RuPaul and co-creator Michael Patrick King (The Comeback) tell EW how they connected with their inner children (and 22 Drag Race queens) to film their new Netflix series.
Wet T-shirt contests hosted by drag queens? Lip-syncing for drunk white girls in nightclubs? Felony robbery? On the surface, Netflix’s new dramedy from the (Michael Patrick) King and Queen (RuPaul) of television might seem like no place for children, but such a juxtaposition of age and maturity is exactly where AJ and the Queen finds its magic.
“At the end, I said, ‘Oh my God, this 10-year-old, it’s like us when we were 10!’” the Comeback and 2 Broke Girls creator tells EW of mining his inner child for inspiration while devising the show — about a jilted drag queen, Ruby (RuPaul), traveling across the country on a cash-grabbing tour with a gender-bending child stowaway (Izzy G.) after her boyfriend steals her life’s savings — with RuPaul in “lightning” fast time. “We created a character who’s a girl who dresses like a boy, but doesn’t want to be either, and, in a weird way, we were talking to ourselves.”
The (very colorful) fruit of their labor is a fresh take on the classic road comedy, with a 6’4” drag superstar mothering and fathering a youthful drifter who, King, says, “is sometimes the teacher to the adult” as they dodge one-eyed criminals, exact revenge on Ruby’s former lover, and travel from city to city, experiencing slice-of-life vignettes from Pittsburgh to New York City that RuPaul calls a “reminder of who we are as Americans, and the optimism this country was built on, not separation. We’ve witnessed the separation for so long.”
“There are no outsiders,” King adds of the show’s characters. “What if we’re all insiders? What if we’re all in the same group? What if there aren’t margins where people are pushed and we have these two characters who belong in Ohio as well as New York City?”
One thing that also stands to unite us all is the bliss of seeing RuPaul — who’s largely toned down his energetic drag performances in recent years as he’s taken up his royal post on the throne behind the Drag Race judging panel — getting back to his showgirl roots in full wardrobe (that shows off those sky-high legs), hair, and makeup to perform jaw-dropping lip-sync numbers across all 10 AJ episodes.
“We wanted something that you’d go back to and watch again,” Ru adds of courting our gaze on the stage once again. “[It’s about] the magic of drag.”
While King gorged himself on the aesthetic treats of drag culture (which included hiring 23 drag queens, all but one from RuPaul’s Drag Race, for supporting roles), he wants to take you beyond the sequins to feel the surprisingly tender moments and heartfelt lessons that arise when we least expect it — especially when we forget about age or gender, and surrender to life’s journey that exists beyond the barriers.
“[It’s] what you love already — great looks, great jokes, music — but, here’s the surprise: Emotion and smallness,” King says.
“The combination of that makes me excited, because, how do you take something you already love and hopefully do something new with it?” he continues, pausing slightly to consider the road ahead. “When you have someone like Ru, you can just go.”
AJ and the Queen debuts Friday on Netflix. Read on for EW’s full Q&A with RuPaul and King.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: My wig is completely off to both of you. This show is so great!
RUPAUL: That’s very sweet!
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: I’m glad it knocked your wig off.
Well, it is a dream pairing. Ru, I know your “Hello, hello, hello” entrance line on Drag Race was inspired by Michael’s work on The Comeback, and you were actually on an episode of The Comeback season 2. Is that how you guys first met?
RUPAUL: We actually met at a house party, years before that. I knew from the short amount of time working on The Comeback that he was someone I could trust.
KING: I’d been watching Ru forever. I was also an early devotee of Drag Race. I’d say to anyone who’d listen: “RuPaul is the funniest thing on television.” When I got a call about meeting with Ru, I thought, this is the universe telling me that the one person I’m obsessed with is actually reaching out to me. The Comeback [cameo] was a great drive-by, because we had royalty and limited time. We wanted someone genius who could be quiet and telling, and Ru said he would do it because he loved The Comeback.
So, the AJ talks happened relatively recently?
KING: Much after The Comeback happened. Then, Ru ascended to yet another higher level of his throne, and then all of a sudden he was like, “What’s next?” What happened next was me and him in a room. I hesitate to say this, but AJ and the Queen came to us like lightning.
RUPAUL: Within 15 minutes we knew exactly what we wanted to do, and we knew it would be powerful.
KING: The interesting thing is neither of us had a preconceived idea. It happened between us, out of conversation. It was zero to 100. All of a sudden, we had the idea based on Ru telling me the most rabid fanbase for Drag Race is adolescent girls, and that combined with the idea that we both love an eccentric movie called Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges. The two ideas appeared together, and that was our show: Ru, a girl, and their journey.
RUPAUL: Between Michael and I, our combined humanity carried with us the torch we’ve carried all the years we’ve been on this planet. It just unloaded onto this project seamlessly.
KING: When you’re starting something, one of the questions you ask each other is: Where are we now? What’s not been said? Before you sit to create something, it’s like, is there a need for it? The callback to Sullivan’s Travels…. that’s a journey of these two characters going across the country and finding out where humanity is. We started to think, what if these two characters found where humanity is now? One of the things I’m most proud of is [AJ showing that] there’s no us and them, there’s just us. There are no outsiders. What if we’re all insiders? What if we’re all in the same group? What if there aren’t margins where people are pushed and we have these two characters who belong in Ohio as well as New York City?
How do you think that universal message will speak to audiences?
RUPAUL: It’s a reminder. I tell a lot of the kids I talk to who want to express themselves that it’s not something you have to learn, it’s something you have to remember. You already have the information downloaded in your system, you just have to clear a path for it to shine and ruminate. This show is like that totem. It’s a reminder of who we are as Americans, and the optimism this country was built on, not [a] separation. We’ve witnessed the separation for so long.
KING: Every character they meet is an individual. If you stop thinking in terms of tribes of people but start thinking about who’s in those tribes, who’s the individual you’re meeting versus who’s the group that you’re meeting…. One of the things Ruby tells AJ that’s so important is: “Nobody’s just one thing.” People are more complicated than you think, and that’s a thought that’s needed now.
Did that concept force you both to remember your inner children?
KING: At the end, I said, ‘Oh my God, this 10-year-old, it’s like us when we were 10!’ We created a character who’s a girl who dresses like a boy, but doesn’t want to be either, and, in a weird way we were talking to ourselves.
RUPAUL: The 10-year-old [Izzy G.] was our teacher, too.
KING: The kid isn’t the kid, the kid is sometimes the teacher to the adult. The adult is sometimes the child to the kid. That’s the thing about putting a very young person with an old soul next to a — pardon me, Ru — older person with a young soul, that combination was interesting because it’s an unexpected coupling. You never know where your next lesson is coming from.
RUPAUL: You never know where that next big idea is coming from. You have to be willing to look for it and leave space and room in your consciousness for it to have a seat.
KING: As creators, you have to be willing to go: What else is there? What’s next? What do you do with drag at this point? We thought, well, you go in [to] show people what’s behind it all. [It’s] what you love already — great looks, great jokes, and music — but, here’s the surprise: Emotion and smallness. The combination of that makes me excited, because how do you take something you already love and hopefully do something new with it? You give it more dimensions. When you have someone like Ru, you can just go.
I love the idea of peeking behind the curtain of drag, but externally, Ru, you perform a song in each episode in drag — something we don’t often see from you these days. Why was that important for you to include?
RUPAUL: We wanted to have a fully rounded story of a drag performer in a world where Drag Race doesn’t exist, traveling the United States, making a living as a queen…. We wanted something you’d go back to and watch again, whether it was for a musical number or to relive an emotional tentpole. [It’s about] the magic of drag, and the magic of what makes this country so fabulous.
KING: I was dying to see Ru perform. In the third episode, where they go to Columbus and Ru does the wet T-shirt contest — nobody has seen that since the ‘80s in New York! The teacher is showing it off in goddess mode! We just had to put those numbers in. It’s like The Carol Burnett Show and MGM musicals. Then, of course, there’s the fun of seeing the beat-up bulls— of being on the road and having to pull a number out of your ass at the last minute!
You guys also brought two dozen queens from Drag Race here. What was it like wrangling 23 queens together?
KING: It was plate-spinning. It was important for me as a fan of Drag Race to create Easter eggs that were amazing little pop-up moments where you see someone you weren’t expecting. It was a complicated scheduling situation because they’ve all become superstars due to Ru, but because of the connection they have to Ru and how much they wanted to support his next thing, everybody bent over backwards to get their stuff together and be in on time.
RUPAUL: It was absolutely lovely. These are professional showgirls who know what it takes. It was a challenge for them because a lot of them haven’t done scripted things or haven’t been on [big sound stages]. We filmed on the same stage that Judy Garland filmed A Star Is Born and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. To bring those girls along for the ride, I felt honored, like a proud mother.
AJ and the Queen debuts Friday, January 10 on Netflix.