It’s been 25 years since To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar drove into movie theaters as part of a wave of 1990s movies that brought gay characters out of the closet and put them front and center on the big screen. Along with films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Birdcage and In & Out, To Wong Foo became a mainstream hit and helped re-shape public opinion about gay rights in the process. A quarter-century later, John Leguizamo, remains proud to have played an important role in that larger cultural transformation alongside co-stars Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze. “It was a groundbreaking movie in so many ways, because… [we] were playing gay roles and giving them dignity and respect,” the actor and comedian tells Yahoo Entertainment. “That was huge! Especially with these action stars, Wesley and Patrick. We knew we were on a mission and we wanted to do it right.” (Watch our video interview above.)
Even as Swayze, Snipes and Leguizamo embraced their feminine side as road-tripping drag queens Vida, Noxeema and Chi-Chi, respectively, the actor remembers there being some aggressive energy on set. “Maybe we were too much into character, and we started PMSing too much,” he says now. On one occasion, that frustration almost boiled over into a fistfight between Leguizamo and Swayze. According to the actor, the dispute stemmed from his improvisatory approach to playing Chi-Chi, the youngest of the three main characters. At the time, Leguizamo was still finding his footing as an actor after a successful stand-up career, and his penchant for making up dialogue didn’t always make him a great scene partner for Swayze’s commanding den mother, Vida.
“I was ad-libbing… and [Patrick] was tired,” Leguizamo remembers about their brawl. “He said, ‘Are you going to do that again?’ And I go, ‘Yeah, you know how the routine is.’ He goes, ‘Well, why don’t you shut up?’ And I said, ‘Why don’t you make me?!’” Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed before any fists flew. “We were about to fight, but were like: ‘Take a look at ourselves — we’re in hot pants and f*** me pumps.’ It was ridiculous! So we stopped and we hugged.” (Swayze, who died in 2009, recounted his side of the story in his autobiography, The Time of My Life.)
In a separate interview, To Wong Foo director, Beeban Kidron, says she wasn’t an eyewitness to Leguizamo and Swayze’s charged confrontation. But she does admit that the three stars were often ultra-competitive with each other, which occasionally resulted in a tense work environment. “I would definitely say that Patrick and Wesley had their moments,” she says, laughing. “They both thought they had the best legs, I will say that! It was interesting because even though both of those men were great stars, at that point in time Wesley was the bigger star and was taking the biggest risk. He was really associated with a macho culture, and some of what he was doing was proving his acting chops and his ability to go behind the kinds of things that a Black American star can play. And John was in a very different place in his career, so he was boundlessly giving and good-humored. I think you have to commend those actors, and understand peoples’ journeys to travel to where they are.”
For his part, Leguizamo can confirm the Snipes/Swayze tension, recalling how the Passenger 57 star took his side when he nearly decked the Ghost heartthrob. “Wesley, was like, ‘I got your back!’” he says, chuckling. In hindsight, Leguizamo chalks up his own agro outburst to insecurity about being the new guy on set. “I had something to prove, and Patrick didn’t. It was stupid.”
Despite the occasional near-fistfight and “Which action star has best legs?” competitions, both Leguizamo and Kidron carry a torch for Too Wong Foo 25 years after its September 8, 1995 release. Remembering a “wild” field trip to New York City’s famed Roxy Club with his co-stars and the director, Leguizamo describes the experience of absorbing the energy they saw amongst the actual drag performers onstage. “We saw all these great performers, and then we were doing it ourselves… just up there, dancing and trying to do our best. It was just about celebrating LGBTQ culture, and it was incredible.”
Read on for other fierce behind-the-scenes stories from the making of To Wong Foo, from all the actors who auditioned for Swayze’s role to a groundbreaking kiss that never happened.
Everyone in Hollywood auditioned to play Vida (except Tom Cruise)
Once upon a time in Hollywood, major movie stars might have avoided playing an openly gay drag queen out of concern that their careers might be put in jeopardy. But Kidron says that there was a line of A-list actors ready and willing to put on Vida’s impeccable make-up and couture outfits. “It was an Amblin movie and Steven Spielberg was one of the producers, so that gave it an absolutely mainstream imprint,” the director says, on the phone from her U.K. home. “It was happening in a safe place, and I think it was a rich, fun tale. If you’re an actor, and you get a chance at a great part doing something you’ve never done before, you’ll want to go: ‘Hey, I’m in!’”
According to Hollywood lore, the roll call of actors who auditioned to play Vida included Robert Downey Jr., John Cusack, Mel Gibson, Robin Williams and Tom Cruise. Kidron declines to say which of those auditions actually happened and which are apocryphal, but she does correct the record about the Top Gun flyboy. “I can categorically tell you that Tom Cruise did not come for an audition,” she says, laughing. “But many did, and it just seems wrong to say who — it’s a bit like taking about ex-lovers!”
At least one of those rejected “lovers” ended up in the movie anyway: Williams has a brief cameo as the guy who gives Vida and her pals the Cadillac they plan to drive cross country from New York to Los Angeles in order to take part in the country’s biggest drag queen pageant where Julie Newmar herself is one of the celebrity guests. To Wong Foo was released one year prior to the actor’s celebrated star turn as a gay nightclub owner in The Birdcage, although Kidron insists that one film didn’t lead to the other. “I don’t credit myself with that at all! Robin could get whatever role he wanted. He was a gorgeous man, but he drove me mad because he did the voice of my pregnant belly during shooting, so I was trying to work but I was also doubled up laughing. He was just a marvel, and directing him was one of the weirdest days of my life.”
In the end, Swayze succeeded where all the other would-be Vidas failed by demonstrating his utter devotion to the role. “Patrick brought 100 percent commitment,” Kidron says. “I know it’s a fun part, and a fun film, but it has its serious moments, and he left all of what you thought he was behind. You can tell that in the movie from the very first moment he’s onscreen. So many actors came and did screen tests, and so many of them were heroes to me in one way or another, but Patrick put on the wig and he embodied Vida. I can hear his voice as I’m thinking about it.”
The movie is a Western, complete with a gun-toting lawman
One of those serious moments that Kidron alludes to comes midway through the movie, when the three drag queens are pulled over in the Midwest by Chris Penn’s bigoted cop, Sheriff Dollard. After addressing Noxeema and Chi-Chi with racist language, Dollard turns his menacing attention towards Vida, threatening to rape her on the hood of his police car. She knocks him out, but he later returns to confront them in the small, dusty town where they’re stuck waiting for the Cadillac to get repaired. The film’s climax deliberately resembles an old-fashioned Hollywood Western, complete with a stand-off in the town square. “The point was to subvert what you expect, and subvert the images you’ve already absorbed,” Kidron says of her choice to upend the iconography of Old West yarns starring John Wayne or Gary Cooper.
At the same time, a character like Dollard feels all too timely — particularly after a summer that was dominated by Black Lives Matter protests that shined a spotlight on discriminatory policing. “Twenty-five years later, we’d still have to have that scene in the movie,” Kidron acknowledges. “If you’re trying to tell a story of tolerance, you also have to show intolerance. It’s a requirement of drama: Only by the presence do you see the absence. It would be quite preposterous for those passengers to go from one end of America to another without some incident of that nature.”
Prelude to a non-kiss
During their small town sojourn, Chi-Chi strikes up a flirtation — over Vida’s strenuous objections — with a lovestruck local named Bobby Ray, played by Jason London. The duo even have a sweet date night, although they never do anything more physical than hand-holding. And Kidron says even that much affection was a battle with nervous studio executives. “There was a little bit of a spat about them holding hands, but I insisted,” she remembers. “I say this as someone who directed the first lesbian love scene on British television: I’m not coy!”
Asked whether there was a version of Douglas Carter Beane’s script where Chi-Chi and Bobby Ray did seal their attraction with a kiss, both Kidron and Leguizamo say that would never have gotten studio sign-off at that point in the ‘90s. “It was a different time,” notes the actor. “It might have been tough for audiences to take back in those days. But maybe not! Maybe we were too careful. It was a big budget movie, so you know how they get afraid of taking risks in big Hollywood flicks.” Kidron adds that the filmmakers’ desire to have To Wong Foo play in theaters in actual small town America won out over breaking new ground. “We had this very specific goal of wanting the film to play for audiences who didn’t think they wanted to see this film. We wanted to make something really sweet and tender, and not just around sexuality. So there was never any idea of ‘Let’s do it and cut it out.’”
For his part, Leguizamo says that if a kissing scene had been written into the script, he and London would have performed it without hesitation. “You’re playing a character, and you do what makes it real just like you do all the other things. You do whatever it takes to create a character and give it its reality. Love is love and love is beautiful — promoting love is a great thing.”
Don’t remake To Wong Foo — reimagine it
Some movies take a little while to find their audience, but Leguizamo says that he heard from To Wong Foo fans almost immediately after the movie’s release. “My character became a teen icon for LGBTQ teenagers,” he remembers. “I got many letters from kids who said they felt safe to come out to their parents because of my character, and they saw themselves in me. I’ve always cherished that.” Kidron says that she still gets letters from longtime fans, as well as viewers who are only now discovering the movie 25 years later. “What I love about its status in cinema and also within the gay community is that people recognized what we were trying to do at the time. Back then, there were a lot of movies where gay people died, and this movie just let them be joyous and happy, which was a marvelous thing to be doing.”
Flash forward to 2020, and there are a wider variety of LGBTQ stories being told in film and on television, which is one of the reasons why Kidron feels like a direct remake isn’t something the world needs. “If you’ve got RuPaul doing what we did on mainstream television with Drag Race, what’s the point of this film?” she points out. (It’s worth noting that RuPaul is featured in an early scene in To Wong Foo, one of his first appearances in a mainstream Hollywood movie.)
In Kidron’s opinion, a trans character would be among the elements a contemporary descendent of To Wong Foo would need. “There should absolutely be a trans character, and that character should be front and center. I think we’ve moved into a different area of the conversation, so a souped-up modernized version of To Wong Foo wouldn’t tackle what that conversation is. I’ve always said that the movie is a perennial fish out of water story, so I’m not saying you shouldn’t make a fish out of water — just not necessarily these fish and this pond.”
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar is currently streaming on Netflix.
— Video produced by Gisselle Bances
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