They say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. The way to a drag queen's heart is through vodka. Or at least that's what Assaad Yacoub, director of the delightful new movie Cherry Pop, says helped him get RuPaul's Drag Race's Bob the Drag Queen and Detox Icunt among many other prominent drag queens to star in his first feature film. "I basically stalked them at bars and where they would be performing," the 26-year-old says. "I was sneaky. I would go to bars and be like, ‘Have a shot.’ I would then beg them to be in the movie. Most of my cast, the story they say is: ‘We met Assaad outside at a bar, and he offered us a vodka shot.’" It worked, and they agreed, if only because "they wanted me to leave them alone."
That would explain how Yacoub first got Bob to star in the original Cherry Pop, his student film and New York Film Academy thesis on which the feature film is based, years prior. "That short film did really well in the festival circuit [when it came out]. We won quite a bit of awards at big festivals. Because of that, I got the opportunity to pitch the feature film."
If you're surprised that a then-film student got talent of such caliber to participate in his thesis, you've never met Yacoub. With energy comparable only to a larger-than-life cartoon character, his enthusiasm is contagious and his curiosity for the unknown insatiable; in fact, he was inspired to do a movie about a failing drag queen show after seeing a drag performance for the first time in college. "I’d never seen drag queens before moving to New York; I grew up in Dubai, where there are no drag queens. I went to a drag show, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, these performers are so interesting, why aren’t they portrayed on TV more?’" says the Lebanese-born, currently L.A.-based Yacoub. He adds:
I got to become friends with them in New York, and I got to see the glamour that they portrayed on stage—they were so perfect. Then backstage, there was all this drama. And once you become friends with them is the only time you can see it. So I was like, "People need to see this. It’s like two different people." I don’t think any of the drag movies out there really show a day in the life of a drag queen. This is an honest look at one night at a drag show that’s pretty much close to reality.
Employing a first-person perspective of the protagonist "Cherry" (played by Norway's Lars Berge, who, fun fact, donned drag for the first time on the set of this movie), who's about to perform at a drag show for the first time as a means to make his dreams of performing come true, Cherry Pop peels back the curtains of the behind the scenes world of drag. When the star of the show Lady Zaza (Tempest DuJour) refuses to come out of her dressing room for her final performance after her partner passes away, mayhem and hilarity ensue among the rest of the performers, with lots of catty one-liners, miles-long fake lashes, several wig changes, and vomit. Bob—who Yacoub since directed in his "Purse First" video and Lux De Ville handbag commercials—reprises the role of Kitten Withawhip, the host of the show and the "voice of reason" amongst all the glitter and bitch slaps.
"I think it's so cool that Bob was the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race and he stayed humble and continues to promote the careers of others, including me. He stayed exactly the same as he was before the show," says Yacoub of his frequent collaborator and friend. "Working with him is such a joy because he brings such a unique view to the character. He’s also so much fun to work with. He brought that energy, and the other actors fed off of it and worked harder to live up to Bob’s energy."
As an extension of Yacoub's larger-than-life personality and vibrant subject matter, the movie is an explosion of color, sounds, and movement, with freeze frame shots introducing the characters and their backstories—a nod to Mean Girls, a movie that Yacoub describes as having cult status that he hopes one day to achieve with Cherry Pop. "I think now is the right time to do [a mainstream movie about drag queens], with RuPaul having won an Emmy and an MTV Movie and TV Award for RuPaul’s Drag Race," he says. "I think people just didn’t have the funding to do a movie like that. They’re like, ‘A drag movie isn’t going to make money.’ As an independent filmmaker, you need to stay afloat, so you’re not going to make a movie that isn’t going to bring in revenue. Now is the right time where drag fans are going to bring in the revenue for a movie like that, I think."
After filming the short film at NYC's iconic Stonewall Inn, Yacoub built the entire set from scratch in a warehouse in L.A. when it came time to film the feature. "It was kind of cool that we got to shoot a drag movie in such an historic gay bar, but for a feature, it’s not feasible," he says. What he didn't anticipate was a nearby train that would frequently interrupt filming of the scenes. "It got to the point where every time a train came by, we would take a shot," he says. "One day, there was a train every 15 minutes. It was horrible. I was so upset, and Detox and Mayhem kept on taking shots, and I was like, 'They are never going to remember their lines.' But Mayhem didn't know her lines ever, so it was fine [laughs]." It's those moments that added to some of the funniest improvised lines, according to the cast, and made for some memorable and laugh-out-loud post-credit scenes.
Aside from getting a glimpse into what happens backstage at a drag show, Yacoub wants to spread a message of acceptance in the current political climate. "Each character in the movie has to go through a form of acceptance, whether it’s a mother accepting her son being gay or the matriarch figure accepting that she is aging and has to move on with her career," he says. He adds:
I think that’s what I want people to get from it—you have to accept someone no matter what they are, and you have to accept yourself. It’s an important message because a lot of people are doubting themselves and they don’t know what to do, and they’re hearing negative things in the media about who they are. No, you should stick up for yourself and be proud of who you are. I hope people can look at the characters and be like, "If they can accept themselves, I can accept myself, too."
And there was no better place to spread this message than at Monday's Cherry Pop New York premiere, held as part of NewFest's OutCinema (an LGBT film festival) and NYC Pride. "It's so cool that I am coming back full-circle. This is where Cherry Pop started, so it’s cool that we get to come and screen here for Pride," he says. "I can’t wait for the fans to see it. Now is the right time to go out and support the LGBT community more than ever."