How Philly Became Lower East Side Queen

Philly Abe in Todd Verow’s “Once and Future Queen” from 2000. | BANGOR FILMS

For two decades, Philly (aka Philly Abe) has been a muse for independent queer filmmaker Todd Verow. The performance artist and actress is an engaging presence on screen, often vibrantly costumed and spouting philosophies in an abrasive syle that makes viewers hang on every word.

On January 7, Anthology Film Archives is screening a double feature — “Once and Future Queen” and “This Side of Heaven” — that showcases Philly at her best and boldest. The evening is a tribute to her career in Lower East Side low-budget films, and will feature live appearances by her and Verow.

In “Queen,” Philly plays Anti-Matter, a punk rocker on a mission. In “Heaven,” she is V, a transgender woman fighting a corrupt landlord. Philly chatted with Gay City News about her films, her life, and her collaboration with Verow.

Indie filmmaker Todd Verow’s muse honored at Anthology Film Archives

GARY M. KRAMER: What’s the best way to identify you: Philly, or Philly Abe?

PHILLY ABE: That dumb cunt down the road… My name is Philly. My real name is Phyllissima, so Philly is a shortening of that. I was born in South Philadelphia, but I moved to East Oak Lane and was raised in [Philadelphia suburb] Cheltenham.

GMK: You have collaborated with Todd Verow for approximately 20 years. How did you connect with him?

PA: I got started when he moved into my Lower East Side apartment after he answered a newspaper ad. We started living together and enjoying each other, and then we started doing movies together. We collaborated as friends, co-workers, and co-conspirators. It has grown so beautifully over time. Todd Verow and the Kuchar brothers are my favorite influences and people to work with.

GMK: What do you like about working with edgy queer filmmakers?

PA: It’s very confrontational. It’s getting down to the essence of revulsion and life and death and playing with things. Seeing the bubble floating on air, tapping it, and stepping on it and grinding it into the ground. I believe in magic and working with directors who are effervescent and creative beyond all human comprehension.

GMK: Let’s talk about your work in “Once and Future Queen.”

PA: In “Queen,” I play Anti-Matter. She’s the universal punk rock’n’roll soldier. She’s on the edge of getting it, but never really does. You love her, but you wouldn’t give her the keys to your house. She’s dancing on the edge.

When we showed that at the Director’s Guild, people kept wanting to party with me. But it’s not me. If I were the characters I play I’d be dead! It’s acting. I’m channeling. I’m opening myself up to the possibility of anything entering me while I’m working. I’m a great believer in mysticism.

GMK: What about V, the trans shut-in dealing with a horrific landlord? That film is based on your real-life experiences in New York, right?

PA: Todd and I lived together, so it’s his experience, too. I said we should do something about it. He said, with a shit-eating grin, that he had a script for me. The role was written for me. My gender is very mutable so I found it easy to slip into an old-style trans character.

GMK: My favorite role of yours is the kooky 3-D art teacher you played in Verow’s “Between Something & Nothing.” What can you say about that role?

PA: I got some guidance in that. That part was every bad, horrifying art teacher. Todd told me the lines were verbatim from one of his art teachers in school. I might be wrong, but it’s still a good story anyway. We always like to gild the lily with glitter and shit. When you see glitter and shit on the street you know you’ve had a transcendent moment.

GMK: You tend to be fearless on screen, but you also seem to be, from my interactions with you off-screen, fearless in real life. Can you talk about where you get your strong personality?

PA: Things come through me. I take no credit for anything. I feel like a transmitter and signal, receiver and sender. I have terminal pancreatic caner, and I’m now dealing with dying with love and understanding. I think the fierceness comes out of love as well. It’s wanting to break down the stupid walls people put up. I want to shake people and say, “Be alive! Be real!”

GMK: What observations do you have about your life now?

PA: Elizabeth Nichols is making a documentary about me, so I’m playing myself to give people an insight into what makes me tick. I’m delighted by my body of work, and it continues because of the movie I’m doing now. We’re shooting this interview, and possibly pieces of it will be in the movie.

GMK: What do you think is the craziest thing you’ve ever done on screen?

PA: The double-headed dildo scene with Michael Burke while talking dialectics in Verow’s “Xx: Where Your Heart Should Be.” We threw the dildo out the window and you can see it lying out there in the garbage. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do under the right circumstances.

Philly in Verow’s 2016 “This Side of Heaven.” | BANGOR FILMS

GMK: What can people expect from your appearance at Anthology Film Archives?

PA: I’m hoping to be able to do the Q&A. I will provide honest, open, crazy, delicious answers like I always give them. I love being in front of an audience, and the New York audience is the most beautiful and vicious in the world. Either they get us or they don’t get us — and, more recently, people have been getting us more than they don’t, which is a delight.

QUEEN OF THE LOWER EAST SIDE: A TRIBUTE TO PHILLY ABE | Directed by Todd Verow | Bangor Films | Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Ave. at Second St. | Jan. 7 at 6 p.m. | $11; $9 for students, seniors at the door |