Mindy Cohn: No Shrinking Violet
She may have slipped off your radar because of her refusal to participate in VH1 reality shows like Celebrity Fit Club and The Surreal Life, but it’s a fact that Mindy Cohn, best known as Natalie Green on the ’80s boarding school-set sitcom The Facts of Life, is still making a steady living in Hollywood. The 44-year-old Los Angeles native now stars in Violet Tendencies as Violet, an unlucky-in-love “fruit fly” swarmed and sometimes stifled by a group of gay male friends in New York City. Before taking the film to Outfest 2010, Cohn gives us just the facts, ma’am, on why she’s earned the right to call herself a “fag hag.”
The Advocate: Have you been enjoying the adoration from gay fans at the LGBT film festivals so far?
Mindy Cohn: Are you kidding? It’s my life, my people, so it’s fantastic to be able to represent this type of character that hasn’t really been well represented on film. I’m really looking forward to Outfest.
When did your relationship with the gay community begin?
Birth. [Laughs] Some of us are just meant to be “fag hags” and divas. I don’t know why, but by God’s grace I’ve always had really close relationships with gay people — not only men but women as well, though that came later. I’m attracted to creatives, free spirits, and people who know there’s something more and want to figure out what it is. People who live in parallel universes are attracted to each other, hence my relationship with the gay community.
That relationship began before The Facts of Life?
Oh, way before. The irony is that we didn’t have many gay people around us on Facts of Life. Two come to mind, but it was much later that I really saw gay people as part of the film and TV community. My mom has a ballet background, so she always took my sister and I to the ballet and theater. When we first lived in West Hollywood, we had a one-bedroom apartment on Sweetzer Avenue, so we were surrounded by gay people. I have a very progressive family that’s always moved comfortably within all different communities.
Violet Tendencies was directed by Casper Andreas and penned by Out columnist Jesse Archer. How did the film come about for you?
I got offered the film, so it came as a phone call. I’ve been out in L.A. auditioning, working, and supporting myself quite well for 25 years, but I’d never received an offer like that before. I’d been looking for a part like Violet for a long time — someone who has no fear. Casper was unsure about me because he didn’t know who I was, so Jesse, Casper, and I Skyped a lot before I got to New York. It sounds so Oprah, but we had amazing Skype conversations. By the time I got there, not only was I comfortable, but so was Casper.
How did Casper not know you?
I think the country he’s from is the one country Facts of Life wasn’t in. Then people would come up to me when we were shooting on the streets, and a couple of the crew members took it upon themselves to be my bodyguards, so I think Casper was like, Who the fuck are you? Why does everyone know you? How are we getting the best tables, and why are you getting so much free stuff? It was cute.
Were you familiar with Casper’s movies?
No, but I was familiar with Jesse. I had actually read Jesse’s book [You Can Run: Gay, Glam, and Gritty Travels in South America]. Jesse Archer is a character — we get it, we love him for it — but I yell at him because he’s such a fucking brilliant writer, and sometimes I think that’s glossed over because he’s such a character and some of the things he writes about are so out-there. While this is a Casper Andreas film — and this is no slight to Casper — it’s Jesse’s film, and I did it because of Jesse and his script.
Jesse also stars as Violet’s gay roommate. Have you ever had a gay roomie?
I used to have a house in Laguna with a gay guy, Glenn, who has been my close friend for 25 years. There were other gay men I cohabitated with who are unfortunately no longer with us. I lost a lot of dear friends and people I considered family to AIDS. But Glenn is alive and kicking, so he’ll hopefully be at Outfest with me.
As we see in Violet Tendencies, a good “fag stag” — a straight guy who hangs out with gay guys — is hard to find. Did having gay roomies and friends make it more difficult to find a boyfriend?
Yes and no. My girlfriends have hit on all my gay male friends, who are very masculine, not knowing they were gay at first blush. So there might have been moments where someone who wanted to invite me to do something salacious didn’t come up to me because he thought I was with a straight man. But I tend to be a good pimp daddy. Take me to a gay bar and you’re going to get a date.
That’s never been my experience. While there are times I am very enmeshed and comfortable in the gay community, I don’t live there like Violet, who doesn’t have anything other than this family of gay friends. I’m such a different “fag hag” than Violet. I’ve never wanted to be a gay man, and I don’t want to have sex like a gay man.
When you first signed on, the film was called Bye Bye, Fruit Fly. Some women bristle at the terms “fruit fly” and “fag hag.” You embrace them?
I do embrace “fag hag” because I’m old enough to have earned it. But “fruit fly” bothers me, and I want you to know that Violet Tendencies came from yours truly. The first thing I asked Casper was, “Is Bye Bye, Fruit Fly for sure the title?” At the end of the shoot, he came up to me and said, “Well done. Violet Tendencies it is.” Straight people are just as represented in this movie as gay people, so I wanted it to be a little more ambiguous. I support gay cinema and gay film festivals, but why does it have to be so separate? It bothers me when they’re marketed that way because more than just gay people should see these movies. What’s so beautiful about Jesse’s script is that it doesn’t hit you over the head with AIDS or gay couples with children; that’s just part of the fabric of the story, and any audience would appreciate that. It’s a gift to be able to fold those issues into a sexual romp.
Gay films, especially romps, rarely explore AIDS anymore, yet Violet Tendencies features Marcus Patrick as an HIV-positive go-go boy advocating to make HIV “stigma-free.”
Yeah, it’s a fact that a lot of gay men are now living with HIV and not, shall we say, dying from it. Traveling around to these festivals, it seems there are two kinds of gay-themed movies: The bawdy sexual escapade and the deep, dark, relationship drama. Violet Tendencies has gotten such a great response because it’s kind of both. It’s a sweet, lighthearted movie with a message. You get your tickle, you get a little cock, but there’s an actual story in there.
You got to make out with Marcus, which was almost as hot as the time you sucked face with Scott Baio when you guest-starred on Charles in Charge as Buddy’s alcoholic sister.
[Laughs] Marcus was a little better because I was more conscious. It was a nice little perk.
Did you learn anything new about gay culture or lingo from the film? Even I didn’t know what “biss” was.
Well, no one did, but good for us that now it’s going to permeate. I didn’t know what a “fupa” was either. Unfortunately, I knew everything else.
Aside from the dirty lingo and club scenes with go-go boys, sex parties also play a big part in the film. Did you ever reach your gay limit?
One time we were shooting at a club at 5 a.m. after it had been open all night. The cleaning crew had not been in yet, so when we walked downstairs to the “room,” the smell of piss and funk and spunk was so overwhelming that it offended everyone. I literally had to request a bottle of Fantastik and become Mindy the den mother for a minute and clean up down there. That day got a little too gay for everyone, including the gay men.
Michael Musto, who makes a cameo in the movie, wrote a gossip item in his Village Voice column last summer that you’d told him about “getting drinks for Calvin Klein’s butt boy” on Fire Island. What’s the full story there?
Oh, my God. I don’t know, and I won’t talk about it. That was actually part of a private conversation, and I can’t believe he wrote about it, but I should’ve known that he would. I’m not the girl who gets angry, but that was my mistake, so I can’t even comment on that.
Wow. OK, switching gears, you played lesbians in the indie films Sex and Death 101 and Swing. How did you approach those roles?
I don’t get why some actors play gay characters like stereotypes. Someone’s sexuality does not define them completely, so that’s how I played it. I didn’t even know why I was gay in Swing because there was no payoff. There were actually a lot more references to it in Sex and Death that didn’t make the movie.
You’ve also voiced Velma in the Scooby-Doo cartoons since 2002. People have said Velma’s a lesbian for decades.
Yes, and everybody’s world will be rocked for sure this season on Cartoon Network. There’s an interesting story line and a different kind of Velma. I always saw Velma as “Pat” — you’re just not sure.
Have you found that people are also unsure of your sexuality?
I’m asked if I’m gay all the time. I think it’s because I’m 44 and still single. I’m not offended if someone thinks I’m gay, and if a woman is attracted to me, it’s a lovely compliment. I just have a hard time when they go there because I’m not married at 44. Do they ask single 44-year-old men if they’re gay? No, they call them players.
Right after you did Chelsea Lately in 2008 to promote Sex and Death 101, Chelsea Handler told me she was going to take you to dinner and grill you for Facts of Life gossip. How was your date?
You know what? We made two dates, they both didn’t work out, and then I never heard from her again. I still love her copious amounts.
Due to her Christian beliefs, Lisa Whelchel, who played Blair, refused to appear in the Facts of Life episode in which Natalie becomes the first girl to lose her virginity. I guess she won’t be seeing Violet Tendencies anytime soon, eh?
Oh, no. But what’s great about Lisa — and as we age it even gets better — is that she knows exactly who I am and what I’m about. Like, I have a mouth like a truck driver, but there are certain things about people that you have to accept because they’re not going to change. If anything, I’m consistent. But I’m also very respectful of her boundaries, and I accept her for who she is. As far as the born-again Christian community is concerned, I find her to be very open and accepting. She’s one of those rare Christians who really lives by the Bible, which is about tolerance, forgiveness, and not casting judgment. That’s why I love and respect the holy hell out of her.
Facts of Life still has a huge gay following. I can name three recent Facts of Life drag parodies off the top of my head. On a personal note, I was only 9 when the girls traveled to Australia, but I remember squealing with glee. Were you conscious of the show’s gay fan base back then?
Not really. That’s your experience and the experience of a lot of people in the gay community, which is awesome, but we also had that effect on girls our age, and we were the guilty pleasure of straight boys too. So no, I didn’t know that, but we didn’t really know until later how many people were actually watching us.
Were you aware of people joking about underlying lesbian tension between the girls, particularly Blair and Jo?
Yes, but not really until about season 6. By that time we were 18, 19, so we got it. That’s why Natalie had to lose her virginity. I mean, these were four girls living in a room together, and you’re telling me that no one’s done anything? So somebody had to get her cherry popped. Yeah, at some point we were all aware of those rumors, but the four of us were very secure, so none of the gay stuff or weight comments really penetrated. That’s why we’re all so, dare I say, normal.
There’s also that infamous 1979 pilot episode in which Blair insinuates that Cindy the tomboy is a lesbian.
Absolutely. Thank you for bringing that up, because as the show gets older and people get more nostalgic, people forget that it really was a Norman Lear show like Maude and All in the Family, where we didn’t shy away from teen suicide, sex, and other things that weren’t talked about on television at the time.
Like Natalie, you also attended an all-girls school, Westlake, where Charlotte Rae discovered you. Was there any sexual experimentation there?
Not at all. Out of my class of 83 girls that I went with from seventh to 12th grades, only two were gay, and they didn’t come out until college. We were sexual, but not with each other. Our bad behavior was drinking screwdrivers and giving blow jobs to the guys at the boys’ school.