Out of the One+One Archive: From Cult to Cabaret: A Conversation with Mink Stole

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February 7, 2017
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February 18, 2017
By Melanie Mulholland and Bradley Tuck
Note: This Interview was originally conducted and published in 2013 as part of One+One Filmmakers Journal’s special issue on Trash, Exploitation and Cult Cinema (Issue 12 vol 2). At that time Mink Stole was performing in a theatre production of The Mutilated and promoting her new album Do Re Mink.)
Mink Stole is an iconic cult megastar of underground cinema, whose output spans film, theatre and music. Her first film appearance was in 1966 in John Waters’ Roman Candles and she has continued to appear in all of his films right up to his latest, A Dirty Shame (2004). In this respect she is part of the dreamlanders, a group of regular players who appeared in John Waters’ film, such as Edith Massey, Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce etc. In these films, Mink Stole would often act as the nemesis to Divine in a depraved descent into queer perversity, trash sensibilities, and bad taste. Through these films she has brought us many unique and epochal characters, from Connie Marble, a red haired upper-class pervert and criminal vying for the title of filthiest person alive (Pink Flamingos); Taffy Davernport, Divine’s Bratty and abused daughter (Female Trouble); Peggy Gravel, the delusional, neurotic middle-class snob on the run after killing her husband (Desperate Living) but to name a few.
In addition to this she has acted in films such as Lost Highway, Anarchy TV, All About Evil, But I’m a Cheerleader and many more. But Mink’s talents don’t stop there. She is currently starring in a theatre adaptation of Tenessee Williams’ The Mutilated and has recently released her first album, Do Re Mink, which includes, for example, her reworking of the title song from Female Trouble, “No Nose Nanook”, a song she performed in the early ’70s with The Cockettes in a show called Vice Palace and “Sometimes I wish I had a Gun”. She describes the album as “Swingy, bluesy, rocky, poppy, a little bit sweet, a little bit sad, and plenty of attitude”. We were fortunate enough to talk with Mink and discuss her many different projects.

Mink Stole as Peggy Gravel with Jean Hill as Grizelda Brown in Desparate Living (1977)

Melanie: Was acting something you always wanted to do or was this something you just “fell into”?
Mink: I fell into it. I mean it was the sort of thing that as a child I thought would be a great thing to do; I have a lot of drama in me. I was a drama queen as a kid, but I fell into it. I’d done nothing to make it happen. I met John Waters when I was just 18 years old and he offered me a part in a movie and I said yes, and he offered me another part and I said yes again. So I discovered that I really did like it. I enjoyed doing it very much and I had a knack for it. So it was an easy thing for me to get into.
Bradley: Who inspires you as an actor?
Mink: Well I guess if I had to go back to the women in film that inspire me I’d have to say Bette Davis of course. And Barbara Stanwyk, Marlene Dietrich to a certain extent, Joan Crawford not quite as much. I would think Bette Davis most of all, she could play anything. Well she wasn’t afraid of looking ridiculous.
Bradley: Because you always play a lot of different types of parts over your career, whether it’s Connie Marble or Dottie Hinkle. I suppose, like Bette Davis, you play a vast array of parts?
Mink: Well I wasn’t typecast yet. I was typecast later in my life. But when John was using me he always cast me as the foil for Divine, originally, but he gave me such different parts to play.
Melanie: And that’s an actor’s dream really. Isn’t it?
Mink: Yes it was.
Melanie: Your early films with John Waters and Divine look like a lot of fun. They were also provocative and challenging. What is interesting about these films is that you get the feeling you’re not just being told a story, but also getting a feel of the culture and friendships upon which the films were made. It is not a documentary, but feels like it documents a group of people at a particular time. What was it like to be one of those people?

Mink Stole as Conney Marble in Pink Flamingos (1972)

Mink: Well it was great, but they were really not documentaries (laughs) I mean I cannot tell you how many times people have asked me if I still lived in the trailer and y’know first of all I didn’t live in the trailer in the movie, well the trailer was burned down. People actually did think that’s us playing ourselves. And we were not. There’s nothing about any of our characters that’s really remotely like us as people except for me and Taffy. Taffy was based, not entirely on me, but partly on me, so, I had a relationship with that character that was different from my relationship with the other characters. But you could tell that we were friends, I think you could tell from watching the films that we enjoyed what we were doing. And we were friends off screen.
Melanie: I think that’s part of the joyfulness, and the rambunctiousness of those films is that you can tell that everyone is doing this for the love of it and that there are friendships there.
Mink: Yes, absolute friendships there and for those of us that are still alive, we are still friends.
Melanie: Oh that’s wonderful. Also as a fan that’s lovely to hear.
How do you prepare for a role?

Mink Stole in Multiple Maniacs (1970)

Mink: I didn’t really! I didn’t in the sense of making up a back story or having an interior monologue that I would work on. The only role that I actually prepared for in any actory sense was Peggy Gravel in Desperate Living. And what I did was y’know, I wore a leg brace in that movie, which was never explained. It was never discussed, it was never explained, I just wore it. I never had any idea why I was wearing it, I just wore it. But one day I thought well, I should prepare, I should learn how to deal with this and one day I got on a bus and went into downtown Baltimore wearing the leg brace, and I walked around for a few blocks, and then I felt totally ridiculous and I got back on the bus and went home. When I’m doing theater I do a lot of preparation, but I don’t do the same amount for film. There’s an immediacy with film. I do very little in preparation. I like to get my shoes, my costume. I gain a lot from what I look like. What they do with my hair, what they do with my clothing and then I sort of, as I get into my clothing and my physical appearance is, y’know, my body posture sort of adjusts to the character, and then from the body posture comes the character, and the vocal inflections etc. etc. so it’s a combination of all sorts of things, but very definitely my film characters in particular come from the outside in as opposed to the inside out.
Melanie: John Waters also seems to have given you some of your most notorious roles. In his films you really see your talent as a character actor. I’m thinking of Connie Marble, Dottie Hinkle, Taffy Davenport, Peggy Gravel and your brief cameo as Hatchet’s mother.
Mink: Well Hatchet’s mother actually had a bigger part.. What you see in the film is me in an iron lung. Before that it was Troy Donahue, who was my husband, he and I sold cigarettes out of a truck to high school students. So there was a set up and then the iron lung was the punchline. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, those set up scenes got cut. So you didn’t get the full impact of the joke. Which was unfortunate because it was funny.

Mink Stole as Hatchet’s mother with Troy Donahue as Hatchet’s Father in Cry-Baby (1990)

Melanie: I’d never heard of an iron lung before, I was a kid…
Mink: That was for polio victims, they were used you know, people with polio couldn’t breathe on their own were put in iron lungs. And the very strange thing about an iron lung, and it was an interesting experience, because when you’re in one of those things you have absolutely no visual contact with your own body. You can see nothing of your own self, there was a mirror above my head, but that was for me to see other people. So it’s very interesting to be completely out of visual touch with your own person. I mean my hands worked, I mean my body worked, but it was odd.
Melanie: Yeah, very surreal.
Mink: It was very surreal. I was in it for hours.
Melanie: Oh gosh! You must have felt discombobulated after you got out of it?
Mink: It was very disconcerting, it gave me a lot of empathy for people who are in that position of great physical inability. I felt very bad for people who actually had to be in them. I don’t know that anybody’s in one any more, I don’t know that they’re in use any more.
Melanie: I remember watching it as a kid and just hearing this really hoarse voice, and then there was this machine, and then just your head.
Mink: It was the hoarse voice of a smoker!
Melanie: Yes! (laughs)
Mink: and the whole set up is that I was a smoker and that I sold cigarettes, and even when I was in a iron lung I was still smoking!

Mink Stole as Sylvia Mallory in Cecil B. Demented (2000)

Bradley: So what would be your ideal role?
Mink: Actually I’m kind of working on it right now. I’m doing a play, it’s a Tennessee Williams play called The Mutilated, He wrote it late in life, he wrote it in the 60s and it’s about two women who have a dysfunctional relationship, but the character I play has had a mastectomy. The play is set in the 50s when nobody talked about this sort of thing. This was a very shameful thing and the way she deals with the mastectomy and the friend who kind of blackmails her, you know, to keep the secret, she’s confided in only one person and that person’s her blackmailer. It’s a very complicated role because it has to do with shame and friendship and sexuality. She picks up a sailor in order to get over her fear; her shame. She picks up a sailor who goes very bad you know, it does not work out the way she wants it to. It also deals a little bit with religion because both of these characters are religious, and there’s a miracle. I mean it’s a really rich, rich, character so, and I’ve been working on it since June for a November run in New York. So I feel very fortunate because it’s one of the chewiest characters I’ve ever done, she’s all over the place emotionally. It’s only a one act play.

 

Mink Stole and Penny Arcade in a stage production of Tennessee Williams The Mutilated

Melanie: That must be so much fun.
Mink: It really has been fun, I’m very excited about it. We’re part of a festival in Provincetown, there’s a Tennessee Williams festival there every September and we’re performing it and work-shopping it there. I’m very excited about it, it’s one of the best roles I’ve ever had. Challenging and alluring, it’s scary. I like something that makes me scared though.
Bradley: Do you like having lots of challenges, and trying new things?
Mink: I don’t get challenges that much, a lot of the things I’m offered, you know, the roles that I’ve played over the past few years have been mostly very gay oriented movies and I’ve played the mother of the gay, or the grandmother of the gay, or the aunt of the gay or something like that, and my role is generally to be an understanding straight woman, you know what I mean? And they’re not big roles and they’re not terribly challenging. I enjoyed doing them but they’re not big challenges. So, when something like this comes along and I have a wonderful director and a really strong co-star, do you know Penny Arcade?
Melanie: I do, yes
Mink: Well she’s my co-star. It’s, you know, we are such very different people and our characters are are so different in this play that there’s really, there’s a lot of energy that goes between us. So you know, yes, I’m very happy at the moment about this because I don’t get challenges like this very often.

Mink Stole as Dotty Hinkle alongside Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin in Serial Mom (1994)

Melanie: Your early films are often associated with queer politics, but this is a relatively new term. They are often compared to punk too, but in many ways they are proto-punk and proto-queer. Do you think you would have, or did you embrace those terms? How did you view what you were doing at the time?
Mink: I was having the time of my life! I had such a good time, I’ve thought about this a lot because people ask this a lot of me. People say that we were brave and, you know, politically forward, we were attributed with characteristics that I really don’t deserve. I wasn’t being brave, I had nothing to lose. I embraced gay culture when I was exposed to it because I had always been an outsider, and I was exposed to another group of outsiders and they liked me, and I liked them. Up until then my life had always been just not fitting in anywhere. To find a place that I fit in with other people who also hadn’t fit in, I just felt like I was coming home, you know, that I’d finally found the family that I was supposed to be born into as opposed to one that I actually was born into. So I wasn’t being particularly brave. We were pre-punk but I like to think that I wasn’t consciously doing anything, I mean I wasn’t trying to make a fashion statement nor was I ever trying to make a political… I WAS trying to make a political statement in some way, you know, this was the 60s and early 70s, there was a lot going on politically, so, anything that one could do to set oneself apart from the political mainstream was a good thing, and of course it was important to make a statement. “I am not like the rest of you, I am different, I am more liberal, my politics are better,” all of that stuff, but I wasn’t really conscious of it. But I wasn’t a hippy, I never identified with the hippies. I was certainly anti-war and anti-Nixon, but that was easy, everybody I knew was anti-Nixon and anti-war. So in a sense I was conforming to a different set of rules. But I never set out to be a fashion icon or a political icon, I wasn’t making a political statement of any kind with these films. John may have been, that’s a question for John, but I wasn’t. I was just having a great time. This morning I was thinking about Pink Flamingos. When you talk about proto-queer politics… In Pink Flamingos I sold a baby to the lesbian couple. To me, that wasn’t the shocking part, to me the shocking part was how I obtained the baby, not that it went to lesbians. That wasn’t shocking to me. I didn’t overintellectualise any of it. I didn’t examine it intellectually at all. I read the lines I laughed, I said, “Oh John, how did you think this stuff up?” I did the part and had a great time.

Mink Stole as Taffy Davernport in Female Trouble (1974)

Bradley: So John Waters has cast you in every one of his films and it reminds me of when you’re watching one of the later Hitchcock films and then suddenly Hitchcock appears. You can find yourself looking for the Hitchcock moment and I sort of do the same when I’m watching a John Waters film, but I’m looking for the Mink Stole moment!
Mink: Oh, the Mink Stole moment! Oh I have no… I mean there were a few films that I have very tiny parts in. My part in Pecker is small and my part in Cecil B. Demented is very small, those two in particular. I don’t know why I got such small parts in those movies, (laughs) you’ll have to ask John about that! I would certainly liked to have been in them more, it wasn’t deliberate on my part to be typecast. I always wanted to be on screen as much as possible, I always liked having the bigger parts because when you have a larger part then you actually can create…. there’s a character, and things happen. Yeah, things progress in the gestalt of the characters, let’s say, but when there’s a cameo the two cameos that I had, the both of them, they were definitely, you know, Mink Stole cameos. Not just anybody could play this, I mean, anybody could have, but I tried to give it the, you know, the “Mink Stole” treatment.
Bradley: What do you think has happened to trash and bad taste cinema in a culture in which American Pie is mainstream, and you can see all sorts of things on the internet. Can Pink Flamingos and other such films still be as shocking and provocative?

Mink Stole in Pecker (1994)

Mink: I don’t know. Really I haven’t seen any movies that even remotely shock me like Pink Flamingoes shocked other people, nothing. I’m not a fan of horror movies, I’m not a fan of gore films. I’ve been in a couple but they were more funny than scary. I’m unshockable pretty much you know, it’s really difficult to embarrass me.
Melanie: Right, that’s the perfect candidate to be a John Waters actor.
Mink: I guess so, although back in those days I was a little more easily shocked. I had a typical, well not typical, middle-class suburban upbringing. What shocks me is meanness. I don’t like meanness.
Melanie: I completely agree. If I see any real violence, that’s what shocks me. I can watch anything in jest, with comedy.
Mink: I don’t like angry comedy, I don’t like mean comedy, I just don’t. I find it distasteful and unnecessary, so I mean sometimes it’s funny but a lotta times it’s just nasty. I don’t know where taste is these days. I mean we kind of don’t have it any more. There’s so much crap in the world, all the junk that’s sold you know, big discount stores. They don’t know what kitsch is. They have no sense of kitsch, I mean it seems to have stopped somewhere in the mid 20th century.
Melanie: Many of your recent films have continued this tradition somehow, they have either been underground cult and independent films (eg. All About Evil, Anarchy TV)…

Mink Stole as Evelyn in Joshua Grannell’s All about Evil (2010)

Mink: Well I’m seeing him soon. I love him, Joshua Grannell. He’s a very good friend.
Melanie:…or they have been gay an lesbian films, (But I’m a Cheerleader, Eating Out) Are these films you are drawn to or do these films pick you?
Mink: The films have picked me. I actually must confess, I have one more film planned that’s going to be, I think it’s called Hush Up Sweet Charlotte. It’s being made by Billy Clift.
We’re doing it early next year, he made a movie called Baby Jane?, which is a drag take off of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. Hilarious, black and white it’s hilarious, it’s really really funny, he did a terrific job on it. This movie is a drag version of a Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and I’m going to play the Agnes Moorehead role and I’m very much looking forward to it. But I’ve stopped now doing most of these low budget independent films; they’re hard on me. They’ve chosen me you know. I think I said earlier that I got typecast in the gay films as the mother of the gay, the aunt of the gay, and in but I’m A I’m the mother who sends my daughter away “to a make-you-straight camp” which ironically enough is run by RuPaul, um you know, as a man.
So I have absolutely no problem with these, with being in gay movies, what I have a problem with is that they just don’t have enough money. Working conditions are too hard. That’s basically why I’m calling a halt to it. They do, they’re physically quite demanding and they’re long days and they don’t have the money to make me comfortable. I’ve nothing against them and I wish them all the luck in the world, I really do, but I just can’t, you know, my days of finding a corner of the room to sit in while I’m waiting for my next shot, this is over.

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