Exclusive: Kalup Linzy, Soap Opera Vixen of the Arts
The words don’t quite exist yet to describe the kind of art that Kalup Linzy makes. He is the epitome of the phrase ‘jack-of-all-trades,’ as Linzy’s artistic expression has manifested in every medium imaginable: photography, films, web series, live performance, and even full-scale albums.
However one describes what he does, it’s potent as hell. Through his ultra DIY, ‘homemade soap operas,’ Linzy skewers all of modern culture as we know it—with everything from consumerism, racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia thrown on the stake. He is the director, actor, composer, sound technician, and principal marketer for everything he does, and his work has attracted the attention of everyone from James Franco to Macaulay Culkin to fashion house Proenza Schouler. But Milk’s Jake Boyer caught up with Linzy to discern a simple question: how does this man describe what he does in his own words?
So tell me about your current work. I understand you’re playing over 30 people?
It’s a group show called ‘Family Affair,’ though I plan to bring a solo version to NYC. In it I’m playing 35 characters. Well, 35 voices, I’m not acting out every single one of them. It’s going to be like a collage. I feel like I’m figuring out my next phase, I’m pushing 40 and trying to show respect to those changes. But despite my age, I’m still pursuing the same artistic and filmic dream that I’ve had my entire life.
When did that dream start?
Early on (laughs). It started back in high school I guess. Instead of papers I would ask my teachers if I could make a video, like a soap opera version of whatever short story we were reading. I was completely in love with the narrative of soap operas after watching them with my grandmother. So I started dressing up and playing different characters in my work, but it was just to do while I was in school. Things only fell into place after I started sending stuff to film festivals, and then I had art schools and professors express interest. I was learning as I was going, I didn’t have a clue. I just had this crazy fantasy about being a soap opera vixen. And I spent my time trying to figure out how to live that fantasy, even if it wasn’t on television.
You said early on that you never tried to court the art world, you had your sights set on Hollywood. How did you end up in such a central part of the art world?
I sort of evolved into it. It’s almost like when you’re a certain way, when you’re a certain kind of artist, people don’t really know what to do with you. Early on I was feeding my creative dream, making more like an underground soap opera that dealt with all sorts of issues. It was very Dynasty, but a very low-fi, low budget version. In school I was a communications major, and I was active in theatre, but I wasn’t feeding that dream. So I made a plan to go work for a television station or a film company, maybe find an agent if I wanted to act. I knew that I was limited because of my heavy Southern accent, and trying to eliminate it in theatre proved to be a real task. When I graduated I sent stuff out to film schools and to art schools, and the art schools were the ones that responded in a way where the film counterparts were too afraid to touch what I was doing. I still ended up doing film festivals later, but I was labeled as ‘avant-garde’ and not ‘indie film.’ But I’m fine with it; I think ‘the art side’ was the most productive space for me to be honest.
You’ve worked with an astounding roster of collaborators, who was someone you found particularly informative or helpful?
Hmm let me see. I think working with James Franco was a huge lesson, in multiple ways. He taught me a lot about how dreams work. But there’s been so many. Proenza Schouler has been wonderful in helping me on the art production front, they actually just made me another leotard. The way they operate is amazing, and I had an amazing moment with Chloë Sevigny when we worked on a campaign for them. I remember being on set at Barney’s with Chloe and I was having a low moment. And suddenly we had this exchange of energy, and that reaffirmed my entire outlook on the act of collaborating. I feel so thankful for everything, it all sort of happened. But of course, I’m still learning.
Being such a soap opera obsessive, what was that like when you were on ‘General Hospital’ in real life?
It was completely surreal (laughs). I was nervous too because I’ve spent my whole life bringing the drama of soap opera into my creative vision. I just thought that they would think I was making fun of them (laughs). But they treated me like it was a welcome party. ‘You made it!’ they kept saying. I felt like I had been elevated, or something grander. It was crazy, but it all made sense. That was the path that I had set myself on.
Your work is often written about as being as standing at the intersection of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Do you feel the need to consciously address those themes as they’ve become more addressed in our society?
That also happens organically. I just play the characters and they’re going to be read however they’re going to be read. Artists are always on the margins, and you create work with the hope that you’re going to create a better world, at the very least for yourself. I feel like a better world exists more now than when I started. It gets tricky though. A lot of people will assume that I’m transgender because I play so many female characters, but I’m not. I’m happy with my gender, and people will often try to put me on a platform that I’m not trying to speak on. All of my characters are through the filter of experience, so I have to be conscious and aware of these issues.
You have so many characters, more than most actors. Do you find yourself doing character work or is it more spontaneous?
I think it’s a little bit of both. The initial inception of the character is organic but there’s a lot of tweaking involved. I don’t necessarily think of myself as an actor. Even when I was on General Hospital I was playing more of a fictional version of myself. It wasn’t the easiest thing to try to find that space. I did theatre, so in the earlier works I spent a lot of time making sure the characters were developed. But I do sit down and write the characters, think about how they walk, move, etc.
Do you feel like you know all of these people you bring to life?
Not completely, but they certainly inhabit me. I give myself over to that process. At this point I think each one has blossomed where they’ve developed their own organic relationship to each other. My new work actually has a family tree that connects them all together. I like to think of it as a one-man show with a supporting cast. It was important to me that they all don’t feel like me, that they belong to a world that’s not inside of me.
Kalup’s new show ‘A Family Affair’ opens at his alma mater, the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum on August 24th
Check out his amazing Youtube channel here