Richard E. Grant had never done drag, but he knew where to start. When the Oscar nominee (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) was first offered the part of a legendary local queen, Hugo, in the film adaptation of the musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (streaming on Prime Video beginning Friday), he resisted seeing the original theatrical production in the U.K., paranoid about not being able to match the stage actor’s performance. He didn’t go to a drag show himself either, not being at all familiar with the world.
Instead, for his education, he sat on his couch for three weeks and watched 11 seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“There’s an incredible vulnerability and steel that runs through almost every drag queen’s story—they’ve had to cope with unbelievable family prejudice, alienation, and societal rejection, and yet, they are so determined to do this,” Grant says of what he learned from the Emmy-winning competition series. “They may be crying backstage and bitching the hell out of each other, but as soon as they go out and they’re all in that gear, something else takes over.”
You see this kind of transformation in Grant’s performance. Hugo plays a pivotal—and, compared to the stage show, enhanced—role in Jamie’s story, of an openly gay English teenager planning to come out as a drag queen to his school at prom. When Jamie (played by Max Harwood) first meets Hugo at his drag couture shop, we’re introduced to a tart, flamboyant, singular artist who, beneath his glamorous sheen, carries a lifetime of courage and pain. “At the core of it, there’s something of a sadness to [Hugo],” says director Jonathan Butterell. “I wanted to make sure that that character had that complexity of emotion. I knew Richard could hold the exuberance—and also could communicate the depth of Hugo himself.”
Butterell put Grant into contact with a British drag artist around his age, David Hoyle; Grant was struck by “how bold and brave he is with an audience,” and focused on imbuing Hugo with that same confidence—even if it took a few rounds of costuming to feel at one with the character. “We explored many, many different looks for him, all of which brought out different personas—drag is like a mask in many ways, and whatever particular mask brings out your own particular queen,” Butterell says. “We’d been through many, many wigs, and when this particular wig arrived, he just knew he’d found her. It also made him about eight feet tall.”
The final look is indeed dominated by that tall blond wig, but it’s the way Grant fits into the whole glam, old-school-drag look that really sells the character. Says Guy Speranza, costume designer: “You’re putting an actor in high-heeled shoes and tights and cinching waists and a dress for the first time—it was quite a thing for him! But he just took it on board and embraced it. And he had great legs. We had to show off his legs.”
Once they meet, Hugo and Jamie trade barbs, with the former giving the latter his first real, true look at the life of a drag queen, from the disappointments to the thrills. But in a shift from the stage musical, Hugo’s role and main scene is expanded with an original number: “This Was Me,” a tonally daring piece within the film in which Hugo reveals, through song, his experiences with gay-rights protests and devastating loss during the AIDs crisis. The song connects the activism of the past to the relative freedom of the present—a reminder for Jamie of the history he’s stepping into. “It was very personal to me,” Butterell says. “I’d been on those marches, I’d lost friends.” The number is filmed through the lens of Hugo’s lost lover, adding a melancholy weight not just to the character but to the whole film, giving new context to Jamie’s coming-out journey.
“It’s like a prism, that you then reach out and you see what happened to people during those three decades, which puts the context of Jamie’s struggle into some kind of perspective,” Grant says of how he approached it. “Having Hugo actually present in the montage, looking at his past, is a kind of emotional anchor in the middle of the story. I thought that was a very smart thing to have done.”
Seeing Grant in drag—Hugo’s alter ego is called Miss Loco Chanelle—reveals a thrilling new side to the actor. He’d share photos of what he looked like to friends and family, and they couldn’t recognize him; while on set, surrounded by real-life drag queens, he received some all-important endorsements. And it wasn’t just in the look. Grant says drag taught him about performing—specifically, “the amount of confidence that you have to have, because you are literally larger than life.” It’s why he commands every frame of Hugo’s big scene.
“Your eyebrows are higher up, your lips are wider, the color on your cheeks is different than anybody’s normal day makeup that you might see on the street,” Grant continues. “Everything is heightened physically and metaphorically. From that, it feels like you’ve got armor on—that you can do and say anything you like.”
Okay, with one exception: “Except standing around in those heels. That would kill anybody within 10 minutes.”
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