In a world that increasingly begins to blur the line between our typical reality and a fictional futuristic dystopia, a lot of us are starting to wish we could add ‘rogue agent fighting the forces of evil’ to our resume. Multi-talented performer Max Malanaphy has done just that in a seamless integration of his sleek, classy drag aesthetic into the guise of a crime-fighting heroine crusading for justice amidst a shadowy underworld. Even without the new web series, it’s still a pretty impressive resume in and of itself. Following his television debut in 2015 on Rupaul’s Drag Race, Max has been fine-tuning his various talents in and around the Minneapolis area and experimenting in different avenues of expression including live music performances and musical theater. In person, Max is modest and downplays his achievements in a sweet-natured way, but in the space of 2 and a half years, he’s managed to acquire a devoted following of fans that appreciate the Old Hollywood-inspired glamour of his drag shows. However you want to slice it, it’s an impressive list of achievements for a 24-year-old. You might say that saving the world was the only logical next step.
Directed and produced by John Mark, Agent Max is a three-part action series that re-envisions Max into the role of an underground secret agent hired to foil nefarious plans of an apocalyptic scale. Think James Bond in flawless makeup and dominatrix boots. Max, who might possibly be the tallest person in the world, evokes a Charlize Theron like magnetic presence perfect for choreographed fight scenes. Besides, what could be more timely in the current political landscape than a queer action hero trying to save humanity from a slimy villain with a ridiculous amount of money?
I met with Max on a dreary Friday afternoon in a coffee shop in Minneapolis. We talked about the past, the future, inspirations, the end of the world, personal authenticity and how the internet is kind of terrible. It was impressive to pack such a range of topics into one conversation and to explore the various identities and double lives of a performer ranging from a larger than life super-heroine to the real human behind the curtain.
One thing that I’ve noticed about your new project Agent Max, is that I was going through all the comments on YouTube and almost all of them were positive. That never happens on YouTube. I was scrolling, waiting for someone to say something shady and mean, but it was all positive.
I think people are really just nice to me. I think people are really being tactful. Rare!
You don’t think they genuinely like it?
Well, I think people who don’t like it all the way might not say anything negative about it.
You really think so? I mean this is the internet we’re talking about.
Or, do you think that the mean people just haven’t discovered it yet?
I was expecting the Drag Race fans to say something rude, but I didn’t see any of that. What kind of feedback did you expect? Because I didn’t even know it had happened until you told me a few days before the trailer was released and I realized ‘This is a big deal.’
Honestly, this whole process has been about me trying to get, somewhat, actually back on my feet, getting going in the stronger sense. [The director John Mark] asked me to do this thing and I had really awesome plans for it in my head, like new costumes, but when we came to film I was still nervous. I didn’t have new things, costumes, but I had things I could pretend were new. I always have a terrible habit of looking at things and going ‘if only I could have done it this way, so much better!’
So you’re really self-critical. Do you think that takes the enjoyment out of making art?
For certain. Though I’ve heard this from my mother, and from other artists, that you aren’t going to be satisfied with what you produce, for a while. If ever.
Yeah, no one is. Do you think you’re a perfectionist in certain ways?
Oh yes. I look at all of the first Agent Max and go ‘oh my posture could have been so much better!’
I think that your whole silhouette, your whole physical presence was amazing. I had just watched the trailer for Atomic Blonde so I got Charlize Theron from you right away.
Oh, I saw that, Atomic Blonde! I saw that trailer after the weekend and I was like this is great. Real women are really cool looking. I feel I might really want to be one.
The character you play in Agent Max, did you put a lot of thought into developing that persona? Do you even have a drag character, so to speak, or is it just you?
It’s just me, but STRONGER. Bolder. If you were around me at work at my day job, my personality and the way I act are a little different, in a mundane way.
I think it’s good to see the boring side of artists in that mundane way. It’s good to put that out there too. A lot of people think that artists can just support themselves full time on their art alone.
You can if you’re extremely popular. Enough of a self-promoter! I’m sure you have that option. I believe I could.
I think it makes you more relatable, to show that you have to do what everyone else has to do to get by. I watched a documentary on Armen Ra who is one of the best theremin players in the world. The fact that he had to work at a makeup store to support himself made me more involved in his story somehow. It sucks, but it’s something I can relate to. Every person just getting by can relate to that.
I think it’s that you have to be extremely self-indulgent to make it just on yourself.
And you have to market yourself, too.
And I’m not saying self-indulgent is a bad thing, like it’s disgusting to be self-indulgent. You just have to be really self-assured.
I think you have to have a level of ego.
You do. You have to have such a level of ego that you don’t question yourself. I question myself a ton, and that’s why I’m like living three different lives right now because I’m unable to decide upon anything. Though I’m becoming better with decisiveness.
You’re pretty young and you can do that.
I say that as an old person because when I talk to you I don’t think of myself as being older than you.
Years are quick. Years are speedy.
You’ve had so much going on in the last few years, though. Are you still compressing it all?
Oh yeah. You have to pick and choose and remember the positive experiences. Because they were mostly positive experiences. It’s weird to look back in one’s phone and see where one was, however many years ago. June 21, 2015, at 8:04 in the morning, in London. And back then I was probably like ‘This is so stressful and I don’t enjoy this!’
And now you’re like ‘Can’t I go back?’
But I’m going back!
I was going to say, you’re going back to England pretty soon.
I just have to polish myself up.
Are you excited?
Yeah, any chance I have is exciting. I have to figure out what I’m going to sing and do because I’m a supporting act for Trixie Mattell. They’re in comedy club type atmospheres so I have to do funny songs.
Is that not your favorite thing to do?
I can do it! I can be hammy! I’m always hammy I guess, but I can do it.
I think you have an adaptable presence. The audience obviously knows what you’re best at but I think they get surprised by how much you actually can do.
Yeah! I can be funny! Damn those who say otherwise.
I also think drag audiences are weird because humor is so subjective. They expect all the queens to be funny in the same way, and that’s where it gets kind of homogenous and boring. In that way, I wonder if you weren’t what people were expecting, but those who were looking for something different really love you.
I understand that. And I feel that way sometimes. Sometimes I want to really focus on my ‘entertainment’ personality and sometimes I’m like ‘the world is shitty and I have to be careful’.
I guess I understand that, but I also feel at a point…
Yeah, exactly. And as a performer, you’re supposed to be reaching people and expressing yourself. At the end of the day, you can’t really be afraid of that much because your goal is to put yourself out there.
I read an article your director wrote where he was talking about wanting to take the hyper-masculine narrative out of action films and make something that queer audiences could relate to. Did you have any feedback into what you wanted to do with that character? If you wanted to subvert the usual tropes for action movies and be a feminine presence in that role?
I never really actually thought about it from the standpoint of defying masculinity but really just of celebrating fluidity, I suppose. Not even defying masculinity but defying greed, defying nonchalance toward darkness.
It’s almost like a superhero narrative of what we need today in this society.
It has to be. And the fact that it’s me in drag really has nothing to do with it. I’d be the same in or out of drag.
I’ve noticed that about you. You have this authenticity that I like. For the drag performers who try so hard to create a character, it’s like they can’t say anything outside of that character, but you have this sort of mouth piece to project whatever you want. If it’s from yourself, if it’s created if it’s totally off the wall. You have a lot of creative freedom in that way.
I’m definitely glad I stayed with my own name instead of a drag name, I’ll say that much. But anyway, those were some reasons the project was important. Not just because of defying gender, even though I think it’s always going to be something that needs to be defied. Men are always going to be puffed up and eager to grab onto as much as they can grab onto. I feel like eventually this world is going to be like Mad Max. Mad, mad Max.
I’m not going to get depressing and say that it’s going in that direction, but…
Also, though, there are a lot of smart, powerful people in the opposition.
It’s that whole idea of resistance, that you have to get across. People aren’t going to just sit and take it.
And obviously if the end of the world shows up, I’m not going to run around in those high-heeled boots but I’m still going to look sleek.
I always thought that was the point of Mad Max. After the apocalypse, everyone decided to wear what they couldn’t wear in public, so you just had a bunch of people running around in fetish gear.
And that’s what it’s going to be anyway. If I’m going to be a warrior why not be a warrior lady also? Two different costumes at once. I’m not really a warrior.
You could be if you wanted to.
And I am now I guess with this series, I signed up for it.
Is it important that you choose projects that are societally relevant on a basic level?
Oh yes, definitely, because every little piece of art does reflect the cultural happenings at the time. The political climate has everything to do with the artistic climate. All the de-funding of the arts going on right now. All of the artists and writers and fluid folk and intellectuals being put on blast, hated. Some sort of sinister uprising.
I think America is sinister enough. I think big business has the most sinister element. That’s why the villain in everything is always a businessman. Because the power is money.
And control? But that’s all people want. Well, not all people, but most people have been seeking that power. Can people just stop and let there be peace?
Well, it happened on Star Trek. The reason everyone went to explore the galaxy was they eliminated all poverty, all money, and all war on Earth and dedicated their lives to science and exploration.
That would be awesome if that could be a real thing. I don’t understand how they can’t possibly see. What could make everything better, actually, for everyone? Not everyone can think like that. And why not?
I think it’s because everyone’s so obsessed with their own interests.
But it’s all so small, don’t they see that? We have to be careful that everyone has a good life as well, and some people can’t have good lives because of these controlling creatures. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about politics anymore.
The world we live in is pretty depressing. It’s an honest look at it, I think. But a different question then. Are you picky about the projects you choose? Do you overthink what you want to put your name on?
Do you think that’s kept you from opportunities?
I think my caution has definitely kept me from opportunities. Caution, fear, and the opinions of others. Let em fly.
Do you find yourself less cautious now just because you want to do more and put yourself out there?
I’m realizing, faster and faster. Woah girl! You have time, but you don’t have all the time in the world. You have things you’ve been saying you can do.
Did it impact you negatively or positively to take a break after Drag Race?
I don’t really consider what I did taking a break. It was more like an intense search, seeking the meaning of the experience.
I felt like before you did that crowdfunded show you weren’t doing a lot, at least locally in Minneapolis, and now there’s more.
I was just doing what came to me. I wasn’t pursuing any career pluses.
Did you have the idea that people wanted to see you and you had an audience waiting for you?
Sort of. I don’t know. I just don’t think of myself that way. I think, “why am I even putting stuff out?” Is it just fluff, noise? There’s certainly enough of that in the land.
Does it mean something to you when you meet people who want to go to all your shows and care about the art that you produce?
Yeah, well, gracious, it becomes real to me. I just have to step outside of my opinion.
Do you enjoy it or are you weirded out by it?
I enjoy it. I think it’s healthy and very humanizing, but I’m always going to be a little stuck in my own head. I love the people who love me, who see where my energy is derived from. I’m really glad there are people on a parallel like that out there. I’m like good good good, so what I’m doing is touching some nerve somewhere.
It’s not for nothing. People are getting something out of it. Did you expect that?
A little bit. But I also never expected to be such a tragic figure in some ways.
Why do you think you’re a tragic figure? I don’t see that.
It’s all been like ‘Max is gone, Max is missing, Max is sad’.
Do you think that’s just people relating to human emotions that you put out? A lot of other performers are so controlled, and only project one aspect of who they are. But you seem to project a lot of vulnerability.
As long as they don’t just see me as the really depressed one.
I don’t see you as being depressed. Depressed is when you can’t stop tweeting at 3 AM about your drama. I see people who have emotional issues they want to work out and they use the internet even more as a mouthpiece. You seem to use it less when you have something going on.
I want to shrink back. I don’t want to put that kind of negative energy out when so many people are feeling that way already. If I’m feeling bad, instead of posting bad things, I just don’t post at all.
I think that’s just unusual in the world of social media where everybody is so about themselves. I still think the important thing is that people are listening at all. Is it important for you to be a positive influence and kind of an inspirational presence?
I think it’s important to be a positive influence even if you don’t feel anything positive at all. I think it’s because of my mom, I have to give my mother credit, it’s because of her tendency to treat other people as kindly as possible. Her policy has always been even if you feel like being the rudest bitch in the world, why would you, what energy does that put out there?
That it doesn’t take a lot of effort to just be a nice person. I think that’s something people don’t really realize.
It changes the air, to just say ‘have a good one’ and have someone say it back to you.
Especially if somebody is on the verge of being an asshole to you and you suddenly change the whole motivation of the conversation by just being nice. They don’t know what to do.
It’s really easy to just be grumpy and shut off from people. And god knows I do it, but I would never ruin someone’s day by doing it. I do it usually in the privacy of my own home by myself. All the rudeness that I feel is just projected away.
Well, that’s good, you can just put it away and when you go out it’s like “this is gone!” I always feel bad about it, when I’m accidentally rude to someone I think about it for days.
Yeah, there’s never not an apology. Apologies for me are a way of exorcising a little bit of guilt. When I know that there is an issue where I did something wrong and I hate it. But what can I freakin’ do? I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
Sometimes the time someone spends apologizing is, I don’t want to say useless, but things just need to go forward.
Yeah, act first, apologize later. But emotional positivity is important. Clearing the air.
I think just being out in public I just assume everyone’s grumpy about their own business. Then when you talk to them they start to get their face on a little bit. Everyone’s in their own head.
I think another thing that was cool about you doing this movie thing, was that the usual drag queen post-Drag Race project is trying to do music? Even though you can actually sing you stayed away from that except for a few live tracks on Soundcloud. Have you thought about a music project in the future?
I think, with me, it’s really important that if I’m going to have something so big as a music pursuit, I would have to have it take a few years. I’d have to develop an album that I actually wrote myself, and I would need to actually learn – re-learn and learn better- piano or guitar.
I think that’s something people would be interested in, original material from you.
I enjoy singing. Sometimes I feel it’s my only talent. But I know I could expand upon it.
I think you could use your audience as a test audience. Maybe just tell them you wrote a new song, and then just delete it if you didn’t like it or if it didn’t go over well with an audience. It would be a good way to bounce ideas off of people.
I get that, but then people can download it, can’t they? And save it?
They can, but the worst it would be is just ending up on YouTube. And everything ends up on YouTube.
I hate that. I wish there were still mysteries. Back when publicity was just what people put out.
I saw you in a musical [Urinetown, as Caldwell B. Cladwell] a few weeks ago. Are you going to be doing more musical theater around the Twin Cities? Is that on your radar?
Yes! I love doing musical theater because you are deeply responsible for your character. You’re responsible for polishing something up just right, and you actually have enough time to rehearse and develop it, and a rhythm with the rest of the family. That’s why I love theater.
I thought you had a really good control over that character. Seeing you play a villain was something I had never seen before, it was very interesting to see this almost Disney villain-like type of presence you adapted.
It was fun, I wish we could have done it more than one weekend. You came to the best one I think, the last one, where we’d all developed our moments. And then it was over! So yeah, if I ever do a show with them again I’ve suggested that they do two weekends. No, it was wonderful. I hope that someday I get to voice a Disney something. But you probably have to know how to get your foot in the door.
You have to know people who know people.
Maybe I’ll just go work at Disney. Like, work my way up through working at Disneyland. I would just scream if I worked at Disneyland. Also, I would burn down Star Wars land. Never mind. Can’t say that and ruin my chances.
I can see you’re trying very hard.
I’m just so passionate about Disneyland.
Would you ever think of doing something like a YouTube show? Do you think that’s too much putting yourself out into the void?
Yeah, I think that’s too casual. I don’t know about that. Mayhaps.
Or just more frequent videos and things.
I’ll be more active on my social media! But I don’t know about YouTube.
Yeah, YouTube is where everyone goes to vent their negativity. That’s why I was so surprised about the positive comments on Agent Max. If you’re looking for someone being an asshole, YouTube is the place to go.
I think the internet just shows a partial impression. It looks like you don’t have anything going on with you, when in reality people go through a lot lot lot and they have to take time to process it. But also it takes a while, for me, to make something that I’m actually really proud of and want to put out there.
Are you proud of this film?
Yeah, I’m proud of what I’ve shown so far. In total. NOW FOR MORE.
Do you think you can do better, is it like a goal you can set for yourself to go “ok, I’ve done this now, I can do more?”
Absolutely, this was like a pre-stage in my life I suppose. People always say I’m so young and I have so much more to do, but I think I like to say ‘I’ve done some interesting foundation work’. Early work.
There you go. I think that’s good motivation. Do you have any specific influences that you derive inspiration from and might channel that inspiration into a project like this?
I think I perpetually get inspired not by anyone directly but just by quite a few different influences. I liked to “study” growing up, and to feel like I was actually getting well versed in show business and pop culture and all of that. I spent a lot of time watching movies and YouTubing documentaries and absorbing stories and media and entertainment history. I like people who are really strong in their character that they are playing, but also like themselves as a person, and are never afraid to be vulnerable. I love Judy Garland for her on-screen honestly and vulnerability and commitment to her performances but in real life, she was sort of a crazy head.
I think to be successful at that level you had to be kind of a bitch.
Oh yeah, and insane about your appearance, and insane with your stamina, with no visible fragility, and it drives you insane because you have to be on all the time. Some people were strong enough to get through it and live their lives one way or another. Bette Davis I like for that. I like a lot of old Hollywood stars and personalities.
Do you think there’s something lacking in the stars of today?
Not lacking, there are just a lot of people and there’s less mystery than there used to be. There are really great actors and actresses out there, people who come from the theater, who can perform in the theater. I think if you can perform in the theater that’s indicative of a huge chunk of talent. Inspirations are hard to place.
They just sort of gel in your head and it’s hard to name them when you’re put on the spot, because most people have so many different inspirations.
They all float through.
As an artist you just kind of draw inspiration from everything around you I think.
A bunch of colors all at once. Blurred glimpses of people’s faces that you can’t actually name. It’s like a mood or an emotion that you get out of something.
You had a decent amount of success crowdfunding for a concert through IndieGoGo a while back, do you think you’re ever going to do something like that again?
No, I don’t think so. I just felt weird about doing it.
Why? Everybody does that now.
I know, I think that’s part of why.
Are you ever going to do another big event type show?
Oh yeah, definitely, depending on whether I can get somebody to support it, or I can just afford to put it on myself, but I don’t think I’m going to do another crowdfunding thing. It’ll happen, gosh it will happen. I’m not giving up on entertaining.
I don’t see you as giving up at all. I really like that you’re doing so much locally because it’s just opening an avenue for people to see different sides of you performing. Do you have any current projects coming up, or things you want to do?
More filming, fighting.
Ok, do you think there’s going to be a sequel to Agent Max?
Well, he wants to do more. You have to expand on the plot of the thing. I think someone lives at the end of this current one? Survives.
You think, but you don’t remember?
I don’t remember! No, really truly. So I’ll just have to see. He definitely wants to do more, and I’m along for the ride. I’m working real jobs and I can get new costumes now. I’m the queen of scraping by.
I don’t think that’s bad though, it gives you sort of this distinctive presence. Like, ‘I’ve seen Max wear that before, that’s ESSENTIAL Max.’ I didn’t even think of it as ‘Oh I don’t have new stuff to wear’, I just thought of it as you creating a consistent character.
In the end, it’s all Max.