Cole Escola Made It All Up

Cole Escola Made It All Up

Story by Joan Summers / Photography by Ian Lewandowski
Mar 07, 2024

Cole Escola has just picked up Marie Dressler’s autobiography. The silent film star had many transitions throughout her career, from vaudeville to playhouses to silent films and, much later, the talkies, during which she won a late-in-life Academy Award for Best Actress. As Escola sees it, they’re having a bit of a Dressler moment as well.

The comedy legend’s new play, Oh, Mary!, has opened to universal acclaim, but Escola’s not paying attention to any of that, as they tell me after a string of performances last week. Loosely adapted — in the loosest sense — from Mary Todd Lincoln’s life shortly before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the play is a wild tale of passion and repression. Historical details are pulled from cursory Google searches, as the foundation for the show lies more within Escola’s own lifelong obsession with melodrama and the concept of First Ladies. They tell me, laughing, “It’s just his wife! It’s so made up. I mean they’re all made up, obviously, you step too far back and everything’s made up. Society is made up.”

I threaten to write the headline for this piece as: “Cole Escola Declares America is Made Up.”

Escola first broke into the scene in the early days of the internet, making front-facing videos on a webcam for Youtube. Their presence on the platform garnered enough attention that it was spun off into the Logo show Jeffery & Cole Casserole, one of the first of its kind, alongside Very Good Looking Gay Boys collaborator Jeffrey Self. Between theater performances and solo shows and more YouTube videos than one could watch in a week, Escola made appearances on shows like Difficult People, and later, the uproarious At Home With Amy Sedaris. “I just wish I could say something bad about her that you could use as a pullquote,” they tell me of working with Sedaris. “Maybe I’ll make something up.”

Ahead of the extended run of the play, I sat down with Escola to talk about melodrama, monstrous women and making money on the internet. There’s so much more, of course, but I promised to save the pull quotes for something juicier, like, “Amy Sedaris can’t sing or dance.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I’m sorry, I have to get this out of the way: I’m so excited to talk to you, I’m a big fan of your work.

Oh, shut up!

So, how have you been adjusting to your first play being such a breakthrough event for girls and gays everywhere? I mean, I have friends — who I know for a fact don't go to the theater — that have been desperately begging, pleading, scheming and screaming to get tickets.

I'm just having the most fun I've ever had in my life. This play is the best thing that's ever happened to me in my whole life.

And, you know, I can't think too much about the response because it's overwhelming. It feels like too much cake. Like too much birthday cake. Like, every once in a while, I'll revel in it. And then I'm like, okay, stop. But the good thing about doing the play is it's not like a movie where I put it out, and then I just sit and let rays come my way. I have to do it every night and then twice on Saturday, twice on Sunday. So it’s great for my guilt, having to push myself into that.

Where does the guilt come from?

It’s more of a superstition. Like, oh, this is really fun, and people like it. Something bad has to come from this.

I mean, you have been lauded more recently as a herald, or revolutionary, for queer comedy. Is that something you have to also put your blinders on, when people start talking to you like that?

It sort of just hits my ears and then falls right off. I don’t have to put blinders up about stuff like that because it just… I don’t really let it get into my head. It doesn’t make sense.

You said you got the idea for Oh, Mary! in 2009 and then wrote it in lockdown. Going back to 2009, how did Mary Todd Lincoln first come to you? A ghost in your dreams, maybe?

I really don't remember why? I don't. I guess the Lincoln movie hadn't come out yet. So it wouldn't have been that way. I really wish I could remember why. It’s lost to time. I should keep a diary.

She seems so real and so tangible on stage. Watching you, I thought there must have been divine intervention on her behalf.

In school, I was obsessed with First Ladies. You know how schools would have spirit week, and it'd be like pajama day, backwards day, lumberjack day?

Lumberjack day?

The high school I went to, the mascot was a lumberjack. I’m assuming everyone knew that! I was like, part of the leadership committee or something, and I was really pushing for Martha Washington Day. It was like, no one else got it. I thought it was so funny, because it was such a dumb idea. I was like, “Come on, give me one! You have pajama day and backwards day every year! Can’t we do Martha Washington Day?” They were like, what would that even look like? I don’t know, pastels?

Where does that fascination come from? Throughout your career, for lack of a better word, you inhabit so many old-timey women, figures of the American imagination.

It’s just absurd, the title First Lady. It’s just his wife! But it’s like, no, now you get this! It’s so made up. I mean they’re all made up, obviously, you step too far back and everything’s made up. Society is made up!

Cole Escola comes out and declares that America is made up. I’ll make that the headline.

Yes, exactly, thank you. Well beyond that, I remember our history books in high school over-playing the role of First Lady, but then sort of giving themselves away. Like, Dolly Madison was the first to bring ice cream to the White House, which is a fact, which is why there is a Dolly Madison brand ice cream. It was just so funny to me.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask: Are you familiar with the Real Housewives at all?

I don’t watch them because they really stress me out!

There’s a line in the show, which Mary repeats throughout. “South of WHAT!?” The line reading seems pulled directly from a character on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Sutton Stracke, who’s notable for screaming, “Jealous of WHAT!?”

But moving past that, what sorts of sources did you use when putting the character together?

I think I googled Union generals of the Civil War for like the few times I have to say some names. But other than that, I just sort of scanned Wikipedia when I needed to pull a proper noun. Like, where? Oh, Kentucky, okay. Illinois, okay. Bellevue. Okay. Mary Todd Lincoln is just me in this show.

You return to these exaggerated characters that so often have these elements of you still inside them. I would say a lot of people connect to your work because of that. Did you find it difficult at other points to play more grounded characters? Like on Search Party? I mean, the character locks someone in a basement, but comparatively.

Even though that was written for me, I still find it hard to play grounded people. That character was like, just off center enough. Sometimes when I read for parts, I feel very much like I'm in a straight jacket. I don't want to be another person. Like, I want to be Mary Todd Lincoln. I don't want to be a “bitchy fashion gay.”

Are they asking you to read for bitchy fashion gays a lot?

No, I don’t even get those anymore! I wish I was reading for bitchy fashion gay. But I do find it hard to play more modern characters, still.

You’ve talked a little about feeling wrecked by performing and have said, after Mary wraps, you want to go back to writing. With the reception being what it is, and the success of the show, are you still holding true to that?

Now I’m so in love with theater, I really only want to do theater. I would love to write a play for other actors to be in and just be in the rehearsal room as a writer. This has definitely re-awakened a love of performing in me, but I still feel more like a writer than a performer. It's more satisfying to me, because you get to be more exacting.

Is it hard to have written the play and then performed it?

There are some times where I'll say something on stage, and I'll be like, Oh, those lines can be cut. Because I say the same thing, basically, in the next line that I say. Spot the differences when I do it in London, I guess.

Are you going to London with it? Did I miss that?

No, I want to, so I’m just talking as if it’s gonna happen.

It is happening! Producers will call you immediately after this gets published.

That reminds me of… there’s this insane woman on Instagram Reels right now who does like, prayers for specific things. It’s like, you do not have a stomach issue. I banish them from your body.

She is very much like a Brian Jordan Alvarez character.


It’s interesting that you go to Instagram Reels. Are you looking for character inspirations? There’s quite a few of them in the Reels, I’ll say.

I just think there’s something about the TikTok algorithm. It’s too perfect. It only gives me exactly what I’m saying or looking for, which is like, clips from Dick Cavett and Sarah Vaughan concert performances. Instagram Reels are a bit off and it’s how I came across that woman banishing my acid reflux.

It’s always something, acid reflux or finding your keys. It’s interesting we go to Reels, though, because you were among the first wave of people to really capitalize on performing in front of a camera for the internet specifically. Going all the way back to the Jeffery & Cole Casserole, which felt very innovative at the time — what have you felt now, seeing people make money and capitalize on this formerly niche medium?

I've been very much like, Oh, fuck, I got into this too early. When I started, there was no money to be made from it. I didn't get to capitalize on it that way. I guess I'm glad because now people are so beholden to like, you know, the iron grip of BetterHelp sponsorships.

Do you feel people’s attitudes towards producing on social media has changed much from when you started?

No, I still think it’s looked down on. People still don't feel like they've made it until they get like, a show on a platform or a network, even though someone could get hundreds of millions of views on YouTube and make millions of dollars! They still are like, “No, I want an Amazon series that 6,000 people are going to see that I'll make $10,000 from.” For some reason, we still have that societal structure that, myself included, are a part of.

We're still conditioned to think that’s the best way, but there are people that have Patreon empires! I think that's so cool. I wish I had the work ethic. Tuesdays and Thursdays you get this. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I'll give you this. I'm like, how about for one week in March I'll write something? Then give me money for the rest of the year.

I’m gonna give you an idea: there are people that do exactly that on Patreon. They’re like, give me money and I’ll publish one six-hour video on YouTube for the year and rake in, like, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Okay, well, I know exactly what I’m going to do after Oh, Mary! closes. But part of this is also PR! You know? The only person making money from a YouTube video is the creator. In a TV show, there are so many more people and companies that are trying to make money that they put more money into it. So there’s like, more publicity and that’s how you get billboards and features and all that stuff. But the work can be exactly the same! I made Our Home Out West and put it out, and no one can make any money off of it. I just put money into it and put it out for free, so it didn’t get as much press as this play is getting.

But I’ll be honest. I think the play is better. But still, it’s all money. We can’t live outside capitalism. We’re inside it!

I was gonna say, someone at a streaming service that loves your work offers you a lump sum to make Our Home Out West for streaming. Are you taking that money? Are you making that series?

Yes, but only because I have ideas for it.

We can’t have seen the last of Fifi or her wigs! Speaking of, the looks in the play are so fab, and you look so fab. Did you work closely with the designer?

I work a lot with this designer, Astor Yang, who designed costumes for other shows that I’ve done. I just went right to him. I love the idea of Mrs. Cola’s Gowns by Astor Yang. Like, the gowns by credit you always see in old movies. I was like, black, shiny, go! And he came up with some genius looks.

That dress you wear throughout is incredible, it’s like a character itself. The movement on it is perfect. Do you have a favorite costume you’ve ever worn?

You can’t beat the hoop skirt in Oh, Mary! It’s so much fun to wear and run around in and pull it up and whirl and twirl. It’s my favorite right now. Her curls as well, moving and knowing they’re bouncing two steps behind me.

More recently, you played opposite Amy Sedaris on At Home. Incredible, by the way. What was it like working alongside another actor who’s made their career in very much the same lane as you?

She’s the best, she’s the most fun to work with. Literally making everybody laugh every second. She’s so generous with everybody and with me especially. She’s come to see the show a few times and she’s coming back for me. I just wish I could say something bad about her that you could use as a pull quote. Maybe I’ll make something up. Amy can’t sing or dance. How about you make that the headline?

Consider it done. She said this thing about you in a recent profile that I’ve been thinking about while we’ve chatted. She says that you don’t just put the wigs on, but you "respect" the wigs. Watching the play, I see what she means. Beyond the exaggerations and extremities is a deep tenderness for Mary, and respect. Have you always approached all your roles like that?

I think that’s why I feel so safe in playing her and finding this endearing and sensitive and human side to people. I have so much fun in the extremes. That’s sort of how I feel about myself. I’m annoying. I’m cloying and obnoxious and loud. But please love me! I also wanted to — going back to what you said in the beginning about what drew me to Mary — I also find the way femininity is marketed really funny.

I’ve always been fascinated by moms and commercials about moms. The way moms are portrayed in sitcoms. It’s all just so funny, the way it’s marketed as a celebration! Where it’s like, “Hey, ladies, you get to be like this! How about that? You like that?”

They’re throwing a party for the prison they put you in.

Exactly. It’s like, don’t worry, we’ve got your lipstick for you! That’s another aspect of First Ladies that I was drawn to. Jumping back, I also do think I like the soft side of monsters. Because I identify as a monster with a soft side.

I think that’s extremely relatable, and I can imagine you seek that out in those old movies as well. So many extreme women with extremely monstrous personalities, wildly varying motives and actions.

They also turn on a dime so often in melodrama, and that’s what I love about melodrama. It’s just so fun to play, because you go from one extreme quickly into the next. You’re furious and then you’re sobbing and then you’re like, so elated. It’s so much more fun than slice of life, or mumblecore.

Mary Todd Lincoln isn’t going to be in Marriage Story anytime soon!

Maybe instead of doing new characters, I’ll just do different versions of the Lincolns. My next will be a mumblecore miniseries.

That sounds fabulous. Well, I hate that there has to be a last question, but is there anything you are watching, reading, loving right now?

I’m reading Marie Dressler’s autobiography right now and loving it. She’s just a character actress looking back at her career in vaudeville, and then plays, and then silent movies, and then her resurgence in the talkies. It’s so much fun, because I feel like I’m having my Marie Dressler moment.

Photography: Ian Lewandowski
Photo assistant: Alex Bedder

Editor-in-chief: Justin Moran
Managing editor: Matt Wille
Editorial producer: Angelina Cantú
Story: Joan Summers