Comedian Mar-garet Cho wrote Bam Bam And Celeste for her best friend, actor/ comedian Bruce Daniels (who opens for Cho on her comedy tours). “I wanted to write a fairy tale about this great relationship: a fag and fag-hag love story,” she says, laughing. The feature, directed by Lorene Machado, who directed Cho’s last two concert films and the 2003 lesbian comedy Starcrossed, has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Cho calls the flick “a great love letter to gay culture.” The story details the camp adventures of hairdressers Bam Bam (Daniels) and Celeste (Cho) as they leave small-town life behind on the advice of a crazed gypsy psychic (Kathy Najimy) and embark on a road trip toward fame and fortune. Celeste plans to enter a reality show called Trading Faces, where friends nominate each other for a very public, professional makeover.
Along the way they encounter friends and foes alike. They’re saved from attackers by a woodsy dyke (Best In Show’s butchy dog-trainer Jane Lynch), taunted by a redneck bigot and rematched with childhood tormentors who’ve made it big in New York as chichi hairstylists.
Far-fetched? Not at all, says Cho, who drew from her own life experience. “There were these archetypes that I wanted to create that I’d encountered in real life. I wanted to put people onscreen that I’d never seen in cinema, [like] a dreamboat lesbian lone ranger that rescues you.”
Fun and games for sure, but with an underlying middle finger toward growing intolerance in mainstream USA. “To me, it’s always about a queer audience,” Cho says. “If it bleeds into mainstream culture, that’s fine – they can come along and sit in for the ride. There is nothing else but gay culture for me. It’s being part of that gay audience, being included within it, speaking from within it.”
It’s this fiercely pro-gay stance and outspoken activism that has earned the diminutive comic legions of gay and lesbian fans. But she acknowledges a sour note to her longstanding love affair with gaydom. “There’s a scene that I love called The Fag Hag’s Lament, where [my character] has just had it because her gay boyfriend always leaves her to go cruise guys. She just loses it, and says, ‘You’ve left me for the last time and I cannot stand it anymore!’
“Women who hang out with gay men never express this, and now I finally had that opportunity.”
Playing Cho’s main gay squeeze came naturally to costar Daniels, who first met the star while filming a never-released movie called Can’t Stop Dancing. “We played each other’s romantic interest,” Daniels chuckles, “and our [story] arc got cut out at the end. Hopefully it won’t ever come out.”
Both performers laugh while remembering the improbability of those roles, but the experience sparked a relationship that has led Daniels to new professional ground over the past several years.
“First time I ever did standup was opening for her,” he says. “She made me do it!” Cho slyly booked Daniels for a workshop of her live show Notorious Cho, only to pull out at the last minute and insist he do five minutes of solo standup instead. “My best friend had just died of cancer and had been so fearless,” Daniels remembers, “so when this opportunity was given to me I had no choice but to say, ‘I’ll do it. I’m not going to live in fear.'”
He’s now grateful for the push, and has toured with Cho for three years, earning a reputation as a personable and talented comic. “[Margaret] saw something in me that I didn’t see in me,” he says. “She’s this amazing person that can’t stop giving.”
Ironically, Daniels wasn’t necessarily the first choice for the role written specifically for him. “Some studios wanted to make the film, but they didn’t want to make it with me. They wanted Jamie Foxx or Usher,” he says. “But Margaret was like, ‘No. It’s his role.'”
On the strength of his first outing as a leading man Daniels is now committed to auditioning for more acting roles. But being a black thespian in America is proving to be a challenge; he too often confronts the gangsta/playa stereotype.
“People constantly try to figure out what I’m mixed with because there had to be some sort of reason that I was so articulate. There has to be some excuse.
“White guys would say to me, ‘You’re whiter than me,’ ’cause I don’t play basketball. Hey, I’m not whiter than you, I’m just smarter than you.”
One of the strongest themes in Bam Bam And Celeste is the effect of bullying on outcasts. Our heroes are confronted with their high-school nemeses during the reality-show audition, which stirs up feelings for both stars as they reminisce about their own childhoods.
“I was horribly picked on as a child,” says Daniels. “I was terribly introverted. I thought if I didn’t talk, I could hide my sexuality.
“I went through denying it and dating girls. I was almost married. But my mother talked me out of it. She just said, ‘I think you’re going to have other opportunities.'”
For Cho, it’s still an ongoing process to work through body image issues. Though she’s beenfit and trim for some time, it’s been a challenge to let go of some of the old hurts. “It’s very frustrating because we’re always judging women on their appearance. It’s so casual and never questioned. There needs to be somebody standing around and asking why this is still happening.”
She has a somewhat clandestine method of changing her own attitudes. “I’m a belly dancer! It’s my other secret job,” says Cho. “Every once in a while I dance at a Middle Eastern restaurant which is fun. I’m an off-night dancer.”