through John’s direction?
I think it was a combination of the last two. I never stood in front of a mirror and practiced it. I always just think, what would my face look like if I were feeling such and such, and my face falls naturally in that direction. But John liked to used me…in our earlier films, we didn’t do cut-away shots, but in Hairspray, for instance, I was cut-away queen. [laughs] Every time there needed to be a break in the scene, he would go, “OK, cut away to Mink!” You know, Mink give me this, give me that, give me disgust, give me anger. But I have a pretty mobile face. My face moves around a lot, which is why, as a performer, I could never use botox.
You need your face!
I need my face! I need mobility, and I really hate looking at people whose faces don’t move. So, it happened naturally, and I guess just developed.
You released an album, Do Re MiNK, in 2013 with your Wonderful Band, and it really is a wonderfully eclectic collection of songs. What was the genesis of this project, and how did you assemble this group of musicians?
I was very lucky, I just happened to be very lucky. The songs that are on the album were written by musicians, wonderful, wonderful people. Kristian Hoffman— [of The Mumps and Klaus Nomi fame]
Yeah! I worked with him in LA, he played keyboards for me in LA, and George Baby Woods wrote another one of the songs on the album, and he was my bass player in Los Angeles. I was always very lucky to work with musicians who are far more talented than I deserve to work with. [laughs] So, when I came back to Baltimore, when I left LA and I had to leave all of these wonderful guys behind, I was lucky to find some other musicians who were equally talented in different ways, and they helped me to rework the songs differently from how I performed them in California. But I’m eternally grateful to them, and to Brian Grillo [of queercore band Extra Fancy] who introduced me to the first musicians I ever worked with, and gave me a lot of material to work with when I was getting started in LA.
That cover of “Bang Bang” in French is fantastic.
[laughs] Thank you! Thank you very much. A friend of mine had sent me a version of “Bang Bang” in French back in the old Napster days, and I downloaded it. It was done in the 60s by a woman named Sheila, and I fell in love with it. So, I was happy to be able to put my own version of it out there.
Before we go, is there a role or moment in your career you are most proud of?
Well, I love them all. It’s really hard to choose just one role that I love. I’ve always loved Taffy from Female Trouble because I’ve identified with her. I identified with her as an unhappy child. I never thought of Taffy as a bad child, I’ve thought of her as unhappy and trying to get attention, and that’s what I was. I was not unlike many millions of other children in the country, unhappy and looking for attention. So I’ve always identified with her. And I love Dottie. I love the whole process of Dottie. The courtroom scene in Serial Mom has always been one of my favorites. And I love the rabies potion scene in Desperate Living!
[laughs] That’s one of my favorite moments from that movie.
My life is full of being able to say sentences like, “when I was mixing the vat of rabies potion…” So I love all of it.