Tom Lenk on queer icons, axe murder and whether his Buffy character was gay

Tom Lenk as Andrew and Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Tom Lenk is one of the many performers making waves at the Edinburgh Fringe – but his show isn’t what you might expect.

Lenk’s latest show Lottie Plachett took a Hatchet has been billed as a “high-camp” retelling of the Lizzie Borden story. For those not in the know, Borden became famous when she was tried and acquitted for the axe murders of her father and stepmother in 1892.

It might not sound like fertile ground for a camp extravaganza, but Lizzie Borden’s story is a unique one. In the near century since her death, she’s become a feminist icon in her own right, while others have imagined her as a queer legend.

Ahead of the Edinburgh Fringe, PinkNews caught up with Tom Lenk to talk about what makes Lizzie Borden a gay icon, the legacy of Buffy, and why he can’t watch horror.

PinkNews: What drew you to Lottie Plachett Took a Hatchett? What was the appeal of Lizzie Borden’s story? 

Tom Lenk: Well, during the pandemic I’ve been doing a lot of Zoom readings of plays with our writer Justin Elizabeth Sayre, and their style of writing is very camp, queer, John Waters style. It was just a little project that was getting us through the pandemic while we were all stuck in our houses, and then this play was one we decided to read. They started working on this and we started workshopping it. I was excited to do it because I’m a big fan of their work. It feels like I’m in a Charles Busch play or a John Waters movie. That’s the whole vibe – it’s just so fun and inappropriate and wrong, but also calling out politically what’s happening today.

Tom Lenk during the Night with Oscar, a benefit for the Center on Halsted, at Park West on March 4, 2018.

Tom Lenk during the Night with Oscar, a benefit for the Center on Halsted, at Park West on 4 March, 2018. (Barry Brecheisen/Getty)

What can people expect from the play? It obviously has things to say about where we are as a society right now. 

It’s definitely an analogy – like, things have changed so much for women since the 1870s in America, but have they really? Especially with the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v Wade recently. We’re going backwards sometimes.

The real life Lizzie Borden was vilified at the time. Looking back, whether you believe she committed murder or she didn’t – it was never solved, she was acquitted – she became this sort of anti-hero. Our character of Lottie is so oppressed, along with my character, who’s her brother, and she’s fighting for both of them. It’s just so fun to see women in the audience and people of all genders, they/thems, non-binary folks, rallying behind her and wanting her to… kill! I like to describe the show as like a hilarious queer parody of the Lizzie Borden tale but like if the Muppets were doing a production of The Crucible that John Waters was directing.

Why do you think Lizzie Borden’s story seems to resonate so much with queer audiences in particular? Is she a bit of a gay icon? 

It’s kind of similar to the question of, what makes Judy Garland a gay icon? What makes a gay icon? Well typically there are these women that had this attention on them and they were being oppressed and manipulated by men. For Lizzie at the time, not many women had agency. She was considered a spinster in her 30s because she wasn’t married, she was living at home, oppressed by this conservative family. Because she was a spinster there’s also been a lot of speculation as to whether or not she was involved with another woman.

Tom Lenk speaks on stage during ACE Comic Con at WaMu Theatre on June 23, 2018 in Seattle, Washington.

Tom Lenk speaks on stage during ACE Comic Con at WaMu Theatre on 23 June, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Mat Hayward/Getty)

I definitely think there’s a lot of queer speculation, queer projection, queer intrigue in and around the case itself, and then I think we just love a gay icon. We typically can get behind a woman who was wronged in her time. She was acquitted, but for the rest of her life she was vilified because she was attached to this thing. If you look at more recent cases I guess you could look at Monica Lewinsky, the way we treated her and bullied her in the press. Just in the last few years, we’re finally coming around to, ‘Oh my God, she was a victim of the press, a victim of circumstance, she didn’t do anything wrong and she was blamed for everything’. The horror genre in general is very queer, right? I don’t watch horror movies – I get too scared.

That’s interesting, I think a lot of people would find that surprising given your history in Buffy.

You know what, I take it back. I recently was able to watch – oh, what was the movie? Where they don’t talk.

A Quiet Place?

Yes. I was able to watch those because I saw the trailer and I thought, ‘That’s terrifying’. That would be my childhood nightmare. My ex that came with me to the premiere of Cabin in the Woods still makes fun of me for my reaction in the theatre. I am a screamer, I cannot handle the suspense. I just embarrass myself. I can’t handle blood and gore.

Tom Lenk attends Netflix's "Eastsiders" Final Season Premiere.

Tom Lenk attends Netflix’s “Eastsiders” final season premiere. (JB Lacroix/Getty)

That leads us on nicely to talking about Buffy and the legacy of that show. It’s got such a massive queer following – why do you think that is?

I guess I could apply the same rules for what makes a gay icon to Sarah Michelle [Gellar]. Her character was othered, she was having to keep this secret that she’s this thing. Against the circumstances she’s in, she does have agency, she’s fighting for what’s right. She’s gathering up the other outcasts and assembling them as a little team. Some of them are gay, so there you go! She’s an ally, she’s got great hair, leather pants. What more do you want?

It had queer characters at a time when a lot of TV shows didn’t, or if they did they were often caricatures. It wasn’t just paying lip service.

Yeah, I think with Willow and Tara, it was a huge deal at the time. There was not a lot of queer representation on TV so that was hugely groundbreaking. Does a memo go out? Is there a bat signal for the gays where we say, ‘We’ve decided this is our thing!’

Tom Lenk as Andrew in Buffy.

Tom Lenk as Andrew in Buffy. (20th Television)

Your character in Buffy was significant too. Did you always see Andrew as being gay? There was some ambiguity throughout the show about his sexuality.

Here’s the thing, at the time there was no queer character unless they were specifically labelled. It’s not like anyone ever came to me and said, ‘He’s gay by the way’. I think they were using the energy of the three of us as comedy and my personal energy started slipping in there and they started putting some of that in the scripts.

The frustrating thing is, I wish I could go back in time and say, ‘If he’s gay let’s make him gay! Have another gay character!’. There were already two in the show which was one more than there normally was. Obviously gays don’t come in ones, they come in groups. But maybe – now I’m rethinking the whole thing – was he queer? Yes, he’s the ‘Q’ in LGBTQ+, ‘questioning’, so now I take all of what I just said back. Maybe it’s great that they didn’t specifically make him outright gay as it allowed people to project their own experiences on to him. He’s definitely questioning himself.

There was a scene in Angel where Andrew was seen with two women and he says ‘people change’. Was that supposed to be a comment on his sexuality? 

Oh my God, I have no memory of that. I’ve erased Angel for some reason, I barely remember doing it. Maybe that was the writers being playful, saying, ‘people can change’ and he’s suddenly more competent and surrounded by women, but the comedy lies in, no, you have not changed, you’re still just as nerdy and inept as you were. Was he romantically involved with these women or did he want to braid their hair?

Tom Lenk as Andrew in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Tom Lenk as Andrew in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (20th Television)

I suppose we’ll never know really, and it’s obviously open to people’s own interpretations. 

Why was that not my answer?! Can I go back and just say that? It’s open to interpretation because they never made it a defining thing. Does it matter what my motivations were and what my backstory was when I was playing that character? No! I tell people when they’re doing auditions, the camera can’t see your motivations! The camera can’t see your backstory or the moment before, the camera can’t see your training or your theatre degree. So much of acting, you can do nothing on camera and the audience will project depending on the music or the setting. That’s the magic of film.

Lottie Plachett Took a Hatchet runs at the Assembly Roxy (Upstairs) Venue 139 at 8.35pm from 4-27 August (excluding 17 August). The play lasts 60 minutes and tickets can be purchased here.