Fire Island's Margaret Cho on why, in both politics and pop culture, "gay is here to stay"

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Margaret Cho - 2021 in Pasadena, California
Margaret Cho - 2021 in Pasadena, California

Margaret Cho

With her starring role in Joel Kim Booster’s gay rom-com Fire Island, Margaret Cho finally has a project that reflects the kind of inclusive sexuality she’s advocated for throughout her career. In the film, which debuts June 3 on Hulu, Cho plays Erin, mother hen to a gaggle of gays paying their annual visit to her beach-home-away-from-home.

It’s escapist entertainment, but it’s also the kind of work that can help shift the zeitgeist, something Cho has done as an actor, writer, podcaster, and comedy legend since she started blazing trails in Hollywood nearly 30 years ago.

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Cho, who began breaking down entertainment barriers in 1994 with her starring role in All-American Girl, the first Asian-American sitcom, talked with The A.V. Club about pop culture then and now, her favorite LGBTQ+ and rom-com films, and how David Attenborough might narrate Fire Island.

The A.V. Club: Congratulations on the the lovely Fire Island.

Margaret Cho: Thank you. Isn’t it beautiful? I love it. It came out so great. I’m so happy because we had such a good time making it, and we really laughed and I think really felt the spirit of the movie. Which, to me, it’s really beautiful. We had the best time.

AVC: How did you get involved with the film?

MC: Well, I pestered them to be in it. I was just trying to get a cameo in it, because I was just excited that this movie was going to get made. And we were looking through the script to see, and Joel said that the only character that would probably work was actually a lead, which is Erin. And it was originally written for a man. But we ended up talking to Andrew, the director, and Joel, and we figured it out, it would just be very easy to make her a woman. And so Erin was born and brought into it! And it was just so natural because we already inhabit these roles in life, generally. So it was very easy to dip into that character and hang out with them.

And we had the best time. Every day outside my trailer, there were full reinterpretations of all of Tiffany Pollard’s monologues from I Love New York or Charm School or any kind of Real Housewives scene. It was like a festival. It was like Shakespeare in the Park; it was like “Real Housewives in the Park.” [Laughing] Every day we would have a re-imagining of the Real Housewives played by Bowen Yang, Matt Rogers, everybody, it was so funny. We just really laughed. I made up a false podcast network, so everybody had their own podcast. There was “The Yang-over,” which is Bowen’s podcast of, every day after a fabulous SNL party, he would have a retelling of what happened at the party. A lot like Truman Capote, these kinds of illustrious New York life, the morning after, post-mortems. And then there was [for Joel Kim Booster] “For Your Kim-formation” which is a daily, 20-minute news political recap like The Daily. “The Whole Ricamora” [for Conrad Ricamora] which is like a Rachel Maddow podcast, all politics, really hard politics ... It was a whole thing. Because we just built this outer world, outside of our film characters’ world, to really complement that. They’re all so funny and so special.

AVC: The film feels so lived-in, almost like a documentary. How much did your offscreen dynamic with Joel overlap with what we saw onscreen?

MC: This was very overlapped, I mean, it was very much a documentary. It was like “David Attenborough does life on Fire Island.” “Planet Earth: Fire Island.” “Our Gay Planet.” [Laughing] Very David Attenborough: “The gay Asians go to Fire Island.” It was so real, so overlapped with the lives of these characters. Although I am more of a Provincetown lady, I definitely have spent many summers on Fire Island as well ... since 2008. It’s a place that I really treasure in my heart and a place that I love to go. And one that we haven’t taken advantage of, cinematically. It’s very cinematic, it’s very beautiful. It’s very evocative of a kind of summer romance, a feel-good film but that also reveals some deep truth. So I love that.

AVC: What do you hope audiences get out of this? Going off this idea that this is a documentary, that Fire Island hasn’t gotten its due representation on screen.

MC: It’s giving island, it’s giving! It’s giving fire! The discovery of fire, which is really important to civilization. [Laughing] No, yeah. It’s like real storytelling from the source; it’s Joel telling his story, Joel bringing all of us into this. And everybody in the film, we’re all actually very close friends and we have history, and our relationships have a lot of meaning and resonance. And I think that shows on camera. And it just doesn’t shy away from the very frank sexuality—which oftentimes in film, sexuality is framed as sort of being a morality lesson. Whereas in this one, it’s really just part of the story. It’s just another color on the palette in this portrait. So to me, I think when you remove that kind of judgmental attitude towards sexuality in film, you really have something that’s very akin to real life that people can really respond to.

Fire Island film, from 20TH CENTURY STUDIOS
Fire Island film, from 20TH CENTURY STUDIOS

Fire Island

AVC: Do you think about a mainstream audience or appealing to the masses? Or is Fire Island just setting out to tell its specific story?

MC: I don’t know, I think they just really wanted to do some push-ups. [Laughing] The bodies! The bodies are so nice. I’m so shallow. I’m like, oh, my God, if everybody could see the muscles on Conrad Ricarmora’s back. Every time they move his back a little bit, it was like diamonds. You see a different facet of his musculature.

I think the representation, really, it’s just sort of factored into what we do as comedians and what [Booster] does as a writer, what he does as an actor, what we all bring to it as as artists who are queer, who are Asian American, who are really looking to be seen. I think the representation in there, it’s just inherent in what all of our work is. So we don’t think about it very much. It’s just who we are.

AVC: We wanted to ask if you have a favorite LGBTQ+ film, but it almost feels like a leading question—there aren’t that many.

MC: There aren’t that many. I think Hedwig And The Angry Inch, definitely. Go Fish. American Psycho, I think, is a lesbian film. Of course, then you have the view of straight people looking through the gay lens, or things like whatever is all of Ryan Murphy’s work. I think my favorite gay films are probably often actually through the straight lens, which is, you know, [The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert] or something like Call Me By Your Name. These are all through the straight lens so it’s hard to know, “Is that a gay film? Yeah, I guess it is. But is it? Brokeback Mountain is?” You know, all of our stories have been told through the straight lens. So finally, we get the gay lens.

AVC: Do you have a favorite rom-com?

MC: Gosh. Muriel’s Wedding, which is not really a rom-com. [Laughing] I think it’s really so beautiful and so sad. It’s really a tragic film, I love the sadness of it, the pathos of it. Oh, Moonlight? That’s not really a rom-com, but I love it. Tangerine? Not really a rom-com, but it is, in a way. There’s a lot of things like that. Set It Off, to me, is a total rom-com but only for Queen Latifah, who is so hot in it.

AVC: The takeaway here is that there’s a lot under the umbrella of queer film, queer art.

MC: There is a lot, there is. And to me, I feel like music is where queer art is really exciting, with artists like Lil Nas X and Dreya Mac, who are very exciting and really represent the newness and the nowness of queer art. There’s a lot going on there.

AVC: And is Hollywood keeping up? Or do they need to catch up?

MC: I feel like with this film, it really catches up. We really get a lot done through this film, which is really powerful, you know? I love that we get to do this ... Because it’s a lot, too, about class. It’s about race and class within gay life. I think a lot of times if you are gay, you imagine you can’t possibly be classist or sexist or racist, [but] we have problems with all those. So the film is really about that as well. In the same way that Pride And Prejudice is all about class and privilege and buying into that privilege through romance and how we can gain power through sexuality and romance, this is similar to that.

AVC: Gay people know about gaining power through sex.

MC: Yeah! Because it’s the one channel; that’s where we can have power because we’re so oppressed in so many other areas of life. But then in gayness, also, you lead with your gay foot forward and you don’t think about all of the other biases that can exist within you. So that intersectionality is still something that we’re trying to grapple with in the gay community. And a lot of us are really learning fast, which is good. So this film is really about that too.

AVC: What is Fire Island seeking to capture about where we’re at culturally right now, especially in terms of sex? Could we call it a very 2022 film?

MC: Yes, I think so. And it’s sex positivity. But also at the same time ... it’s like, we’ve been slut-shamed for an entire millennia, so why don’t we turn that around? And actually, why don’t we consent-shame? Crisis-shame. Look to people who do things non-consensually, as that should be shamed, rather than the activity. And how veiled this idea of consent can be within these parameters. It’s really forcing us to look at being clear about what we mean about morality. So much of sexuality has been under this massive, like, “All sexuality is negative and it will lead you down a difficult journey.” But really, it’s that we’re not clear about our boundaries. Or we cross other people’s boundaries without being clear about our intention. That’s where it’s a problem. So that’s, I think, what the movie really does well.

AVC: And Fire Island ends—spoiler alert—as many rom-coms do with couples getting together. But what about that moment that nods to non-monogamy? Which again feels unprecedented in mainstream cinema, an introduction of different milestones or standards.

MC: Well, it’s really just like, [queer people] want to find lasting love. And lasting love doesn’t necessarily mean monogamy. It doesn’t necessarily mean sort of a heteronormative life. What it means is love that endures. And I think that’s really what true romance should be. And that’s what the goal of these characters is, you know? That’s true romance, that’s what’s really beautiful about it.

Fire Island
Fire Island

AVC: You’ve talked before about how culture or fashion comes in cycles. How do sex-positive stories like Fire Island reflect that?

MC: Well, puritanical attitudes seem to rise and fall and now we’re sort of seeing another resurgence of it. But it’s so crackpot that it’s almost like we can’t even buy into it. Because it’s so crazy, you know? You’re seeing the rise of that, also with the anti-gay legislation out there, but nobody’s buying into it if you look at culture. Culturally, sometimes [historically], it reflects that. But now, none of it does. It’s almost like the more you hear from the anti-gay establishment, the more entertainment rises up to conquer that. I mean, if you look at just some of the outfits at Coachella, you know gay is here to stay! Entertainment is actually stronger [than politics]; that’s what’s really remembered. I think that’s really powerful.

AVC: How much is that part of your mission? Is your artistic mission also your political mission?

MC: Yeah, always. Always, because to me as a comedian, it always is going to be. And I’m fortunate in that it really aligns with everything I’m doing. It’s a really wonderful thing to be able to work and feel good about the work that you’re in.

AVC: Are you feeling optimistic about American politics?

MC: I get nervous, certainly. I mean, I think we just have to remain teachable and remain encouraged and remain optimistic that it’s going to be okay, that we have a voice through our votes, we have a voice through our activism. Now we have a voice through social media, which is amazing. Having lived through a lot of difficult things, whether that is the rise of anti-Asian hate or even going further back, where I witnessed the entire AIDS original pandemic, which is our pandemic, devastate my entire world—it’s something that we were able to survive through and be resilient through. You can recover through anything.

AVC: That’s beautiful. In a lot of your stand-up and interviews, you seem to really make a point of talking about the past, whether that’s AIDS or police brutality. Do you consider yourself a historian?

MC: I am! Yeah, it’s really important to look back. And we keep repeating these terrible historical events and not learning from them. And so it’s important that we do, that we realize that there’s a precedent to everything and that we can learn, that we have to stop it. We have to rise up to stop it.

AVC: Do you think that the Internet, especially with the backlog of all of these old films or pieces of culture, is helping or hurting that? Our attention spans are shrinking, for one.

MC: Yeah, but I force myself to watch a black-and-white or a silent film. [Laughing] You have to. Because I will scroll on TikTok manically, where I’m not even watching a fraction of a second of a video, which is really bad. So you have to go back. I like to go back to French New Wave because there’s a different kind of pacing, there’s a different kind of storytelling—so Truffaut, or if I just want to look at Catherine Deneuve’s face and feel better. Last Year At Marienbad, I watched the other day. It’s very spatially long, it’s visually the opposite of a TikTok. So it’s like you have to train your brain a little bit to have some space. But it’s great because I used to have to have multiple DVD players, multiple VHS, like VCRs, and go to specialty stores to buy seasons of Prime Suspect from, like, the store in West L.A. So I really appreciate all the streaming services because I can have all of it on at any second.

AVC: To take a step back and look at your whole career, do you have any favorite cameo or guest-role appearance?

MC: Oh, I loved doing 30 Rock as Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un. Both characters are great to me. I’m just in The Flight Attendant, this year, I love that show and I love being in it. And Hacks, which I also love, that’s a great show. Those appearances were really exciting. But in my past, I think probably Sex And The City, which was so fun, which I got to do with the great Kevyn Aucoin and Willie Garson, who I miss very much. Yeah, those are my favorites.

AVC: And lastly, what’s a favorite recent film or show you’re watching?

MC: I’m just loving what’s happening in television and film now. There’s so many great things. My favorite show is Our Flag Means Death. It’s like, the most intense—I’ve never been so invested in a romance, ever. [Laughing] It’s such a great show ... gayness is on the rise!