'Drag Is Political by Its Very Nature’

Tal Kallai takes center stage playing a transgender woman in the new indie film ‘Marzipan Flowers.’ The actor says he’s paid a heavy price for stepping so far out of the closet.

Itay Gross

“You think about your hips all the time, but you don’t see your own beauty,” says Hadas (played by Nouli Omer), the protagonist of new film “Marzipan Flowers.” Hadas is speaking to her flatmate Petel (played by Tal Kallai), a transgender woman who works at a hydrotherapy center.

The crisis Petel is going through is one of the trio of feminine identity crises at the center of Adam Kalderon’s film, which was screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival’s Fringidaire segment, which presents independent and alternative cinema. “She simply wants love, but doesn’t know how to act with love,” Kallai says of Petel’s character.

This is not the first time Kallai has played a transgender person on film. Almost 30, he is a pillar of the Tel Aviv scene thanks to his drag character, Talula Bonet, a sort of alcoholic, man-eating femme fatale.

Kallai has been Talula since 2001, appearing in character at many shows and parties. He is also one of my oldest friends. With our partners, we established the drag band Holy Wigs, with which he still performs throughout the country.

He describes the art of drag as “an actor who specializes in playing women’s roles.” A seventh-generation Jerusalem native on his father’s side, he is a graduate of the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio in Jerusalem.

Since graduation, he has performed as an actor (and actress) in several shows, films, series and commercials, but “Marzipan Flowers” is the first film in which he plays one of the protagonists.

He met the film’s writer-director, Kalderon, about six years ago.

“He came to my show, and a few months later he called me and asked to meet,” Kallai says. “He told me, ‘I wrote a character for you that is like the emcee of a training program on coke.’ That sentence was so clear and turned on all the switches in my body."  Even so, quite some time elapsed between that meeting and the actual filming, because it was hard to raise money for the film.

Even afterward, when filming finally began, things did not go smoothly. Ironically, the film came out during Operation Protective Edge, but the filming took place during Operation Pillar of Defense [November -December 2012] on Kibbutz Be’eri, in the shadow of the rockets and sirens.

“We knew we had 10 days to film and there was no time to panic,” Kallai recalls. “We waited for the noise from the helicopters to pass and for a few seconds of quiet, without red alerts, and then we filmed.”

The character Kallai plays is “a woman who hasn’t had an easy life. She has gone through experiences that have given her a thick skin. She is very cynical and lives in a world of her own. Her ostentatious manner protects her from the fact that, inside, her world is devastated, built on nothing. She takes drugs all the time.”

You recently played the role of Agrado in a stage version of “All About My Mother.” She, too, is a transgender woman. Are there other points of connection between her character and Petel’s?

“They have been stepped on by many people. It was inevitable that both of them would collapse, because how far can you blow up a balloon?

“In the end, Petel finds a family of her own. She chooses the right way, with Hadas. She finds a family that adopts her and is released from the heavy shadow of her father.

“You can see many transgender women who thought they had to work as prostitutes and undergo the sex-change process, and that’s it – maybe for financial reasons, maybe because they had internalized society’s odd way of looking at them.

“But I know quite a few transgender women who succeed in breaking free of that, or never went down that path in the first place because they said: ‘I’m educated and smart and talented. Why should I live that kind of life?’ It’s short and scarring, but many of them passed through that station and moved on.”

It is hard to avoid comparing Kalderon’s film with the work of Pedro Almodóvar (who is probably best known for “All About My Mother,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and “Talk to Her”). The drama, visuality, plots involving women in crisis and the intense rhythm are all reminiscent of the Spanish filmmaker’s movies. Kalderon sees this as a good thing. “That’s an enormous compliment,” he says. “Almodóvar gave me a huge gift – the understanding that if he could deal with such topics, so can I.”

Kalderon says he will always deal with gender issues, though “Marzipan Flowers” also deals with death and starting over.

“It talks about my father and my mother, and what I went through on kibbutz. All the concentration on femininity, clothes, makeup – that is my way of conveying it. That is my visual world.”

Appreciation of femininity

Kallai attributes his admiration for transgender women to his appreciation of femininity. “In addition, there is something challenging to me about dealing with this topic from a very young age. Male roles are challenging, too, but in this kind of art, in which a man plays women’s roles, there is something upside-down about it.”

When he completed his acting studies, he never thought he would continue performing in drag.

“But a demand was created – and it was precisely from there that things blossomed for me as an actor. I do drag, and there’s a bit of a mission in that as well. In shows with the Holy Wigs, we perform for audiences all over the country who are not a traditional audience for a drag show.

“Just this past week, we performed for the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, a nurses’ union and the employees of the Be’er Sheva municipality. Anything like this is crazy. There’s a revolution going on here, but it is the result of work that has been going on for a long time.”

He adds that people contact him and tell him that his shows affected them.

“It really enchants people. They see it as something courageous, while I don’t even think about it. I am sure that the women in Stonewall in 1969 did not know that they were causing a revolution.

‘No agenda’

“I don’t know whether there is a mother of a child who came out of the closet in the audience, and we changed something in her mind. I’m not saying that I do drag as a political protest – but drag is political by its very nature. There’s no agenda, or the strongest agenda is to act from the truth, from what you believe is right.”

Although he says there is no agenda, Kallai is still an actor who is out of the closet. “I paid a heavy price for that in terms of casting. Still, I wouldn’t stay in the closet and wear a mask for all the money in the world. I even had an agent who removed me from her agency because she had heard I did drag, and she told me that nobody would want to know I was gay when I went to auditions. I know of many actors who are told that they’ll lose everything if they come out of the closet.”

The price you paid – did you pay it because you’re an actor who came out of the closet, or because you’re a drag queen?

“Both. But I also gained a lot. I did things and went to places that I never would have done or seen otherwise, from the Gesher Theater to the sitcom “Ramzor” to “Always the Same Dream” by Eytan Fox.”

What’s your next project?

“As much theater as possible. I’m offered projects with Talula and that’s great, and I’ve got things planned already. If I ever had a dream, it was only to be in establishment-style theater. I’m very happy where I am, between the fringe and the center. Nissan Nativ told us that as long as we created work for ourselves, we would work. There are lines for auditions from here to Honolulu. If you want to create work for yourself, then you’ll work.”

Arik Soltan
Itay Gross