As a multiplatinum recording artist and the frontwoman of the indie rock band Gossip, Beth Ditto knows a thing or two about the cutthroat nature of the music industry. But in “Monarch,” the soapy new Fox musical drama in which she stars opposite Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon and Grammy nominee Trace Adkins, Ditto has stepped into the worlds of acting and country music — an experience that one could describe as a baptism by fire.
Created by Melissa London Hilfers, “Monarch” follows the Romans, America’s fictional first family of country music, who are left to defend their place atop the charts while contending with the imminent loss of their matriarch, Dottie Cantrell Roman (Sarandon), and the waning influence of their patriarch, Albie Roman (Adkins). Ditto plays Gigi, the youngest of Dottie and Albie’s three children, who, in spite of her musical talents, has always avoided the spotlight and felt like an outsider due to her weight and sexuality. But with her mother’s health declining, Gigi unwittingly finds herself in a battle with her older sister, Nicky (Anna Friel), and their family’s rivals to become the new “queen of country music.”
“Gigi has all these issues with feeling like an outsider,” Ditto said. “She’s feeling like [her siblings] don’t understand how unloved she felt and that they both got encouragement and support and praise that Gigi never got, because her mom just didn’t get her.”
The role is a dramatic departure for Ditto, who admitted that she had been seriously considering a career change and working in childcare when she received an auspicious audition in the summer of 2021 for, as she described it, “a plus-size, lesbian country singer.” Ditto, who auditioned four times before landing the part, said she related to the feeling of “being overlooked” and “suppressing” parts of one’s identity out of fear of being treated differently.
“I was like, ‘Well, that’s me. I know this person,’” Ditto, who hails from a liberal family of nine in Arkansas, told NBC News in a recent video interview. “I’m actually Southern. I grew up with country music. I grew up going to the honky-tonks surrounded by music. I think all of the parts that I’ve done have been for pretty much Southern women, and I know Southern women — these are my grandparents, my aunts.”
“Beth, like Gigi, is a force. They’re both hilarious, bold, honest and have killer voices,” Hilfers wrote in an email. “We did a Zoom with her and Trace together and the way they were interacting — giving each other crap, like real family — we just knew it was right. She is spontaneous and in the moment, while also being incredibly thoughtful and kind. … Our text chains are hilarious, because we’d just go back and forth coming up with the sharpest lines for Gigi.”
Given that she had never received any formal musical training, meaning that she was only taught how to sing and never how to read, play or write music, Ditto admitted that her first foray into country music — or pop music in general — required a steep learning curve, because she had to learn to make the distinction between her own singing style and that of her character. She leaned heavily on co-stars Sarandon, Friel and Joshua Sasse, who plays her brother, Luke Roman, to learn the ropes as an actor, which required her to tap into her own vulnerability. She also worked closely with Meagan Holder, who plays Gigi’s wife, Kayla, to create a strong same-sex couple that could withstand the web of lies that threaten to upend their marriage and the Roman family legacy.
The visibility of an openly queer woman on a major network show set in a conservative state such as Texas, where there have been a number of attacks on LGBTQ rights, is particularly meaningful to Ditto, who has always openly embraced those parts of her identity but admits that she is scared of all that she could stand to lose.
“I’m 41, and I’ve been married, and I’ve been divorced. And when I got married, gay marriage wasn’t legal in Oregon, so we got married in Hawaii, like a civil union,” Ditto explained. “And [when] it was legalized nationally, we had to get remarried. I have that in my head, and just knowing that that could be taken away is so frightening,”
“I think being on a network like Fox and being broadcast so widely and being such a big part of the show is so important, because I just want to send the message that it doesn’t matter what you do to us, what you take away from us,” Ditto added. “We’re still going to be here. We’re still going to be on television, and we’re not going away just because you take away our rights. We’re still human beings.”
Having risen to fame in a “queer, radical feminist punk scene” where she felt a strong sense of belonging and community, Ditto said her queerness “has always been such a part of who I am.”
“It’s always been important to me for it to be in the forefront because of the way I grew up [in Arkansas], and I found it empowering in finding my own identity,” she said. “To me, singing is singing. I’ve been in a band for 23 years. I’ve done it in any way that you can imagine — we’ve gone on tour in a van, we’ve been to Cannes, and we’ve been to the Ritz Carlton. But I never changed the way that I was.”
But Ditto also recognized the dearth of positive representation she had growing up. With her work onscreen and on the musical stage, she said, she wants to specifically touch younger LGBTQ folks who feel isolated in small towns.
“I want them to know that it’s OK — not just OK, but we are strong, we are here, we’re here for each other. There is much more to life than your small town that you feel like you may never get out of, that you feel stuck in,” she said.
As for her own musical pursuits, Ditto revealed that she has been working on an album with former Gossip bandmates Nathan “Brace Paine” Howdeshell and Hannah Blilie since 2019.
“We were in Hawaii with [record producer] Rick Rubin, and we made the record, and it’s been cooking,” Ditto said. “I don’t know when that’s coming out, but we do have a new record, and we’re very, very excited about it. Everybody’s just been texting each other, because we’re such a little, queer family unit. I can’t wait to go to little clubs and feel the intimacy [with] everybody again.”
“Monarch” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox. Episodes can also be streamed on Fox Now or Hulu.