In­ter­view

Twenty years af­ter co-cre­at­ing Hed­wig and the An­gry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell is strug­gling to be as sexy as he wants to be

Newsweek - - Contents - BY ANNA MENTA @an­nalikest­weets

John Cameron Mitchell

john cameron mitchell didn’t want to em­bark on a world tour at the age of 55. “The joke is, I used to be a tour de force, and now I’m forced to tour,” he says with a laugh.

You might think with the rise of the LGBTQ move­ment, TV hits like Or­ange Is the New Black and Trans­par­ent, and more and more crit­i­cally ac­claimed films cel­e­brat­ing the queer ex­pe­ri­ence (Moon­light, Tan­ger­ine, Call Me by Your Name, etc.), the co-cre­ator and star of the gen­der-bend­ing mu­si­cal Hed­wig and the An­gry Inch would be lux­u­ri­at­ing on his lau­rels. In­stead, he’s hit­ting the road for a solo tour.

Mitchell con­ceived Hed­wig, the story of an East Ger­man trans­gen­der rocker, with com­poser Stephen Trask, and af­ter de­but­ing off-broad­way in 1998, the show be­came an award-win­ning cult phe­nom­e­non. Mitchell di­rected and starred in the 2001 film adap­ta­tion (win­ning the best di­rec­tor award at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val and a Golden Globe nom­i­na­tion for his per­for­mance) and fol­lowed that up, in 2006, with Short­bus—a film he de­scribed at the time as em­ploy­ing “sex in new cin­e­matic ways be­cause it’s too in­ter­est­ing to leave to porn.” (Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, how­ever, ad­mir­ingly called it “hard-core porn with a soft heart.”) And in 2014, when Hed­wig was re­vived for its first Broad­way run, Mitchell re­ceived a Spe­cial Tony Award for his re­turn to the role, af­ter sold-out stints by Neil Patrick Harris and Michael C. Hall.

All along, Mitchell was sup­ple­ment­ing his own cre­ations with act­ing gigs, guest-star­ring on, among other shows, HBO’S Girls, CBS’S The Good Fight and, most recently, Ama­zon’s Mozart in the Jun­gle. The tour, he says, “won’t bring a lot of money—prob­a­bly about the same as I would make on a TV show,” he says, “but you never know when [an act­ing job] is go­ing to come.”

Or how hard it will be to get a movie made. Stu­dios, even small ones, sim­ply aren’t tak­ing the same risks on off­beat in­die films these days, par­tic­u­larly ones, like Hed­wig or Short­bus, that would at­tract a nar­row, if pas­sion­ate, au­di­ence. That wasn’t al­ways the case. Mitchell tells me that Hed­wig hap­pened only be­cause of a sur­pris­ingly open- minded stu­dio ex­ec­u­tive. In 1990, he had a small role in the teen com­edy Book of Love, di­rected by New Line Cin­ema founder and CEO Robert Shaye. “The char­ac­ter he wanted me to play was ex­tremely ho­mo­pho­bic. Pe­dophile jokes, S&M jokes… Every­thing was a joke,” Mitchell says. When Shaye asked him what he thought of the script, he didn’t hold back. “I said, ‘I’m gay, and this is of­fen­sive to me.’ That chal­lenged him—it wasn’t a time when you even thought about that. He ended up mak­ing the char­ac­ter a straight ladies’ man in­stead.

“Ten years later,” Mitchell goes on, Shaye “saw Hed­wig off-broad­way. With tears in his eyes, he said, ‘I’m go­ing to help you make this film.’ And he did. He let me di­rect a fully fi­nanced Hed­wig. He told me, ‘It’s be­cause you were straight with me… about be­ing gay.’”

Yet now, with fi­nanc­ing op­tions for smaller films dry­ing up, Mitchell feels, if any­thing, more pres­sure to tone down his ma­te­rial. “DVDS are gone, and DVDS used to be a floor [for in­de­pen­dent films],” he says. “You could sell to Block­buster and get a mil­lion dol­lars, even if the film was badly re­viewed.” Net­flix is a new av­enue for in­die film­mak­ers (it’s fi­nanc­ing at least 80 orig­i­nal films in 2018), but Mitchell finds that the stream­ing plat­form’s end­less op­tions, as well as the abil­ity to watch on de­mand, un­der­mines the sense of ur­gency that once drove in­die box of­fice. “Young peo­ple aren’t rush­ing to the small film the week it opens,” he says of what was once a way for like-minded peo­ple to share a cul­tural mo­ment.

Mitchell has di­rected one main­stream movie, Rab­bit Hole, a 2010 adap­ta­tion of David Lind­say-abare’s play about a fam­ily griev­ing over the loss of a child. It starred Ni­cole Kid­man, who re­ceived an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for her role. They are united again in Mitchell’s new film, which he co-wrote, How to Talk to Girls at Par­ties, open­ing May 25 (af­ter de­but­ing at Cannes last year). Loosely based on Neil Gaiman’s short story of the same name, it fea­tures Alex Sharp as a ’70s Bri­tish punk teenager who falls in love with an Earth-tour­ing alien, played by Elle Fan­ning; Kid­man is a ra­zor-sharp band man­ager.

The film is a blend of sci-fi, com­edy and ro­mance, in­clud­ing sev­eral erotic in­ter­species three­somes. Not an easy sell, in other words. Mitchell credits Gaiman’s loyal fan base and Kid­man’s star power for get­ting it made. Reviews out of Cannes were mixed. No mat­ter, says Mitchell, How to Talk to Girls is not in­tended for crit­ics. Rather, he wants it to be “a 16-year-old girl’s fa­vorite film. I love when my work catches peo­ple at a cer­tain time in their life.”

Much as Hed­wig has spo­ken to two gen­er­a­tions of LGBTQ kids—the de­voted fans who send him daily mes­sages of grat­i­tude on In­sta­gram. “I’ve never tapped into or overused that re­source,” he says. “I could have toured na­tion­ally [dur­ing the] Broad­way pro­duc­tion. I didn’t want to.”

Mitchell is do­ing so now be­cause his mother has been di­ag­nosed with Alzheimer’s dis­ease, and the prof­its from a tour fea­tur­ing mostly Hed­wig songs will help pay for her treat­ment.

Mak­ing de­ci­sions based solely on money is an un­usual position for Mitchell, and “awk­ward,” he adds, “but I think I can learn some­thing new about my­self.” It’s also ironic that Hed­wig fans will be pay­ing for the care of his Scot­tish-born mother (a for­mer school­teacher; his fa­ther was a ma­jor gen­eral in the U.S. Army). “She didn’t al­ways ap­prove of the wig,” he says, laugh­ing. “She was rather con­ser­va­tive. My mother un­der­stood, ul­ti­mately, that Hed­wig was a good thing, but for her it was a bit vul­gar.”

There are dates in Aus­tralia for this sum­mer, with Korea, Japan and North Amer­ica to be added soon. Un­til then, he’s fo­cus­ing on an­other project, a five-hour mu­si­cal pod­cast star­ring Mitchell and a host of Tony-win­ning ac­tors. Though in­spired by his most fa­mous work, An­them is not, he points out, a se­quel to it. “It’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal—like tak­ing the wig out of Hed­wig,” says Mitchell, who is ex­pect­ing to take a loss on the project. “There are up­sides and down­sides to do­ing your career punk-rock style,” he says. “You may not feel the money and the Os­cars and such, but you feel the peo­ple who con­stantly reach out and say, ‘I’m in Tur­key, I’m in In­done­sia, I saw your work, and it changed my life.’ I don’t know what’s bet­ter than that.”

“There are up­sides and down­sides to do­ing your career punkrock style.”

DRAMA QUEEN

Clockwise: Kid­man in Rab­bit Hole; Fan­ning and Sharp in How to Talk to Girls at Par­ties;

Short­bus; Mitchell with Re­becca Naomi Jones in the 2015 Broad­way re­vival of Hed­wig.

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