Desi del Valle: a Lesbian Movie Star’s Retrospective

by Quentin

I had a crush on Desi del Valle immediately after seeing her at the San Francisco premiere of Jon Moritsugu’s Mod Fuck Explosion. I believed the film broke that night and we sat for close to a half-hour waiting for it to get repaired. But it was an absolutely unforgettable experience. A few years later, I asked Desi to be in my second feature Drift. She agreed, came to Los Angeles for the shoot, and we had an amazing time. After over 10 years, I caught up with Desi on Queerious.

Q: When I first met you, I was blown away by your performance as a boy in Jon Moritsugu’s Mod Fuck Explosion. I was immediately fascinated by you. Can you talk about your experience in Mod Fuck and collaboration with Moritsugu?

You were fascinated by me? I’m blushing! Actually, I got SO much
attention from gay men and straight women when I played M16. That
blew me away. Talk about entering into another world! I was hit
on, photographed in the Castro by gay tourists, and to this day I
still think doing the method-acting thing (living as M16 off-camera)
kind of saved me from a violent crime. I had been mugged some
time after filming, and I think the guys who mugged me thought
I really was a guy. I always felt things could have been a lot
worse had they known I was really a woman. On a lighter, but
similar note, I remember being thought of, mainly by
trans people, as trans. I didn’t even know what trans was, sadly.
So, this was very confusing to me–and probably to others. Here
I was “living” as this teenage boy in order to stay in character
at all times, but when people started asking me about my male
identity, I was, like, “huh?”.  This happened, too, when I played
“Joe” in Unhung Heroes (Dir. Ilya/Lazlo Pearlman), but by then,
eight years later, I was quite a bit more familiar with trans
identity.

Working with Jon was FANTASTIC, and being in MFX remains my favorite acting experience ever–and I’ve had a lot of great experiences. I’ve been quite fortunate. Jon was a pleasure, and I hit it off immediately with him and co-star, Amy Davis (now Jon’s wife). I remember him getting a kick out of my saying that I was glad she was not “gross” (because she was playing my romantic interest, and there was potential for a kiss). Jon had (has) a great sense of humor, he’s totally wild and out there, but at the same time, super-respectful and
professional. Talk about fascinated. I was mesmerized by someone who was so out there creatively, but on set he was Mr. Professional–totally on top of his game and so, so easy to work with. Amy was a delight, too—also very funny and wacky, but also very caring and thoughtful. She was so punk and yet she worked out to Jane Fonda VHS tapes.

Hilarious!

The whole cast and crew was fantastic. And at that time I was still new to the Bay Area, so being driven around to all these far out locations—mansions, military bunkers, highway overpasses—was like this tour of the S.F. underworld or something. Really cool!

Q: After Mod Fuck, you became quite to go-to lesbian iconic thespian in the Bay Area as you’ve starred in three features, Costa Brava, Some Prefer Cake and Desi’s Looking for a New Girl. How did you achieve this iconic status and what was that era like?

Again, you flatter me! You know, I always say about myself: I’m not the best actor, but I put in the work. I think part of the reason for my success was being in San Francisco–it’s a small city where accomplishing something is not that hard. It’s not terribly competitive, it’s more supportive. So, a lot of people helped me, actually. And I think people want a celebrity in their midst. So, there I was, putting in the work—making sure I got in every movie possible, doing the best I could—and people just loved touting me and my success. I think it made them feel good, too. Because in S.F. you can get close to people; and what I’ve learned is that people like to say, “I know her.”

But besides this, I was also hungry and determined, not as shy and reserved as I am today (!) and I just took advantage of every possibility. I think I wanted to be a lesbian movie star, and the fortunate thing for me is that if I want something, I pretty much achieve it. I’m extremely lucky that way.

You mention the world “era”. I think I was in the right place at the right time. Being an out lesbian actress was still a political act (maybe it is today, too…I’m not sure), and that was perfect for me: art and activism. I think I succeeded because I had a passion for bringing visibility to Latinas and lesbians. That was my driving force.

Q: How did you get started as an actress in the Bay?

I knew from working at Women Make Movies that the Bay Area had quite a few film schools/programs. So when I got to S.F., I immediately went to the campuses and looked at bulletin boards for actor notices. I hit the drama bookshop and looked for classes and notices. I just did the work. Then I got a break.

Marcus Hu (Strand Releasing) was in the Frameline office where I worked at the time, and we were introduced. Someone mentioned—it might have been Mark Finch, or Tom di Maria, or Jenni Olson—to Marcus that I was an actor. Or, he might have mentioned that he (as producer of MFX) was looking for a woman to play a teenage boy. Jon specifically wanted that type of casting. In any case, Marcus took a look at me, found me “cute” and then introduced me to Jon.

The funny thing is, I dressed as a Latino “gangster” to meet Jon—my hair was long at the time; shoulder length—thinking he wanted this tough guy. Jon dug me, but M16 ended up being SO different than how I first presented myself to Jon. I think Jon just appreciated my effort, and also found me “cute”. This is how I got my “start” in the Bay Area.

In New York, where I’m from, I had been doing some student films and fringe theater. So I was no stranger to the camera.

Q: When did you move back to New York and what was the decision behind the move?

I returned to New York in 2004. It was a good decision but for not-so-good reasons. I think I just burnt out on the Bay Area and waited ’til I was very unhappy there, got fed up and left abruptly. I guess that’s the way it “needed” to happen if you believe in that sort of stuff, but I kind of wish I’d left in a gentler way. In any case, it was the right decision.

I’m very happy in New York because it’s home to me and there’s so much to do. I find I need that: lots of opportunity and stimulation and variety. Though I was really successful (by my standards) in San Francisco, I think I also started to feel like my life was a video loop, just doing the same thing over and over again. I tried to convince myself that this was okay, but I think what I really needed was change; and perhaps to settle somewhere. San Francisco never felt like home; it kind of felt like a 12-year working vacation or something; or like I’d never
really unpacked my bags. I always had that feeling that I was going to leave (but when???). Twelve years is a long time to feel that.

Q: How have you been doing in New York? I saw that you directed a short “Back to Life” in 2009. Why did you move into being a filmmaker and how was that experience?

When I first got back to New York, I hit the ground running. I linked up with Dyke TV and produced eight episodes of my own comedic call-in therapy show, “What’s Your Problem?”

https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=10150176123015760&comments

That was crazy fun and I wish I were still hosting a tv or web show. I love hosting and ad-libbing and interviewing folks.

I also reached out to select contacts, told them that I was back in NY and that I was looking for projects. I landed some student film projects, a little theater, and some other minor stuff. I had bigger opportunities, too, in commercials and indie features, but then started backing away from acting a bit.

I think I just needed a break or something. Then in 2007 I went through a super-tough time personally so I did what I do when I hit my bottom: I wrote a screenplay.

That’s how “Back to Life” came to be. I wasn’t doing much acting at that point, so I made the film to kind of reinvigorate myself. And, I was working some stuff out. I’d never written something for myself so I decided to give it a try. It’s amazing how although I was feeling so low deep down inside, I still had the audacity to write myself into a starring role. And direct myself!

Even though I’ve made two shorts, one in 1993 and one in 2008, I still don’t really consider myself a filmmaker. I think I’m more of an actor who dabbles in some filmmaking. I definitely have directing chops, but I’m something of a technophobe, so I don’t really get into cameras and editing and that stuff. I have to collaborate with people who love playing with the toys (equipment).

Q: What is your current direction as an actress and filmmaker. Anything we can look out for and anything you’re working on?

Right now I’m searching a little bit. I’m reflective. I’ve done a lot of background acting over the last year in big-budget television and film. It was interesting at first—being close to celebrities and seeing how big scale productions are run—but I notice I’m not really terribly passionate about that level of media-making. I did a pilot that I can’t talk about, but it consisted of a core group of queer women of color talking to other queer women of color about art, politics, and current events, and I was SO happy.

Unfortunately, these projects have trouble gaining traction because it’s hard to find investors for such specific, niche material. So, I guess you could say I’m looking…and I feel like something is around the corner. I just can’t say what.

I’m also working on getting distribution for “Back to Life.” It did pretty well on the festival circuit and I believe there’s an audience for it. I’m also helping produce some web segments for my dyke bicycling group in order to help raise the group’s profile and, well, just for fun.

I do a lot of behind-the-scenes things, too. I’ve worked for festivals, continued to consult in distribution, sat on boards, screening and advisory committees, produced other people’s work, assistant directed, been a p.a. for reality TV shows, and I transcribe documentaries. So, I’ve remained in media, but not all of it has been as visible as what I did in San Francisco. I’ve become a lot more introverted, so these other positions allow me to stay involved in (queer) media, but not always have to be in the spotlight. And I enjoy the intellectual stimulation that the production side offers.

I really like helping others. And I’m perversely good at organizing and managing, so I get asked a lot to help produce things.  Much of it I turn down, so that I don’t stray too far from acting.

Q: You are a veteran in queer cinema from acting in queer film to working at Frameline, how do you see queer cinema going?

I don’t know where it’s going, really. But my opinion is that the most interesting work is happening in documentary. If we could channel that better into fiction!

But the really good news is that queer visibility is more mainstream than ever, and that’s good for people who are isolated and struggling. There’s so much more available to them—to all of us—than even just 20 years ago. We’re kind of everywhere, and that means more opportunities for “us”, and that’s nice.  I don’t love the superficiality, the fluff, I sometimes see in queer cinema. But it works for someone. Not everyone wants an intense, political, drama. So it’s all good.

2 responses to “Desi del Valle: a Lesbian Movie Star’s Retrospective

  1. Really enjoyed this post, Q! I want to look up her films now.

  2. Pingback: Drift (Screening Free until Monday at Noon) | Queerious?

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