“Hold on a second, this is actually Bob the Drag Queen calling me,” says Steve Warren as he interrupts our discussion to take the quick call.
We all feel a level of having fallen down a rabbit hole these days, but this is about the last thing I would expect to hear from one of the most prominent attorneys in Hollywood, a lawyer whose clients include Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, Charlize Theron, Stephen Gaghan, Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown, Akiva Goldsman, Elle & Dakota Fanning and dozens of other top actors and filmmakers.
I rang Warren because I had never heard of a lawyer on his level – he is a longtime partner in the firm Hansen Jacobson Teller Hoberman Newman Warren Richman Rush Kaller & Gellman – moonlighting as the co-creator, and exec producer of We’re Here, the new HBO reality series whose second episode airs tonight. Bob the Drag Queen is one of three central characters – Eureka O’Hara & Shangela Laquifa are the others – dispatched to Red State American locations in outlandish vehicles, with sass and attitude as they whip up the town folk to come see a drag show they’ll organize in a couple of days.
The flamboyant glam queens are visually striking, like they emerged from an old John Waters movie, but the whole camp thing is a red herring. Because the show is all heart, and tolerance. The trio enlists locals to be part of the show. People who’ve been traumatized by trying to accept who they are, others hoping for a second chance after having rejected their own children, siblings and loved ones for admitting they are LGBTQ. Painful stories, including suicides and attempts to take their lives because living became so painful, are part of the revelations, some coming from the Queens themselves. Their resulting drag shows are cathartic journeys of self-acceptance and enlightenment, and if the locals seemed hard-hearted upon first meeting the Queens, they soften by the end of each episode.
Warren created the show with his partner, Johnnie Ingram, an advertising exec whose work included a Honey Nut Cheerios commercial that broke ground for featuring a biracial child munching cereal (it was controversial). While Warren has always read the scripts his clients consider and watched cuts of their films, he never contemplated being anything more than a behind the scenes advocate. Until one night, when he and Ingram were away and watching an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars (the three We’re Here queens all appeared on that show). And the idea for We’re Here was hatched.
Said Warren: “I thought, what would happen if you took drag queens and put them in small towns? We came up with the whole concept. I thought, I want to do this. I know it’s a hit. I’d had a lunch scheduled when I got back, with Casey Bloys. I never thought HBO would be interested. We were having such a nice time that I mentioned it. He said, ‘I want it.’”
Bloys put Warren together with HBO’s head of unscripted Nina Rosenstein, and they quickly made a pilot deal. Production designer Marla Weinhoff, who has worked extensively with Lady Gaga, gave the show its distinctive colorful design and found someone to design the cars driven into rural towns by the Queens. Warren and Ingram knew exactly who they wanted as their stars.
“I never thought of anyone but these three,” Warren said. “We needed people who were incredibly talented, fun to watch and most important, empathetic. This show would only succeed if you have people who know how to connect with others.”
How many of the other lawyers in Hollywood create and EP shows?
“Zero, that I know of,” Warren said. “I never wanted to be anything other than a lawyer and I still don’t. I knew this could be risky, and it had to be something very personal to me. Having been the cochair of GLAAD for years, this basically is my taste, my sense of humor, my political activism and my desire for social justice all wrapped into one. Anyone who sees the show and knows me can feel it’s what I have been striving for in my personal life as one of the most prominent, out, gay representatives around. There are a few other prominent openly gay lawyers, but not many. Being a prominent, openly gay representative and parent and partner, this represents my beliefs and tastes more than I could possibly have ever imagined.
“Doing this show has given me a creative outlet and allowed me to touch people in a way I haven’t been able to in the past,” he said. “Lawyers get pigeonholed, ah, they’re not creative. You make a good living doing your job and staying in the background. This one time I thought, why not? It feels right and it speaks to me and I want to make a statement on this. I don’t care about being a producer, I’m a lawyer. I just wanted to make people feel something, give something to queer people, to the country. I wanted people to feel connected in situations where they would never otherwise feel connected. I was getting so depressed about how the country is so divided. In creating this show I was hoping we might see that we’re not as divided and bitter as you might think.”
Warren’s star clients would certainly have been part of the series launch parties at SXSW and especially in Los Angeles, before all those premieres were canceled because of the pandemic. HBO has been behind the show, which managed to shoot six of its seven-ep order before production shut in Twin Falls, Idaho. He is optimistic the show will be picked up for a second season, based on the feedback he’s getting from the network, the show’s modest cost and award potential.
Warren is a famously tough negotiator on behalf of his clients, and you get a look at his steely side when he contemplates the last location the show visited.
“After we filmed, the governor and legislature in Idaho passed horrifically anti-trans laws that forbid any person who’s trans from changing their birth certificate,” he said. “Why? It’s like they were saying, ‘I’m not just being horribly prejudiced to unnamed trans people; I’m doing this to brand them. I hope if some of them watch the show, they’ll realize now that ‘I’m doing it to this person that I saw in this show.’ And I hope they are ashamed, and that they change it.”
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