Butch Femme

Photo: Elinor Carucci

For Will Swenson’s first big Broadway entrance, as Berger in the recent revival of Hair, he wore a fringed thong and mooned the audience. For his second, he will be dressed, but as a woman, lip-synching “It’s Raining Men,” in the new musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Today, at the Indian Road Cafe in Inwood, Swenson’s entrance is decidedly less flamboyant. Berger’s mane of hair is gone, and so is the in-your-face sexuality. “Everybody thinks I’m going to be this crazy, out-of-control person,” says ­Swenson. “I’m actually uncomfortable with attention. Curtain call’s my least favorite moment of the night.”

In Priscilla, based on the 1994 art-house hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Swenson plays Tick (a.k.a. Mitzi), the calm, conflicted center of a trio of struggling Australian drag performers. When Tick’s ex-wife, who lives with their son, offers a gig at her club in the desert, the three hop a bus to the middle of nowhere. Swenson is playing “the straight guy—ha, ha—so to speak. [Tick] is trying to reconcile two worlds,” he says, “that of a fabulous drag queen with that of a tortured, absentee father.” As out-there as the part is, Tick is still more grounded than Berger. “I’m a little darker than your run-of-the-mill leading man,” says Swenson, “and on Broadway, I’ve done one thing the world has noticed. I mean, I’ll take it! But my goal is to not get pigeonholed—‘We need some dumbass rocker, let’s get Will Swenson!’ ”

Unskilled in the ways of drag, Swenson took a crash course from one of his Hair co-stars, but he admits he was shaking terribly during Priscilla’s entire final callback, performed in full queen regalia. Harder than navigating heels, though, was lip-­synching, which, as any fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race knows, is an art in itself. “In our huge theater, it’s necessary to really telegraph the lip sync and have lots of fun with the chewing of it all,” he says. “Lots of lipstick helps. And overacting like hell.”

Swenson, 37, was raised in the Mormon church, and though his parents owned a theater in Salt Lake City, acting there meant “lots of Beauty and the Beast, Forever Plaid, and You Can’t Take It With You. Family-friendly, really clean theater,” he says. As “a good Mormon boy,” he went on a mission to Ecuador when he was 19, and married soon after he returned (the couple, who later divorced, share custody of their two sons, Sawyer, 7, and Bridger, 9). “But I had doubts about the Church all along,” says Swenson, who left the religion ten years ago. “I had so much family and peer pressure to stay, to believe it all. I knew I was letting everybody down.”

Swenson says the process was traumatic and not unlike coming out of the closet. “I had a lot of gay friends growing up, who were told by the Church that they were unnatural and immoral, so I had a first-row seat to what [they] were going through.” That experience has inspired Swenson to direct a film adaptation of the play Facing East, about a Mormon couple whose gay son commits suicide. “It’s certainly not an attack on the Mormon church,” he says. “It’s just, Let’s get this right, folks.”

Swenson turns into Priscilla's Mitzi.Photo: Elinor Carucci. Makeup by Justen Brosnan using MAC Cosmetics; Priscilla original makeup design by Cassie Hanlon.

In the summer of 2009, Swenson and his girlfriend, Audra McDonald—a Broadway queen of another sort—came out themselves, as a couple. They met in 2007, performing in a Broadway production of 110 in the Shade. Their public debut sent theater geeks into a tizzy. “I guess it’s cute that we’re both working actors?” he says. “Audra’s amazing. It’s silly what girls we are—and a little obnoxious.” He smiles bashfully. “We get pedicures together. We share moisturizer. Hair was sponsored by Bumble and Bumble; she was thrilled with the free products.”

Swenson says his churchgoing family members have come to terms with his New York lifestyle, though perhaps not his choice of roles. “On the one hand, they are proud of me,” he says. “On the other, they’re like, ‘Why Hair? Why drag queens?’ ” Swenson’s two boys, however, are completely blasé concerning what Dad does; they’ve seen nearly everything he’s been in (aside from Hair’s naughtier first act). After Priscilla’s opening night in Toronto, Swenson asked what they thought of the show. “Sawyer was like, ‘You’re weird, Dad,’ ” he says. “But I came back to my dressing room after intermission one night, after Sawyer had been there, and my headdress for a particular scene had been put on the dummy backward. I totally know the kid tried it on while I was onstage!” Swenson laughs. “They’re New York kids, and you can’t really shock a New York kid.”

Butch Femme