Writer/director Shaina Feinberg wanted to remake Barry Levinson’s 1982 movie Diner, but with an all-woman and gender nonconforming cast instead of an all-male one. Diner, which starred Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Paul Reiser, Kevin Bacon, and Timothy Dal, took place in the final week of 1959, when a group of college friends return home to Baltimore to attend a wedding. Feinberg’s web series, Dinette, takes place in the equally frigid Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill at the close of 2017 when a group of women and gender nonconforming friends come together for a half-serious ceremony in which one of them, Sheila (Melissa Dougherty), plans to marry herself in honor of her 33rd birthday.
Just like the diner in Diner, there’s a neighborhood joint at the heart of Dinette’s social life where the group meets and gathers, but with considerably less misogynistic banter about their romantic exploits.
There’s Jaq (Jude Dry), a nonbinary character who’s sorting through their gender identity; Norah (Maeve Higgins), an Irish immigrant stand-up comic who finds it difficult to keep working in the current political climate; and Rachel (Monique Moses), her manager. Dee (Donna Wood) is a waitress at the diner, along with White Rachel (Jaqueline Fouasnon), who’s cursed with both a boring boyfriend and a massive crush on Mick (Drae Campbell), a shady butch playboy type based on Mickey Rourke’s character in the original. (While Mick has her flaws, it’s worth noting that she never makes anyone touch her dick through a box of popcorn on a movie date, like her namesake in Diner.)
Mick owes money to Karen (Aya Ogawa), a guarded drug dealer, who’s dating Simone, a filmmaker played by Feinberg herself. Lucille (Mona Chalabi) is a struggling freelance journalist and Qiana (Michelle Francesca Thomas) is the successful actress living in LA who comes back to Brooklyn for the wedding. The only recurring male characters (Chris Manley and Jeff Seal) are a pair of clowns, and they’re completely silent throughout the entire series.
The pilot for Dinette screened at Tribeca this past April and the first season — which got namechecked in this week’s New Yorker, as well as in a tweet by its TV critic Emily Nussbaum — is now streaming it its entirety.
INTO spoke with Feinberg, Drae Campbell, and Jude Dry to talk about the series, how much of themselves can be found in their roles, and letting queer conflict out of the bag.
Now that I know Dinette is Diner but gender-flipped, my aesthetic observations are really obvious, but I was going to say that I loved its ’70s vibe! It reminds me of like, Taxi but with dykes?
Shaina Feinberg: That’s so funny. When I sent pictures to some of the wardrobe people, I sent Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. Definitely Taxi is always on my radar in terms of story, everyone at one place of work gathered together during downtime. I like Taxi with dykes.
Drae Campbell: Let’s do that next!
Feinberg: Drae said this thing about Dinette that I can’t stop thinking about, which is, let’s just assume all the characters are queer? I love that idea. I didn’t think about a guy any of these people were seeing when I was writing it. The only person I knew was in a relationship with a man was White Rachel, and in my mind, he’s such a loser.
Campbell: Even the guys could be a couple.
How much of the writing was scripted by Shaina versus improvised by the actors?
Feinberg: I’d say a vast majority was me. The one scene that came from hanging out with these two was the sink fixing scene, which is my favorite.
It’s so butch.
Feinberg: I love it so much. A couple months ago, my friend and I were getting pedicures, and I was thinking about what I want my next project to be. And my friend was like, “If I could watch two hours of anything, it would be that sink scene.” And I was like, okay, so I have to do something with these two.
Campbell: You would also ask people about their lives and then weave it into the character arc we already had. Jude and I told her about how people always assume that because we’re masculine, we fix stuff.
Jude Dry: I will say that Shaina is an incredibly fast writer and also incredibly prolific. She wrote that scene the day after Drae said, “Oh, it’d be funny to have something with fixing the sink.” She came back with the pages very quickly. And she also tells everyone, “If a word sounds funny in your mouth, just change it.” She’s not wedded to the text. The ideas are all her, but she does give the actors a lot of power to inhabit them and I think that’s why the show feels so natural and lived-in.
Campbell: Jude also improvised all the hilarious one-liners and the propwork as I was handing them stuff from under the sink.
One thing I like about the sink scene, besides the fact that neither of you can fix it and you still get rescued by the femme in the end, is the subtle fight or competition that happens between the two of you with rolling your shirt sleeves?
Campbell: There’s a little masculinity challenge. All of the scenes with Mick and Jude had chemistry. There’s a conflict there. One part of it is the misgendering and the deadnaming, because I keep getting your name wrong, and I feel like that’s an undercurrent. There’s this old or longstanding relationship that we have, and I think it comes out in the sink scene with that little competition. But then there’s also the love moment where we bond and hug.
Dry: That’s why it’s nice when Shaina is like, “Bring to it what you want.” Because we do have a longstanding relationship in real life, and I just decided that you’re the cool older one who’s in the main crew. At one point, Shaina and I said my character was like the little sibling trying to get in with the crew, and I kinda took that and ran with it. So I would obviously identify with Drae as the person who I needed to both usurp and impress.
Campbell: That’s so funny! I didn’t know that was going on with your character.
One of the questions I had watching this, mostly borne of my own existential dread, is like, why is everyone flirting with straight women?! Because I didn’t read everyone as queer, and then Mick has this very classic conundrum where White Rachel, who has a boyfriend, develops a crush on her and comes onto her. And then when Mick accepts the flirtation and escalates, White Rachel backs down and has a big moral crisis about having a boyfriend.
Campbell: I watched that scene with a queer femme friend and she said she wanted to see it switched around. Like to see a butch say, “You know, I don’t think I can do this,” to a straight woman.
You do hold that boundary in a way, once you realize she’s not actually comfortable. Then you have that “Oh, you’re just another straight girl” crash.
Campbell: What did you think of the apology scene, then, when White Rachel says her boyfriend didn’t care because he thought it was hot? Like, ugh, we’ve all heard that so many times.
I mean, I think we’re in this moment of queer cultural discourse where it’s become very taboo to discuss personal boundaries around levels of experience. I think we’re in a moment where people say, “Well if you say that, or if you reject me for that reason, then you’re erasing my queerness.” I think there’s a lot of pushback against having those conversations openly and I think we should just be having them.
Campbell: Yeah, that’s real.
Dry: I think Mick acts appropriately and true to herself.
Campbell: And it’s not like White Rachel says, “I’m straight, I’m not going home with you.” She says, “I have a boyfriend.” To me, that’s the issue. For me, in real life, it’s like, if you’re going to start talking about your boyfriend after kissing me and how you can’t do this because of him? To me, that’s where there’s a problem.
So then what’s behind the line, “You’re just another straight girl”? Are you just hitting below the belt?
Campbell: Well, maybe. I think people say things when they feel hurt and scared and rejected, so it’s reactionary, sure. But also, as my character said in the beginning, I keep having these straight girl experiences where I’m kind of exhausted by it. But then, in the end, it’s all love. I’ve got a little chip on my shoulder about it. Is it satisfying to watch that? To watch a queer scene and then be like, “Yeah! She turned her down!”
I mean, yeah, honestly, but I also have a lot of baggage about this. So for me, it was cathartic.
Campbell: Don’t we all. I feel like so many — I mean, it’s changing a lot — but so many lesbian films are this straightish woman and a gay woman and it’s will-she-or-won’t-she. And that’s the whole plot of the whole movie, forever. It’s exhausting. It’s kind of nice, in this project, to see that we’ve solved that in two scenes. Like, let’s keep it moving.
Dry: And in gay men’s movies, they just have like, awesome sex for a weekend, and it’s will-they-or-won’t-they…actually say that they like each other!
And I feel like the trope is always that the queer person is so grateful that the straightish person is willing to try, as opposed to showing the realities of how annoying that dynamic can be for the experienced person. Like, Mick is absolutely not grateful for White Rachel’s boyfriend drama.
Campbell: Shaina, were you purposely trying to flip things?
Feinberg: I mean, for the whole series, I was trying to flip things. But some of these details are beyond me. I just was pulling from my own life. I dated women a lot in my 20s, I lived with a woman, and I still feel unresolved about some of the things that happened to me in those relationships. So I think I had leftover stuff from that which went into this scene.
Just processing your leftover queer feelings! As we do.
Campbell: Would you say you’re a hasbian?
Feinberg: I think I’m someone who’s on the spectrum, but so’s my husband. We just happened to be married to each other. But I mean, that scene felt like something that happened in my life that I was still thinking about.
Campbell: I hope that we do more Dinette. I really love it. Basically, my character felt like a heightened version of a part of myself.
You looked extremely sexy in this, I will say.
Feinberg: Okay, so, I love Drae so much. Like, we hang out, she borrows my car, I see Drae all the time in my real life. But when we were editing Dinette, I was like, hubba hubba! She looks hot! When I watched it, I felt like I had a crush on everyone. For me, if I get to that point in a project, then I know it’s good.
Just as an art-making ethos, that’s very queer — the basic premise that everyone is hot.
Feinberg: When I was looking through the monitor at every single person, I was just like, they look hot. They look good. It’s a very diverse cast, it’s not just one type of person, and it’s so nice. They only wore makeup if they wanted to. My whole life, I was convinced that people either saw a man or a monster when they looked at me, which is insane. And so it’s been really important to me in my work to not be made up. You have to just embrace what you actually look like, and unfortunately, on camera, that’s not— people aren’t doing that. I just want other people who might look like me, or who might not look like me but who also don’t look like Charlize Theron—whom I love—to be like, “I’m beautiful, too. How I look is beautiful.”
I’m a sexy character worthy of a sexy storyline. I think those erotics come through in this. It didn’t feel like an exclusively buddy series to me.
Dry: And it makes it more interesting. It makes it more natural, it makes it more real. We’re not in this cookie-cutter fake world.
I’ve written before about the problem of butch or masculine-of-center characters being played by straight women, and so it was a relief to me in this project to see actual masculine-presenting queer people play those roles.
Campbell: Well, there are no LA butches in Dinette, that’s for sure.
Dry: What’s an LA butch?
Campbell: We were just talking about this! Like, Shane, with heavy black eyeliner and a watch chain and shaggy long hair. I mean, I don’t want to entirely stereotype, but it does feel like, TV-wise…
Dry: No, it does feel like that. I write about this a lot, how it’s no longer a risk to play queer. It’s only ever going to be good for your career, especially for women. Did you see that movie Below Her Mouth? It’s basically porn. It’s made by a straight woman, with like, a blonde Shane who’s a Swedish model.
Campbell: And we’re supposed to believe that she’s a roofer, which I think is funny. I was like, “This is trash, but I’m not turning it off.”
Feinberg: That kind of thing pisses me off so much in movies. Like, when a woman wearing thousand-dollar jeans is driving an Uber. It blew my mind when Jude and Drae said the thing about how they’d normally never be in the same scene because they’re both the same type.
Dry: We’d never even be in the same show. We’d both be up for the same part and one of us would get it. There are never two butch characters. Even in The L Word, there aren’t until later.
Campbell: Right and then they make them fight or something. When I saw Fun Home, I had this revelation about like, seeing the world see you for the first time? I was like, so this is what it feels like for the whole world to see me in this way. And I’m seeing it too? That really made me cry. Hopefully, that keeps happening. I will say, I’m getting cast in stuff more than ever. I’ve always been an actor but now I’m getting asked to do stuff that matches my real-life identity more. But I also like being cast — like, Shaina just cast me in a thing as the ex-wife of this guy! And I just put on a necklace and some lipstick and a blazer. And I like that she thought of me in that way, just, as an actor.
Feinberg: And let me tell you, everyone else who was getting pushed to me to do that role was like, a 27-year-old blonde woman with really long hair.
Campbell: It was this IFC web series and it’s like, that’s what I want! I want to tell the story of people like me, and I want to be an actor. I’ve always wanted to be an actor. We just want to do the work. It’s great to be seen and to give life to other people [like me], but I just want to keep acting.
Feinberg: For me, watching Drae and Jude on camera, I feel more like them than I do like the characters who are “supposed to be” for me. I’m never watching those things and thinking, “This is me.”
Right, so Jude plays Jaq, this other nonbinary character, or someone who’s figuring out their gender in a way that seems distinct and separate from the butch dyke experience…
Dry: It’s been interesting watching how the language has to be when we’ve been pitching the series. The way Shaina’s always checking in with me about, like, for example, what’s the logline for the show? And I was like, let’s just say women and nonbinary people. Then there was this press release that went out a few weeks ago and the subject line was like “female nonbinary”? Like, whoever wrote it didn’t get it. So even that’s been challenging. And it’s not like it’s a whole show about nonbinary people! I don’t even really — I identify more as just like, whatever, genderqueer. But Shaina thought that was interesting, my own sort of fluid relationship to my pronouns, and so she wrote that into the character. I don’t particularly like the word nonbinary, but that seems to be the word that everyone has run with. It sounds like an alien to me.
Campbell: Something that’s really cool about the plot is that the person who’s fucking up Jaq’s pronouns and name the most is the other masculine person, which I think is so common. I’m the most likely culprit because I’m the person you’re spending the most time with and I’m the older person.
Dry: Very common. And then it’s more complicated, because it’s not quite the same as one of the straight characters just not getting it.
Campbell: Right, there’s an intimacy there. I see people trying to figure it out with me, and me figuring it out with them. I have friends who I’ve known for a very long time who’ve changed their pronouns or they’ve transitioned or whatever and it’s like, each person has a different boundary about it. I think it’s really cool and interesting that Shaina decided to make that happen between us and show it. Like, I’ve never seen that on screen, and are we going to let that out of the bag? Our little internal queer problems?
I totally see that as being common among older butches.
Dry: Because for them, it’s like, “Well, what does that say about me?”
Campbell: And it’s like, it doesn’t have anything to do with you! I feel like I’m the old patriarch character that’s fucking up.
Feinberg: But you’re also awesome — you’re flawed!
Dinette Season 1 is now available to stream on BRIC TV. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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