Katerina Tannenbaum Brings Grit to AJ and the Queen’s Glitz

The actress on meeting RuPaul and learning to skate for Betty.

Photographs by Valerie Chiang

Katerina Tannenbaum at Ladurée SoHo.

Meeting RuPaul for the first time is memorable, no matter who you are. For Katerina Tannenbaum, that moment came shortly after she was cast in the icon’s new Netflix series AJ and the Queen. “I was called in to the Warner Bros. sound stages to talk to Michael Patrick King about my character’s backstory on a Sunday,” the actress said. “I walk in and I see Ru in a corset, high heels, and booty shorts, practicing this fan dance, which is one of the opening numbers you’ll see in the show. I was like, Holy shit.”

Tannenbaum grew up in Portland, Oregon, acting in community theater from the age of four. When she was seven, she said, “I announced to my family that I was moving to New York to become an actress.”

It didn’t happen right away, of course, but eventually she ended up at Stella Adler, where she studied acting—though she left earlier than planned. “I felt like if I got any more training I’d be more confused as to how to approach a job,” she said. “I think the best part of going to school was that it gave me a toolbox that I can dip into if I need it, but most of the time things are so instinctual. If you connect with the character, you kind of know where that character is going to go.”

After leaving school, she began modeling and auditioning. The call about AJ and the Queen came at the end of a particularly busy week. “After 10 auditions, my brain was fried,” she remembered. “I was so exhausted. So, I called my agency and I was like, look I don’t think I can do this last one. I don’t have it memorized, there’s so much text, I’m going to botch it.” Happily, she went anyway and nailed it. King, the show’s creator, called her back for more and she quickly moved to L.A. to start rehearsals.

Katerina Tannenbaum at Ladurée SoHo, photographed by Valerie Chiang for W Magazine.

AJ and the Queen tells the story of a scrappy kid named AJ (Izzy G) who stows away in an RV owned by a drag queen named Ruby (RuPaul) and ends up on a cross-country odyssey from drag club to drag club. Tannenbaum plays Brianna, AJ’s mother, who is struggling with addiction and unable to pay the rent.

For Tannenbaum, it took some work to relate to her character. “She’s a mother and I’m not. And she was a really young mom, a teen mom. She’s also an addict. Those are things I’ve never handled in my own life, so I did a lot of research on addiction,” she said. “This is a comedy but my character has a dark undercurrent that builds. It gets really brutal. So how do I make this person a human and not a caricature of a bad mom?”

Katerina Tannenbaum at Ladurée SoHo, photographed by Valerie Chiang for W Magazine.

AJ and the Queen is Netflix’s latest attempt at family friendly fare that grown ups can actually stomach. Kids who don’t know much about drag will learn, and longtime fans of RuPaul will be excited about all of the Drag Race cameos. “AJ and the Queen is important for right now,” said Tannenbaum. “It breaks it down to say, this is a human being. Ru is not a caricature. Ru is an incredibly genuine, open person, and this relationship that AJ and Ruby develop, this friendship, is something I feel can teach families that are having trouble accepting different ways of being. They can see it and say, That’s allowed and that’s a possibility. Hopefully it can disintegrate some of the hate that is still bubbling in this country. It makes me hopeful to have stuff like this being made.”

While Tannenbaum’s next project is also a comedy—she will soon star in a rom-com called Love-40 from SNL vet Fred Wolf—she’s also got some dramatic fare on the horizon. She’ll play a pivotal role in HBO’s upcoming Skate Kitchen spin-off series, Betty, from Crystal Moselle and Lesley Arfin. Details remain under wraps, but Tannenbaum did reveal that she had to do a lot of actual skating for the project. “I skated a little bit as a teenager but never a ton,” she said. “I have a skateboard now that’s my own, that my friend in the show helped me build.”

“Similar to drag, skating is this subculture that’s so strong and so specific. If you’re not part of it, it’s not something you can just walk into,” she said. “It’s been such a crazy year of being immersed in these subcultures that didn’t belong to me, and I feel like it’s really special to be able to see intimate parts of it. It’s been really cool in that way.”

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