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The Independent Critic

 An Interview With Emerson Collins 

A self-described actor (occasionally), producer (usually), and snarkster (only when awake), Emerson Collins was born on December 20, 1984 in Texas and was actually working on a production of Del Shores' Southern Baptist Sissies when the two met, hit it off, and quickly began working together. Collins has acted in 2008's "Sordid Lives" television series along with 2012's Super Love Hero series. He directed Shores in two one-man shows, "My Sordid Life" and "Sordid Confessions," and has served as producer for "Sordid Lives: The Series," "My Sordid Life," "Sordid Confessions," "Blues for Willadean" and Shores' latest cinematic presentation, a filmed stage presentation of his GLAAD Media Award winning play "Southern Baptist Sissies." Collins returns to the stage for "Southern Baptist Sissies" in the role of Mark and is currently touring with the film in its limited nationwide release. The Independent Critic had the chance to chat with Collins recently and, as one might expect, the conversation was priceless.
 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

"Southern Baptist Sissies" has had an enduring stage presence since it debuted in 2000. What do you think it is about the play that continues to resonate with audiences?

EMERSON COLLINS

Most importantly, I think the play resonates because the message of a world built on love and acceptance is one we can all relate to. More specifically, and unfortunately, as the LGBT community continues the march toward equality, the language and vitriol by anti-gay religious leaders, organizations, churches and even families is still doing a great deal of damage to LGBT youth. We look forward to the day when this is a period piece because it no longer happens, but we aren't there yet.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Can you talk a little bit about the thought process that went into the decision to bring "Southern Baptist Sissies" to the big screen and, as well, how the decision was reached to film a stage version of the show rather than adapt it for the big screen?

EMERSON COLLINS

The reality of independent film financing is always challenging.  Del and I are both extremely passionate about this piece.  Years ago we attempted a full film adaptation and the funding fell apart.  When we created our new company, we wanted to create projects we could bring to life at a more economical budget level.  "Sissies" has always been a magical experience in the theatre with the actors and the audience creating a special electricity together.  It came to me that rather than trying to open the play up as a film adaptation, we could go the other direction and bring the film audience into the theatre instead - and for a budget that would make it possible to do the film.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

While I'd known that you'd worked with Del a lot, I have to admit that I didn't realize how extensively the two of you have worked together both on-screen and behind the scenes. Is there something about you or Del that draws the two of you together artistically?

EMERSON COLLINS

It started almost accidentally.  I moved to Los Angeles to be in the revival of "Southern Baptist Sissies" after Del saw me in a production of the play in Dallas.  Once I arrived in LA, I began working at the theatre, using my experience in regional theatre to make things run more smoothly.  When we began considering the national tour of "Sordid Lives" and "Sissies," I had the most experience with large theatre venues so I joined as a producer.  As an actor, LA is always challenging, and creating your own work is the best way to ensure that you get to actually work.  Producing is my day job, if you will, and as a result of doing that it led to my first TV series and lead feature film role.  The best way I can describe our producing relationship and why it works so well is that he sees the forest as he creates the work, and I handle the trees in making sure they become a reality.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

From looking at your filmography, watching your performance as Mark, and even from reading your blog, it seems that you are drawn to truth yet equally drawn to understanding. I would see that balance as a core ingredient of "Southern Baptist Sissies." While the title may very well be provocative, the truth to me was that much of the stage play and film feels like an honest, angry, funny, and insightful seeking of understanding. How is the experience of playing Mark for you? Is it any different for you watching it on film?

EMERSON COLLINS

That's a complicated thought, but yes, I agree that the unique genius of what Del has created is the ability to be honest about the experience of many in the LGBT community in the church, but in a way that is designed to lead to understanding of the impact of that experience. One of the greatest responses we regularly receive is from the parents and friends of gay men and women who say "I had no idea that's what it was like for them." It is very revealing for those who would not have known what their gay friends and family members were hearing.
 
The experience of playing Mark is the most challenging acting work I have done to date. To convey the thoughts and emotional experience of this man from age eight into young adulthood honestly, while also serving as the narrator to bring the threats of the story together and speak directly with the audience - it was daunting and thrilling. Del created such a wonderfully complicated and conflicted man, who is both confident and yet still seeking that understanding - of himself, of religion, and of love - both of self and from the world around him.
 
As to watching it on film, I'll be honest. After watching it all day every day with our editor assembling the film together, I've traveled to fifteen cities for film festival and theatrical screenings and I haven't sat through the whole film since the first screening. It's intense. I watch the first ten minutes every time to check the sound, color, and audience reaction then I come back at the end!

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I appreciated that there are certain lines in "Southern Baptist Sissies" that have been updated for a current state of affairs. It also really brings to mind just how relevant the film remains. We're living in what feels like a bit of a weird time. On one hand, we're seeking a growing embrace, or at least tolerance, of gay marriage and issues impacting the LGBT community. On the other hand, it seems like there's sort of a desperate hatefulness at times. This is especially true in the country's more conservative areas. Has this impacted the film? Or its distribution? I know that you've been involved with the film for quite awhile. Has feedback changed over the years?

EMERSON COLLINS

It's an honest reflection of how conflicted the relationship between the LGBT community and many people and organizations of faith is that the only thing Del had to change for the film script was the specific politicians and activists referenced.  The greater our collective movement toward equality is, the louder the hate spewed back by those afraid of change becomes.  It's why we made the film now.  It's why we are so driven to get it into as many theaters as possible.  I personally believe that there are those, not the Bryan Fischer crazy kind, but those who are more moderate in their language who truly do not understand the incredible damage done to LGBT youth in their homes, churches and communities by the things they say about gay marriage and LGBT equality.  That is the message we share and the conversation we want to have.  We want the film to be available to those who want to share it because they went through this fire, and more importantly, to those who are in the middle of this experience now  to provide insight, hope and the opportunity to find greater understanding in how we treat each other.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Can you tell me a bit about your own background? I know you're from Texas and, thanks to IMDB, I know you're a Sagittarius! Were you born and raised in Texas? Was your experience growing up anything like we see with Mark or any of the other characters? When did you figure out you were going to work in film and how did you make that happen?

EMERSON COLLINS
I was born in Waco, Texas! I grew up in suburban Houston and then when I was sixteen, my family and I moved to Singapore with my father's job. After graduating high school in Singapore, I attend Baylor University in Waco on a full academic scholarship. As a result, the two most influential places in my life are both known for one crazy person - David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco and Michael Fay, the guy who was caned in Singapore. The result is that my worldview was formed by two very divergent experiences. My conservative, faith-based Texas upbringing was greatly reshaped by the experiences I had with other religioins, cultures and countries in Singapore. It opened my eyes at a formative age to truly how much diversity there is in the world, and more importantly, how much we can learn from each other if we are willing.
 
I fell backward into film, I would say. It wasn't until my sophomore year in college that I truly decided I wanted to commit to being an actor. There was always a push from various directions to use my intelligence for "something more." Once I made the decision, I dropped all backup plans so that I had no choice but to succeed. I pursued theatre intensely, and it was the chance encounter with Del Shores in the middle of that journey that led me to Los Angeles and the pursuit of film and television. The reality is, I want to work and be a part of great work. i will do that with whomever creates it, wherever it happens, and however I can get myself involved! I would say I like producing as a way to continue to support my goal of being the best actor I can be. I can produce material I am passionate about, but I will never be a great producer for hire. It's an enormous amount of work - and the result has to be worth it for me to want to dive in.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

One of the things I appreciate about you is that while you seem to have very strong opinions, you also have a willingness to at least try to meet people where they are. In reading your blog, I love your observations about Rob Portman, for example. I think to not ask you about culture would be ridiculous. Where do you think America is going? I can remember a time not so long ago when even in Hollywood gay central characters were still a novelty and, let's be honest, they were stuck largely acting out caricatures rather than actual characters. That seems to be changing. There's an honesty to the stories and characters now and we're starting to move away from the "shock" of it all. It seems clear to me that films like "Southern Baptist Sissies" have a valuable place in the conversation. How did you feel about the Sochi Olympics? Did America handle that as well as we could have? What about what's going on now in Uganda? 

EMERSON COLLINS

Ha, you've hit my weak spot. Yes, I am obsessed with culture and what it says about where we are as human beings. Our priorities and preferences say a lot about where we are, where we've been and where we're going.  In the interest of brevity, one of the reasons I blog is because I have a tendency toward being long winded, I'll address the overarching point.  I think the greatest danger to our culture is not the polarizing extremes we seem to be devolving into permanently.  I think the real danger is that we are losing the ability to communicate and debate intelligently and honestly.  It's part of why I attempt to foster discussion and listen to opposing views even when I feel strongly on an issue.  If we cannot articulate ourselves well, and debate with actual substance rather than screaming talking points at each other - we will actually tear our nation apart.  The marketplace of ideas is slowly devolving into soapbox shouting matches, on all sides.  If we cannot state openly what we think, listen to the responses, and actually address the concerns expressed by the other side, then what is the point?  This goes for everything from entertainment, to politics, to international affairs.

 To the specific points, I think gays in entertainment are now approaching the point of other minorities where they can be gay without that having to be the entire story or the only character trait.  I hold up the much maligned "Looking" on HBO, which I happen to love, as a perfect example. 

And Uganda.  Yes, it is unfortunately representative of too many African societies.  It's hard to force our politicians to engage heavily in countries where we do not have great economic interest.  It's sad, but it's true.  The things we can address is the American organizations that contribute to these realities.  Bryan Fischer was allegedly involved in the Russian legislation, and American special interest groups who are losing the LGBT equality debate here have gone to push legislation like that in Uganda internationally where they can wield a stronger influence.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Only because I read your Oscar blog do I simply have to ask you about this year's Oscars. Any favorite this year? Disappointments?

EMERSON COLLINS

I have to say that I am more pleased with the Oscar field this year than I have been in many years.  The apples and oranges dilemma of picking a "winner" among extremely different artists, performances and films is obviously silly.  That said, I don't have any that I will be upset about if they win.  So, no appalling nominations for me this year.  I'm really most excited about seeing Idina Menzel sing "Let It Go" from Frozen because yes, sometimes I am that gay.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I'm wondering if a lot of people tell you their stories after seeing a "Southern Baptist Sissies" stage production and/or after the film's screenings. It seems like it would be impossible to watch the film without identifying with someone - and not just the key four young men. Odette (Dale Dickey), especially towards the end, just left me absolutely sobbing.

EMERSON COLLINS

Yes, one of the greatest experiences we as the artist have with this film is the testimonies we are told by those who are moved by the piece.  It is incredibly humbling to know that the film is impactful and creating the healing and understanding we hoped for. Del had a young man tell him once that he chose not to commit suicide after seeing this play and understanding that he wasn't alone in his experience and struggle.  We are very fortunate to be a part of something that is truly making a difference.
 
THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC
 
Was it difficult to be a producer, but then to set aside that hat and act? You certainly did so convincingly, but it seems like it would be challenging to be so centrally involved in the practical/financial aspects of a film that is also so complex and emotional.

EMERSON COLLINS

Part of it just falls under "you do what you have to do."  I will admit that producing this film and playing the lead at the same time was the most difficult thing I have ever done professionally.  With all of the producing work to be done, when it was time to perform I would set all of that aside and step onto the stage.  That's the job.  Well, jobs.  And, I didn't do either thing alone!  I was onstage surrounded by truly brilliant actors to perform with, and on set we had an enormously gifted crew whose passion and skills allowed us to create this unique hybrid piece.  Everyone worked as hard as I did in their job or part, so it was truly a team effort from the first day of our fundraising campaign to the world premiere at Outfest.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

One of the things I really appreciate about "Southern Baptist Sissies" is its sense of authenticity and its presentation of multiple coming out experiences. I have sometimes wondered if having celebrities come out is a good thing? I mean, I suppose it's good for them in a very important way, but I'd also think that coming out in world of celebrity is vastly different from coming out for your ordinary teenager from Iowa or Texas or wherever. I've wondered if seeing such an intimate journey through the lens of celebrity sort of presents it through rose-colored glasses?

EMERSON COLLINS

I think that no matter the difficulty, having out and proud examples of successful gay men and women is only a good thing.  Celebrity culture is different every way, so that's not particular to famous gays - it's all famous people.  It's dangerous for celebrities and actors in a different way, it can still impact their careers and casting.  Obviously, that's different than physical danger!  Each person's coming out journey is different, and each person should be allowed to get there when and where they choose.  Still, the more those very kids in small towns can see that it is not something shameful, whether they come out or not, they can know they aren't alone and that there are places where they can be proudly who they are.  Celebrity culture shouldn't be held up as the perfect example of anything - gay or not!  The rose-colored glasses are the viewers choice to put on or take off.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

One last question. I know that Matthew Shephard's killing inspired Del in his writing of "Southern Baptist Sissies," but I'm wondering what or who inspires you as an actor/artist? I'd also love to hear about any projects you have coming up.

EMERSON COLLINS

There is not a way to answer this without sounding cheesy.  I'm driven most by a desire to understand as much as I can.  About myself, about our world, about what we can do to make it a better place for each other.  I'm most drawn to artists and work that ask interesting questions or address difficult topics.  I love silly entertainment, but I love things that are complicated without easy answers.  As a result, my personal inspirations are random and all over the place, and I find new ones daily and in the strangest places.  And I love that. I think that about covers it.  EXCEPT, my BRAVO reality show, The People's Couch, returns for 12 episodes beginning March 10!

"Southern Baptist Sissies" is currently on a limited nationwide run through theaters. For more information on upcoming dates, visit the film's website. Be sure to check out Emerson Collins on "The People's Couch" on BRAVO beginning March 10th.

© Interview by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic

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