John Cameron Mitchell – filmmaker
Bruce C. Steele
FOR GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDERED PEOPLE, INNOVATION IS LIFE. WE MUST CONSTANTLY GENERATE NEW IDEAS AND FRESH APPROACHES TO OLD CHALLENGES JUST TO SURVIVE AND THRIVE–TO CLAIM OUR RIGHTS, PROTECT OUR FAMILIES, TELL OUR STORIES. SO IT’S ONLY RIGHT THAT INNOVATORS ARE OUR LEADERS AND HEROES, WHETHER MAKING MOVIES OR MAKING HISTORY. IN THIS ISSUE, THE ADVOCATE HONORS MORE THAN 100 MEMBERS OF OUR VANGUARD.
Boldly confronts mind-bending issues of gender and sexuality with his rock-and-roll fairy tale Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a movie that grabs you by the heart, not the head. With co-creator Stephen Trask, career-long iconoclast Mitchell uses one gay boy’s journey into womanhood to address everybody’s search for their other half
For a gay working actor to keep working, there are certain rules. Stay closeted. Or, if you simply must come out, wait until you’re an established character actor, then be prepared to play only thinly veiled versions of yourself, cast as some diva’s best friend. Don’t take your politics to auditions. Cut your hair.
And certainly never, ever stake your career on playing a senti-transsexual alcoholic in a homemade rock musical.
John Cameron Mitchell has broken all these rules.
His payback? A deal with Killer Films and New Line Cinema to adapt, direct, and star in the new movie version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (opening July 20 from Fine Line Features), based on the stage musical he cowrote with composer and lyricist Stephen Trask. A shower of film festival awards. A few megabytes of gleeful reviews. Oh, and some magazine covers.
Not bad for an Army brat who was too “ornery” to stay in the closet. To be gay, Mitchell says he realized early on, is “to be free of a lot of bullshit. It’s a privilege that you have to take advantage of.”
That kind of thinking freed Mitchell, 38, to build his varied and impressive resume, including Broadway (Six Degrees of Separation, The Secret Garden) and off Broadway (Hello Again, The Destiny of Me), studio B movies (Band of the Hand) and A-list indies (Spike Lee’s Girl 6), and TV series offbeat (Party Girl) and stalwart (Law & Order).
And then came Hedwig. Just another rock-and-roll road movie about a spurned transsexual pop-punk singer with an “angry inch” of maleness, trying to avenge herself on the rock superstar who stole her heart and her songs. Just another love story about a German boy named Hansel who undergoes a botched sex-change operation and winds up seducing a general’s son in a Kansas double-wide. Just another one-man-with-band show turned into a frenetic, poignant, hysterical tragicomedy, with supporting talent such as Andrea Martin and Bob Mould.
Just like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Trask was there at the beginning, in various New York apartment living rooms–“me on the chair,” he says, “John on the couch, just sort of entertaining each other” with stories, lyrics, and themes. “I remember thinking to myself, This is going to work, because if the audience gets the same feeling that I get spending time with John, if that could be translated to the stage, that would be the best thing.”
The duo was still together at the Sundance Film Festival in January–both on a couch this time, in a Park City, Utah, ski lodge condo–talking about Hedwig’s long journey from a gay club’s drag revue to this summer’s hot-buzz independent film. “It’s not exclusively gay,” Trask says. “It’s very `other.'”
“Which I think is one of the things that allows a broader audience to get into it,” says Mitchell, clearly practiced at finishing his collaborator’s thoughts. “In many ways Hedwig prefigures a lot of kids today: not thinking about categories–gay or straight–just wondering, Who is my other half? People recognize that their own sexuality is broader and more varied than any label they might attach to themselves.”
The same might be said of Mitchell, who has never permitted labels to become limitations. It’s an attitude that makes Hedwig the film radiant with energy and mischief, with full-speed-ahead rock, deceptively grabby ballads, and the most deliciously outrageous wardrobe since The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It’s a sensibility Mitchell and Trask could have created but that everyone can plug into.
Months after Sundance, Mitchell continued his conversation with The Advocate from his home over a pizza parlor in New York’s Greenwich Village.
You’ve said that you never expected Hedwig to get this big. How do you feel now that the movie’s getting all this mainstream attention?
Well, it’s a little daunting. It’s hard to describe on Joel Siegel. You have to use a new vocabulary.
And to think, This all started with your singing “Copacabana” in a trailer in Kansas that belonged to a German woman named Helga. How old were you at that time?
Like, 14. It’s all come home to roost. My friend Brenda, who I’d lost touch with–I used to hang out with her at Helga’s trailer–found me again through a Hedwig fan site. She remembers me jumping off of her couch.
But the movie isn’t really based on Helga’s life, except for the fact that she was German and an Army bride.
Hedwig’s really inspired by a brief memory of this person that I extrapolated upon. I wanted to write a rock piece for myself that was more rock and roll than theater, and I was inspired by these memories of Army life, including Helga. Tommy Gnosis was kind of like me, the son of a general. And then I met Steven [Trask], and we started working together. He suggested I do the female character at Squeezebox, the rock-and-roll drag club, which was a very exciting scene. And Hedwig was born.
If she was born at Squeezebox, is Hedwig a product of “gay culture”?
Hedwig uses drag conventions to sort of get through the tragedy of her life. But her main conundrum doesn’t involve sexuality–it was really [about] freedom and gender and identity and wholeness. What does love mean? What does it mean to be a part seeking a whole? Anyone can relate to Hedwig if they’re a little bit open to it. People aren’t threatened by her–she’s like [gentle Hedwig voice] “Isn’t this terrible? Join me–let me be your captain.”
Did you consciously set out to address questions of sexual identity?
Well, for me, feeling like an outsider certainly started way back. It’s probably because my dad was in the Army and I didn’t belong anywhere. Being gay is the most alienating thing when you’re young–or it was for me. And that was the trigger, probably, to write Hedwig. Hedwig was coerced into being a woman in order to be flee, and I felt like I was forced to be gay. And then I realized [being gay] is a privilege that you have to take advantage of. And a lot of gay people don’t anymore. It’s like they’ve got predigested cultural things to do: “You must go into this disco to be gay”; “You must have that body to be gay.” And they’re wasting a gift. It’s a gift to be able to have to look at the world from a different point of view.
Actually, the sexually confused character in Hedwig is not Hedwig but the rock star Tommy Gnosis, who loves Hedwig but can’t deal with her “angry inch.” In the stage show Tommy remains offstage–although I did attend one workshop, in the mid ’90s, upstairs in a bar on Manhattan’s east side, when you appeared as Tommy and not Hedwig.
That was the only time we did a Tommy show. At one point Tommy was going to be the main character, and we were considering also maybe doing a first act as Tommy, the second act as Hedwig. Or alternating, over two nights, Tommy’s concert and Hedwig’s concert. But I just realized that all the things that I was talking about I could compress into the Hedwig show, and it was enough.
You did Hedwig for years in various clubs and theaters in New York before you found a permanent home at the Jane Street Theater [where the show played for two years]. How much of a role did your New York audiences have in shaping the movie?
Well, we certainly had bad audiences–audiences who didn’t respond at all during some shows. Stone-faced. When I was doing those shows, I would comfort myself, saying, Well, this must be what a scene from the film would be like [when Hedwig’s act is bombing]. It always helped to have people who came back–to let [other] people know it’s OK to get a little Rocky Horror about it. “Participate!” We were always fighting for an audience, for two years. And audiences from the beginning were mixed, and I loved that.
Who did you envision as your audience in creating the show?
Us, our friends, and people who worked on it. It was “What do we like?” I don’t mean to sound arrogant, that I only want to please myself, but that’s always how we’ve done every version of Hedwig. That’s why it feels integrated to me. We never think about the broad audience. And yet we never thought of it in any kind of limited way either.
Did you wonder how audiences would respond to the show’s offbeat sexuality?
We were never apologetic about the things that are gay or particularly sensitive. There’s a general rule that really makes sense, which is: The more specific you are about the person, the character, a story, the more universal it is. When you actually sit down with someone of any inclination and any appearance or any subgroup and you talk to them all day, they no longer represent anything but themselves. And, you know, there’s a certain tortoiseshell feeling about some people in the gay community, which is like, “We must keep these things to ourselves.” That protective, defensive [posture] may help you when you’re in a place of fear, but I don’t think it should be the end of the line. We’ve got to get to the point where it’s wide-open and everyone is partaking in each person’s experience.
The reunification of Berlin is a huge metaphor in the show. How receptive was the audience when you screened Hedwig at the Berlin film festival in February?
It was kind of nerve-racking–the response at the screenings was kind of muted; I couldn’t quite tell even if my German friends liked it. Then I realized they were just being a little German and reticent. And then we won the Teddy Award [for best gay feature], and they had a screening just for the Teddy [winners], and the audience was raucous. It was so great to see German people in East Berlin watching it and liking it, because I was very nervous about that. I don’t know–I feel like a carpetbagger. I’m not East German; I’m not a transsexual.
How has the transsexual community been here in the States?
I did a panel with Gender PAC. But I really wasn’t writing from the point of view of someone who has a real transsexual-[Hedwig’s] operation is more of a metaphor than a personal choice. I don’t know if should be any kind of a spokesperson.
Being an openly gay actor–and now, director–automatically makes you a spokesperson in some people’s eyes. Why did you decide to be out as a performer?
At the time that I was coming out, it was kind of scary. It was quite outrageous for actors to be out. And I was just pissed off. I think I always hated the powerlessness of being an actor, where you’re told what to be like. And I just thought, They’re not going to make me do that in my life. They make me do that in my work. I was just kind of ornery. But from the time I came out–senior year of college–I was always out, in every job, with all colleagues. There was a time [soon] after college when I did an action movie, and I thought, I guess I can’t go out to gay clubs as much now. A couple weeks later I went, What was I thinking? I’m not going to adjust my life for somebody else whether or not they would actually not cast me because I’m gay.
That film was Band of the Hand?
Yes. Right after college [at Northwestern] I went to do a Broadway show, Big River, in New York. I was an understudy in that. The city was a little too much for me, and I thought I’d go to L.A. for a while. And I got even more “fuck you” about [being out]. I’d wear my “Silence = Death” pin to auditions. And to some people it was rather shocking because a lot of my actor friends were very closeted. But I enjoyed being rebellious, I guess, in the limited way I could.
Your dad’s career-Army. When did you come out to your parents?
That was actually during the shooting of Band of the Hand. They were [stationed] in Berlin, and I told them over the phone. I was very Hollywood–I had just flown someone out to hang out with me in Miami, where we were shooting. My first crush–it was an auto mechanic in Berkeley. And I was feeling very confident, so I told them. And they were all very weepy, but they got over it, and they’re fine.
I gather the auto mechanic didn’t last. Are you single now?
I have a boyfriend, Jack, who’s actually in the original Squeezebox band [that was Hedwig’s original backup]. We’ve been together for a while. It was sort of an off-and-on thing at first, but it’s been kind of an “on” for about six years, actually.
The first time I saw you onstage was in Larry Kramer’s autobiographical play The Destiny of Me.
Yes. It felt very much in keeping with what I was doing with my life. I wasn’t like a major political guy. I went to a few [ACT UP] meetings in New York and was yelled at by Larry Kramer for suggesting that we don’t close down the bridges and tunnels because ambulances couldn’t get through–or something. I was booed, and that was my last meeting. And then about a year later I ended up playing him.
You were essentially playing Larry as a young man.
Yes. It was great. He’s a hero. It was a very powerful psyche to enter. [That was] the situation where I actually did come out in a more public way because someone [in the media] finally asked. And what I liked about it was that if they ask if I’m gay because I’m playing a gay role, it’s not a gratuitous question. It was just another little thing in the article, very relaxed. And I appreciated it, because that’s the way I always think of it–which makes it boring, puts it all in its place. Not boring just natural.
How did people respond to your being out in the press?
My other actor friends were shocked, shocked that I had done that–and then inspired, sometimes. I remember Mitchell Anderson saying it was really cool, and I think it helped him to do the same. And that felt good, that young actors were like, “I read that article, and I felt better about myself.” And I felt like, these fucking casting directors who aren’t even going to see me because they think I’m light or whatever–so the fuck what? If I can play the part, I can play it; if I can’t, I can’t. Just give me the opportunity.
So are you “light”?
I consider myself in touch with my feminine side–which doesn’t mean I can’t have a fabulous butch experience. When I tried Hedwig it was really great because I’d never done drag, and I really blew it out. By the end of it I was like, This is great. I feel better about myself. I feel like I pushed it to the limit so I can be better. I can center myself because I went to the other end. Pushed it out a little, made some breathing room for myself.
And you also created your own vehicle for your career.
I never thought of it as a vehicle. You know, I can indulge my rock star fantasies for a minute; I can push myself as an actor. But I was much more interested in writing a play–and a play that would survive and have other people interpret it. And that’s what it has become, and that is much more satisfying than being a star actor.
Hedwig’s journey’s not over. It might be over for me, but other people will don the wig. I actually like the idea–anyone can be Hedwig in some form. And I’ll just be sitting in a caftan with a fruity chink, watching it happen.
And working on new material, I hope. Are you writing now?
Yeah, I’m working on a children’s story with a lot of music in it. I’m writing -with a composer friend of mine down in Athens. Ga., who’s in a lot of bands down there. It’s kind of a dark children’s tale. A cross between Willy Wonka and Fanny and Alexander.
Hedwig has its dark moments, but it also has a really powerful, positive message about self acceptance. Do you think it also has the potential to be a vehicle for social change?
I’ve always said that that was a bit much [to expect]. I do believe that film should be of use to people in their lives, like it’s necessary to see certain films. And I don’t understand when people want to make films that aren’t necessary in some way. Not to say they can’t be light or frothy–but necessary to somebody, rather than built to aggrandize the makers or the stars. If Hedwig actually gets out there to these small cities and towns, it could do some good. It could loosen some people up. No one has as bad a stow as Hedwig, so you can kind of feel better about yourself in comparison to her. But I think, more so, we’re all freaks, we’re all losers at some point in our life. And if she can find some kind of solace, maybe we can too, and maybe that involves putting on a wig. Maybe it involves acting up, maybe it involves facing an earlier tragedy head-on, an ex-lover head-on–just seeing what happens in that impact, because sitting around bitterly, morosely didn’t work for her. I think she’s kind of an Oprah. Oprah could recommend Hedwig to her viewers.
Oprah’s all about love–so is Hedwig.
And romantic identity. Who do you love? Even more than, Who do you have sex with? Obviously sex is a huge force, and it’s a great power to get you out of the apartment. But then in the end, who did you love? Who loves you? Can you love someone and still be whole [yourself]? Do you have to be half, to sort of fill something in? It’s just all that stuff–if you don’t relate to it, you’re not alive.
By the end, Hedwig is not a transsexual in the sense that she wants to identify herself as one sex. Because by the end she/he has accepted the fact that she’s both. [The film] kind of lets go of the drag element, and Hedwig walks out into the world naked and whole because she doesn’t see herself as half a man or half a woman, but both–and it’s a good thing. And I think, ultimately, the best thing is to be both. It’s just the easiest way to live. Then you’re not attached to society, you’re not attached to something you’re supposed to be. You’re attached to what is naturally feminine and masculine within you. Tommy’s saying “When Eve goes back inside Adam and they become one, that’s when paradise will be regained”–that’s a paraphrase from the Gnostic gospels, from which Tommy Gnosis takes his name, and he sees the epitome of that philosophy in Hedwig. She’s like, “Yeah, whatever. Whatever you want to call me. Just kiss me while you do it.” It’s a nice way to look at life.
Find more from this discussion with John Cameron Mitchell, an exclusive interview with Stephen Trask, and links to Hedwig-related Web sites at www.advocate.com
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