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Beth Ditto on Her Righteous Feminist Moment With Susan Sarandon

Beth Ditto was on the verge of a drastic career shift when fate stepped in and dealt her the perfect card: a starring role in Fox’s new family drama Monarch. “I was scared to death,” the musician and actress tells me of the emotional roller coaster she experienced early in the pandemic. As someone who has spent the better part of her life on stage performing live—she was the front woman of the late-’90s/early aughts indie rock band Gossip and has since pursued a multi-platinum solo career—Ditto saw the uncertain future as an opportunity to switch gears. Monarch came in at the right time with a role Ditto was certain was hers to play. 

The premise of the Fox musical series sounds a bit like its other multigenerational hit Empire in that it follows a legendary music family fighting for its legacy, only this one is set in the South and features a country music dynasty. At the top are the reigning king and queen of country music Albie Roman (Trace Adkins) and Dottie Cantrell Roman (Susan Sarandon) who must reckon with the truths behind their success. Their children, Nicky, Luke, and Gigi, are on their own quests for stardom in the industry and will stop at nothing to protect their family’s reputation. Ditto plays Gigi, a role that hits close to home for the Arkansas native. Having grown up in the South in a large family and identifying as queer, Ditto knows firsthand the importance of forging your own path. Though she’s acted in projects such as Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot and Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Monarch challenged the 41-year-old in a completely new and unexpected way. Below, I chat with Ditto about her serendipitous casting, overcoming her acting jitters, and the very blunt wake-up call she received from Susan Sarandon. 

You have spent most of your career in music and fashion and started getting into acting in 2018. How do you go about picking the projects you want to be a part of, and how did Monarch come to you?

Oh, honey, I don’t pick them. I’ve auditioned for a few things and didn’t get them. COVID definitely shook every musician I know, the touring ones, because that’s our bread and butter. So any opportunity for something, I would take it. I like acting. It’s easy. That’s oversimplifying it, but it’s different as opposed to writing a record because it’s already written for you. But I really was scared because I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I was considering what I could do remotely. During COVID, I had my nieces a lot while their parents worked, so it was Auntie Beth’s daycare over here. I thought, “I could actually see myself doing this and having a really fulfilling career.” So I thought maybe I could go into childcare development and take online classes or something. But then [Monarch] came up, and they described the character as a fat lesbian country singer, and I was like, I really want that part. I tried really hard to get it. I auditioned four times, and I was like, they are crazy if they don’t pick me. For one, I’m a Southerner and familiar with all of that stuff. I [also] play music for a living. I was up against really great people, and I’m really flattered that I got it. It came in at the 11th hour. 

You play Gigi Taylor-Roman, the daughter of two country legends, who is a country star on the rise herself. Can you tell me a little more about what we can expect from Gigi?

I’m one of seven kids, so I know that funny feeling of being the little sister. Even though my sister and I are close and we love each other very much, it wasn’t a rivalry or anything, but I can definitely really relate to Gigi and Nicki. I really understand how society and sexism create this idea that there can only be one queen, like this town’s not big enough for both of us. It reminds me of, bear with me if you will, you know Bikini Kill? It reminds me of in the ’90s when Hole and Bikini Kill, the media created this rivalry. People would ask in interviews, “Bikini Kill or Hole?” And I think it was Tobi [Vail] from Bikini Kill who said, “Why can’t you like both? There’s enough room for everybody. Why does it have to be this thing?” So I can understand that in sisterhood and being a musician and how the patriarchy sets us up to fight against each other and how that even happens in families. 

How do you personally relate to Gigi and her experience in the show?

I think with Gigi, there is a relatable person for the chubby kid or for whatever person feels like they are different than or other than. Not less than, but anyone who has carved their own path because they were like, this isn’t going to work for me, so I’m going to have to make it up as I go along. I really can relate to Gigi like that.

We get to see you perform in the show, which is really exciting. What was it like stepping into the country music genre?

As far as singing it and performing it, it was different, but the real question is, the real what the fuck is going on is, I’m 41 and [my band] Gossip has been around since I was 18 years old. Since 1999, I’ve done things my exact way. It’s collaborative, but as far as I go, I’m my boss. I don’t have to listen to anybody. I taught myself my own way. Being in the studio and working for people who come from a seriously pop background, and not pop in the sense of the Lady Gagas and Cyndi Laupers of the world; we are talking about a very regimented, formulaic, very tedious world that I’m not used to. So that was crazy. Going into that world, I was like, “You want me to do what?” When we first started working, it took seven hours to record one song. Let me tell you something: Gossip, that would be like five songs. Written and recorded, done. So of course, there was this resentment of why can’t I just be me? Why can’t I just do my thing? And I remember one of the producers said, “Beth, you can’t forget you’re an actor. You are acting now. This isn’t Beth. This is Gigi.” And I was like, “Oh, shit. Totally.” 

When you are coming from music and coming from a punk background or whatever you call it, you are your own boss; you are your own tastemaker. And if it fails, it’s on you. But with this, it was like, oh, this is being made for the masses. This is a different world that I have never been a part of before, never even thought about. And so when I tried out for this part, it never dawned on me that that’s what I would be learning, the music part. That the music part would take more time than the acting part. The thing about acting that I never really thought about is you are constantly cramming for a test. You are constantly trying to memorize every single thing. When you are not working, you are working. But the music part was even harder, which is weird!

Susan Sarandon plays your mother in the show. She is such an icon in the business. Can you tell me what it was like working with and being on set with her?

I love her so much. Having somebody like that around just to give you permission is really powerful. And for somebody like me who doesn’t really pay attention to what they are supposed to be doing and is not very in the moment, [it’s nice to have] someone give you permission to not pay attention. When you are working in a completely different industry, it brings back those things of, “Oh my god, I missed that line.” I have had ADD my whole life, and school was not a cinch for me, so it brings back those insecurities of slowing everybody down. But to have Susan, and Anna [Friel] too, to have them both be like, “Who cares? Take your time,” [was great]. My favorite story about Susan, and I love telling it, is the first night we worked together, I was really nervous because she’s not just an actress. It’s not like you are working with somebody A-list or somebody who is on your level; they are legendary and iconic and really, really good at what they do. And also, I really respect her as a person and as an activist. There aren’t many people in my life where I’ve walked into a room and been like, “Oh, please like me,” and she was one of them. You want to impress them and do your best. So I was learning my marks and stuff, and we had been there all night, and we were walking down this crazy hill, and it was wet. I was really nervous and all of us were exhausted, and it was the first day of all of us together, and I said, “Oh my god, I missed my mark,” and Susan turned to me and said, “Shut. The. Fuck. Up.” And I was like, “Oh!” But the thing is, coming from somebody like her, it could have been interpreted in any way, but for somebody like me, it was that permission thing where I was like just be quiet. If they aren’t telling you to do something different, if they aren’t telling you to start over, if they aren’t saying your name, don’t point it out for the love of fucking god. We all want to go home. You forget that she’s been doing this for like 50 years, so she was like, I don’t want to fucking be here all night. It was a valuable lesson for someone who nervous-talks. I was like, this is a very righteous feminist moment. It was very important.

Photographer: Chris Singer

Stylist: Penny Lovell

Hairstylist: John D

Makeup Artist: Caroline Hernandez

Catch new episodes of Monarch airing Tuesdays on Fox.

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