Tales of the City Vet Talks Returning to Barbary Lane
It is present-day when Mary Ann arrives at 28 Barbary Lane like she did the first time, in 1976; she is still fresh-faced and naive. And lost again, in need of a reset.
When openly gay author Armistead Maupin’s beloved Tales of the City novels were originally adapted into a series that aired on PBS in 1994, these mystic grounds opened their doors to a community of LGBTQ pariahs who hadn’t found their people yet—or themselves. For them, 28 Barbary Lane was home too.
When Mary Ann returns to Netflix, Mrs. Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) is still holding court at the same address, where she, a free-spirited trans woman, continues to guide all walks of LGBTQ life with the same warmth and wisdom of a mama bear protecting her cubs. Linney, who reprises her role and also executive produced the show alongside Maupin, hopes the Netflix revival—the fourth TV adaptation of the book series—will act as it did when she first starred in the miniseries over two decades ago: as a safe haven for self-expression and free-love, no matter the queer-averse outside world.
When did you first become aware that, with Tales, you were part of something that was so deeply affecting to members of the LGBTQ community?
Well, I’m glad I didn’t know when the project first came to me. I’m really glad I didn’t understand how broad the reach and how deep the reach was of Armistead’s work. I’m sure it would’ve completely intimidated me. But it became very clear to me shortly after we finished just how loved these stories are, and the more I got to understand and know Armistead, the more I understood that phenomenon. He’s truly a great man.
Did you have exposure to the community at a very young age, even before Tales?
I did, through the kind, wonderful people I grew up around.
People as in friends?
Yeah, friends of the family. People who lived in my building, growing up in New York City. You know, just people. Neighbors. Friends of the family. Just wonderful, wonderful people.
What’s your best behind-the-scenes story from the revival?
It’s being able to giggle with Armistead looking at the monitor and watching it come back to life again. It’s about being with Olympia, who is 88 years old and remarkable. And then it’s about Paul Gross (portraying Brian Hawkins, Mary Ann’s ex) and Barbara Garrick (WASP-y socialite DeDe Halcyon Day), and it’s also about this wonderful younger generation of people for whom the series is really for now. You know, there’s this sense of passing the baton onto a younger, and in some ways very much more evolved, group of LGBTQ people and a community that has expanded in a way that did not exist when we did the first series.
And in such a way you probably couldn’t even perceive at that time.
Oh god, no, absolutely not. The whole perception of being trans is completely different, and non-binary didn’t even exist—of course it existed, but it wasn’t in anyone’s awareness; there was no language for it, and there was no identity for it.
What has it been like for you to be part of a show that has existed at various points in LGBTQ history?
It’s a remarkable, amazing experience. And it intersects with my own life at different periods of time as well. I mean, with Mary Ann, very rarely does anyone get to do something that spans over 25 years of their life. And it’s amazing to see how our culture has changed, how our identity has changed, how our relationships and understanding of each other has changed, in some ways for the better and maybe in some ways for the worse. And it’s also amazing to see a generational shift. What it was to be LGBTQ in 1990 is very different than 2019, and what it means to be either gay or trans or non-binary or queer. It’s amazing to see things evolve.
Beyond informing mainstream audiences, I think LGBTQ people of various generations and experiences can learn a lot about each other by watching this show.
I hope so. That’s really what we wanted. The entire writers’ room was LGBTQ, our directors are all LGBTQ, and there is a sense of, “What can the generations learn from each other?”
Your daughter in the series, Shawna, is played by openly lesbian actress Ellen Page. And many of the other characters are played by LGBTQ actors. When Tales originally aired, casting openly LGBTQ actors was not a reality.
No, it was not.
What has that change meant to you and to the series?
Well, it’s fantastic! It’s long overdue. And it’s been a painful process for people, you know, so our team of producers is very, very proud of the fact that we were able to cast all LGBTQ writers, all LGBTQ directors, and not all, but most, of our actors intersect with their own identity. Yeah, so it’s just good.
This is a limited series, but is there a possibility that Tales could take us back to 28 Barbary Lane in the future? And would you return?
Yeah, sure. We’ll see. One hopes, but we’ll see what happens. It certainly seems to have a life of its own, so that bodes well. ▼
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair, and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.