Although he’s a reputable comedic stage actor with tons of roles on his resume, New York nightlifers know him best for his impeccable Carol Channing that resurfaces at least once a year for Paige Turner’s holiday show. How did that happen? Thotyssey asks James Mills for the whole story!
Thotyssey: James, hello! Thanksgiving has come and gone… how was yours?
James Mills: Thanks, Jim. My Thanksgiving was lovely! I spent it with loved ones and it was very restful. A welcome break from the craziness of the fall and the upcoming holiday productions.
Tiz the season! So is this generally the only time of year that you embody Miz Channing, or does she turn it all year round?
It really depends. This year, she’s been taking a backseat to a lot of other projects. Traditionally, Carol comes out for Christmas. She and Paige Turner have collaborated on an annual holiday show for the past six years. But, Carol has joined other ladies in the past. Sutton Lee Seymour hosted a Judy Garland themed celebration where Carol Channing, Ann Miller, and Liza Minnelli (all yours truly) came out to join the fun. I always feel it’s a good idea to leave the audience wanting more.
And Carol herself would agree! So let’s get to the beginning! Where’s your hometown, and have you always been performing in some capacity?
The beginning? How much time do you have? I grew up in Albuquerque, NM. As a kid I was terribly shy. Cripplingly shy. But I had this incredibly active imagination. I would play alone with my toys and do all the characters and voices. In school, I was bullied a lot for being sensitive and brainy. Other kids called me gay long before I even knew what that meant. So, despite my desire for attention, I was filled with anxiety about being made fun of.
Everything changed when my parents divorced. The experience was so painful, but thankfully it coincided with my taking a drama class at school. The theatre was a safe space – a black box where I had complete control of my environment and the way others perceived me. I became obsessed with acting and creating characters. It was very healing – my therapy. I found so much joy in making people laugh. By the time I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to be an actor and have a career on the stage!
Did you study acting in New York after high school?
I did study acting, but before I came to New York. I got a BA in Theater as an Acting major from the University of New Mexico. I almost double majored in Linguistics because of my love for dialects and character voices. Also, in that time I came to East Coast for a summer doing stock at the College Light Opera Company. So when I moved to NYC, I had a degree and over 40 different theatrical productions under my belt. I was ready!
You came better prepared than most! What sort of stage work have you gotten here in NYC?
I’ve done the usual share of workshops, readings, and new works. A few community theatre experiences. Several classic operettas. But my real specialty is comic opera–the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. I know it’s a niche artform, but I love it. I knew from my vocal training that I had a talent for singing very fast, and with cutting diction.
So I was hired and got my Equity card working at New York City Center with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. I’ve been with them for ten seasons, and I play all the comic patterman roles… the Major-General in Pirates of Penzance, Sir Joseph in HMS Pinafore. Basically, funny old men.
I’m actually doing a run of HMS Pinafore right after Christmas here in the city, at the Kaye Playhouse. I will be trading old lady drag for old man drag! And that’s exactly how I see it. Drag is an extension of my love for character acting. That’s why I perform as James Mills and not as “Carol Channing.” I’m just playing her.
I can’t think of any woman more equipped for drag impersonation than Carol! How did it come to be that you became involved in the drag world, performing as Carol or other divas with the likes of Paige and Sutton?
Drag started as a joke for me… or a challenge, really. I was singing in the ensemble of some show, probably about 19 years old. The guy next to me was teasing me and said I sang like Liza Minnelli. So when a local annual Coming Out Day show came up, I dragged myself up as Liza and sang live. It was a lot of fun! Soon I was judging drag pageants as the “special celebrity judge” Liza.
Flash forward many years to a tour bus where I was doing Liza and my busmate was doing Carol, and we were entertaining everyone around us. I loved his Carol so much that I wanted to try to do my own. And she was born! I have always love Carol Channing, and find her so endearingly kooky.
One Halloween, I was running light for Paige Turner’s SLURP! at the now defunct Vlada Lounge. I showed up dressed to the nines as Carol Channing and engaged in silly banter with Ms. Turner. She soon started inviting Carol to co-star in her themed shows. It’s an incredibly silly collaboration that I look forward to every year!
As do we all! So this season’s holiday show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre – courtesy of stars Paige, Jackie Cox, Remy Germinario and yourself (December 1st, 2nd,19th and 20th) – is called Christmas Carol, which leads one to believe that Ms. Channing may be making more than a cameo this time around!
I like to think that she gets the star slot. It’s a very familiar formula, like most holiday specials we know and love. In this case, a couple of well-loved NYC queens are preparing their holiday production and are presented with a problem. Along comes Carol to help save the day! Through song, dance, and plenty of shade, they all find friendship.
Okay, maybe it’s more complicated than that, but I don’t want to spoil any surprises. I tell you, I’m having so much fun with these girls!
It’s always a very fun when you gals get together onstage for the holidays!
So there’s this, and then after Christmas it’s HMS Pinafore at the Kaye. Anything else lined up for you?
Lots of touring in the spring, and potentially a collaboration with Ms. Cox as we get closer to summer. Then I’m off to the Cape to direct. So I keep myself busy. But you never know when one my classic leading ladies might make an appearance.
Is there a lady you haven’t performed as yet that you’ve been contemplating?
That is a very good question. I love the classics. I’d love to do Bette Davis–like Baby Jane Bette. Or maybe someone sultry like Marlene Dietrich. I really don’t know. One day I’ll be inspired, and just surprise everyone.
It seems like Angela Lansbury might be an inspired choice, nowadays!
Ha! That was definitely on my mind. But for me, it’s all about crafting the impression first, then getting the look right. Angela is tough. But maybe worth a try!
Werk! Okay, in closing… we’re already deep into Christmas Radio Season… what is a tune that you are dreading to hear a million times this month?
Don’t tell Paige this, but I detest “All I want for Christmas is You.” I know all the gays are gonna come for me, but I’ve never liked that song. I hear those little chimes on the intro and immediately change the channel. HA!
We hear ya! Thanks James, and Happy Holidays!