Drag Race MVP Nina West's whimsical new short could lead to an Oscar nod
The sweet story behind how Nina West realized her dreams thanks to The View.
Actor Andrew Levitt — better known as his drag persona, Nina West — had his dreams demolished and rebuilt in the span of a month.
Shortly after his controversial elimination from the 11th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race in May, the fan-favorite performer and LGBTQIA activist manifested his professional aspirations, telling EW he wanted to fuse the traditionally adult-oriented art of drag with cross-demographic content as a children’s show host, comedian, and voice actor.
Within weeks of his Drag Race exit, Levitt was invited by Meghan McCain to participate in a Pride segment on The View in June, where he (as well as All-Stars 4 champion Monét X Change and season 6 runner-up Adore Delano) spoke the next chapter of his career into existence.
“I’m a massive Disney fan, and I realized I was at the [parent company] ABC Studios. I was like, I’ll kick myself if I don’t,” Levitt tells EW of his on-air admission to McCain that he dreamed of doing voice work for Disney. Two days later, his management called with an offer to voice an animated short film called Coaster. In a twist of fate, director Amos Sussigan had seen Levitt’s appearance on The View, and immediately knew he wanted the 42-year-old to take the lead on the project (made in collaboration with writer-producer Dan Lund, a longtime Disney animator with visual effects credits on Tarzan, Hercules, and The Lion King).
“I was in the studio the next week in Columbus doing a voiceover recording,” Levitt remembers, adding that the film’s schedule was so hectic that Sussigan and Lund (who wanted to complete the project in time for Oscars consideration) agreed to coach him through the sessions in his Ohio hometown via Skype from their studio in Burbank, California. “[It happened within] a full week. I remember thinking this is nuts. Is this how it all works? It’s like a dream.”
So, too, is the film the trio created. The eight-minute movie unfolds in a surreal world where a young man’s home scoots along a winding course of roller coaster track, with the ride’s twists and turns mimicking the ups and downs of his personal life, including mounting bills, a chaotic love life, and a dire job search — a post-graduate struggle narrated by the guiding, reassuring warmth and tenderness of Levitt’s voice as the young man’s protective biological mother.
“It’s supposed to be a woman! The people they had up for the part, whom I replaced, were all notable [women],” Levitt recalls, stressing that the character — the film’s sole speaking part, seen only in a portrait on the man’s wall (drawn by Levitt’s friend, Steven Thompson) — is not a drag queen. “Before I talked to Dan and Amos about the characterization, I was going to come up with different characters or try to do some voices and give her something different from my voice. But, they said, ‘No! We want your voice!”
“We wanted the voice to sound visual; it needed to be the moral compass of the film. Andrew was cast not because of his drag queen persona, but because we felt the texture and versatility of his voice would be able to carry this feeling throughout the entire short without overpowering the main character’s own story arc,” Sussigan and Lund explain to EW. “Andrew’s voice brought a pitch-perfect warmth to Coaster that never tipped over into forced sentimentality. It allowed us to drop a few of the more sarcastic lines that were in the script before we heard Nina’s take on the character, making her much richer and nuanced than we ever expected.”
Instead of affecting his voice, Levitt grounded his performance with inspiration from his own doting mother, who provided the foundation for the character originally called “Christine” (after Louie Anderson’s matriarch from FX’s Baskets) but affectionately retitled “Nina” in his honor. And it’s a torch Levitt will proudly carry into the next phase of his life as an entertainer, which he hopes to devote to broadly appealing content that speaks to children and their parents.
“People still see drag as relegated to the nightlife, but I don’t necessarily see it that way,” he says, adding that there are “things in motion that hopefully will further the conversation with Disney” in addition to leading a children’s show with a drag queen host in the near future. “I know that’s controversial and people are going to try to tear me down, but I think there’s a need and a market for it, and there’s space for people to say that they want something like this in their lives.”
While Coaster might not be appropriate for all ages (there’s a brief sequence of cartoon-on-cartoon sex that took even its star by surprise), it’s a relatable story that fits into Levitt’s trajectory.
“Everyone is floundering in their day-to-day life, and I think this is a story that resonates with everybody. [Life] doesn’t always go the way you planned it to. [But] you’ll get to your path. It’s never really determined as you think it will be,” he says, fully aware that his whirlwind ascension toward realizing his goals mirrors the spirit of Coaster‘s coiled journey. “RuPaul’s Drag Race gave me this tremendous opportunity to launch my career…. it’s a dream come true. It sounds so trite, but it’s all happening so fast and there’s no way to catch your breath. I’m just trying to hold on for this incredible ride.”