Nathan Lee Graham on Eartha Kitt, Bottle Episodes, and the Lost Glamour of Air Travel

Comedy fans may best know Nathan Lee Graham as Todd, the panicky assistant of Jacobim Mugatu in Zoolander and Zoolander 2. But that is merely scratching the latte-drenched surface of Graham’s body of work. He has added his certain level of glamour to guesting roles on Absolutely Fabulous, Scrubs, The Comeback, Priscilla Queen of the Desert on Broadway, and the Grammy-winning Songs of Innocence and Experience based on the poems of William Blake. Graham can currently be seen on the Fox sitcom LA to Vegas, about the crew and regular passengers on the weekly run from one sin city to another. Graham brings a quiet dignity to a flight crew that weeps openly in front of passengers, propositions ground control, and has no idea what to do with a dead body.

You work in every format there is. But I love that on your bio, you’re first listed as a “cabaret performer.” I think of that as such an underrated, lost art.

I do too. And I hope to always do it. It’s just such an intimate thing, and it’s my favorite form of theater. I don’t do a lot of jokes. There’s maybe some witty stories connected by song. Mine is a more traditional, Eartha Kitt/Bobby Short kind of situation. You come in and there’s beautiful songs, beautiful music, and they’re tied together with little witty anecdotes. Well, I’m saying they’re witty, I hope they are. But that’s my sort of thing that I personally love to do. And it can also be terrifying, because it’s just you doing it. But it’s a magical thing when you can hold an audience in a small space like that.

Do you approach being on Broadway differently than being in a sitcom?

I do not approach anything differently. Sometimes when I do a masterclass, I tell my students that when I’m onstage I act like I’m on camera, and when I’m on camera I act like I’m onstage. When you’re doing a film or a television show, you have to make things smaller, but they have to be even more intense inside. So I feel as though there is an audience out there, still watching. And then when you are onstage, it’s kind of neat—at least for me—to feel as though a camera is watching my every move. I think that sometimes people forget onstage to be visual, because you’re right there and it’s live. But I’m always conscious of that too, as if a camera has a close-up on you. And then in LA to Vegas, it’s so funny because it’s the closest you get to doing an eight-show week on a TV show. Because I basically wear the same costume all the time, and we have the same set basically. Even if we go off of it, we go back onto the plane. So it’s not unlike doing an eight-show week on Broadway.

While watching LA to Vegas, I noticed that every episode is basically a bottle episode, which are often the most theatrical and fun.

We will be getting off the plane, very soon. My apartment is used a lot, I’m happy to say, in this first season. But our touchstone, the heart of the show, is that plane. Which is very challenging, but in the best possible way because you get to be really creative when you have a limited space.

How is it challenging?

It’s challenging to shoot, because you have these small, tight spaces like the galley. But then it’s interesting to shoot. They’ve designed this fuselage—which is a real one—to go up on the sides like a Delorean. That gives you space for the cameras and lights to come in, but you’re still confined by being on a plane. It’s challenging because of the spatial awareness of it – the environment is constraining. But it’s also terribly interesting and very creative, because your mind just does different things. Like when we had babies falling out of the overhead bin.

Tell me a little bit about your character on the show.

Bernard is a senior flight attendant. He’s a veteran, I would say. I like to say he’s all the S’s: sassy, saucy, sexy, at times sinister. But he’s also helpful. He can be very curt and biting, but at the same time he’s there to do a job on a terrible airline and he’s going to do the best he can.

At times he almost feels like some kind of ageless wizard.

I will be using that from now on – I will be stealing that from you. He is an ageless wizard with so many wonderful powers. As a matter of fact, let’s just go completely to the Endora place, from Bewitched. He is Agnes Moorehead.  

He laments the loss of the golden age of flying. There’s something so interesting about a character who, as a black queer man, would trade any sort of civil rights gains for the glamour of the past. That’s where his priorities are.

Well yeah, because there was something lost in that. Of course I want rights, I want everyone to have equal rights, but why do we have to get rid of the glamour? The whole premise of something being heightened and exciting, and getting dressed up to do something – he laments that loss. And to a certain extent, Nathan Lee Graham does too. I just love the idea of an event. I think that’s why people are still drawn to these award shows. Because at least there’s something to look forward to. If everything is all the same, then nothing exciting is left. None of the decorum and manners of being chic, of being chic and a diva. That’s fun for him. That’s part of the allure and the mystique of flying. The “jet set,” he misses all of that. He tries to infuse every episode with a little glamour.

Speaking of mystique and divas, let’s talk about Eartha Kitt.

Oh yes! Let’s talk about my dear friend. How often do you get to have an idol, someone you emulate, who’s an icon in her own right, and then you meet her? And then eventually, somehow, through some miracle, you get to work with her on Broadway? And then you actually become friends until her dying day? It’s just a remarkable thing. I literally look at her picture sometimes, or talk to her daughter Kitt, and I’ll have to pinch myself. Did I really know this person? Did I really know one of the Catwomen? It was an intimate kind of mentorship, giving me little tidbits of advice and allowing me to watch, because she knew I was a great observer and loved to listen. So many of her wonderful, wonderful fans were busy trying to imitate her or try to be her, and I just wanted to watch and to listen. She was such a delight. To be honest with you I never told her this, but every time I was in her presence, there was this sort of out-of-body experience for me. Even though I was talking to her, chit-chatting about something mundane, or she was driving me to a grocery store in her Range Rover, I would still be in complete awe – of the way she carried herself, and what she had to go through to be herself. An extraordinary woman.

What is something you learned from her?

Discipline. Absolute discipline. That is something that I carry with me all the time. It’s the ability to repeat a gesture the same way, and the ability to present yourself – in private or in public – in a way that’s appropriate to the situation. And that requires great discipline. Understanding yourself. I always say: whoever you are, whatever you are, become more of it. And she’s an example of that. Finding out who you are right away as a person, somehow. And whittling away and honing and polishing and buffing up that person, until you start to shine on your own. She was a great example of being singular, and letting me know that it’s okay to be alone. That’s a big deal. “We might be alone most of the time, people like us,” she would say. When you really work on yourself and your craft, sometimes there’s no space left for people who are – and I don’t mean this in a derogatory way – people who aren’t strong enough to be around that. And that doesn’t mean that you’re some sort of ogre or diva. It’s just that everybody has to at least sort of like themselves to be around you. No insecure people, in other words. You can be insecure about things, but you can’t be insecure about yourself. I find that I grow weary around people who aren’t happy with themselves. You can want to change things in your life, but you have to like yourself a little, too.

Is that honing of the self important just for performers, or for anybody?

Anybody, anybody. It’s especially important for performers because we are our own commodity. We can’t turn in something separate as a brief, or something outside of ourselves. I can’t turn in some documents. It’s me; I’m the document. It’s especially important for performers, but it’s important for everyone. I would love to date someone who was completely out of the business and loved what they did: an architect, a lawyer, a doctor, whatever. You’ve gotta really love what you do, but you have to know who you are to do it well.

I think a lot of the problems that we have in the world today, especially in this country, are because people are looking for other people to decide who they are. You’ve really got to figure that out for yourself. But we’re always looking for someone to clarify, to dictate who we are.

An example from your body of work that is something of a cautionary tale about letting other people define you is The Comeback. Lisa Kudrow couldn’t have made that show if she didn’t have that self-possession that her character did not.

Absolutely. She was completely aware of what was going on, she and Michael Patrick King. So proud of being a part of that. To say that it was before its time is kind of ridiculous, but I will say that people weren’t completely ready for it because we were holding up a mirror. We wouldn’t allow Valerie Cherish to succeed until she would succeed, and that takes time. People were like “We need her to win right now!” And we were like “No, that’s what you’re projecting.” That’s what was so fascinating about that experience. That, and the fact that people still think we were improvising when everything was scripted.

Your character was the wardrobe supervisor. Did you pull from any wardrobe people you’ve worked with, or were you figuring out how to frame Valerie?

I think both. If I’m being honest, it’s always everything. I’ve certainly been around wonderful wardrobe people. One of my favorite things to do is be in fittings. But I’ve also heard what happens in a wardrobe room, especially when they’re talking about other actors. I drew from all of that – when someone’s being dismissive of someone else in their own space, then pouring on all this attention to the starlet because she’s a size 0.

People say to me “Isn’t is so fun to get a chance to play yourself?” – even with Bernard. And I’m like, “Are you kidding?” I mean, yes, there’s some part of you in it because it’s you who’s doing it. But trust me, I would be exhausted if I went around acting like the characters I play. I like to have some quiet time, watch PBS, and have a lovely small meal with a limited amount of people. I’m actually quite shy until I have to be on.

I would be remiss not to talk about Zoolander. How did you come to work on those films?

I was doing The Wild Party with Eartha Kitt, Toni Collette, and Mandy Patinkin. All these wonderful, wonderful Broadway stars. And Ben Stiller happened to see the very last performance of that show, a Sunday matinee. Come Monday morning, we were all out of a job, and he called my agent at the time and asked to meet with me. So we met, and he said “There’s nothing really for you to audition with. I haven’t written anything. It’s going to be based upon a sketch I did on VH1, it’s about fashion. It’s called Zoolander. You’re going to be playing a character, I think his name is going to be Todd. Do you wanna do it?” And my show had just closed, so of course I wanted to do it.

Fifteen years later, Z2 started, the first thing Ben said to me was “What the fuck? You look the same! You look exactly the same.” Milla Jovovich said the same thing. She screamed. “Fuuuuck! You look the same.” And now Will Ferrell is one of the executive producers of LA to Vegas, so it’s just full circle moments. He’s an absolute delight. Just such a wonderfully generous person and performer. So it’s been great. We had no idea, when we were filming, that it would be anything. It became this cult favorite because we opened on the same week, or around the same week, as 9/11. So that was weird. We actually were going to do the premiere in New York. We couldn’t do it because of security reasons, so we had to do it in Los Angeles at the Paramount lot. They flew me back out to LA, with no one on the plane. I remember standing up on the plane and saying “Listen, if any of you m-f’s are going to try anything, I’m going to take you down.” And we all laughed together, because there were really only ten people on the plane. It was a magical thing, and I will always be in debt to Mr. Stiller. He’s been very kind to me over the years, and very supportive.

So how do you still look the same?

I have a portrait of Dorian Gray that I keep in my messenger bag!

LA to Vegas airs Tuesdays at 9:00/8:00pm c on Fox.

Nathan Lee Graham on Eartha Kitt, Bottle Episodes, and […]