As I mentioned last week, we have two amazing film festivals happening back to back here in our great city. The Women’s Film Festival’s dazzling opening night is Thursday, September 16, and has everything from live jugglers to women football players in full pads and a few surprises. And there are still plenty of great films to check out. 

QFLIX will be opening on September 26 and will be a wonderful variety of films representing all aspects of the LGBTQ+ community. The opening night film is “Jump, Darling.” Featuring the brilliant Cloris Leachman in her final starring role before her death, this heart-warming film pairs love of drag with an aging iconic diva to explore what inspires us to carry on. As part of the opening night ceremonies, Dr. Rachel Levine will be present to receive the Marsha P. Johnson Image Award. The film will be followed by the ever popular Black & Pink Gala. The festival runs until Oct. 3rd and is chock full of celebrity names, special events, and great films.

For those not quite ready to venture out, another way to see great content is the virtual component to the Festival. One of the virtual programs “I Want To Break Free!” features this week’s Portrait, Alex Ringler, in his popular series, “Annoyingly Fit Neighbor.” 

An actor, dancer, writer, and producer, Ringler is a man of many talents, and he is as beautiful on the inside as he is on the outside. He made his Broadway debut in the 2009 revival of “West Side Story.” Some of his other credits include the first national tour of the 2007 revival of “A Chorus Line,” the first national tour of “Priscilla – Queen of the Desert: The Musical,” and the 25th Anniversary North American tour of “Cats.” 

I’d say welcome to Philadelphia, but I understand you already have a connection to the city.

Yes, I went to school here at the University of the Arts. It was great, I came here from a very suburban area at home and had I been thrown into New York I may have imploded or something. Philly was great because you got a big city experience and feel without being overwhelmed. I really loved it. 

What’s a fond memory from Philadelphia?

The one that strikes me is… well, when I first got here, I wasn’t quite out of the closet yet. I was thinking about it, it was like, “okay, you’ve moved 2,000 miles away from home, that usually would be when you do it.” But I was still struggling with it. I had a straight roommate and I didn’t know how keen he would be about having a gay roommate. But one day I walked out of the front door of my dorm room and OutFest was happening. I was surrounded by it and just went, “Woooah! Okay, let’s do this.” 

Where are you originally from?

Tempe, Arizona. It’s basically a suburb of Phoenix. 

What did the folks do?

My dad’s a lawyer and mom did a bunch of things. She started a soup kitchen for the homeless through the Catholic Diocese when I was young and she ran an import shop called “10,000 Villages” that supports… wait, you have one here on Walnut Street right?

We do. I just shopped there recently.

Oh good, so she’s always been an activist and community focused. My dad’s semi retired now, but still practices some law. They both instilled a mindfulness towards charity and giving back in me. 

What were you like as a little one?

I started dancing when I was five, my mother said that I asked to get into it but I don’t recall that. So I’ve been involved in dance since I started kindergarten. I was never drawn to sports, I don’t care for competition. I don’t even like the competition side of dance, honestly. I think it cheapens the art form. Especially when someone is like, “You can do 18 pirouettes so you’re better than that person over there.” No, dance is subjective. It’s a matter of taste or what you like. I didn’t really start gyming until later in high school and in college to stay in shape for dancing. As a dancer you have to occasionally lift people over your head, so I thought, yeah, I better build some upper body strength for that. 

I used to be friends with a guy from Dance Theatre of Harlem and we’d go to eat with other dancers and he’d chastise the women, “Girl! You are not ordering those fries, I have to lift you tomorrow!” 

Well, the thing about lifting is that yes, it’s about weight, but it’s more about holding yourself. There are some very light dancers who don’t know how to hold themselves so it’s hard to lift them, they’re like (mimics someone flopping around), and then there are people who have really solid bodies but you can lift them with ease because they know how to hold themselves. 

I want to talk a little about your Broadway experience, especially since you were in one of my favorite musicals of all time, “West Side Story.”

A few times I’ve been in West Side Story. I really love it too, it’s definitely one of, if not my favorite Broadway musical. It just blends dance, music and storytelling so well. I didn’t audition for it at first because I was 25-ish at the time and they wanted to cast literal teenagers, like they wanted their Baby John to be 12 or 13, so I figured I was too old. But then I was on tour with “A Chorus Line” for 18 months and the week I got back, they were looking for WSS replacements and I got an audition with Joey McKneely. I did a call back with Arthur Laurents there which was pretty cool and I got cast as a swing!

Pretty cool indeed. 

Yeah, I think part of it is that when they’re putting together the original cast they’re looking for the perfect people to play the parts. When you’re casting replacements it’s more who fits where and who fits the costumes! It was crazy to debut on Broadway in one of my favorite musicals, it was like WOW. 

If you need back-ups, I can recite almost every live from the movie, [emotes] “How many bullets in this gun Chino?” 

Alright, I’ll call you! I’m excited to see the new Spielberg adaptation. Though as many revivals as there have been, I’m kind of like, I think we’ve done it enough. Let’s come up with something new to deal with racial struggles; there are a bunch of stories out there that could be told as beautifully. But I’ll still check out Spielberg’s version. 

Let’s talk about how you came to the project that’s going to be screened at qFLIX, “The Annoyingly Fit Neighbor.” 

Ah yes, Jerry and Gerald. I was a husky, pimply kid growing up and no matter how old you get, you still take that with you. One of my touchstone people, Chris Hartwig, says something about the fact that you are someone when you’re 13 and you’ll always have that self image of that inner person with you. I’ve held onto that growing up and when instagram became a thing and all the guys were posting selfies with inspirational quotes but shirtless or dressed in thongs, I was like, “That’s really dumb! What are you doing?” Then I stopped drinking and started getting into really good shape and I started posting pictures as well! I tried to do it with a funny wink and a nod but then I’d get eye rolls from people, even some of my friends who were like, “Okay, that’s the 8th picture of your abs this week. Stop being ridiculous.” And I understood, but that’s the impetus for the series. I always wanted to write about the guy you encounter at the GNC who, when you go in just to buy vitamins, suggests the ones with green tea to “help you lose those extra pounds…”

[Laughing] Ugh!

Right? So I made a pilot; it was in 2020 and we were in lock down, so you couldn’t act in person with other people. I was taking acting classes over zoom and the teachers were saying to take advantage of the downtime to write and start getting footage of yourself online to have a presence there when things opened up. So I did a little sketch and people were like, “Oh, my God! Do another one!” and it quickly became a series. I think we’re just showing season one at qFLIX, but there’s a whole 2nd season where we jump ahead in time, it’s cool. People have been enjoying it so I’m glad that maybe some new folks will have a chance to see it. 

It’s a great idea. 

Yeah, it was originally just something to do for fun during quarantine and not only was it good because I now have work online, but in the process it helped me with my confidence in front of a camera and it helped me with my editing skills behind the camera. Now I know how to use green screen, or how to overlap audio to make it look like an actual conversation is happening between two people instead of just one sided. 

Before the interview, we spoke about the stigmas of dancing and how you can lose roles if you’re not perceived as manly enough. In “Annoyingly Fit Neighbor” you play a heterosexual, married man and another character who’s a woman, so you cover both ends! 

It’s becoming better that you can be an out actor and still get leading roles, but there is still a bit of a shadow that once you come out, you get crossed off of certain casting lists. I’m hoping it will continue to change but the only way for that to happen is for more actors to come out and deal with the process to make a change from within. Another way to do that is to make your own work and we all have this amazing HD camera in our pocket called a smartphone. One of the ways you can showcase that we can be out and still play anyone as an actor is by creating your own work.

So let’s switch to some offhand questions, what book might I find on your nightstand?

Right now, “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius and “Dancer for the Dance” which I just started. 

Favorite holiday memory?

Silly String fights at Christmas. I have two sisters, one younger and one older, and every year we get Silly String in our stockings and pick one person to attack! 

My hidden talent is?

My ability to memorize dialog from random movies. I can recite lines from Clueless, and Clue and Drop Dead Gorgeous at the drop of a hat. 

Hold up, I’m looking at your resume and seeing all sorts of fun things. Jump rope skills, stage combat, bullwhip cracking and my favorite, independent eyebrow movement. 

[Cocks both eyebrows independently] I have many skills. 

Impressive. Why bullwhip cracking? 

I learned it for “La Cage Aux Folles” and liked it so much that I bought a whip for myself. And I was always obsessed with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. 

Do you get funny looks when people see a giant whip in your house?

More when I take it out to the park to practice.

What performer who is no longer with us would you like to work with?

Probably Judy, or Gilda Radner. I’m a big fan of both of them. 

What time period would you want to go back to?

The roaring 20’s, just to see how much of it was fabulous and how much was just artifice. 

What’s the worst physical pain you’ve suffered?

It was during West Side Story on Broadway. I was playing Diesel for a week and there was a part where he climbs a fence to exit the stage and on my last performance, my feet came out from under me and all of my weight fell onto the arm I was hanging by. I just remember being backstage with that pain that’s so bad you can’t breathe. Not fun. 

You worked with NPH, Neil Patrick Harris, when was that?

He had a variety show, “Best Time Ever” and I was hired as a dancer for it. It was crazy watching him work. He’s so quick. There was a song that he’d been rehearsing and at the last minute they changed it to something else. So 2 days before airing he had to sing it while running around the whole studio, and he did it in one shot! He was such a professional it was inspiring. 

What’s your favorite celebrity encounter?

I’m a HUGE “Xena” fan, and in 2007 I was in NY, completely broke and Lucy Lawless was doing a charity concert. The tickets were $75, but I splurged for it. The night before, a friend of mine texted me to say that Lucy Lawless was at a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen. I was at a birthday party and started saying my goodbyes when my phone rang. It was my friend’s number but when I answered the phone Lucy herself was on the other end saying, [with a New Zealand accent] “Come on here! I want to meet you!” I RAN to the bar and lied my way past the line to get in and got to hang out with her and when I told her that I was coming to the concert, she thanked me! I got to meet her daughter and her husband Rob, who was the executive producer of “Xena” and “Hercules.” It was a crazy fanboy, I never imagined this in a million years, type of thing.

What’s the importance of having a festival like qFLIX? 

While we’ve assimilated into a lot of mainstream media, we’re still a minority, and I think it’s important to celebrate that and to remember where we’ve come from and that it was a struggle and still continues to be a struggle in a lot of the world. By celebrating us, we bring attention to important issues and we show that our art is important.