By Chris Azzopardi
Photo: Music Box Films
On Cole Escola’s Instagram page, the 36-year-old nonbinary comedian and actor describes themself as “One of Grindr’s Fresh Faces.” That’s true, of course, on and off gay social apps. Escola, who continues their ascension in film and TV, is known to show up when you least expect them to — sometimes as a face, sometimes as a face wrapped in a white veil, and sometimes as just a voice.
Escola has lent their talent to the voice of a gargoyle on “What We Do in the Shadows,” to Amy Sedaris in her craft room, to a kidnapper known as “the twink” on “Search Party,” to a sassy waiter in “Difficult People,” and to Bridget Everett in a cabaret show, playing a fetus. With seemingly a no-limit rule on the outrageousness of the characters (or things) they play, Escola’s two-role part in writer-director Amanda Kramer’s new film “Please Baby Please,” now available to rent or own via all digital/VOD platforms, makes perfect sense.
In the film, about the influence of misfit queers on a newlywed couple that evokes old Hollywood films like “West Side Story,” we meet one of two Escola characters, a weepy, colorful drag queen, tucked into a phone booth, their eye makeup running onto their grief-stricken, white-powdered face. Channeling old Hollywood glamor in a flower-adorned headdress wrapped in a white veil, Escola sings The Skyliners’ 1958 classic “Since I Don’t Have You” into the phone. It’s a scene that could have been interpreted entirely differently on the page, but Escola envisioned it exactly the way it looks.
“Amanda and I were just both on the same page in terms of the tone of that,” they say during a recent Zoom interview. “It’s so satisfying to see something look exactly how you imagined it would look.”
Later in the film, Escola appears dressed in a cowboy costume, as Billy, a role, like a lot of their roles, written specifically for the actor. Both of the actor’s parts in “Please Baby Please” are small, and Kramer initially intended they would go to different actors. That was until Escola, who connected instantly to the film’s old Hollywood aesthetic, pleaded a case for both roles because, they say, “I was just so excited.”
“I appreciated that I got to play a character that was bored and annoyed by their exploration of their fascination with gender roles,” Escola says. “Amanda was really aware of that. It was intentional that Billy was rolling his eyes the whole time at them. I appreciated that point of view.”
In another scene, Billy won’t divulge his “perfect theory” on sexuality to the newlyweds, Arthur (Harry Melling) and Suze (Andrea Riseborough), because, the actor explains, he’s been “exploring and rejecting gender norms and roles probably his whole life.” Billy is just so over it.
“For these two squares to all of a sudden be like, ‘Wait, men can be different and women can be different?,’ he would be like, ‘This is so boring. You’re so boring.’” Billy tells them he doesn’t believe they’re being honest with themselves or each other about their sexual desires. Suze insists he share that theory, prompting his spectacularly hissed retort: “Moo, you bossy little cow.” When Escola read that line in the script, they were instantly on board with the film.
“I, like a true actor, only read my parts first and I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to say that,’” they say. Another favorite line of theirs is one that directly quotes Greta Garbo in the 1932 film “The Grand Hotel.”
“I just like all of Amanda Kramer’s references,” Escola says. “I was like, ‘You seem cool. I want to work with you.’ It was really just the lines that I got to say, like a true self-involved actor.”
Then, of course, there’s what the movie says about gender and, for Escola, it’s somewhat of a reminder that queer people investigate gender much earlier than most.
“I think queer people, they feel the discomfort of gender roles so early that they’re forced to look at them,” they say. “Even just the well-tread queer youth narrative of wanting to play with dolls or walking through the Barbie section at Target. Not turning your head to look at the Barbies, but just keeping an eye. The fact that’s part of the learning or understanding the mask of gender, like, ‘OK, I have to wear this one even though it’s not who I am.’”
Escola was born and raised in Clatskanie, Oregon, where being queer was what you might expect in a less-than-urban setting. “If you saw what my queer youth was like on a TV show, you would be like, ‘This story again?’ It’s just that rural. Small town. Two gay adults.”
Growing up, they remember watching “Will & Grace” in middle school and seeing campy queer icon Paul Lynde on “Bewitched,” but they say they “always related more to character actresses.”
Fast forward to today, Escola played a part, albeit admittedly minor, in bringing one of the most spectacular women roles to TV, with Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance on HBO’s “Hacks.”
“I was just a part of a three-week writer’s room before the actual writer’s room. Just sort of concept, like big blue sky,” they say. “I don’t know how or who decides what credits those things are [on IMDB], but it definitely makes my role in ‘Hacks’ seem much bigger than it actually is.”
Acting wise, Escola always seems to relate to whoever and whatever they play, be it that gargoyle or that fetus. These are roles that just come their way. Maybe it’s because no one else will play them, but maybe it’s also because no one else could, at least not like Escola, with so much irreverent, screw-ball style. (It probably says a lot that Escola grew up admiring Amy Sedaris in “Strangers with Candy.”)
In the latest season of Netflix’s animated series “Big Mouth,” they voice Montel, the nonbinary child of hormone monsters Maury (Nick Kroll) and Connie (Maya Rudolph). Not only did Escola get another musical number, singing opposite Rudolph for a song called “The You That’s In Your Heart,” but they tapped into their own personal beliefs on gender as part of their performance.
As for their other parts: “I didn’t audition for the gargoyle, I didn’t audition for the fetus,” they say, cocking a smile, “but I knew in my heart exactly who those characters were and are.”
“I’ve been a fetus,” they continue. “I tapped into that.”