Meet Tricia Cooke, the Lesbian Activist Married to a Coen Brother and the Brains Behind “Drive-Away Dolls”

Feature image of Tricia Cooke by Nina Westervelt/Variety via Getty Images

If you told 12-year-old me that someday I’d turn down the chance to talk to one of the Coen Brothers, she wouldn’t believe you. But if you told her she was a lesbian, she wouldn’t believe that either. It turns out the real world is even more full of surprises than Barton Fink, even more delightful than O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The fact is while watching Drive-Away Dolls, there was only one person I wanted to talk to about it: the queer woman behind the whole thing, Tricia Cooke.

Best known as the editor of three Coen Brothers film — and the wife of Ethan Coen — as well as other films such as The Notorious Bettie Page, Cooke took a break from the industry to focus on raising her children. She’s returned as the co-producer, co-writer, editor, and uncredited co-director of a lesbian caper originally titled Drive-Away Dykes.

Cooke’s first interviews about the film emphasized her queer identity, described her nontraditional marriage, and explained why one of the Coen Brothers was now making a lesbian movie. But in a film world — and world at large — still squeamish about queerness and polyamory, I assumed Cooke had a more interesting narrative to tell. I was right.

I spoke with Tricia about our shared experience growing up in conservative Southern California, the lesbian films that inspired Drive-Away Dolls, finding queer community in organizing and activism spaces, and so much more.


Drew: I like to start my interviews from the beginning. Where’d you grow up? What were your queer childhood and adolescence like?

Tricia: I grew up in Southern California in a town called La Mirada which no one knows so I usually say Whittier, which is where Richard Nixon grew up unfortunately.

Drew: (laughs)

Tricia: There’s actually a scene in the movie with a little girl on a trampoline that is semi-autobiographical. I grew up in the suburbs and down the street from me there was a house with a trampoline. I used to go there because there was a very beautiful woman who lived next door and if I jumped high enough I could see her over the fence.

Probably by the time I was 12 or 13, I started to understand and get a sense of my sexual orientation. Certainly by the time I was 15 or 16, I understood that I didn’t like boys. I had a very close friend in high school who was also starting to understand his sexuality and we ended up going to all the proms and formals together.

Drew: Classic.

Tricia: Yeah! I grew up in a very— I don’t want to say super conservative family. My father was pro-choice. But they were fiscally conservative for sure and the community around us was very conservative.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I was comfortable coming out. I remember watching movies like La Cage aux Folles and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and being very inspired by them. They showed me there were other people out there who take a more unconventional route.

Then in my early 20s I was dating women and going to a lot of queer bars and lesbian bars.

Drew: Where did you go to college?

Tricia: I started school at USC. I was a theatre major there, a design major. I didn’t really like the school, because it was also very conservative, especially as a young woman who was trying to explore her sexuality. It didn’t feel very promising. But I also wanted to work in film so I transferred to NYU. It was the only film school I knew besides USC and that was a much better fit for me.

Drew: Wow okay so I grew up in Southern California and went to NYU.

Tricia: Oh!

Drew: So I’m very curious, during that time period, what was the lesbian bar scene like in LA vs. New York?

Tricia: Well, in the 80s— Wait, where did you grow up in Southern California.

Drew: Oak Park? Ventura County. So I’m familiar with the conservative, LA suburb vibe.

Tricia: Right, yes.

Well, to be honest, most of the lesbian bars I would go to back in the 80s were gay bars that had a designated night that was lesbian night — usually like a Tuesday or a Wednesday when they weren’t going to make tons of money. And then there was like one lipstick lesbian bar in WeHo.

I actually made a movie called Where the Girls Are all about the women who started that bar and the Dinah Shore weekend they helped create in Palm Springs.

But in New York there was Henrietta Hudson and Cubbyhole and then later Meow Mix and Cattyshack. Meow Mix and Cattyshack were my go-to bars in the 90s. Oh Rubyfruit was around back then too.

Drew: Wait, I want to go back to the movie you made about Dinah Shore. What were your experiences like at Dinah Shore?

Tricia: (laughs) Well, my mother who recently passed away sadly lived in La Quinta which wasn’t far from the Dinah Shore weekend. She became more conservative as she got older, so it was a juxtaposition between her golf community in that area and the Dinah Shore weekend.

It was tons of fun. I made it with two friends of mine, Jen Arnold and Patti Lee, who work out in Los Angeles now. Jen is a director and Patti is a cinematographer. And we just went and spent the weekend at Dinah Shore at all the parties and interviewed friends of my mother’s and also Billie Jean King and professional golfers including the first openly gay golfer Muffin Spencer-Devlin. It was a juxtaposition between the super strong women running the Dinah Shore weekend and the super strong women who didn’t want lesbians on the golf course. They thought it was a distraction! And they thought the lesbians didn’t wear the proper clothes.

Dinah Shore herself was a real friend to the LGBT community back in the day, so it was sad that her estate wouldn’t let us license her songs. I ended up using them anyway, so we couldn’t do more than screen it at festivals. But it was fun to make.

Drew: You mentioned wanting to work in film from a young age. What started that interest?

Tricia: My dad loved backpacking and he had a little super 8 camera he would take backpacking with him. He would bring home the footage and I would edit it downstairs in the den. I had a little super 8 cutter and viewer. I really liked that. I’ve always been a little introverted so it was nice to be in that space by myself.

When I went to NYU, I went to the film school as an editor. Then when I finished at NYU, I worked on a couple of movies. I was in the camera department for Miller’s Crossing, because it was the only job they had available. But I talked to Joel and Ethan and said if you have any space in the cutting room I’d love to work as an apprentice and they made space for me.

Drew: Was there an immediate connection with them and their style and aesthetic? Or was it like, this is a job?

Tricia: The latter. I remember at NYU everyone was going to see Raising Arizona because Joel had gone to NYU and they were having a screening. But I went to see Koyaanasqatsi instead. So when I ended up in New Orleans where Miller’s Crossing was shot it was solely because I wanted a job and because I wanted to go to New Orleans.

But then we hit it off. I worked as a camera PA which is a great job if you want to start working in film because you spend a lot of time right next to the camera. You’re able to observe everything. And I connected with them quickly. They have a very dry sense of humor as do I. And there’s just something about their Minnesota midwestern sensibility that I responded to.

Drew: I feel like people are going to compare this to Ethan and Joel’s past movies together. But this also feels like such a queer film to me. So I’m curious, what were your personal queer reference points for this?

Tricia: John Waters for sure. That kind of bawdy lewdness. When we wrote it, it felt a little more transgressive than it feels now. so that liberty to do whatever you wanted was very inspirational for me. And then Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Doris Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell. Those were important to me. But even Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I loved that movie when I was younger.

And then two movies that were important to me during the writing of this were Go Fish and But I’m a Cheerleader. I know Rose Troche, she’s a friend, and those two movies felt unlike any other lesbian films I’d seen before.

Drew: They’re fun!

Tricia: Yeah!

Drew: I get what you’re saying about this not being as transgressive as if it was made 20 years ago, but I still really appreciated the variety of sex scenes and how they managed to be funny and complicated and hot, sometimes all at the same time. How did you go about constructing those scenes?

Tricia: I just wanted to see some promiscuity in a film that was fun and playful. So writing the scenes, it was just like what sex toys can we come up with? Let’s have her have a wall dildo!

The Jamie character is very much based on a close friend of mine who is incredibly free-spirited and we would go to bars together and it was always fun to watch her. She was so good at it! Being the introvert that I am, I was never quite as good at going to bars and finding someone to connect with. So writing this I was like, if I could be that carefree, what would I do? The sex scenes in the beginning of the movie are all based in that.

And then I wanted the sex scenes between Mariam and Jamie to be more tender and to show a real connection. They’re really falling for each other. The scenes in the beginning are just about having fun and enjoying sex. It doesn’t have to be more than that. Which I think is important! It’s important to say that women are in control of their bodies and have independence and can make those choices and be as promiscuous as cis men have been portrayed in film. You don’t get to see that with women as much.

Drew: I really like the period setting of the movie. I know it was less a period piece when you started writing. Was there ever talk of updating it to today or was there something about that era you wanted to still capture?

Tricia: We wanted the characters to feel subversive in a way they wouldn’t if the film was set now. Also that was the time I was really going out and spending time in bars so it felt more authentic to me. I mean, not that I don’t go out now. (laughs) I still go to bars. But not with the same frequency.

I mean, I’m older now, so to tell this story with women that young, it just felt more accurate and authentic to keep it back then. Also cell phones and the internet have changed everything. Not only have they created more anxiety and cynicism, but they also make it harder to tell a caper story when finding someone’s location is so much easier.

Drew: What does your queer community look like now?

Tricia: It’s really in the organizing and activist world. I mean, I still have friends from the past. One of my closest friends, Mars, is who I came up with the title Drive-Away Dykes with and who the character Jamie is loosely based on. They’re now married with a child. But primarily, my queer community is in organizing and activist spaces. I helped to organize the Queer Liberation March for the first three years. And I do a lot of work with Gays Against Guns and Rise and Resist and other organizations based in New York.

My partner is an organizer. She’s a radical anarchist organizer so I did work with her down in DC trying to get Trump impeached and stuff like that. That’s primarily where I find community. For the Queer Liberation March in 2019, I did a lot of media work and helped organize the rally and did signage, and I made a lot of very inspirational friends during that process. Ann Northrop and Leslie Cagan and people who have been doing that work for so long.

Drew: That’s really cool. It also doesn’t surprise me, because I feel like this movie has really good politics. Even the way the cop character is portrayed. It’s not trying too hard to make a point, but it’s just like, oh right the cops are stupid and an annoyance and a threat and trigger-happy.

Tricia: (laughs)

Drew: So it doesn’t surprise me you have that as part of your life! Because the film feels very sharp politically.

Tricia: Thank you. Yeah that was certainly important to me. My partner’s name is Lisa Fithian and she did a lot of work around Occupy Wall Street and in Ferguson and then with the Black Lives Matter uprising in 2020. I spent some time with her down at City Hall and that was influential.

Drew: You’ve obviously been working in the industry a long time, but I’m curious if this film feels different. I remember when it was announced that Ethan Coen of the Coen Brothers was directing a lesbian movie there were some raised eyebrows and then very quickly your name became more prominent. Has this movie placed your queerness and your relationships in the spotlight? Is there a vulnerability to that both as a person and as an artist?

Tricia: Yes, that’s accurate. (laughs) I’ve certainly talked more about my personal life in the last six months than I have in my entire life. But, you know, I was always out as a lesbian to friends and family. I never thought it was of much interest until we made this movie and it was important to me that people knew that it wasn’t just some straight guy making a lesbian movie. That would be weird! At least for Ethan. That’s just not what he would make. There have been other straight men who have made lesbian movies, but it’s not something Ethan would’ve done.

It doesn’t feel vulnerable. I will say my mother having passed, I’m sure she’s turning over in her grave now. (laughs) She was southern and very private about everything. But I don’t mind it at all. If it’s important to people and helps people — especially because Ethan and I have a very nontraditional relationship — if that kind of opens people’s minds then that’s great. And certainly I think it’s important we made it together. We wrote it together and directed it together and edited it together. We made the movie together.

Drew: I mean, you can feel it. I think different people can make movies about different people and that can be part of their artistic process, but oftentimes lost in what’s allowed is sometimes you can just feel it. You can feel when someone has a personal connection to something or a knowledge about something and when they don’t. Or have done the research about something and when they haven’t. And this just very much feels like a queer movie.

Tricia: Thank you. But then having said that, you know, Blue is the Warmest Color is still hot. It’s not like I can’t enjoy a movie like that.

Drew: (laughs) Sure. That’s something I feel like we write about a lot at Autostraddle. Sometimes male gaze stuff can be fun, because it’s still hot women making out!

Tricia: Right, right!

Drew: There should be room for lots of different kinds of queer movies.

How do you feel your experience as an editor informs your experience writing?

Tricia: A lot. As an editor, you’re working with structure all the time and that’s also important when you’re writing. I think structure was one of my strengths in my process with Ethan. But also being an editor informs coverage. How do you get into and out of a scene? What’s going to be interesting? What’s going to be visually interesting? And pace as well. Like it’s often the case that the last third of a scene can be cut or there are other lines you don’t need. I’m aware of all that as an editor and it comes into play while writing.

Drew: I know you’re working on another movie and I was wondering if you could give a little tease.

Tricia: Well, there’s more sex.

Drew: Great!

Tricia: It’s a detective story called Honey Don’t, which is a Carl Perkins song but the version I love that inspired the title is by Wanda Jackson. Margaret Qualley plays Honey, a private investigator and Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, and Charlie Day are also in it. It’s set in Bakersfield and is contemporary and is influenced by both The Long Goodbye and a movie called Fat City. I’m actually in the production office right now in Albuquerque where we’re shooting.

Drew: Amazing. I’m so excited.

(Tricia notices Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency on my bookshelf behind me in the Zoom.)

Tricia: I love Nan Goldin, by the way.


Drive-Away Dolls is now playing in theatres.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 520 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. I’m loving it, can’t wait to watch this and the Kristen Stewart movie, queer women are everywhere.

    I’m confused about one thing, does she still identify as a lesbian despite being in a heterosexual relationship for over a decade?

    • I may very well be wrong, but based on how she talks about her commitment to activism, I assumed that continuing to identify as a lesbian is as much an articulation of her political priorities and investments (regardless of her nontraditional albeit legal marriage to a cis straight man)

      • I thought we were always supposed to condemn political lesbians as horrible, evil people who are hurting the queer community? Or is it now ok when they’re married to famous cis het men?

        • Being a political organizer doesn’t make someone a political lesbian and no political lesbian would ever have a marriage like this. Tricia talks about being attracted to women from a young age, and realizing she wasn’t sexually attracted to boys. Many (if not most) political lesbians weren’t sexually attracted to women at all, they just wanted to build a life away from men and focused on lesbianism as political, not sexual. And these political lesbians got a bad reputation because they judged other lesbians for their sexual practices and butch gender expressions.

          Ironically you could make the argument that a lot of contemporary queer radicals have plenty in common with political lesbians in terms of prioritizing political practice over organic desire and policing others who fall short. But Tricia Cooke has absolutely nothing to do with any of this.

          • Agreed with everything you say here, Donna. I didn’t mean she was a so-called “political lesbian” as you lay out, so much as that there are plenty of queer women who are pan or bi etc. but who still prefer to identify as “lesbian” because that word encompasses the ways in which they embody/feel a particular orientation (such as, for instance, a political/activist commitment to resist patriarchal norms etc). I’m not saying this describes Tricia Cooke. I don’t know her and would never speak on behalf of someone else.

          • What sucks is that it’s really hard for queer women to get resources to make content about queer women… but for white cis men, no problem! Only problem is, then you have to deal with the shade you get for being a cis white guy making a film about lesbians- unless your wife says she’s one! I don’t know, it all feels a little crappy to me, and I keep wondering, when do we get to be in charge of how our experiences are represented???

          • Yep, agree with is this representation. I am both skeptical and tired of people that use lesbian this way to seemingly score political points. Especially when they have no care that they lend credence to the old “see, you homosexual freaks could be normal if you just tried hard enough!” line that we are so goddam tired of hearing.

    • There is another article out there where she says she and her husband raised the kids together but have relationships with other people since decades. It seems like he was an exception for her, but she identifies fully as lesbian.

  2. I guess I respect that they’ve decided they don’t want to make art that’s particularly personal, but that is an absolutely fascinating set up for a romantic comedy series. What about him is so magnetic that it overcomes a lack of physical attraction? What kind of guy would be egoless enough to accept it? What makes them such good partners and parents together that they decide to stay together for decades even when cultivating other relationships? It’s like The Mirror Has Two Faces with a Nora Ephron twist and without the compulsive heterosexuality.

  3. It feels odd to me that you would interview someone who identifies as a lesbian and is married to a cis man without at least asking how she defines the word “lesbian” and how she and her husband do define their marriage. This piece just feels like it is leaving an elephant in the room unaddressed.

    • I loved the interview and how Tricia talked about her queer life and queer experience, but I too was a bit confused about this aspect of things.

      Going into the piece, I assumed that she was a late bloomer lesbian who came out recently, but she describes being exclusively same-sex attracted since childhood and out in college. I absolutely don’t doubt her lesbian identity, but I’m so curious about how she ended up in a hetero marriage!

    • From the introduction to the interview, as well as a couple of comments made during it, I had the impression that the subject has already been covered at length in other interviews Cooke has done and so Drew wasn’t interested in using her interview time with Cooke to rehash that subject when she had other things she wanted to discuss with Cooke that hadn’t been covered already elsewhere. It is a little awkward in that this is a site for queer women and so, as you say, it ends up feeling like an elephant in a room not being addressed, when I think it’s more just about Drew being very interested in filmmaking and so that’s mostly what she used her interview time discussing.

      I’m curious about Cooke’s personal life too, so I guess I should google the earlier interviews she did with other people that did cover the subject.

      • @BK,

        I did a search after reading this interview, and it doesn’t seem like the topic has been covered in depth. While there is some more information, such as in the link Courtney posted below, it’s pretty minimal.

        Now normally I’d say that their relationship is none of our business. But when this topic is part of the publicity (and let’s be honest, sales pitch) for a film, I think it’s understandable that people are confused/interested – it’s not just gossipy interest

  4. This film sounds great, I can’t wait to see it.

    I’m interested by how many people in the comments are struggling with the idea of polyamorous or non-traditional relationships and lesbian identity. This is a fairly common setup. Tamsyn Muir is another lesbian married to a man.

    Maybe autostraddle needs more articles teaching and featuring ace-spectrum and non-traditional relationships that lesbians and queer women have.

    • This. We clearly do not know the dynamics of their relationship (I don’t agree we ARE ENTITLED to be given these details, especially as she’s literally named her own partner in the interview) but I’m taken aback at the borderline gatekeeping of the comments. It’s giving “be queer, but only one way”.

    • “This is a fairly common setup.”

      What? I would say that being an out and proud lesbian from a young age and marrying a man is pretty far from common – in fact, I would call it rare. We’re talking about people in liberal Western nations after all, it’s not that either Tricia Cooke (or Tamsyn Muir – had to look her up) had to marry for religious/cultural reasons.

      I agree that gatekeeping isn’t cool, and nor does Tricia Cooke owe us an explanation. But it’s notable precisely because it IS unusual.

    • I am not “struggling with the idea”. There is an extremely wide spectrum of reasons for why it happens, e.g. all the way from making political statements in the US, to living in extremely conservative societies with very strong expectations around marriage, and uncountably others in between. I simply am curious about how she defines the word ‘lesbian’ and how she would describe her setup.

      The fact that it occasionally happens seems to me unrelated to whether it would be interesting to see a discussion of it in this piece. Many things are “common”. We can still write and learn more about them.

      Also, to the person below — I am not gatekeeping. I did not say anything to suggest that. I support people identifying however they wish.

      • @Lisa
        My Guess is that she doesn’t define or care what the word “lesbian” means.

        She chose the word to describe herself at one point and no one around her has been able to convince her otherwise from using it (either because they also don’t see a problem with it or because she’s successful enough that the people around her don’t want to get into it with her)

        You have to remember these are rich people. And rich people create culture top down from their richness. It’s us the poor people who have to create culture bottom up from collectivism.

        It’s poor people who need the words like “lesbian” to mean certain things for community cohesion. Rich people create community from being rich so don’t need words to mean anything they don’t want them to mean.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!