As Mole McHenry in “Desperate Living,” Susan Lowe scared a lot of teenagers, confused a lot of adults and pissed off a whole lot of lesbians. So it’s a bit surprising that the film, over 25 years later, is featured at many gay film festivals. It is no surprise, however, that Susan became one of John Waters’ most beloved Dreamlanders with her role as the scariest cinematic lesbian ever. God bless Baltimore!
Now a teacher at the Maryland Institute College of Art and Catonsville Community College, Susan plans to write a book based on her experiences as a Dreamlander. We spoke to her briefly to find out what she’s up to these days and to catch a little sneak peek of what we may find in her book to come.
What have you been up to, Susan? Besides appearing in the occasional John Waters film of course.
Luckily my life is always pretty interesting. I have a lot of loyal friends, children and grand children. I have become semi-retired from teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art and Catonsville Community College as I’ve been battling Rheumatoid Arthritis. This has given me time to make art and tend to personal projects such as this interview. I’ve just finished working with an independent filmmaker, the film is titled “Pigeon Envy” by Franz Wise. It’ll be debuting at the Maryland Film Festival.
I imagine that your colleagues at the art university know of your collaborations with John, especially your notorious role as Mole in “Desperate Living.” Are they supportive of your acting or do they keep their distance from you?
My colleagues at the Maryland Institute College of Art love my work with John Waters. Many times I’ve lectured and hosted presentations of John Waters films.
How was it that you became a Dreamlander?
It was the Cultural Revolution, 1967, a time where people took chances in art. I was in art school with Vince Perenio and Van Smith. I met John Waters though my boyfriend at the time, George Figgs who had been in John’s early film “Eat Your Make-up.” John and I bonded though the music of Ike and Tina Turner- our idols. I introduced John to Edith Massey and Vince Perenio. Vince and I lived in an artist commune built on ancient, funky docks and piers in Fells Point. There were tons of bars, 15 to a block that sailors would come to if their ship was docked in Baltimore. Edith was the bartender at our favorite hang out – “Petes Hotel.”
Did you enjoy working in underground films or did you aspire to be an actress in more mainstream productions?
I didn’t aspire to be an actress; it all just sort of happened to me, although I had been a teenage model and did hot dog commercials for “Yankee Maid” hot dogs. I had also done performance art and I was an extra in “Return of the Body Snatchers” and “In Justice for All.”
What did the makeover for the part of Mole in “Desperate Living” entail? Were you hesitant at first to make the change?
Mole was developed quickly when we started filming. I had to take wrestling lessons with the man whose character was “Big Jimmy Dong, the Human Block Head”. After that scene, I had to shave my head to achieve a flat top. My make-up was dirt and fake moles that would get lost all the time and the make-up department would flip out.
Do you ever pull out the Mole routine on friends and family…you know, for laughs?
Sometimes I use some of the lines from “Desperate Living” like “Ditto Dollface” or “Bitch at the air, bitch at the trees, but don’t bitch at me.”
What was it like working with Liz Renay on “Desperate Living,” an outsider of the Dreamland crew?
Liz Renay was a pretty good sport especially considering some of the scenes and lines she had to deliver. We were friendly to each other, but there was no bonding. I’ll quote John when he noticed Edith and Liz talking to each other about themselves at the same time – All in all, I’d say that Liz was a good egg, but a bit guarded, who’d blame her considering the freaks she was working with.
Were there any major hardships in making “Desperate Living”?
I would say that for me, it was the cold, it made me miserable. Also, living like Mole for months and months, my kids would run away from me.
What was the most difficult thing you’ve ever done on a production?
Making out with Liz Renay.
I hear at one point you had a frozen dog thawing in your backyard? What was that all about?
Probably because I was the only one that had a yard. Vince and I were neighbors and our yards were secluded. John needed the dog for a “car runs over dog” scene.
So what are you watching these days? What kind of films are you into?
I’ve always loved Psycho films, avant garde, independent films that take chances.
Are there any projects you’re working on now?
I’ve just finished making the movie I had mentioned before. I’ve been working steadily on art in my studio, in about a year, I’ll be ready to have a show. I’m studying Spanish and Latin American culture and will be lecturing a lot and plan to write my memoirs about my life as a Dreamland Girl.
Contact Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org.