Tonys: 'Hedwig' Star Lena Hall Talks Drag Kings, Rock Star Names and Neil Patrick Harris' Insults
The Tony nominee explains how used Q-tips and subway delays help her get into character as Hedwig's hunched-over husband, and why she refuses to wear facial hair onstage.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is headlined by one incredibly recognizable name, Neil Patrick Harris, and another new one: Lena Hall. But in fact, it's a clever shortening of Celina Carvajal, a star of last season's Kinky Boots who, for this breakout role, formally adopted the stage name she uses in her rock band, The Deafening -- once she realized that she could.
To play a drag king, roadie and husband to Harris' transgender East Berlin rocker who lands on the New York stage via a Kansas trailer park in John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's cult musical revival, the Tony-nominated featured actress says she arrives at the Belasco Theater two hours before curtain -- "I love this show so much. I usually can't wait to get there," -- plays "a bunch of rockabilly music to get into the mood of the character," and then pens a card to Harris' Hedwig while in character.
"Out of fun and now out of superstition, I just talk about something that I do during the day, maybe, but as Yitzhak," she explains of the ritual she started at previews. She admits that she skipped the personal tradition before one performance, which led to a "horrible" show.
"Last night's card was about a dream that I had -- I was waiting on a train platform for Hedwig, and an announcement came on that said, 'Hedwig will be delayed because of train traffic ahead.' Silly little things. There was one card where I went to a therapist to talk about our relationship, and the therapist was a con artist who conned me out of $800, beat me up and left me in a sewer! It's just to not really set up our relationship, but to have a little connection before we go onstage, because I don't really see him before the show, he's got to get ready."
She adds, "But every once in a while, Yitzhak will get a card back from Hedwig, and it's a total insult! It's got something gross in it, like chewed-up gum or a used Q-tip."
Hall then throws her hair into incredibly tight pin curls, and begins her makeup routine, free of lashes and lipstick and full of only shading and blending, from her forehead to her chest. "I line my eyes -- because I'm a natural blonde, but I have dark hair here -- in a way that doesn't look like eyeliner," she says. "It's a slippery slope for a girl, because you naturally want to make yourself look pretty, so by the time I'm done putting all the shading on, I look like I have a ton of dirt on my face! And I don't have the wig on at that point, so it's a bizarre moment."
Next come eyebrows -- which take 10 to 15 minutes alone. "The eyebrows are, for me, really a character themselves," she says of researching male faces and drag kings. "I wanted to make sure I wasn't giving away that I was a girl, so I noticed that a lot of drag kings don't concentrate on their eyebrows. Feminine eyebrows are really distinct, and such a dead giveaway. Men's eyebrows sometimes look really big, hard and straight across; they go up in the center." She also added that she didn't want her character to wear facial hair in the show. "It's never good enough; it's never quite natural-looking enough where it looks real. The drag kings that I thought look the most male are the ones who were clean-shaven."
Finally, Hall puts on her wig (with sideburns attached) and her "packer" -- "It looks weird, it's like I have a flaccid penis sitting on my makeup table, just hanging out!" -- and also layers under her costume a few items for her character's quick-change in the final act. "It's like my hidden secret, that I'm wearing fishnets!" she said of both herself and Yitzhak.
Five minutes before showtime, Hall heads down to the stage. "I have a powwow with the band, and we watch Hedwig walk by, and she usually insults us as she goes to the other side of the stage."
Throughout the show, Hall keeps her jaw clenched and her shoulders raised to evoke Yitzhak, who is both in love with and pummeled over by Hedwig. "I don't have a lot of lines, so really, the part is all physicality, and I have to tell the whole story of my character on my body and on my face," said Hall, a former ballerina already "hyper-aware" of her body.
"The whole show is basically one big choreographed dance, and it's easier to stay in that stance when I think of it as a ballet," she continued. "I studied a lot of men on the subway, categorized how they walked and picked the ones that are good for the storytelling and the character. It's called the kicker, where I kick my heels on the floor as I put my feet out, so it keeps me hunched-over and my hips forward. The idea was to look almost defeated in my posture, like a man with a lot on his mind."
Hall maintains a stiffness as Yitzhak keeps his hands full in his professional role as Hedwig's roadie -- handing over wigs, fixing actual sound problems (she wears an in-ear monitor to chat with tech crew backstage) and making sure no audience member gets hit by microphone cords.
"I remember the [Off-Broadway] show at the Jane Street, and he just stood there a lot, without much interaction," she recalled, choosing to draw from her rock band experience. "When we started rehearsals, I was extremely present for every staging conversation, and I said, 'Anytime you need anything at all, I'll do it, because it's my job as Yitzhak, the roadie.' It's my job to be there for anything Hedwig needs. I really didn't know what I was getting myself into -- it gets chaotic!"
Still, of being in a small cast of "just two people and a band," especially after coming from the large ensemble of Kinky Boots, she says, "I love it -- it's such a tight-knit family, we all have each other's backs, and I think Neil feels that. And telling a story with just two people, I enjoy it so much because I can really focus heavily on Neil, and just enjoy what he does. And he enjoys playing with me and doing off-the-cuff banter, because I'm up for anything."