The higher the hair (and heels), the closer to Dolly Parton.
That’s the philosophy RuPaul’s Drag Race star Ginger Minj used opposite Lost actor Harold Perrineau to bring a pair of feisty small-town drag queens to life in Anne Fletcher’s Netflix comedy Dumplin’, their platinum blonde, Parton-inspired wigs pushing them further into the heavenly stratosphere as they lip-sync to the country icon’s signature hit “Jolene” in EW’s exclusive preview of the film (above).
And this isn’t Perrineau’s first time at the drag rodeo, as the father of three previously played a glammed-up, contemporary version of Mercutio in Baz Luhrmann’s cult classic Romeo + Juliet. For Dumplin’, he dusts off his heels once again in the role of Rhea Ranged, a small Texas town’s resident drag superstar who — with the help of right-hand woman Candee Disch (Minj) — plays fairy dragmother to the film’s full-figured titular character (Danielle Macdonald) when she needs creative inspiration to turn a cutthroat beauty pageant run by her ex-beauty queen mother (Jennifer Aniston) on its head.
Ahead of the film’s Dec. 7 bow on Netflix, EW caught up with Perrineau and Minj for a candid discussion about their roles, how Minj revamped the film’s hair department, feeding off of their mutual energy on set, and whether Perrineau needed a refresher on the age-old art of tucking before cameras rolled. Read on for the full conversation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Harold, to the best of my knowledge you’re not a full-time drag queen, but you had a memorable drag performance as Mercutio in Romeo + Juliet. What keeps you coming back?
HAROLD PERRINEAU: People seem to think I do it okay sometimes! I remember playing [a transgender woman] in Woman on Top with Penélope Cruz. I had to learn all of this stuff about dressing [as a woman], and I remember looking at myself in the mirror and going, “Wow, I’m pretty!” It was the first time I’d ever been pretty in my whole life. Maybe that’s what brings me back. It’s like, I’m kind of pretty! I like the makeup. It’s a lot of fun and I get to have a good time with it.
Miss Ginger, was there anything you had to do to whip this guy into shape for doing drag again?
GINGER MINJ: I offered him a wig, and that was about the extent of it. We got along very well from our first day on set…. This isn’t about doing a drag show; this is about portraying a human. I think that’s why Harold is so good at playing these roles, because he’s worldly, but he’s still very warm. That’s what it takes to make a convincing, wonderful drag queen.
PERRINEAU: I’m making jokes and you’re being profound over there.
MINJ: But it’s true! Any drag queen that’s worth their weight, they have to be worldly and wise, but they also have to be warm. And that’s where you’re going to find success.
Harold, what was the most meaningful or surprising thing Ginger taught you about drag you hadn’t come across before?
HAROLD: Not that I hadn’t come across before, but it’s one thing watching someone on stage and then being right next to someone, performing and playing with them. She’s so comfortable in her skin and in her character, so I was intimidated. I had to try to leave that alone because I wanted to be this human being next to this other human being, so watching her perform backstage with makeup or without the makeup, I was watching the whole time, just to absorb as much as I could.
The elephant in the room: Ginger, did we have to have a tucking lesson with Harold?
PERRINEAU: I don’t know if it was an elephant in the room… [Laughs]
MINJ: Honey, I don’t have to tuck. I’m fat, so it always tucks itself. I’m not one to give anybody lessons on anything!
PERRINEAU: [Laughs] I don’t think I needed a hot lesson on that one. I was pretty okay.
I love the line in the film: “The Gods of the wigs have smiled upon us this evening.” Did they smile upon you guys with the wigs in this film?
MINJ: I spent years cultivating my drag and trying to sell it to the world the way it is, so I have a brand to protect. So, I brought my wig guy, Chad Walters, onto the film with me to do my hair. I had these giant Dolly Parton pieces, and the hair and wardrobe women were wonderful, but if you’re not really from the drag world, you don’t grasp the concept of how you have to make everything so much bigger to make everyone else look more petite and feminine. So, a lot of the wigs when I first got to set…. You wouldn’t get the Dolly Parton effect with how small and thin the wigs were. They were beautiful wigs, but we needed to amp them up a little bit.
PERRINEAU: It’s so true. You really have to know what you’re doing and like he said, the women who worked with us were great, but they didn’t have the same hands-on experience of dealing with those kind of wigs, which is why Ginger lent me hers. It was that that changed it, that made it look like how you’re supposed to look.
MINJ: I walked into the wig room on our second or third day of shooting and I said, “How many of these little blonde wigs do you have?” And they said, “We have buckets of them!” I started pulling out matching colors, and I showed these girls how to tease them up and stack them and stuff them, and all of a sudden the other Dolly Partons came back from lunch and suddenly their hair looked 10 times higher.
For both of you: Is there an intimidation factor doing not just a movie as drag queens, but a movie where you’re both doing drag as Dolly Parton?
MINJ: I know that I don’t look like Dolly Parton. I’m never going to look like Dolly Parton, so I approached it with the Angela-Bassett-as-Tina-Turner school of thought, where she just gives the essence of the character. You pull the things you like most about them and you celebrate it, you don’t try to imitate it.
PERRINEAU: I’d never considered that I might ever play Dolly Parton in my life, so it wasn’t anywhere in my repertoire…. I found a few things that seemed to work and relied a bit on my dance background.
What were the things about Dolly that stuck out to you?
PERRINEAU: She does this step-and-touch thing, like a swaying back-and-forth when she’s singing. It’s simple, but it’s her. Those were the things I was focused on, trying to sell the story and a couple of small movements that reminded me of Dolly Parton.
You incorporated that into the legendary drag art of lip-syncing. What was the dynamic like between you guys, because it’s such a vital art to the drag community.
MINJ: It was really wonderful, because Harold took it seriously. A lot of people assume it’s easy and don’t put the effort into it, but he didn’t. He always had his little earbud in, listening to that song over and over. You could see him trying to catch every breath of it. To me it was the respect he showed the art form and treated it seriously like an art form, because a lot of people don’t understand that. They think you can turn on a song you’ve heard a couple times and move your mouth to the words, and I know professional drag queens who have that mindset, but it’s an art form in and of itself, and you have to convince somebody else you are singing this song, so when you know every beat and every breath, it shows you’re committed and dedicated to it.
He definitely wouldn’t have sashayed away on Drag Race?
MINJ: No, not at all!
PERRINEAU: [Laughs] Not the first one. Eventually they’d get me.
MINJ: Well eventually they get us all, gal.
Harold, do you have a new appreciation for the art of drag?
PERRINEAU: I’ve always appreciated it, but I have a new appreciation now…. you’re creating an experience as if you were the singer [by lip-syncing], and that’s true art…. I watch Drag Race and I always wish I could be a judge, and somewhere in there I wish I could kind of compete so that I could learn it better!
Now you have Ginger’s wig, so you can!
PERRINEAU: Well, I had to give Ginger’s wig back…
You didn’t take it?
That’s so not what a queen would do! Drag queens take everything!
MINJ: It’s true!
PERRINEAU: Is that true? I’m still learning.
MINJ: I don’t think I even took the wigs though, they just became part of the little bar we were shooting in [but drag queens] are all thieves!
What significance do you think these characters have for the story?
MINJ: When I first met [director] Anne Fletcher, it was a one-day, two-line scene [but] she wanted to flesh the character out. When I got to my first day on set, she said, “I want you to keep me honest. This is your world, I’m just visiting it, and I want to represent it as truthfully as possible. So if there’s something that’s not right, tell me and I’ll stop and we’ll fix it.”
Did you change anything?
MINJ: We were doing the “Two Doors Down” dance number…. it’s supposedly in the story that Dolly Parton night is my [character’s] night and I host it every week, so I was front and center and they were dancing around me. She said, “We need to get some different shots, so Ginger go down to the end.” I raised my hand and said, “Okay, you want me to tell you when something’s not accurate, right?” And she said, “What is it, Ginger?” And I said, “If this was my show every week, this queen who had this show and I hosted it and put it together, there’s no way in hell I would not be front and center for the big production.” She said, “You just want to be front and center!” And I said, “You’re damn right, but I also want to help you be authentic.” She huffed and puffed for a second, and then she said, “You’re absolutely right. Go back to one and let’s do it again.” Yes, one half of me was being super selfish because I did want front-and-center, but the other half was like, no, if you want me to tell you what our world is like, this is what our world is like. There’s no way that if I fought for this little position of power in this [small town] bar that I would surrender it to anybody else.
Finally: Ginger, would you take Miss Harold as your drag daughter after working with him here?
MINJ: Maybe I would take him as my sister. I’m too young for children myself. I never had the hips for it. Here’s the thing: He doesn’t need my help because he’s already conquered the world.
What would Harold’s real drag name be outside the context of playing this character?
MINJ: You could take my last name and be Cinna Minj.
PERRINEAU: We were doing a game yesterday where your drag name would be your favorite pattern and then the last name is a singer or songwriter who’s passed away. My name was like Houndstooth Pavarotti. So, that’s my drag name
MINJ: I like that! That’s a good hashtag!