Few people possess the natural empathic abilities that Ricki Lake does—which is why she was the youngest syndicated talk show host at the time when Ricki Lake debuted in 1990. It’s also why her wildly successful early career in film—and prowess in the independent documentary scene later on in life—took root.
Through films like Hairspray with Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono and Divine, and Cry-Baby with Johnny Depp and Traci Lords, Lake became a cult classic icon in the world of musical film, beginning when she was just a teenager. Hairspray would inspire a Broadway musical that won eight Tony Awards and a 2007 remake with an all-star cast. And seldom do shows last 11 seasons like the original daytime talk show Ricki Lake. As an ardent ally of LGBTQ rights, female empowerment and various social causes, Lake was naturally inspired to produce Weed the People, a powerful film that follows the children and families battling pediatric cancer, who depend on medical cannabis.
The Emmy Award-winning host, actress, executive producer and mother took time to chat with CULTURE about the reasoning behind her new film, as well as the highs and lows of her remarkable on-screen career.
Weed the People takes a hard look at pediatric cancer patients who depend on medical cannabis the most. What led you to connect with Director Abby Epstein and make this film?
Abby and I first met in about 1999 when she directed the “The Vagina Monologues,” so we became co-workers and friends. And then we went on to make our documentary The Business of Being Born, which came out 10 years ago in 2008. I’m drawn by my own personal experiences with midwives and home birth, and I really wanted to explore that option. And with cannabis, I can’t say “this is my medicine” way back when, but my beloved husband Christian Evans passed away in 2017. This is his passion. He was very, very curious about how cannabis could help him with his own physical ailments. He had a lot of issues. At the same time that he was doing research and looking up and finding out information about CBD. This was way before Sanjay Gupta went on CNN and cleared up medical cannabis misinformation. And so we started on this journey. He was [encountering] these medicines that he hadn’t tried before, and at the same time, we had this little girl come into our life that didn’t end up in the film, but she had this really terrible disease, and we went on this mission to try to find out the options for her as opposed from chemotherapy. And it led to this five-and-a-half years in the making of this film following these children. What we learned is just staggering. The hypocrisy. It’s a human rights issue, and it just doesn’t make any sense.
“I have real high hopes that [Weed the People] can do a lot to move the needle and give people a new understanding of the power of this plant, the smear campaign that took place 75 years ago and how we really need to get back into the mindset that this is just a plant that should be available to everyone and anyone who needs it.”
Was it hard for you to find concrete evidence of the efficacy of medical cannabis?
It is hard, because the evidence is just not out there. You don’t know what the outcome is going to be when you’re working with these children. They have to put a lot of trust in us in letting us document, and many of the times the doctors in the hospitals don’t want cameras in there. It’s really touching, even though one of the children in the film didn’t survive. But in the documentary film landscape, that’s the experience—you don’t know where it’s going to take you. So yeah, it’s heart-wrenching, like watching baby Sophie getting a scan every six weeks because she has fluid [gathering]. It’s life or death. I’m so grateful to the families for trusting us and allowing us to follow their process and ultimately help so many people through their times of despair and hope. I think ultimately, this film is a very hopeful film. It’s been instrumental in helping people to come to the decisions that are best for them. And that’s the same with this film. It’s about informed choice and knowing what the laws are and knowing what you’re up against. And it is changing. We started in 2013. We’ve come a long way, but it is still a Schedule I drug. It’s still federally illegal in this country. I would love to change the perception that some people have.
Why do you think it’s still common for some parents to automatically dismiss medical cannabis as treatment for their children?
It is frustrating, but I think that this movie could be the tipping point. I have really high hopes for it. I made the film with all my own money. It was my personal passion. It was my interest. I didn’t know if anyone else would care. I did it, because I thought I needed to put this out into the world for my own life’s work. What we’ve seen is my movie from 10 years ago, the home birth rate in America has doubled. The C-section rate has flat-lined for the first time in decades, and they say it’s because of the information that we shared in our film. I have real high hopes that [Weed the People] can do a lot to move the needle and give people a new understanding of the power of this plant, the smear campaign that took place 75 years ago and how we really need to get back into the mindset that this is just a plant that should be available to everyone and anyone who needs it.
Do you think we’ll see cannabis rescheduled federally any time soon?
So much is happening. I’d like to say “yes.” We brought our little film Weed the People to Oklahoma to screen it there at their deadCenter Film Festival two weeks before their referendum. Arguably, I think that our film might have had something to do with it. I want to believe that this means we can help change the law. But honestly, this movie isn’t about legalization. It’s about families and their plight to find medical care for their dying children. At the end of the day, you look into these kids’ eyes, and you see them going through these treatments in the hospital. You can’t help but get behind these families and stories. That—I hope—will lead to real change in the system.
Do you consume cannabis?
Yes. I live in California, and I am lucky enough to be able to have access to some of the best medicine. I wasn’t a cannabis user for a very long time. It wasn’t my medicine. I would take too much, and it would make me feel paranoid. First of all, the gift of making this film is that I’ve been able to meet some of the most amazing doctors and chemists and to understand that there are thousands of strains. It’s just about tinkering around and finding what’s best for you. I take CBD every day for anxiety and sleep issues, and I have an arsenal of beautiful medicine to help me if I need it. But I wouldn’t say I’m a daily cannabis user. It’s not something I need to do every day. I love that I am able to use this legally in my state and have access to the best medicine.
“I take CBD every day for anxiety and sleep issues, and I have an arsenal of beautiful medicine to help me if I need it.”
Sweetening the Pill was another documentary you produced about birth control. Do you worry about birth control rights in the United States after recent events?
Of course. Absolutely. It’s terrifying. Our film, again, is about choice. Every documentary I make is about informed choice. So what we did for birth [and birth control], we hope to do for cannabis. We’re not about trying to steer women off hormonal birth control, but we really want to educate them about the pros and cons and what it does to your body. There’s a lot that women don’t get to hear about in their five minute meeting with Planned Parenthood or their meeting with [their] OB-GYN. There’s a lot more to it. I’m really excited about the new film also. I’m also a little bit nervous, because I feel like it’s taking on the beast of “Big Pharma”—like poking a tiger. I come at it from a place of curiosity and personal interest. I was on hormonal birth control for decades, and I only look back at it now and say, “Oh. That’s why I was depressed.” Or “That’s why I had hair loss.” I’m just putting the dots together now. Who knows what choice I would have made knowing that. I love that I get to use my celebrity [status] to make these films that impact people and ultimately help.
John Waters graced the cover of CULTURE back in 2014, and your first run of major films were directed by him. How did he discover you?
I was 18 and a freshman in college, and I heard about an audition that was happening for a movie called Hairspray. I honestly did not know who John Waters was, or Divine. I’ve never heard of any of his films. I just knew that I was a fat girl who could dance. And so I met him at the open audition, and I went for one call-back—and it changed the entire trajectory of my life. It plucked me from complete obscurity. I was on a very different path, and he opened the door for me. I just saw him last week. Right now, the time is crazy. It’s 2018. I just turned 50. I was 18 when I did Hairspray. It’s the 30th anniversary of Hairspray. Business of Being Born is 10 years old. And my talk show launched 25 years ago last month. So I have all these milestone anniversaries. I saw John last week for the 30th anniversary Hairspray screening in New York, and he came. It was awesome. It’s surreal to think of what that man was able to do for me and what we were able to do together. Every door opened for me after that movie. I’m forever indebted and grateful for that guy.
Looking back, Hairspray tackled some pretty deep issues like racism and fat-shaming. At the time, did you foresee its impact?
No. I was just so happy to be making $20,000, so for me, I was very short-sighted. Once it did come out, John kind of coached me and said, “Look, your life is going to change, so I want you to remember to be humble and stay true to yourself.” He really gave me advice that helped me. But no, we had no idea at the time. And the fact that it would live on through all these different iterations—it’s insane. It’s more timely than ever on issues of racism. It’s sad but true that these issues still live on today.
You began hosting the original Ricki Lake show at age 24, making you the youngest talk show host at the time. You’ve accomplished so much, starting so early on in life. How did you pull that off?
Hell if I know. Honestly, it goes back to being completely naïve and having some inner self-confidence. I remember really admiring Oprah and looking up to her and I was on her show when I was 19 for Hairspray. I wanted to be her. I told her I wanted
to be the white Oprah. And I meant it, like a love letter to her. When they offered me a show years later, I assumed since they offered it to me that I could do it. I never really had any doubt. In the beginning, all I did was channel Oprah. I said to myself, “What would she say? What would she ask?” Ultimately, I guess I was a good host, because I realized I was a good listener and a non-threatening person, and I have my own life experience. All these qualities and naturally I was able to apply them at that job. Still, I’m continually curious about relationships and so forth. Having said that, I was also happy to walk away from the show after 9/11. I watched the plane hit the building. That’s around the time I switched gears. I ended my show and moved to L.A. My documentaries wouldn’t have been successful had I not had the credibility and the familiarity with my audience.
Ricki Lake was an early example of presenting LGBTQ issues and prejudices on TV. Do any particular guests stand out to you, from any topic?
I’ve been thinking a lot because of Matthew Shepard’s 20th anniversary of his death. His family came on my show. We did a ton of work on gay rights. On treating gay relationships just as any other relationships. On interracial relationships. I pride myself because we were pretty groundbreaking in that area. I treat every relationship as any other—the same respect that I’d want. To this day, there are so many gay people that come up to me and say, “That show helped me to figure out who I was.”
“In the beginning, all I did was channel Oprah.”
What do you plan on doing next?
If I died tomorrow, it would all be OK. But there’s still more that I want to do. I’m looking at a project with a friend of mine. We’re launching a TV show, and we’re pitching to different places right now. My youngest is graduating from high school, so he’s going to college next year. My other son is graduating from college this year. I’m moving to Malibu, and the house is going to be ready in April. So, I’ll be an empty nester living in Malibu and seeing what the world has in store for me.
To see if a Weed the People screening is playing near you, click here.