The cast of the hit Netflix comedy Glow spend all of season three living in the Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino, which often feels like an 18-hour run at the craps table — where triumph is followed quickly by tragedy, another fleeting glimpse of the brass ring, more darkness and, for some, the final, soul-crushing death of long-held dreams. In other words: Vegas, baby.
And while stars Alison Brie (Ruth “Zoya the Destroya” Wilder), Betty Gilpin (Debbie “Liberty Belle” Eagan), Marc Maron (Sam Sylvia), Gayle Rankin (Sheila “The She Wolf”) and Chris Lowell (Sebastian “Bash” Howard) all experience moments of both at various points, it’s the subtle, fleeting character arc of a new cast member that leaves one of the most lasting, heart-breaking impressions in the 10-episode run that dropped on Aug. 9.
“The first ingredient is that it’s 1986, and he is a single, gay father in Las Veags trying to climb the showbiz ladder as a female impersonator — and he was faced with homophobia at every turn,” says Kevin Cahoon, who plays striving drag performer Bobby Barnes in two memorable episodes. (Editor’s note: season 3 spoilers ahead.)
Cahoon, who has appeared on Broadway in The Who’s Tommy, The Lion King and in the title role of John Cameron Mitchell’s rock opera Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and on in TV in seasons two and three of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and in dozens of other series, tells Billboard that people picture Las Vegas as a “freewheeling, anything goes” kind of place. But when it came to LGBTQ rights, the city where everything that happens stays lagged far behind for many years.
“It was a fine navigation that the female impersonators — which were huge at the time — had to weave,” he says. “How much was a mainstream audience going to accept me as a female impersonator?” Cahoon, who is not a professional drag performer, notes that thanks to shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and other pioneering modern drag artists, the culture has exploded into the mainstream, with the most acclaimed queens creating their own super-unique personas. “These female impersonators put on the guises of other famous women, and that was the doorway for them to be themselves,” he says of characters such as his Glow alter ego Barnes.
In one of the season’s most pivotal, moving scenes, Barnes, dressed as Barbra Streisand, jokingly confronts She Wolf Sheila during his act, in a tense exchange that exposes both characters’ strengths and weaknesses. And, in an only-in-Hollywood twist, Cahoon’s chance to have a tear-jerker moment with Rankin at the end of episode four — when She-Wolf finally takes down her lupine mask and exposes her true self — was doubly special, because the two stage veterans have known each other for years and this was their finest filmed moment together. It also sets up Barnes’ devastating audition in Liza Minelli drag for closeted, married show-runner Bash Howard, another crucial plot point in the show’s more drama-focused third season.
Billboard spoke to Cahoon about auditioning for the role of Barnes, his long history with Rankin, and the history of drag culture in Las Vegas. Stick around after the interview for Cahoon’s eclectic Bobby Barnes playlist.
What were you trying to capture about the drag performers of that era in the mid-1980s?
If you watch the acts of the time, they’ll maybe do one number as Liza and a little chatter, and it quickly evolved into them as themselves: their thoughts, their voices, singing other songs that they like. I thought it was so beautiful that these iconic women were the road for them to be themselves. And I think music is Bobby’s oxygen, his days were filled with music. Music is so important to him — it’s how he feels at peace with himself, when he is singing, when he is performing. It’s really the purest connection through music that Bobby has in his life, when he’s singing to an audience and when they’re responding to him.
How much of what we see is you, and how much are the notes the showrunners gave you?
They laid out the given circumstance as to who he was, and [co-creator] Liz Flahive picked “Say Yes” as his big number as Liza in episode four. That was so informative to me, because it’s such a song about optimism, about someone wanting someone else — which is Bash in the episode — to say yes to them. Yes you are valid, yes you count, yes you have talent. Them choosing “Yes” was such a huge doorway into Bobby’s psyche.
Had you sung that on stage before?
It’s funny, as a child I was in Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, and that was our opening number [that] we did in music theater school when I was 11. For that to come around when I read that in the script — my heart just stopped. I couldn’t believe that this song had come back around into my life. It was amazing.
Between your relationship with Gayle and that tidbit, it seems like this role was meant to be.
I really felt that way when I got the call for the audition. I thought, “I have to do everything I can to present my best version of Bobby Barnes.” It did feel like the stars were aligning.
I’d seen several people suggesting that Bobby is based in part on legendary Las Vegas drag performer Kenny Kerr. Is that true?
I was familiar with Kenny Kerr, but it wasn’t until Liz and [co-creator] Carly [Mensch] said he was a real lighthouse for them in creating the role… the character is very much inspired by him. I scoured YouTube looking for any morsel I could find of Kenny. He was wonderful, and so singular in his talent and his voice, and watching him on the Donahue show and Sally Jesse Raphael … he really was a pioneer of the art form.
Was there anything you lovingly borrowed from him for your character?
How comfortable he was with himself. A lot of times if you’re putting on drag you can completely disappear into another character you created. He had such confidence in who he was on stage and I really tried to incorporate that as much as I could, especially in the Barbra sequence in episode four. Bobby’s on cloud nine, this is his heaven. I also read a book by Dennis McBride, Out of the Neon Closet: Queer Community in the Silver State, the chronicle of gay rights in Nevada. There are whole chapters on female impersonation, Kenny Kerr, Boylesque, which was a giant hit show in Las Vegas, and that was a very informative chronicle of the time.
Did they write Bobby as performing as Liza and Barbra, or were those your idea?
For the audition they asked you to prepare five female impersonations. This is not something that I have in my back pocket, so I started thinking of women who sing low, and I did Carol Channing (which ended up making it in the show), Loretta Lynn, Cher, Shirley MacLaine and Tammy Faye Baker, just for a wildcard. I was thinking of women from 1986, and Liza was always in their vision for the episode, and Barbra Streisand was their idea as well. And then in episode nine, Rachel Shukert had this incredible, epic idea for one of Bobby’s female impersonations that’s really fun… Evita Peron, with the Andrew Lloyd Webber score.
The scene with Gayle/Sheila is so real. Was it hard to get so intense with someone you know? Was that all in the script, because the tension is so real and Bobby is so unflappable and Sheila really gives some back to him.
Every single word was in Isaac Oliver’s script that he wrote. He wrote it so beautifully and it was so specific… every word was on the page. Liz and Carly were very specific about Bobby being unflappable. It’s so cool that you brought that up. They kept saying, “He’s a fighter, he’s made of steel, nothing gets to him” — so that when Bash does reject him, it’s a real moment of weakness for him. But most of the time he’s a survivor, he wants to play the big room.
You also have a scene with her at the end of the episode where she, literally, takes off her mask/wig and we see her for the first time as Sheila, the person. Did you two talk about it beforehand, and plot out how you wanted it to look and feel?
Sheila really is a mystery, and it was so brilliant of Liz and Carly to find a kindred spirit in Gayle. We did a production of Our Town at the Williamstown Theater Festival 10 years ago, and we’ve been friends all this time. It was just by chance that I auditioned for Bobby, which is just an incredible role, and to be able to do it with Gayle is a dream. We didn’t discuss it. We both had done our homework on our own.
It was an intense day, because everyone on the set was so respectful of what scene would be for Gayle, who has played Sheila for two seasons and this is the first time she is taking it off. It really was this beautiful, respectful silence on the set that day that I will never forget. I don’t even remember the director saying “action,” it was more like, “OK, we’re ready.” We were really on our own time to start the scene.
Talk a bit about singing “Say Yes” in that audition for Bash, because it’s such a vulnerable moment. What was going through you head, and Bobby’s head, in that scene?
As an actor I thought about Bobby’s given circumstance: he’s got a child, he’s in the lounge trying to play the big room and no one will let him, and here’s a new producer that may be the doorway to get him to play the big room. I thought, “what did Bobby do to prepare for this performance for Bash? I’m going to pick ‘Say Yes’…” These were artists who were paying $2,000 for their costumes, but wearing a black shirt and blue jeans for the rest of their life. Everything they had they were pouring into this.
I thought, “he hired these musicians… he probably didn’t have enough money to hire them, but he did. He wanted that Halston jacket that he spent every single dime on.” I was thinking of the sacrifice and that moment of performing for Bash… everything was on the line. Sadly, it’s 1986 and the AIDS crisis is rampant, and his friends are dying around him and he doesn’t know if he could be next… it’s a terrifying time. The stakes were really, really high for him in that performance.
Meanwhile, as Bobby is holding it together despite the pressure, in the audience of one, Bash is falling apart, red-eyed and losing it.
It’s as if Bobby is holding up a mirror to Bash, saying, “You could be this free and liberated in your life if you would allow yourself to be.” That’s not an easy pill for him to swallow.
Cahoon also created an annotated look at Bobby’s peronal playlist, exclusively for Billboard. Check it out below.
Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill”
So beautifully utilized by show creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch at the end of episode 9. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. Bobby, keep going.
“I Am What I Am” (from La Cage Aux Folles)
Bobby would definitely close the first act of his show with this triumphant anthem from the 1983 hit Broadway musical.
“Wig in a Box” (from Hedwig and The Angry Inch)
Triumph over your circumstances via a wig and some make-up. The gospel of Hedwig. The salvation of Bobby Barnes.
Cyndi Lauper, “Time After Time”
I imagine Bobby singing this classic once his curtain call is complete, sending his audience into the Las Vegas night with constellations of rhinestones wafting in his wake.
“Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” (from Evita)
THE ultimate 11 o’clock number. Pathos. Glamour. Ambition. Heartbreak. All while wearing that gown that Bobby has spent every last one of his dollars to make.
Peter Allen, “Once Before I Go”
Bobby follows his heart, no matter the consequence. So does this song. And it has a great key change in the middle.
Bette Midler, “Do You Want To Dance”
I bet Bobby plays this in the background on one of the rare nights that he has a date.
Patti LaBelle, “There’s A Winner in You”
Patti LaBelle on the title track of her 1986 platinum album is a fairy godmother –a soul goddess lifting Bobby up on his darkest days.
“Overture” (from Gypsy)
Nothing says show biz more than the overture to ‘Gypsy’. This is THE oxygen for Bobby Barnes!
David Bowie, “Heroes”
“‘We can beat them, just for one day/ We can be heroes, just for one day.’What I imagine Bobby listens to as he’s getting ready to face, yet another day in Sin City…”
Liza Minelli, “Say Yes”
“Liza, ever the optimist, inspires Bobby to charge through his obstacles and propose the positive. Simply… say yes!”
Carol Channing, “You Haven’t Played Until You’ve Played the Palace”
“The perfect song for anyone who smells of greasepaint and was born in a trunk! Sounds like Bobby to me.”
Watch the trailer for season three of Glow, streaming now on Netflix.