We had the pleasure of chatting with RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Kelly Mantle last year about her hilarious portrayal of Tammie Brown’s manager, Shelia, on OUTtv’s Meet the Browns. Since then, they have gone on tour with Trixie and Katya, playing – what else – the pair’s manager, Sandy, who brings down the house with her very own version of the iconic “Rose’s Turn” from the musical Gypsy.
In between touring and performing, Kelly took on the role of a drag performer named Charleigh in the indie short film A Lasting First Impression. To elaborate on the film’s plot gives too much away (you can check out the trailer here), but Kelly turns in a winning performance as a cabaret performer on a journey to self-acceptance and love enduring a comedy of mistaken identity. Kelly says of the role, “It was refreshing to receive a script with a role for a drag queen that was three-dimensional with depth and humor and a character arc.”
A Lasting First Impression is currently touring LGBTQ+ film festivals and is definitely a must-see. Once again, we were able to talk with this delightful and talented performer about the film, touring with Trixie and Katya, the possibility of returning to the RuPaul’s Drag Race runway and so much more in our exclusive interview.
How did you get involved with this film?
Well, actually I got involved because my manager sent me the script and said that she was in talks with the director, Chris [Gaunt], and they were looking for someone to play the role of Charleigh and she thought that I would be right for it – and she thought that I would also like the script. So, when I got it, I read it and I had some discussions with Chris about the initial script and stuff, just with some ideas of my own. And they were open to that with Kayla [Romanowski], the writer and we all had great chemistry together, so I said, let’s do it.
So, I jumped on board and then they flew me out to upstate New York. And we shot it literally in a weekend. I want to say we were there two or three days maybe. I want to say it was two days of shooting. The first day was all the bar scene stuff and then the second day was all the dressing room and the alleyway and stuff.
Wow. That was quick. Now, with the character of Charleigh, did you get to put any of yourself into the character or was that a fully fleshed out character when you were given the script?
Well, I think as an actor, inevitably, we’re always going to put a little bit of ourselves into what’s written on paper – or at least you would hope that you would. And I know that when I got the script, the one thing that I recommended to them was in the initial script, when Charleigh gets into the scuffle, into the dilemma with the the guys in the alleyway, it had been written that they were pretty much taking her down and that she wasn’t fighting back. And when her brother comes out and sees this go down, that’s when he stepped into protect her. And so, I just gently told Chris and Kayla, the writer, I said, “If I’m going to play this role, I have to have some link to believability there.” And I know for me, myself and most trans women that I do know, we would fight back. Even if we don’t win, we’re still gonna go down fighting.
That was the change that I recommended and they were both open to that because I didn’t want her to be seen as a victim. They didn’t write it that way, but I’m just saying that’s how certain people can interpret it – and I think that we’re kind of over that storyline at this point. I don’t think that we’re in that place anymore.
You’ve got improvisational background…were you able to improvise on set?
Absolutely. They were so open to us bringing our authentic voices and our authentic experiences into the film. And they were very open to improv, you know, especially there in the bar scene. I have the monologue in front of the crowd while I’m on stage, before I go into my song and they were very open to a lot of that being improvised. And then even in the dressing rooms scenes, my scenes with his sister, we definitely incorporated everything that was written into the script, but you know, when there would say “action,” we would have moments where we would also improvise those parts, you know, just to get to the emotional place that we needed to get to.
I always love collaborating with writers and directors and people who are open to improvisation, especially when it’s film work. You know, you don’t get that opportunity so much in television because everything’s on a time schedule and pretty much it’s not up to you. But when you’re working on films, you have a lot more leniency to do that.
You performed a song called “Equality” in the film, and it was beautiful. Are you planning on releasing that in the future?
Yes. They actually played the recording of it through the credits as well, so you get to hear part of the recording there. And, you know, it’s kind of funny because I actually wrote and recorded that song years ago. I think it was around the time that Trump came into office and him and his administration, you know, were putting the trans ban on the military and there was talk of them swiping rights away from marriage equality. We had all of them trying to take our rights away from us. So, I actually wrote it at that time, during those tumultuous and volatile times, and I kind of sat on it for a couple of years. I’ve performed it at Trans Pride in a few places live but I’ve never released the recording. And so, when Chris came to me and said, “Would you like to perform something of your own for your performance piece?” I started looking at my repertoire and I said, “You know, I’ve never done anything with this song, so I think it might fit this film perfectly.”
It sounded like it was written for the film, because it fit in so well.
Yeah, it’s kind of one of those wonderful, magical things that happen before it happens, if that makes sense. It kind of makes you wonder where these songs come from. I have these little musical muses that bring me these gifts and I just kind of channel them and then they always find a home somewhere much later. It’s very, very wild.
I know that the film is going around to different film festivals. What are you hoping that audiences are going to take away from watching it ?
Well, I think there’s a lot of messages to take away from it that I think, especially for my character, for Charleigh, I think the big message right now is just, in the face of adversity, you keep resisting, you keep fighting, you keep creating art and you find strength and community.
And I think that’s what Charleigh represents and does in the film. You know, she faces adversity. She resists. She fights. She loses someone, but she knows that she has to keep going, and her way of going and resisting is through her art and then finding strength and community. So, I hope that that’s one message that people take away from it, especially, I mean, we’re still going through it.
Aside from the film, you’ve been on tour with Trixie and Katya – and you were fabulous as heir manager, Sandy. How did you get involved with that tour?
Well, you’re familiar with Meet the Browns. I played Tammie Brown’s manager, Sheila and Trixie and Katya had not only seen that, but Katya was actually on episode five of the last season we did. And she was such a fan of Sheila’s and Trixie was such a fan of Sheila’s as well, that when they wrote the script with someone playing their manager by the name of Sandy, they thought of me.
And so, Katya called me up and she, in her very Katya way was like, “Hey, um, so we’re doing this show and we wrote this role for a manager and we’d really like you to play it. Will you do it? Please, please, please?” And I said, “Well, send me the script and we’ll figure out what’s going on.” And then when I got the script, I read it and then I talked to the director and I said, “Yeah, that sounds great. So, you’ll just need me for like a day or two of shooting, right?” And he said, “Umm, this is a tour, like a world tour.” I was like, oh, Katya failed to mention that part. But when I found out it was live theater, like you, I am a theater kid at heart. That’s where my first, most passionate love is. So, I said yes, in a heartbeat and it’s just been a magical dream to do this and sing “Rose’s Turn” – “Sandy’s Turn” – and get to talk to all the theater kids out there and play these amazing theater spaces…and then still work with these two nutcases has been such a riot and so much fun, and we get to improvise a lot every night that we’re together on stage. I’m having a time of my life.
I saw on your Instagram some pictures of you and Tammie. Are you shooting more Meet the Browns?
Yes. This past weekend, we shot Tammie Brown Halloween Spooktacular which is also going to be on OUT TV. It’s not necessarily Meet the Browns because Sheila and Tammy are the only two people from The Browns that are in it, but it’s obviously Browns related…anytime Sheila shows up, you know, she has her hand in that. So yeah, it’s going to be a Halloween special, and I’m super excited about that.
You’ve performed with bands, you’ve done acting, you’ve done comedy…what is your favorite thing to do?
I love them all. They’re all so different, you know, to get up and do a 20 or 30-minute stand-up act is one of the most terrifying, yet exhilarating things in the world to do – and that’s so different than getting up and playing an acoustic guitar set of folk music, and that’s different than acting in a film and it’s different than being in theater. So, I love them all. I really do.
I did a one-person show here [in LA] at the Lily Tomlin Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center called “The Confusion of My Illusion” and it kind of incorporated all of that, the acting and film media and singing and comedy and everything. But I think at the end of the day, if you had to ask me what I loved the most out of all of them, it would definitely be live theater, acting and playing a character.
You know, I’m not very good at being Kelly, but I’m really good at playing other people. As long as I have a character and I have some dialogue and I can improvise then I’m good. Live theater is always going to be my first love.
Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you still want to give a try?
Bull riding. I’m not even kidding actually. I’m obsessed with bull riding competitions. I watch it all the time on television and I even used to go to the rodeo when I was little, growing up in Oklahoma. And I don’t know, there’s something about me that wants to put on some stilettos and some leather chaps and a cute little cowgirl hat and just get on a bull and ride. I just need to do that before I die.
You’ve done so many things. Would you ever want to write your memoirs or an autobiography?
You know, I love writing. I mean, I’m a writer and I’m writing a lot of stuff right now…but a biography or memoir…I don’t know. It kind of goes back to what I just said. I’m really good at playing characters. I’m really good at fantasy, but I’m not good at being Kelly. I don’t want to say I’m not good at it. it’s not something I really want to do, so I don’t know. Maybe when I’m way later in my years I might do something like that.
If I were to write something right now, it would be more about all of my multiple personalities rather than Kelly. I’d probably write about all of them because to me they’re so much more interesting. All the voices in my head are more exciting than I am. I’m actually kind of really boring at the end of the day.
So, what is upcoming for you? What other projects do you have in the works right now, besides the Halloween special?
Well next week, we leave for Australia with Trixie and Katya Live. We’re going to be there for the next month and five days…or something like that. And then that’s continuing on again in the states and Canada, I think in September, and then there’s the UK and Europe. We have this Halloween special coming out, I don’t know when, maybe late September.
I’m working on new music. I’m always working on new music, but one of these days I’m actually going to release it when it’s finally right. I’ve got some things that I’m writing in the works. I’ve always got lots of little fires burning.
I’m also in another film called God Save the Queens. I always forget to talk about this and it’s actually premiering at Tribeca, this Friday (the 17th) and it’s got a wonderful cast that includes Alaska and Laganja and me and, I think Manila Luzon makes an appearance in it. Michelle Visage is in it. I think it’s also playing at Outfest this summer, so be on the lookout for that as well. It’s a full-length feature and it’s a great flick.
I have a selfish question since I’m a theater kid and I love to do comedy. Do you have any advice for aspiring actors and/or comedians?
My advice is to put yourself out there and just do the work. Focus on the work. Find projects, write material that scares you, that frightens you, that challenges you, because that’s always the biggest payoff. I think at the end of the day, to do something like that and go, “Oh my God, that went really well. I didn’t know how that was going to go.”
I’ve always just put my nose to the grindstone and just did the work. I’ve never been one that’s too. And, you know, the fame part of it, all that stuff, I’ve never been attracted to any of that. Really, I just love acting. I love becoming other people. I love making people laugh if I’m doing comedy. So yeah, I would say focus on the work.
One last question for you…there’s been rumors that they’re going to do a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race where it’s all the first eliminated queens. Would that be anything you would ever be interested in?
Only if they promise to send me home first again. The only way I would do it is if they can guarantee that I would be the first out on a first out season, that to me would be legendary and I would only have to come up with one outfit. I won’t even go to the reunion. Some people are in it to win it, I’m in it for a minute!