RuPaul on Why “AJ and the Queen” Is His Love Letter to America
For years the only place fans could see RuPaul in drag was on the main stage of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Now that all changes with AJ and the Queen.
Ru stars in the new Netflix scripted series as Ruby Red, a drag legend squandered out of her money and forced to play clubs across America—all while traveling in her RV with AJ (Izzy G.), an 11-year-old stowaway.
Ru is also a co-creator and executive producer of AJ and the Queen, along with television titan Michael Patrick King (of Sex and the City and The Comeback fame). NewNowNext spoke with both of them about working together on the series, how it’s connected to Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, and why they hope it will bring America just a little closer together.
NewNowNext: Hey, Ru. Hey, Michael. So, I binged the entire season in one day, all 10 episodes. I loved it.
Michael Patrick King: Thank you. Wow!
I have to ask: Did the idea of you two working together stem from Ru’s cameo on The Comeback?
MPK: That was the first drive-by of us working together, but the idea of working with Ru came from my idea of Ru, period. I’ve watched his career, but I was obsessed with him on Drag Race. I loved his passion and humor and beauty, and I was beyond thrilled to get a chance to be filled with that essence, that being. But yes, we first got to work together on The Comeback when he was kind enough to say “yes” to playing a cameo, and that was the beginning of my fun.
Ru, what was it like reuniting with the Drag Race girls on set?
RuPaul: When we wrap on Drag Race, the competition continues on, because I’m not only interacting with them forever, for the rest of their lives, but I’m watching how they navigate their careers. Having them on AJ and the Queen was a continuation because we become this huge family. Some are go-getters and willing to roll up their sleeves and work, and some fade away, but we love them all. We love them all.
MPK: The fun of this was seeing them all do something new.
Did you have certain queens in mind for certain roles?
MPK: For the first episode, we had 10 of them and had to get all those schedules going and get them all on a soundstage at Warner Bros. It was not the typical way you see 10 drag queens. This is a whole new experience.
So you didn’t send out a wide casting call saying, “Hey, if anyone’s available…”
MPK: I could have cast every single drag queen that’s been on Drag Race. We started out by casting 22 for the first season. Some of them auditioned. Some of them were more right for parts than others, but that doesn’t mean they won’t ever be on the show. There are certainly more storylines for everyone if we keep going.
I was surprised by Latrice Royale’s acting. She was really good—so natural.
MPK: The interesting thing is we knew that was a huge part and that Latrice was going to be amazing, and he was.
Yeah, I would totally watch a Fabergé Leggs spin-off.
MPK: Yeah, absolutely. I get it.
Having a Tennessee museum devoted to Bob Mackie outfits is so wonderfully random. Whose idea was that?
MPK: That’s a combination of both of us, but the idea of a whole episode centered around Bob Mackie, that’s RuPaul Charles. Come on, a Bob Mackie museum? Please, even when Ru is acting as Robert, the excitement in Robert’s eyes is like RuPaul getting everything he ever wanted for Christmas in that moment.
Were those actual Bob Mackies or recreations?
MPK: Actual Bob Mackies. I mean, you know, we got a lot. Ru was wearing a Bob Mackie, of course.
RuPaul: Yeah, I wear this red Bob Mackie that he created for me 25 years ago for the MAC campaign, but the people at MAC rejected it and had someone else do it. So I got to keep it, and I’m wearing it in the beginning of that episode. And then later on for the “Endless Love” number, I’m wearing another Bob Mackie that he created for me 25 years ago.
And Ru, I noticed that Mount Juliet, the town where the Bob Mackie Museum is located, was the same back lot from Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Was that intentional?
RuPaul: [Laughs] You know, I thought about that every single day we filmed there. I thought about Fallwell, Massachusetts [where Elvira is set]. But you know, I’ve seen so many movies with that town square. It’s part of Americana. It’s every town in the USA for the past probably 75 years.
MPK: Basically, what we wanted to do in that episode was show a small town in America that a kid from the city has never even experienced. And a bigger thought for the whole show is, like, let’s show America. Let’s show Jackson, Mississippi as a town. Let’s show Pittsburgh. Let’s show Louisville. We want a show for America and the world.
It feels like a positive, dream-like America. Is that how you thought of it?
MPK: Well, the best of America, really, with dark undertones of people having personal struggles.
RuPaul: I love this country, and I’ve traveled back and forth for years all over the world. But America is very special because there’s a certain optimism, a frontier thought behind the American spirit. And that’s what we wanted to capture. Making this road journey, this journey with these two people, Ruby and AJ, we kind of get to experience that. It’s kind of a love letter to the America that Michael and I both grew up thinking we would experience. Now in these past two years, I think it’s gone a little sideways here and there, but our show is a sort of an adjustment. It’s sort of a spiritual and social adjustment to the America that we both love so much.
MPK: I don’t think of it as a dream as much as a reality of a way you can be. I mean, bad stuff doesn’t always have to happen to you because you’re in the South. That’s not what we were trying to say. What we’re trying to show is that everything is more complicated than it seems, that people are more than just one thing, that America’s more than one thought. We wanted to make an America that was a family, rather than an America that was on opposite sides.
The “Fort Worth” episode with Jane Krakowski gave me major Comeback vibes, with all of those awkward, cringey moments—except with Ruby instead of Valerie Cherish. Did you have that in mind when you were making the episode?
MPK: That is not specific to The Comeback—being an entertainer in the wrong environment. Valerie was always feeling like it wasn’t the right stage for her. I used to do stand-up comedy, and one time I had to do it in a house. When we were doing research for the show, [screenwriter] Jhoni Marchinko and I went to Brooklyn to see what we thought was going to be edgy drag, and it was in a house. What I love about the episode is the way Ru plays the uncomfortable tolerance. You’re out there, you’re getting money, you got to do shit for money. You have to make jokes. Ru can speak to this. Ru has been asking for $5 since he was 20, going to places and asking for shit. And I love that idea of seeing Ruby not on the stage, but in a living room. Because sometimes things don’t translate well off stage.
RuPaul: Trust me, in my 37, 38 years in the business, I have played every venue you can imagine, from bar mitzvahs to living rooms to backyard picnics, whatever. And that uncomfortableness was so important for that episode. That’s what you’re feeling. That’s why Valerie Cherish comes up.
MPK: The entire theme of the episode is “what are people willing to do for money?” And for Ruby, it’s standing in the living room and being humiliated that nobody gets her. As for Jane’s character, it was, well, unhappiness for money, for a look, a trapping. So the whole episode is built around them saying, “Everyone’s in drag,” which is a very big theme for Ru. Also, from the writing point of view, I tried to do something new every episode. So that was like, “Performance in a living room—we haven’t done that yet.” I love that you cringed.
I did. When they thought she was the coat check girl…
MPK: You’ve catered some parties, Chris [laughs].
Yes, I have catered some parties! In that same episode, Ruby performs to Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real,” which you also used in an episode of Sex and the City. Michael, is that one of your favorite disco songs?
MPK: No, actually, it’s not. The interesting thing about it is I would never repeat a song in something. Never. But Ru, not even knowing it was in the writing room, stood up and started saying, “It’s got to be that song.” And when it came to the music in the show, it sort of just came through Ru as an impulse and we always followed it. I’m really happy because Jane and Ru dancing is thrilling to me.
RuPaul: And it’s also important in an episode talking about how everyone is in drag.
MPK: Yeah, it’s important because the show is about what people are willing to admit about themselves.
Ru, I loved how throughout the show you recreated iconic movie scenes from Grease, Terms of Endearment, Meet Me in St. Louis. Did you have a list of scenes you wanted to recreate?
RuPaul: Well, for drag queens and people who love pop culture and America, that imagery is so important to who we are. You know, we talk about being sidetracked as a culture and fractured as a culture, so these are all little totems or benchmarks or touchstones that help us feel our similarities rather than the things that separate us. So a lot of that imagery is meant to not only have fun with, but to sort of invoke this togetherness and get us back on track.
MPK: When Ru and I are writing, there’s a sensibility that we share. If Robert’s going to be in the hospital, okay then, he’s going to start getting upset because he’s getting his kid in there, and he’s going to do Terms of Endearment. It’s just like, how can you be in a hospital and be upset and not do Shirley MacLaine? There’s a sensibility. You’re not doing your job if you don’t put that in the show.
I even got some Scarlett O’Hara vibes at the end when Ruby was running through the field in her big gown.
MPK: Well, yeah, we put her in a red dress and said, “Gone With the Wind!” It’s really an amazing original image, though: Ruby in red and green and the green fields, with a red barn and the horses.
That’s the end of the season. Have you mapped out other seasons? Where will the story go?
MPK: We began our creative process, which is thinking What’s next? What haven’t you seen? What could happen? What’s unpredictable? What’s new? So we’re thinking a lot about the complicated triangle we created at the very end between Ruby/Robert, AJ, and Brianna. It’s a very interesting knot we’ve tied, and there are lots of ways we can untie it or make it tighter.
At the end I thought, Where’s this going?
MPK: Good. There are certainly complex and thrilling characters to play around with, because as I say all through the show, nobody is just one thing. So when you say, “Where could this go?,” it could go a lot of ways because people are sometimes more complex than they’re allowed to be on TV.
Ru, you did “You’re the One That I Want” in the first season, but maybe next season you could do an Olivia Newton-John solo lip sync—like maybe “Carried Away”.
RuPaul: Oh, God, you know I love that song. It’s my favorite Bee Gees song ever. You know that song was meant for the Barbra Streisand Guilty album, but Barbra rejected it and Olivia made a hit out of it.
MPK: You see, you just request something and Ru has already done the homework.
I’ll be looking for it! Michael, do you have a drag name?
MPK: Yeah, Michael Patrick Thing.
I thought it was going to be Michael Patrick Queen.
MPK: Yeah, I’m like a pageant queen. I have three names, and that’s drag. So, you know, I’m happy with it.
Last question: Do you think Ruby would have been a fan of Valerie Cherish?
RuPaul: Oh, absolutely. Ruby is a pop culture lover and loves vulnerability and loves the duality of everything. You know, the thing with this show is it’s about the idea that time and space are an illusion. Time is like a record player or a CD player where, wherever you put the needle down, that’s where it’s happening. So there is no real distance between Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis and Olivia Newton-John in Grease. All of these references are happening at the same time. So Valerie Cherish, who is an important aspect of the whole pop culture lexicon, Ruby would absolutely love her. She is such an important part of the Hollywood story—the American story.