It began as a series of benefits around Los Angeles, but earlier this month the performance of Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays spread across the U.S. At least 40 different theaters in 19 states performed Standing on Ceremony simultaneously in early November. One of the show’s actresses is Jennifer Lanier, whose most recent work, a riveting one-woman show about race, identity, and the closet, None of the Above, was called “a flash of beauty and inspiration” by The New York Times. Lanier, who performed in several of the plays for Standing on Ceremony, lives with her wife, fellow performer and domestic violence activist Dustina Haase-Lanier, and their two teenage boys in Portland, Ore. Lanier made her film debut in 1988’s Quiet Victory: The Charlie Wedemeyer Story, alongside Immortals star Stephen Dorff, and has been a mainstay on the theater circuit. The actress, who can also be seen in upcoming episodes of NBC’s Grimm and TNT’s Leverage, chatted with The Advocate about weddings, straight girls, and Sally Struthers.
The Advocate: What did it mean to you to participate in Standing on Ceremony?
Jennifer Lanier: I was honored to be part of this project. As an actor, I play lots of characters that are nothing like me, so it was a blast to have that much connection to the roles I read. And knowing that so many other actors were having the same experience all over the country ... all of us felt the connection. I feel very strongly about marriage equality and, frankly, how cool was this?
How did you get involved?
Stephanie Mulligan, literary manager and artistic associate of Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Ore., asked me to come on board. I have worked for ART before. Stephanie gathered a stellar group of actors and technical folks to make the evening happen. And when she told me that wedding cake would be served after the show, I immediately signed on.
So there was there wedding cake at the show?
my gosh, yes! The most amazing three-tier cake baked by Laura of Pastry
Girl here in Portland. I ended up helping to cut and serve the cake.
Well, actually, I weaseled my way into that job as I have a well-known
addiction to pastries and knew this was a sneaky way to procure more
Tell me which plays you performed in.
This Flight Tonight by Wendy MacLeod, Oppression & Pearls by Jenny Lyn Bader, On Facebook by Doug Wright, Pablo and Andrew at the Altar of Words
by Jose Rivera. They were so much fun. I read and loved each piece. The
writing was varied in style and all the works were strong.
that’s four different plays in one night. Your theater was one of only
two theaters in Oregon; the Majestic Theater in Corvallis also performed
it. Were you surprised it wasn’t performed more there?
Honestly, I was surprised more didn’t perform it. Portland is a hotbed of queer activity, admittedly.
A portion of each ticket got donated to marriage equality organizations, right?
We had nearly a full house and the money went to Basic Rights Oregon.
You got married a few years ago. Does being married to a woman impact how you inhabited your roles in Standing on Ceremony?
Dustina and I had our wedding ceremony two years ago here in Portland,
and our legal marriage in Massachusetts about a year ago. Being married
to a woman let me bring a particular set of circumstances to the roles
that came from my life, as opposed to having to make it up purely from
imagination and observation. Usually, when I play straight roles, I have
to do lots of research. I spend time in malls and at the ladies’ nights
at clubs observing straight girls in their natural habitat, paying
particular attention to the physical aspects of their mating rituals — you
know, how they flip their hair and accept drinks that guys buy — so I can
appear more realistic. Sometimes I bring a straight friend along to
translate the more complex parts of their culture.
You’re old hat at theater, of course. But I hear you’re doing some TV appearances as well. Tell me about the two appearances you have coming up this year.
I have a very cool guest star role on the season finale of Leverage. It should air in February. I play a tough law enforcement officer that the team has to get past. It’s set up as a parody of some well-known action movies, so hilarity ensues. I love being able to be funny, and this was a wonderful opportunity to work my comic chops. In Grimm, I had a lovely small role as a police lab tech. It’s the 10th episode, so it will air sometime in January, I believe.
You’re quite a well-known theater actress nationally, and you’re doing more and more TV as well. Is that hard to do in Portland?
Portland is actually a terrific place for an actor outside of Los Angeles and New York. I am amazed at the opportunities. There are a number of companies of varying sizes doing very good theater here. I am very fortunate to be in the loop of actors that folks think about, and not just for the usual roles. I have had the pleasure of being cast as a man — talk about stretching my actor muscles. I guess that shouldn’t be to big a stretch: I spent a few years playing many different animals for a children’s theater in the ’90s. Television and film production has jumped in Portland as well. There are so many projects coming here now. It’s fantastic.
I heard you used to be the spokesperson for Christian Children’s Fund. Were you openly gay then? Did you replace Sally Struthers?
Yes, I was a spokesperson for them for about four years. They are now called Child Fund International. And I did, in fact replace, Sally Struthers. They had chosen a man but needed a woman as well. The production company did a nationwide search and decided on me. When I got the call, the first thing I said was, “I am a lesbian; is that going to be a problem?” The powers that be in CCF told me that would not be a problem. Their only concern was nude photos. If I had had nude photos out there, then no deal. Lesbian? No biggie.
How long have you been out as an actress?
Since I have been out, since 1980. It’s never been particularly easy, but I can’t see any other way. I walk through the world as a butch, so there is no way I could really be closeted. I have had to put up with directors telling me, “Since you look like you could beat up the guy you are acting with, could you please try to not let those big biceps show?” This was in a scene where all I was wearing was a bra and a slip. It’s always frustrating to have to prove one’s femininity, as though straight actors never stretch out of their comfort zones. But it does create some humorous moments. I was working in a show in Ohio one summer and had a long, romantic kiss with my male acting partner, Todd. The joke that was going around the cast, which eventually got back to me, was “Why is the kissing scene so long? Because Todd likes the taste of pussy.” I thought it was funny on two levels.