'RuPaul's Drag Race' icon 'lifts the veil' to EW on the light and darkness in her complex life

By Joey Nolfi
April 22, 2019 at 12:00 PM EDT

Trixie Mattel might be skinniest RuPaul’s Drag Race legend of all, but telling her story on the big screen (a preview of which EW can exclusively reveal above) required filmmaker Nick Zeig-Owens to cast a wide net to fit it all into a tidy cinematic package.

“You know how celebrities put out documentaries that are basically a commercial, and only show the best parts of their lives? This is much more real than that,” the drag performer and self-made folk music star (real name Brian Firkus) tells EW of Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts, which debuts Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. “A director slept with a camera in my house for nine months, and 23 hours of the day, I’m not in a wig onstage. Those 23 hours aren’t all champagne and runways.”

For example, Trixie’s relationship with fellow Drag Race alum Katya — the brief dissolution of which provides the film with one of its most unexpectedly dark subplots. Though their professional partnership — which has produced the collaborative web series UNHhhh and its Viceland counterpart, The Trixie & Katya Show — remains one of the most enduring post-show success stories in Drag Race history, Moving Parts captures a startling, momentary collapse sparked by Katya’s decision to enter rehab for substance abuse at the top of 2018 that forced Trixie to confront her own career anxieties.

“It’s something everybody an relate to: Two friends going through a patch that there’s no handbook to,” Mattel says of the film’s tense moments shot on the set of The Trixie & Katya Show, just before the latter sought treatment. “There’s a day [in here] that was probably one of the worst days of our lives, and, surprise, it’s recorded…. We were both very uncomfortable watching it, but that’s exactly how it was and how it felt.”

Still, the drag superstar says “editing out moments that make people uncomfortable has never been the Trixie Mattel style,” so fans can expect a balance of “light and dark” in line with her signature brand of black humor — served with a cherry on top.

“I didn’t want anything to feel blatantly exploitative or hurtful; I want people to feel like it’s a real page from a diary people are watching,” Trixie says. “It’s important to not always have concealer on reality.”

Ahead of Moving Parts‘ world premiere Tribeca screening, Trixie spoke with EW to set the stage for a rare peek underneath the colossal wigs and blinding sequins covering the sweet, complicated, beautifully complex man behind the female fantasy. Find tickets for Thursday night’s screening — as well as a special Trixie Mattel performance following the film — here, and read on for EW’s full interview with the Drag Race icon.

Courtesy of World of Wonder

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Hi Trixie! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. 
TRIXIE MATTEL: Sure! This is an unconventional way to date, but, I figure: let’s try it! Let’s see where this phone call goes.

I did just watch a documentary about you, so I feel like I know you already. But I have so many questions and also concerns, because there’s a lot of surprising stuff in here that contrasts what people think they know about you. Are you anticipating this film shocking your fans?
Because it’s a Trixie Mattel piece of media, people expect it to balance light and dark. My act is delivering a dark joke with some sugar on it, and this documentary is an extension of that. You know how celebrities put out documentaries that are basically just like a commercial and only show the best parts of their lives? This is much more real than that. A director slept with a camera in my house for nine months, and 23 hours of the day, I’m not in a wig onstage. Those 23 hours that aren’t all champagne and runways. We’re not real celebrities in a way, and this documentary shows that, as drag queens, we are the hunter-gatherers of our own career. We don’t have ‘people.’ If something bad happens, we’re our own crisis managers, seamstresses… we do it all. And when [we go] home at night, we take our wig off and get in the shower.

I love that you gave the thirsties a verified Trixie Mattel shower scene! What was it like doing your first shower scene?
I believe the shower scene is toward the beginning. That was the first day of shooting. There’s a shot when I’m talking to Jinkx Monsoon and she tells me to be completely open and vulnerable to the experience, to just live and let them do their jobs, so the cameras go into the shower, in the dressing room… we could cut an entire film of me naked, if that’s of interest to anybody.

Courtesy of World of Wonder

You know that’s of interest to your fans.
But, even that stuff, we see an ultra glamorous creature, and then footage of me showering in a super affordably priced hotel. Even making a record, after I take that shower, it’s me in the snow taking an Uber with my guitar and my harp to record the music I wrote in a studio I paid for. Drag is so grassroots and it’s an art of collage.

I love the way the film chronicles your music career like that, because it also seems like this film explores your identity as an artist caught between what Drag Race fans expect and what you want to do as an artist.
I’m always trying to show an audience new things. When you’re on Drag Race, you have a “moment” for a four-month period. You have a borrowed fanbase: fans of Drag Race, and you have that window to invite people to become a fan of just you, and I think I’ve been pretty good at that. I invite people into things they didn’t know I like to do…. this documentary will further lift that veil. It’s more about how I feel in drag. I’m a white guy with a shaved head and I do stand-up comedy. My lines are drawn in the sand in that way. As Trixie, I’m a fake, made-up person who looks completely fabricated. Musically and comedically, I can get audiences to warm up to me faster.

The way the music is used in this film does a lot to warm your image, too. You singing a stripped version of “Kitty Girl” over your famous pink Jeep entrance to DragCon completely recontexualized that moment in a genius way. How involved were you in placing music in the film?
I’m actually really proud of the fact that when it came to creating the project, I stayed out of the way. I’m a drag queen. If I’d had any say in editing or the story, I would be like, “Can we put a little concealer on that section? A corset on that section? Can we can FaceTune my personality in that moment?” I’m not a filmmaker, so out of respect for this process, I was the subject and I let them do their work. [They] asked if I could record some songs so we could use them, so it’s nice that I scored the film. We went into the studio, watched clips, and talked about the type of music that would fit, and being in the studio watching clips playing over it is cool! What drag queen is out there scoring their own movie?

It’s all so beautiful, but the part that surprised me is the way Katya is presented, as I know you captured a few moments leading up to her going to rehab earlier last year. What was her reaction to seeing it for the first time?
Given that this is an honest portrayal of last year, it’s an honest portrayal of our partnership on and offscreen [but] I couldn’t tell this story without her blessing. I know this movie cost a lot of money and a lot of people are trying to sell it, but it’s not coming out unless we have a version of it that shows our part of this friendship accurately and honestly in a way that there was never any victims, bad people, or malice. It’s something everybody an relate to: Two friends going through a patch that there’s no handbook to. There’s a day [in here] that was probably one of the worst days of our lives, and, surprise, it’s recorded…. We were both very uncomfortable watching it, but that’s exactly how it was and how it felt.

Courtesy of World of Wonder

There was no way you could’ve known filming would overlap with Katya’s hiatus. Was it a difficult decision to make that a key subplot in this film? 
It was important to me that, if it was included, it was done in a way that reflected how it was. It was a moment in life where everyone’s heart hit the floor and no one knew what to do. [Katya] and I are in such a good place now. LGBT people in general are many times more likely to struggle with mental illness, and editing out moments that make people uncomfortable has never been the Trixie Mattel style. Keeping things in the dark perpetuates them in a bad way [and] it’s real for a friendship to have a bump that either doesn’t know how to address at the time.

I think it was a brave and raw choice to show that it wasn’t all sympathy for Katya in those moments, too — especially when she left in the middle of filming The Trixie & Katya Show. You were frustrated and concerned about your career, too, right? 
I’d never experienced those problems, so, in the moment, it was confusing. I think I say [in the film], “How do you be a good friend right now?” What is the ultimate way to support someone and also salvage this huge professional thing that’s happening for us? It wasn’t just my opportunity; it was hers; it was ours, together. How do I hold the weight for her while she steps out? That’s why, in the film, I’m back in the studio the following week because we’re partners, and when your friend taps out, the best thing you can do is cover the work for them…. Katya and I are always together, and last year led to a lot of me appearing alone on camera, because she took a year off drag. I had to address that she was my comfort blanket onscreen. People know us together, and I was scared [of doing it on my own].

The day Katya left and went to rehab, most of that footage is the camera on me not knowing what to do. Cameras were never chasing her down the hallway…. I didn’t want anything to feel blatantly exploitative or hurtful; I want people to feel like it’s a real page from a diary people are watching, and this is one of those ways where drag isn’t glamorous at all. It’s important to not always have concealer on reality.

There is one scene I want to contextualize and clarify. People might be super shocked by the scene where Katya sends you a pretty nasty text after the All-Stars 3 premiere. Was that normal for her to do at the time, and has the relationship since gotten better?
The relationship is completely repaired. I’m deeper, more trusting, and understanding. Most of the film was shot when I was on tour for four months, when she was MIA and changed her phone number. That text was at a time I don’t really recall, but it was definitely before she was on the road to getting better. It’s uncomfortable but it’s such a blip. Now, a year later, it’s so removed, and it was such an intense period. She’s so much better now. It’s almost like we’re watching it happen to other people, because it’s nothing like us now.

You’ve spoken openly about your childhood and how you got your drag name, but here you talk openly about some very disturbing trauma from your childhood, in detail. Was it difficult bringing your family into the fold in a public way, and also recounting those stories on camera?
Yeah. I hate talking about it. The cameras were with me for so long, and I got really comfortable with the director being on me at all times and experiencing everything with me. There’s a closeness. I don’t like to talk about that stuff, and I don’t think the story of the film is that I wear wigs because bad things happened to me; I think the story is: I’m going to tell you about some of the worst things that ever happened to me because I’m very proud that, day to day, I’m completely unaffected. I’m proud of the fact that you would never see me and think that I’ve had bad things happen to me. I don’t think it defines me. We get to choose our own destiny; That’s the spirit of drag: You are what you dress up as!

Courtesy of World of Wonder

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