How Armistead Maupin's 'Tales of the City' Evolves in Netflix Return

Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis reprise their original roles in the revival, but there is also a new generation of characters joining the tight-knit queer San Francisco community.
Netflix

The world has changed significantly since Mary Ann Singleton first walked up to 28 Barbary Lane in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. The books, which begin in1976, have spawned a television series (in 1993, with later seasons in 1998 and 2001) to a musical adaptation and radio shows, and are beloved by fans around the world. However, when Netflix came in to update and continue the story about an LGBTQ+ community living in San Francisco, a changing world had emerged that required new characters.

“It has to be passed on. It has to represent the world today and the LGBTQ experience today,” says star Laura Linney, who returns to her role as Mary Ann Singleton for the fourth time in the revival (now streaming). The star and cast spoke to The Hollywood Reporter at the recent New York City premiere. “It’s wonderful to be given the opportunity to evolve the story, evolve the characters over many cultural shifts and changes," she adds. "LGBTQ did not exist — the phrase, the identity. The community was there, people didn’t identify in the various ways that they do now, it was not as much of a tapestry as it is now. It’s a very different world.”

This time around for the Netflix limited series, Mary Ann is returning to her former home after 25 years away for the 90th birthday of Anna Madrigal, the landlady and matriarch of Barbary Lane. Olympia Dukakis returns to her role as Anna after playing the part in all previous television iterations. Paul Gross and Barbara Garrick are also reprising their performances as Mary Ann’s ex-husband Brian and socialite Dede, respectively.

Some of the characters are returning with new actors in the roles. Murray Bartlett plays Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, Mary Ann’s former neighbor and confidante. Bartlett was a big fan of the series before joining the revival and called the experience of acting alongside Linney as Mary Ann “surreal” and “magical.” In the years since the last version premiered, Mouse has learned that he’s HIV-positive and survived the AIDS crisis in the books, and Bartlett says he’s “an amazing testament to how you can get to the other side of trauma.”

Alan Poul directed the groundbreaking series in the '90s, and he returned to helm three episodes this time around. He also serves as an executive producer along with Linney. Poul says it was important to collaborate with Maupin and the writers to create new characters for the screen that didn’t exist in previous versions or in the books.

“It was really important to us that the story carry as much relevance for today’s generation of young LGBTQ youth as well as, of course, satisfying the appetite for nostalgia of people who remember the older show and remain fans. So much thought went into how to create this younger generation,” Poul says.

One of those new fans is showrunner Lauren Morelli. The Orange Is the New Black writer had never heard of the series before coming to Netflix to write for the character of Shawna, the adoptive daughter of Mary Ann and Brian who is played by Ellen Page. Morelli says her outsider's eye helped her update and modernize the series.

“It was sort of a slow process of me understanding how paramount the show had been to the queer community, and I’m glad that I didn’t know that at the beginning because now I’m terrified and I wasn’t totally at the beginning,” says Morelli, who is married to OITNB and Handmaid's Tale star Samira Wily. “It helped me bridge the gap between old viewers and new views, to tell these stories for people who might not have a familiarity with them, but hopefully welcome them in the way we would welcome anybody to Barbary Lane.”

Morelli said Maupin was very receptive to the new characters, and that the author was on set and in the writers room to work on the new stories. The first series was criticized for lack of diversity, something the team really felt was important to address this time around. Charlie Barnett plays Ben, a new boyfriend to Mouse, and the Russian Doll star says he hopes the series can go even further in terms of representation.

“Don’t even get me started on that first season! A woman is in blackface,” says Barnett. “Armistead wrote that and I talked to him about it from a personal experience. I don’t put it past people in this universe doing something like that. I think it’s ridiculous and fucked up. But it’s so hard for me to have this kind of conversation because I’m mixed and I don’t represent a larger part of the marginalized community of black LGBTQ members. I have an upper hand. And I would like to see within even this show more representation. I’m hoping to see it come.”

Nonbinary actor Garcia plays trans male Jake, one of the younger characters along with Shawna from the books. But the character has been slightly tweaked for the screen by changing his last name to Rodriguez. Garcia said this role feels very close to their own experience.

“To see someone like Jake is maybe something I needed three years ago, so I think I'm very fortunate that I am able to do that to play that character,” says Garcia. "It was also important to represent the changing San Francisco, which has been overcome by Silicon Valley since the story began, and the city’s melting pot is crucial to the story."

May Hong plays Garcia’s girlfriend Margot Park, a new character for the Netflix series, and she said she’s glad to play a part in representing the city’s melting pot.

“It would be ridiculous to not have Asian characters in the show, especially for San Francisco. I’m so honored to be that representation,” says Hong. “The intersection of all the people that need to be seen and heard right now is a lot, and as a result of the show being worldwide, this is going to have such a huge impact.”