Nancy Giles is one of those compulsively creative people who help propel New York by doing a little bit of absolutely everything. She’s a comic, an actress, a pirate, a poet, and a pundit, well known for her segments on CBS News Sunday Morning about “politics, pop culture, gender issues, race, being single, and PBS children’s shows.” And now she’s finally ready to address her hair. Giles is performing her piece Things My Afro Taught Me as part of Summer Shorts 3, the third annual festival of new American short plays, which is looming tall at 59E59 Theaters.
I called her to catch up on tresses, theater, and the deflated King of Pop.
Me: Hi, Nancy. Tell me about your Afro-palooza.
Giles: It’s a one-person, 20-minute metaphorical play—kind of deep, but light. I’ve done pieces of it before, and I was intrigued by the idea of trying to expand it a little and find out how long I can talk about how my hair has tortured me and how I can fight back.
Me: What’s wrong with your hair?
Giles: There is nothing wrong! Now I love it! It’s taught me lessons about accepting growth and keeping it real.
Me: Do you ever get lonely up there onstage?
Giles: Not enough to include other people in my play. I guess my navel is just too damned fascinating.
Me: There’s nothing wrong with your navel either! Anyway, you’re sort of a reporter/playwright/actor/commentator, but you come from a comedy background, right?
Giles: Second City was my first big gig. And before that, I was a singing garbage bag in the Paper Bag Players.
Me: That’s one way to deal with the hair issues.
Giles: When I comment on TV, I try to start by saying, “I’m not a journalist. I’m someone CBS hired for my opinion.” I try to look at a funny take at things. When I announced on Fox After Breakfast, people said, “She’s announcing now.” No, she’s just trying to pay her bills!
Me: As long as you’re a commentator: Michael Jackson. Discuss.
Giles: I thought the memorial was pretty tasteful.
Me: Comparatively, I guess. Did you think little Paris‘s outburst was rehearsed?
Giles: I didn’t, but the one who bugged me was Janet, coaching her like a stage mom. “Into the mic, honey. Say it loud.” There’s something about Janet I find 100 percent fake. I don’t know what it is.
Me: Her right breast? [By the way, I’m not a journalist either.] Whenever I see you hosting benefits, you always start with a funny line about how your Spanx are cutting off your circulation.
Giles: I’ve been caught! I always thought, “I hope no one sees me more than once because I reuse that line.” But I’m amazed that a woman invented Spanx. There must be a way to make it with a more breathable fabric.
Me: Still, they do make you look fierce. I worship your story about being all dolled up for your role in the film Working Girl.
Giles: I was dressed to the nines and thought I was a hot tamale. A crew guy called me over, and I was sure he was going to ask me on a date. But he said, “We’re taking bets: female or shemale?” I was crushed, but I ended up reclaiming it. I once took a poster of RuPaul just to look at the eye shadow work.
Me: And now your eyes match your hair. Fabulous!
A drag queen with minimal makeup and a big gun surfaces in Ang Lee‘s sweet-faced Taking Woodstock, based on Elliot Tiber‘s memoir about how he facilitated the legendary ’60s music fest. At the premiere party at the Bowery Hotel, Tiber—a wonderful character in a big, old floppy hat, but no Spanx—told me he pulled the project away from two studios that wanted to de-gay his story. What remains isn’t exactly Brokeback Mountain, but, as Tiber put it, “There are two kissing scenes, the acid trip, and the phone calls.”
But his book, he added, “has Robert Mapplethorpe and Tennessee Williams and Rock Hudson.” Wait, he went out with Rock Hudson? “I was friendly with him,” Tiber said, not blushing. The memoir also described the 100 “dykes on bikes” who showed up as diesely security for the festival, but that didn’t make the movie, either. “And I was told, ‘America doesn’t want to know that a boy hates his mother,’ ” related Tiber, so that was soft-pedaled, too. “It’s not a documentary,” he advised me sensibly.
As for himself? “They didn’t want someone who’s a queen,” he said. “I’m not a queen. And I don’t put down queens. But they wanted a young Dustin Hoffman.”
They got Demetri Martin, the Comedy Central star who dropped out of law school to go into stand-up. “My worst day in comedy was better than my best day in law,” Martin told me, laughing. He also told me something else they cut out of the movie: “We shot a scene at the Eagle [the longtime leather bar]. It’s when I’m up with my parents, and I have a life in New York, too. I wore a leather vest and tight, dark jeans. But the regulars really did it up!” (I can imagine—just last week, I saw major oral going on in the bathroom there before security stepped in with proverbial whips. Which reminds me: Demetri was once an intern for President Clinton, but he assured me there wasn’t even heavy petting involved!)
Every inch a queen, co-star Mamie Gummer popped up, gushing, “It was stepping back in time and working with Ang Lee. It was a big fucking deal for me!” Does she have any more fucking theater lined up? “Not right now,” admitted Meryl’s daughter. “If you know anybody, have them call me.”
Jonathan Groff—who has The Bacchae lined up—told me he liked doing this film back-to-back with the equally hippie-dippie Hair in Central Park. “I could research for both projects,” he said, with penetrating eyes. “I felt lucky to be living in this world—my own personal summer of ’69.” But Groff stopped short at actually doing acid.
Another intense young thing from period pieces, Emile Hirsch, earnestly told me, “If there’s any overriding message to the film, it’s the power of good vibes. When I go to a concert, I’m so paranoid, thinking, ‘This is going to break out into violence or a stampede or something fucking like that.’ ” But Woodstock simply ended with fucking garbage-collecting.
On the gay club scene, where they do want queens, I was recently rebuffed by a friend who didn’t want to go to Beige, moaning, “Oh, yeah. I’m going to go two miles out of my way to get snubbed by a bunch of uppity twinks.” Works for me.
Meanwhile, hairier types have had it a little rough lately. A mass e-mail from a promoter just went out saying, “We’re so sorry about last week’s last-minute cancellation. The Star Lounge had to turn over 200 of you away due to a double booking last week. We felt it best not to mix hip-hop and bears.” I guess gangstas and chubs don’t complete each other. The consolation was a two-hour open vodka bar if you came the next time, though I think offering free beers at the White House would have been way more gracious.
And finally, lift your finest champale for the first show of the Broadway season: Burn the Floor, a sweaty revue made up of calisthenics, smoke machines, and waxed chests, though the relentless boy-girl pairings are odd considering that some of the shirtless guys up there don’t exactly look like Dustin Hoffman. Even weirder, there’s not a single Afro onstage! What is this, Dancing With the Mormons?