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On Monarch, Beth Ditto Is Just Being Herself

Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images for ACM

While shooting Monarch, her second television series, Beth Ditto often went to her co-stars with acting questions. But when the characters of the country-music soap opera hit the stage, the tables were turned. “I had the best time because I was in my element,” says Ditto, who made her name as the ferociously brazen singer of dance-rock band Gossip in the late aughts. “And then Anna Friel was really nervous. She was like, ‘Oh, I can’t stand that.’”

Like her Monarch character, Gigi Roman, the outcast sister in a family of country musicians and moguls, Ditto is queer, fat, and southern; she even has an older sister. (“This is your bang for your buck right here,” she jokes.) Monarch came to Ditto as a lifeline in the middle of the pandemic when she found herself unable to tour and not returning to Showtime’s underappreciated black comedy On Becoming a God in Central Florida (in which she was stellar as Bets, the unassuming wife of a man sucked into a pyramid scheme) after the network canceled the show’s renewal because of COVID.

Gigi is almost a continuation of Bets; the character has a similar sense of naïveté when it comes to her wife and manager Kayla’s (Meagan Holder) obvious affair with Gigi’s businessman brother, Luke (Joshua Sasse), and carries a feeling of underappreciation as the late-to-ascend but more talented performer in the Roman fold. And after her sister, Nicky (Friel), records one of their late mother’s (Susan Sarandon) songs behind Gigi’s back, Gigi stands up for herself in her biggest moment yet, channeling her rage and resentment into smashing the set of the family’s Christmas special. That same day, she agrees to try for another baby with Kayla — without knowing her wife is already pregnant with Luke’s child. Compared with the Monarch melodrama, Ditto’s conversation with Vulture is loose and lighthearted. “I really did just pretend to be Chris Farley,” she says of the Christmas scene. “We joked about it a lot because it was so silly and over the top. It was hard to take that seriously, and I was afraid that was gonna come across.”

This is your first acting gig to show off your musical side. What made you want to do that?
It was the pandemic, so musicians were scared to death. If you make your living from tours, you are in dire straits, and two years of that is frightening. It was like, What am I gonna do? I don’t know how to type, I’ve never been to college. Let me put this into focus for you: I got kicked out of typing class in high school, and I’ve never picked it up again. I was like, Okay, maybe I’ll open a day care — for real, these are my real thoughts.

Then this part comes in, and it’s a lesbian, plus-size is the word they used, country singer. And I’m like, Hello, yeah! Who else are you gonna get? What are your options here? You could pick someone with more acting experience, sure, or you could go with the real queer person who has music experience and had a small part on a TV show once! And did I mention I’m actually a Southerner, so I have experience in this country-music world?

I auditioned three or four times, and when they finally were like, “You got it!,” oh my God, I was so relieved. Then they told me about Anna Friel and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” And then they told me about Susan Sarandon, and I was like, “You’ve got to shut your fuckin’ mouth!” And then Trace Adkins. I was like, “What? ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,’ can do!”

What was your reaction to finding out Susan Sarandon dies in the first episode?
I was like, Are you out of your fuckin’ mind? Who cooked up this idea? I think we all thought that, honestly. But I love her. She’s been a good, good source for me, ’cause I’m not experienced. And I’ll go to Anna a lot, too, and my friends Kevin Cahoon and Meagan Holder, but if it’s a real serious industry question that I don’t understand, I’ll go to Susan. And she’s always open to it.

You’re saying you didn’t feel quite experienced in acting, but I see similarities between On Becoming a God’s Bets and Gigi.
That’s because I’m one speed, baby! I’m One-Character Beth. That’s what they call her.

What did you bring from On Becoming a God to Monarch?
The thing about Bets and the thing about Gigi is there’s this really sweet naivi — naivi, like, nait, native — there’s a beautiful nativity scene! It’s gorgeous. It’s on my mother’s mantle every Christmas; she’s had it since the ’70s. No, what is it? Naivety?

Yeah, naïveté.
Naïvetat. They really have that in common. It’s a very southern kind of naïveté; you’ll be like, “So-and-so’s having an affair.” And it’s obvious. And they’ll be like, “Whaaaat?!” And it’s like, “Yeah, don’t you see their car over there all the time?” “Well, I know he fixes carburetors and her carburetor goes out all the — oh …” They’re both really fiery and self-confident. That’s why they’re similar — they’re based on these southern women I actually know. For Gigi, that could be a subconscious way of dealing with all the things she went through in childhood.

What was it like filming your scene in the Christmas special?
I was like, “Wait, do you really want me to do this?” That’s the thing about acting that I’m not used to — that it is acting. You’re not being yourself. And it’s really hard for me to not be myself. I try really hard to suppress it or be quiet, but then I forget. The more I focus on trying to behave, the more distracted I get.

In this episode, we also see Nicky broker the deal with Luke and Kayla about the baby and the affair, and Kayla goes to Gigi to ask about having another kid. Tell me more about playing those scenes.
Me and Meagan talked about it a lot. Maybe because it was coming from a queer perspective on my side, I didn’t want to lose the love between us. Maybe I was taking it too seriously. For the record, we didn’t know this was a soap opera while we were making it; maybe it would’ve played differently had we known that. Like, in your mind, you’re making a drama. Rick Rubin told me once — name drop! — we were making a record and it was the first time we’d worked with him, but this was really good advice because I was really nervous to work with this crazy-famous producer: I said, “Okay, so what’s our process?” And he said, “We’ll know when we’re finished.” It was like that with this show. There were a lot of conversations between the actors in those scenes because we were making it up as we went along. If we’d done it as a soap opera, maybe I would’ve flown off the handle and cleared a table and crashed through a window. But we wanted to play it lovingly and real.

These nuances make me think about Gigi’s relationship with Nicky. In some scenes, it’s really cutthroat, but in others, it’s clear they care for each other. How do you think about Gigi’s relationship with Nicky?
I have an older sister, and I did grow up that way — not that she was stabbing me in the back, but she was always very protective. It really is that thing where you can tell your sister she’s stupid, but if someone else calls her stupid, you’ll fuckin’ knock their lights out. Nobody can be mean to her but me; that’s a real sisterly dynamic. I did grow up feeling like I was in my big sister’s shadow, and it wasn’t my sister’s fault. That’s the thing with Gigi and Nicky. Nicky sees that her sister needs protection and she doesn’t know how to stand up to her mom, so she shows her love and protection in a way that’s kind of secretive and cloaked because she can’t let her mom know she thinks the way she’s treating Gigi is shitty. She’s trying to keep the peace. And she’s also learned from her mom that playing dirty is okay. She had a really bad role model.

That’s what’s cool about Nicky and Gigi. The conversations we had about how to be real-life sisters were deep and serious. We wanted it to be realistic. We didn’t want it to be a catfight. We wanted it to feel, I don’t know, tasteful? Subdued may be a better word.

Since this show has gotten you back to the stage and recording music, has it made you think about returning to your music career?
Music didn’t really go anywhere. I put out a solo record in 2018. It’s just, the pandemic happened. But Gossip started recording in 2019 and a record was being produced, and because of the pandemic, it’s taken like two years. It was signed, sealed, delivered, and written a long time ago. The final edits and mixes came in yesterday. So there’s a new Gossip record already done.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On Monarch, Beth Ditto Is Just Being Herself