Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Topp Twins talk to TrustMovies: What a combo of country, courtesy and charm!

From left, Jools and Lynda Topp. Photo by 

The Topp Twins, Jools & Lynda, have now been performing for 30 years -- buskering in the streets of New Zealand, singing and yodeling, doing comedic impressions of a raft of different characters, touring their country in cities and towns large and small, and finally getting their own TV series in the late 90s. But until last week, TrustMovies had never heard of them. That all changed when he saw the documentary about the pair, The Top Twins: Untouchable Girls, which opened in New York City yesterday. (His review is here.)

When the film’s Los Angeles-based publicist, Sasha Berman suggested an interview, TM jumped – what a duo these twins are! – and so he spent more than an hour talking to Jools and Lynda over lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Soho (the pair love Mexican food, which is evidently not a staple of the New Zealand diet).  In the lengthy-but-edited exchange below, TM appears in bold, while the twins’ words, indicated by either J for Jools or L for Lynda, appear in standard type:

What impressed me the most about your movie – and about you – is how you could have become over the years so loved by your countrymen (and women) of all stripes.  As I watched the movie, marveling, I said to my companion, who was watching with me, ‘Can you imagine any ‘out’ gay or lesbian performer here in the U.S., reaching this much of the population and becoming such a beloved icon.”  And, no, we could not.  We could not imagine this happening in other countries, either, except your own New Zealand.  (I’ve been to New Zealand several times and my companion once.)  Can you two imagine this happening anywhere else?

J: I think maybe if we had been born in Ameica, we’d have totally different lives than we do now. In New Zealand -- and I think this comes out in the movie -- there seems to be this amazing respect and tolerance of other people’s beliefs and ideals.  “Look -- you know – you might be gay or a different color, but if you’re a good person and you’re respectful, and you work hard…  

L: Like everything in the world, you have to earn your respect. It’s how you go about it. Our job, in a lot of ways, is to educate. We’re “Educating Entertainers.” We’re not actually trying to change the world. We’re showing by example. If you want to change the world, you have to roll your sleeves up and go to work. You have to work hard. You can’t sit complaining: I want this, I wasn’t that. Wealth without work is the worst thing in the world.

I agree with that last statement completely.  Which is why, as you say in the movie, you’d rather grab a cab that have them send you a limo.

J: I think the world is full of confusion for a lot of people these days.

L: But wealth is what everybody seems to be going for.  They look at it and salivate for material things -- and as many of ’em as they can get. 

J: It helps to make money to pay the bills. You have to be realistic about those things. But there are more important things than money in the world.  Like saving it. And standing up for what you think is right, but doing no judging. And loving the person next to you even though they have a different opinion. Even if the ideas are far away from your own, you have to realize that those people come from somewhere else.  Maybe they had a difficult background, a bad life. So step into someone else’s shoes before you judge them.

L: Saying that, we still know what’s right and wrong. Were not gonna say, love everything, no matter what. We need a moral stance. We’ve been lucky in New Zealand and the New Zealanders we grew up with were good hearted people, they weren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves. And there are still a lot of good Kiwi young men not afraid to work and go farming. And there is something like, magical, about that. But we are not trying to change anyone.

J: It’s more of a mutual respect. That’s really important. That one of the things we’ve always been up on.  We’ve been to a lot of marches and protests. With people against us and we against them. But you can’t just hate those people. You’ve go to respect them and they have to have their say, and in the end, good prevails. The right way will prevail.

You think?

L: Oh, yes.

Well, maybe there in New Zealand. But here in New York City we see less and less of good prevailing.

J: That’s one thing we see when we come here. People don’t take a stand. They don’t know which way to go. They are sitting on the fence.

They sure as hell are. Our country doesn’t even know how to take a stand on health care. How stupid, how anti-ourselves, can we be?

J: Well, you can’t beat yourself up about it. It’s really difficult.  People don’t have the information.

But it’s there.

L: But in some ways, it’s not easy to find. People are just getting by. People are tired, they come home tired from work. In New Zealand we’re probably a little better off. People want the slower life there. They want to make a nice dinner when they come home. It’s a quieter life.

It’s so much slower. It seems wonderful to me.

L: Well, you know there are only 3-1/2, maybe 4 million of us there.

Your population continues to go up, though, right?

J: Yes, and we need it to go up.  We need some people there, for money for taxes so we have decent roads and all that.

L: The great thing about coming to NYC is that we can’t get this kind of food back home. 


L: Oh, no!  It’s interesting that when Kiwis come out of New Zealand, one of the most exciting things for us is opening up our ideas about food -- and everything else. We’re not a third-world country. We have high tech and all. We’ve become, as they say, digital…. 

J: We’re hearing a lot about digital vs. legacy -- legacy being the old style – these days.

L: We’re legacy. When we walk out of stage to do a show, we’re certainly not digital: We’re legacy.

I haven’t heard that particular usage of that work: Legacy.

Well, that’s what they’re calling it here. It is interesting to get to this place where we are now, sort of between two worlds. Between digital and legacy. It’s funny becasue there are old-school business people still working today who don’t know anything about digital. And plenty of young people who know nothing about legacy. 

By legacy, do you mean just live performance?

J: Everything that’s pre- computer. And we have to have legacy, because it’s about people.

Well, legitimate theater, then, is definitely legacy. 

J: Yes.  New York City is so interesting because your senses are filled with digital here. Everyone is trying to be innovative and do something new. We arrived with our old guitar and our old act, and people say to us, Wow -- this is really new!

Right: Those are probably very young people saying that. It’s like with fashion. Keep your clothes long enough and they’ll be in style again.

L: Yes. And that is why New York is such an interesting place to visit.

When we were in New Zealand, we traveled mostly around the South Island. Is that where you guys are?

L: Yes, South Island.

When we first visited there – now this was almost 20 years ago – the newspaper headline one day was about a high-speed car chase the local police had engaged in. They were chasing some robbers who were speeding away in a van. In the middle of the chase, it was reported, the police were worried that the van was going too fast and might crash and injure its occupants – the robbers! – or even some bystanders, so the police actually slowed their vehicle. Then, when they finally caught up to the robbers and arrested them, it turned out that they had stolen – not the money or jewels that we New Yorkers might have expected – but potatoes. My partner and I were in awe of that article. And of New Zealand

L: Every so often something like this happens in New Zealand.  It’s a place where the police don’t carry guns. But things are changing even there.

Let’s talk about your movie.

J: Yes, and we’re amazed how well the movie has done at festivals around the world.

It opens today, right. And you’re doing a Q&A tonight?

J: Like all good theater people, which we consider ourselves to be, you have to have build up your reputation. It’s not like one of those “Idol” shows, where – well, I think you could take any of those people on Idol and none of them would be able to handle a live, two-hour show. And still have its audience feeling good at the end of it.

Sometimes when you hear them, and they’ve chosen a song to do that is an old song that you know and remember, they sort of ruin it. They wail and yell, until you sort of want to take a gun -- one of those that your police don’t use -- and shut them up!

J: Well the whole thing about the old days: People really lived their craft. And it’s not that these kids wouldn’t want to learn their craft, but they are thrown into this TV thing that is a make it or break it on one show. There’s nothing about building your craft.

Were you influenced at all my Lily Tomlin.  I ask that because your characterizations reminded me of the kind of thing she used to do…

L: We saw her, of course, and a lot of people have asked us that since we got here. But, no. It was like the whole world know she was gay before she did.

She knew. Maybe the whole world was admitting it before she did.

J: What is kind of sad, I think, is that people felt they couldn’t be 100% themselves, because they were afraid to be themselves. I think, in New Zealand, we had the sense that we could come out before we were famous -- which is easier than trying to come out once you are already famous. But why would you hide something about yourself that is so important?

Well, one reason why you’d try to hide it, depending where you are, is that in some countries you’d immediately be in jail. Or dead. Was that ever the case in New Zealand during your lifetime?


God --that’s wonderful.

Part of that was the fact that there were two of us. So we always had someone to back us up. In New Zealand, when you come to this kind of thing, we are so progressive about this. It’s about humanity.

I believe your country is one of, perhaps the most humane of them all. Your country still has its Maoris. But Australia does not have its many Aborigines and we don’t have many Indians. But this did not happened as much in New Zealand.

Early on there were wars and both the British and the Maoris were killed.  But the Maoris have now maintained their culture and have assimilated into the white system. And this is a good thing, where they now have political representation. Now they even have their own political party.

Yes, and it’s a political party that seems to be jumping into bed with the right wing. Which surprises me.

L: That’s a very New Zealand thing. “Well,” the Maoris say, “we want to be in bed with the party that’s in power, that gets things done. Not the opposition.” We have proportional representation, you see. And so there are many different parties.

Which is much better than the "democracy" that we have, I think

J: Yes, and we have to respect this. We have to know that we can’t always tell other people how to live.  We’ve had a treaty with the Maoris, and though it is a very old document, it is legal and binding, so we still have to honor it.

And you still have it. Our country… I don’t know that it has ever honored any Indian treaties.

L: There are no reservations in New Zealand. There was some land confiscated during both world wars, but the main part of these people’s community has really been maintained.  The Maoris are pretty staunch as a race.

We have friends from New Zeland and one of them is half Maori, and he’s always been good about keeping us us with what is happening. He says that by being in bed with the right wing, they may be able to prevent the right wing from becoming too right-wing.  People keep hoping that that will happen here. But the Republicans seem so crazy that any compromise means going so far to the right that it doesn’t make sense.

J: You have to give up power to gain power. So that things stay the same. It’s old-school helping old school.

I think the world has now gone past the point where things can stay the same. I think things must change, or I don’t know how long there will be a world.

Anyway, the combo of you guys and your country, as shown in the film, seems like such a wonderful lesson for the world to see and learn. I know I sound like I am putting you in the Jesus role here…

J: It’s interesting,  because all of this -- in New Zealand -- would seem like just going about our daily business. But we come here, and everyone says, Wow—this is so amazing.

But it is amazing. Everything's relative. You are so far ahead of so much of the world. For instance: regarding nuclear power.

J: That about people power, you know?  Our people said 'no' to nuclear power early on. We even said 'no' to AmericaAmerica wanted to come down here with its warships. So we asked, Are they nuclear-powered? And they said, “Well, we can’t confirm or deny that?"  So we said, “Well if you can’t tell us the truth and just confirm or deny, then you are not coming here.”

Good for you!

J: And from that day on we have not had an American ship in our harbor.

L: And we’re not crying about it, either.

How long ago has that been?

L: Maybe 20 or 25 years now we’ve been nuclear-free.

Are all of our ships nuclear powered?

J: We don’t know. Your government won’t tell us.

We need Wiki-Leaks.

(They laugh.)

We really do need It. In so many ways. But here in our country, we don’t want to prosecute the wrong-doers that have been unmasked by Wiki-Leaks.  No. We want to prosecute Wiki-leaks for doing the unmasking.  There’s something really wrong about that….

J: It’s a difficult time.  Our world is full of fear. Of terrorist attacks.  Fearful of its neightbor. Fearful of the person across the road.

The gay across the road.

L: We have to stop doing this. Instead, find our what these people are like. You might really end up enjoying your neighbor. 

In New Zealand most people do this, right?

J: I think so. In small town communities, people meet in the local café. We’re a real community.  That happens everywhere around the world.

L: In America, it seems, people keep to their own little set of others like them.  In New Zealand, if your go help the neighbors bring in the hay, they will love you forever, no matter who you are.  It really helps to roll up your sleeves.

J: But here in New York, people can invent something on the computer and make a million dollars, yet never get off their ass…  But there is only room for a few of these people at the top.

Well, we need invention, we need new things. But all the money should not be going right to the top, as it does in this country. Is it that way in your country? 

L: Power always seem to coalesce, wherever it is.

In New Zealand, you guys have all the new things, the new gadgets, right? You’re up to date….

L: Yes, we do. The new technology around the world is great. It’s helping a lot of people, But what’s happening now is that the world is focusing too much on that.

J: With our movie, we had some screenings before it went out to the general public.  We had invited guests, just to get a gauge of how people felt.  We did a Q&S after all the screenings. In Dunedin, one woman brought her 15-year-old son, and after the movie, when we asked for questions, this young man put up his hand and asked, “I want to know where I can protest? If I feel something is wrong, where can I protest?”

L: And we said, yes, you can, Where do you protest now? And it turned out to all be on his computer. You have young people all over the world. Alone and on-line, and that is how you protest now. People have 1,000 friends on Facebook, but you don’t actually know or see any of them.

That’s how I do most of my protesting. As I grow older I can’t get around as easily now, so I do it all on line.

J: That not to say it’s a bad thing. Just like the guy last night talked about legacy and digital. Last night were at a meeting where seven speakers get up and try to wow the crowd in seven minutes.

And you did this, too?

L: Yes, we got up and sang, and we put everything from our movie regarding protest on a screen behind us, and we just sang in front of that screen. We used every protest we’d been involved in. We thought, that’s gonna say everything for us in seven minutes.

J: One guy got up and spoke about being caught between two worlds: Legacy and digital.  And this is pretty much where we are. One person talked about looking through old photo albums and how wonderful this is. That’s legacy. Now with the computer, kids do it all on computer.

There is a similarity between these, however, whether you do it on computer or album, you get a very similar experience.

J: Now most kids would think -- pix in a book would be crazy.  Now, they’ve got all their pictures in their cell phone in the back pocket.

L: We feel like we’re caught between two worlds. For things to be OK, the old school needs to catch up with the digital, and the digital needs to respect our legacy. But that’s not happening. There are guys, older people, who work in office now who have no sense of digital at all. 

People don’t need to go 100 percent one way or the other.

J: No, but it’s all really about communication. And it’s so interesting now because we’re pretty communicating much like vaudeville. A really old form of theater.

Yes, vaudeville’s older than I am!

L: That’s what we are, and that’s about as “legacy” as you can get. But then we use everything “digital” to help us get people in to see the show -- everything technical that we can use.

J: That's how we think about ourselves in New Zealand, and again, it’s about respect. You’ve got to respect what has come before you.  

L: This is so true in the gay community, too. Look at the people who fought at Stonewall. You ask young gay kids now about this: They don’t know.

That’s so true. There’s a wonderful documentary called Making the Boys – about the original production here in New York City of The Boys in the Band. You should try to see this film if it comes to NZ.  The author of the play, Mart Crowley, tells us about that time.  In the doc, the filmmaker Crayton Robey interviews some young gays and their attitude is atrocious: “I don’t want to know about what happened then. I’m too busy with what’s happening now!  They think it doesn’t apply. Well, hello, it does apply, and honey, you’d better pay attention. These “rights” you think you have now are not written in stone. Nothing is guaranteed. You must be ever vigilant, you must fight to keep these rights.

L: You know, we’ve got a bit of different handle on the idea of fighting for something. We feel that gay people don’t have to fight for anything. They have to celebrate who they are. When you celebrate who you are, people want to come with you.

Hmmm… Yeah?

J: It’s not a struggle. It’s a right. Anything gays want is no more than what other people have got.

Yes, but here in the USA those other people are constantly telling us that we’re asking for special rights. We’re not.

J: But OK – no whining. Get real. Start enjoying and embracing your own community. Fill up the well.

Unfortunately in this country, if you happen to be gay and decide to celebrate yourself, you can get a baseball bat in your head or a knife in the chest. Where I life in Jackson Heights, Queens, even with a very large gay population, this has happened more than once.

J: Well, that’s the lack of respect. People don’t respect each other.

L: The old issues issue of respect your enemies, respect your neighbor. Tell the truth faster. All those issues that are important, we are losing them. We’re saying:  for fuck’s sake, bring ‘em back.

Do you think you are losing these in New Zealand, too?

L: I think if anything happened in New Zealand that we felt might jeapordize our country in any way or our lifestyles or morals or ideals, we’d be standing up and saying: This can not happen. Anyone in our gay community who has something to say, better bloody well stand up and say it. At some point, you have to take the high road. This happened at Stonewall. They stood up. And I am sure that this was very hard for most people at the time.

Yes, and it happened almost compulsively, not with any planned protest. Spontaneously.

L: If you want to change something you have to get people motivated.  And this is very difficult.

J: Because guess what: they are all in their digital world.  They have lost their motivation.

But even in digital, there is motivation. Or the lack of it. When you get a political email, you can either just ignore it, or delete it or act on it.  So there’s something motivating there, toward one thing or the other.

J: But that’s a very easy and quick way to handle things. We need a motivation that will get people to stand up and get out of their seat!

Yes, and that’s more difficult. Oh -- One thing I want to ask you before I forget: You mention in the film about your “fights” between the two of you.  What were they, are they, about?

L: Oh, we never fight anymore.

Never?  What happened?

J: Not since I had breast cancer. We just don’t. Not one fight since I got breast cancer, we don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.

L: Life is the most important thing, and when I was faced with losing my twin sister (she looks over at Jools) I never ever wanted to fight with you again. We’ve been together for over fifty years. We’re a family business -- except we just don’t make pasta.

Have you seen that Italian film Loose Canons, by Ferzan Ozpetek?  It’s about a family whose business is making pasta, and suddenly one of its sons needs to come out.  It’s a wonderfully inclusive movie that is about all of us.

J: Well that’s life, isn’t it?  It includes everything. And that includes fighting, since families so do fight about things.

Right.  It’s a shame we have to get cancer to realize we need to stop fighting.

J: Well, it’s a bit of a wake-up call, isn’t it?

How long have you been cancer free now?

J: Five years.

Great, then you’re over that hump.

J: I feel very lucky. When you’re sitting in that chair, getting the chemo, you realize that some of us will make it and some won’t. You don’t know. Anyway, I am still here, and I still have things to do!

And you look pretty healthy. Were you always the thinner of the two? You (to Lynda) look more robust!

J: Yes. I’ve always been the thinner.

L: And I’ve never really been sick in my entire life. Maybe a little cold now and then but that’s it. 

Wow -- that’s great! How old are you?

J: We’re 53. As of tomorrow…


L: Yes, we’ll have our 53rd birthday here in NYC.  Kind of exciting, isn’t it?

What are you doing for your birthday?

L: Our partners are here with us, so we all going to go out. Ronnie, our manager who brought you here, has been with us for over 25 years, and her partner Wendy is here too. So we are going out and have a wonderful time. And celebrate the release of our movie.

Oh, yes: that movie!

J: Well, we made the movie for New Zealanders and anything outside of that was unexpected. But it has now won 26 awards at various festivals. All around the world.  A People’s Choice award in Toronto at its first screening: That really just kicked us into the international world. Apparently we’re even big in Korea.


L: Just we’re big lesbian icons in Korea!

J: And in Sweden there was so much response to the movie that they did not put it in the documentary category, but just into the film category. It even beat out The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo!

Your movie should be getting more than a week at one New York theater.

J: It may. What happens is that, because it played in NYC, cities and theaters around the country may book it now.

And The New York Times liked it, which is great.

L: Yes. And one good review: You can use that for years! 

J: We can’t come into America thinking we’re gonna be big news. Like any good artist, you start at the bottom again and work your way up.

L: It’s great being the underdog.

J: In all reality, we can talk about the serious and the political, and we’re all political animals, whether we believe it or not. And there are good people and bad people. But we can’t judge. We can comment but we can’t judge. But first and foremost we have to have a little bit of fun.

L: Yes, you’ve got to enjoy your life. Every day you have to wake and say, This is a new day in this worlds and I need to have a combination of things in my life that will make me feel happy and an important part of this world. So you can be political or gay or straight or whatever, and you can still be happy.

J: Right: Even if you just go out and help your neighbor with his garden….

The Topp Twins movie, THE TOPP TWINS: UNTOUCHABLE GIRLS, is playing now at the Cinema Village in New York City. Don’t let it get by you. As you can tell from the review posted earlier and the interview above, these ladies and their movie and their country of New Zealand are pretty incredible. In fact, seeing all of these at once, you may very well run the risk of wanting to move to the southern hemisphere -- and fast. 

(Note: all the photos in this post came from
 the web page: The Topp Twins images.)

No comments: