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A Conversation With John Cameron Mitchell, the Man Who Brought ‘Hedwig’ and ‘Real Sex’ to the Big Screen

The director of ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ discusses the limitations of identity politics, the benefits of never being super-popular and the value in forgiving your parents

Outcasts, weirdos, dorks, punkers and aliens are all welcome in the movies of John Cameron Mitchell. Starting his career as a theater actor, winning an Obie Award in 1993 for his role in Larry Kramer’s The Destiny of Me, he has since branched out across several disciplines. He DJs, gives concerts and still does the occasional acting gig. (Mitchell had a stint on Girls and played Andy Warhol in the short-lived Vinyl.) But he’s best known for his glorious creation Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which became one of the late 1990s’ signature rock musicals, introducing us to the wounded, resilient singer Hedwig Robinson who is looking back at her life growing up in East Germany. Mitchell wrote the book and played Hedwig in the Off-Broadway production, making him a cult sensation in the process.

Soon, Mitchell took Hedwig to the big screen, starring in and directing the 2001 film adaptation. From there, a film career was born: Mitchell had acted in movies, but after Hedwig, he started making his own, beginning with 2006’s controversial Shortbus, about the love and sex lives of a group of young people. The sex was real and so were the emotions of the nonprofessional cast, whom Mitchell worked with over the span of a few years in order to develop their characters and their relationships. From there, Mitchell focused on the grief of a married couple (played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) whose young son has died in 2010’s Rabbit Hole, an adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer-winning play.

His latest, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman short story, premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, telling the story of a sweet British lad named Enn (Alex Sharp) who’s living in London in 1977 under the sway of the burgeoning punk rock scene. One night, Enn and his buddies end up at a party with a bunch of strange characters decked out in latex outfits — they’re not from London; in fact, they’re not from this planet. Falling for the beautiful, enigmatic Zan (Elle Fanning), Enn quickly realizes he’s stumbled upon a gaggle of aliens who have come to Earth for a mysterious mission — various freaky, sexy things soon unfold.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties, which opened last Friday, harkens back to Hedwig in its mash-up of drama and music — revolving around themes of identity, love and the lifesaving properties of rock ’n’ roll. But it’s also a John Cameron Mitchell joint because of its big heart, subversive streak and ultimately optimistic message. (Speaking to our despondent modern age, even though it’s set 41 years ago, Zan informs Enn that Earth may not be perfect, but it’s still a pretty great place.)

Mitchell has long wanted to give audiences a little hope. Now 55, he remains a charming, boyishly handsome iconoclast who sticks to his vision, even if it means he goes nearly a decade between films. And when I interview him, he comes across as a man at peace with the challenges of being an underdog. Hedwig and the Angry Inch may have had a triumphant revival on Broadway a few years ago that starred Neil Patrick Harris and won four Tonys, but Mitchell sounds like someone more comfortable on the margins, happily pursuing passion projects and living life, as he describes himself, as a “worried optimist.”

During our hour-long conversation, he talks about his affinity for punk music, how much harder the film industry has gotten for mavericks like himself, why the world still can’t deal with the sex in Shortbus and the reasons that Hedwig resonates 20 years later. But John Cameron Mitchell also wants us to understand that, in the end, we need to forgive our parents before it’s too late.

Watching How to Talk to Girls at Parties, I thought about how it connected to your other work thematically and even tonally. Are you naturally drawn to left-of-center projects?
I play around with genre, and I like mixing things up — the way things are mixed up in fairy tales and the way they’re mixed up in life. Life isn’t a genre, and fairy tales aren’t really a genre: You’ve got all kinds of dark ones, musical ones, happy ones and sad ones. I like fairy tales. A lot of my films are just informed by the 1970s — Altman, Cassavetes and Bob Fosse are my favorites. All of my films sort of have a 1970s kind of midnight-movies feeling with a heartfelt center.

Neil Gaiman and I [bonded] over fables, our sense of humor, and the importance of music and design and mixing it all up, crashing influences together — and, of course, Hedwig is a collision of a lot of styles, too. [How to Talk to Girls at Parties] seemed like a great opportunity to play in the sandbox I’ve played in, but also add new elements and do a teenage love story — the one that I would have wanted to see as a teenager. The movie doesn’t necessarily fit into trends of today, but I never really have done that.

You’ve mentioned in other interviews as well that you think of your films as being midnight movies. Were you really into them as a kid?
In Albuquerque, there was Rocky Horror. I wasn’t a regular [at midnight movies], but I’d go and see some unusual things here and there. And there seemed to be a repertoire of midnight movies that was often very scary. There was something a little frightening about Jodorowsky or Liquid Sky. There was still some variety [back then] — a company would put out Showgirls, but maybe not today. There was a bit more risk-taking even in the 1990s and 2000s because there was the DVD, which was a foundational thing. You could sell so many DVDs, even of a badly-reviewed film. So you knew you weren’t going to lose your money if there was a low budget. Nowadays, there’s no guarantee of that — you get less risk-taking for small films.

That’s why you have to worry about how it’s going to perform overseas much more, right?
It’s easier in Europe and Latin America than here in some ways — young people still go to the cinemas [there]. But [in the U.S.], not so many young people are rushing to see small films. There’s maybe one or two a year, like Lady Bird or Moonrise Kingdom, and if you don’t hit that slot…

In, say, 2000, a lot of college people would go see whatever was the well-reviewed independent film of the week. Now, they see the TV show that’s mentioned. It’s different viewing patterns — I think people still want a variety of stuff, but television is doing better at having a variety. They’re not great at messing with form, though — they still want to market it as “a comedy” or “a drama.” Hedwig didn’t really fit into anything perfectly. Shortbus certainly didn’t. Rabbit Hole did, but that was someone else’s script.

So how do you make it work when you don’t “fit in”?
I’m not just a filmmaker, so I wait around for stuff that tickles my fancy — as well as things where I have final cut. But people have a formula: The Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, they do interesting things, but they kind of have a formula. They pack [their movies] with stars and they do what they want, but they also realize that it has to be marketed.

I’ve never been a go-along guy. And I’ve never been one to [court] stars, because they’re a lot of trouble and their schedules change at the last second and they don’t have time to rehearse. They may be brilliant team players, like Nicole Kidman [who’s also in How to Talk to Girls at Parties], but most of them have other agendas. They have their TV [show] or their Marvel movie they have to do that comes first, even though they don’t really enjoy it — that’s their bread and butter. So it’s a lot of threading the needle.

Luckily, I have other things that I do. I’m working on editing a fictional podcast series, which is my new musical. I’m doing concerts, mentoring a young filmmaker and working on developing a TV series. Hedwig still happens around the world. I also can act in TV shows. It’s harder for people who are just film people.

Growing up, did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker? Given everything you do, I’m curious what came first for you.
My favorite artists would work in different forms — Bob Fosse was a dancer, then a choreographer, then a director for theater, then a director for film. In college, I was directing, acting and writing all the time. The acting [career] happened faster, and oddly I just fell into it, but I got a little bored — I was making a living and doing great things, but we’d be doing a show and I was like, “This could be better. If you’d let me edit this…” I was the actor who kept trying to cut his own lines instead of add to them. [Laughs] People respected me because I wasn’t just the usual actor who was worried about his own scenes. I like to see the big picture.

So it all flows into each other if you’re doing it honestly and doing it for the right reasons. The money doesn’t always flow if you’re going after stuff that you love. I’m not dumb with money, but I don’t chase it. I have to chase it a bit more now — my mom’s healthcare, I need to raise money for that. But it’ll come. I’m kind of a worried optimist: I sweat the small things but know in the end it will be fine.

I like that way of describing yourself. Were you always a worried optimist?
I think I’ve always been that way. I’m a super-prepared, think-it-through kind of person. I think about every possible disaster and all the parameters, and then I get to a place where I can be spontaneous, whether it’s a stage, a shoot or a DJ situation. You think it through and then let it go and go mad, because you know you’re safe in that environment.

Take, for example, Shortbus. I wanted to work with real sex as part of the story, as it is in our lives — we don’t cut away the first time we have sex with someone we are in love with. I know the reasons that we have panic about sex in the arts — we’re a Christian country and also we’re a sexist country, so anything that isn’t male-dominated is frightening. People seem to equate showing real sex with porn. Actually, porn is for jerking off to — it actually has a purpose. It can be gratifying, but as we know in our lives, a lot of sex is not porn. A lot of it is ridiculous and angry and bad.

So Shortbus was an experiment, and the actors would have to be very special actors who’d want to go there with me and trust me. We worked with them for two-and-a half years before we filmed it. That’s an example of me prepping for something that seems crazy and out-of-control — real sex in a film — but was really thought-through, discussed and processed so that we could be loose when we did it.

People will talk about movies being “ahead of their time.” I would say that Shortbus’ matter-of-fact treatment of sex qualifies, but the truth is — No, it’s still ahead of its time. [Laughs] I don’t know when my time is.

That movie came out in 2006, but it seems like we’re no closer to treating sex in an adult, sophisticated way.
It’s weird. In the early 2000s, there were interesting European films that were pushing the boundaries, but they tended to be very grim. So I wanted to make an American, John-Waters-meets-Hedwig version. I wanted to make a heartfelt fairy tale where sex was the playground but not what [the movie] was about. Friends would be like, “Oh, you can make a lot more money — and many more people would see this — if you’d remove the sex.” And I’m like, “Well, I could also have removed the songs from Hedwig, but why? That’s what makes it special — it uses punk rock in a way that’s narrative, which isn’t usual.” With Shortbus, I was using sex in a way that’s narrative, comic, and hopefully, heartbreaking, to challenge our perception of sex in our own lives.

I grew up Catholic — that’s one of the reasons I made it, to question my own fear about [sex]. There’s queer sex [in the film], and that’s all people can see. When someone is biracial, they’re black, right? They’re not white — they’re always the other. So if there’s a film with gay sex and straight sex, it’s a “gay film” — it’s like, if you’re bisexual, you’re “gay.” Americans want to label things, and I hate that.

Interestingly, the panic when we were making Shortbus was more a right-wing kind of repressive, traditionalist thing. It couldn’t be rated [because of the explicit sex], it couldn’t be in certain theaters, and it was banned in many countries. The Korean distributor took it to the Supreme Court there and changed the law, and then we were allowed to play there. But now if I made it, there’s other proscriptions that might come from more liberal people: “If there’s sex happening, someone’s being exploited.” That might be the objection now. “You as a white man, how can you have a black person have sex? You as a gay man, what do you know about lesbian sex? Or trans people?”

There’s a kind of splintering of identity politics — which comes out of true grievance — that sometimes becomes another kind of censorship. It’s based on fear of someone being hurt. I guess that’s what the conservative [criticism] was too — that someone was being hurt — but that was more, “God is being hurt. What if our children see gay sex? Will it make them gay?” And now it’s more like, “If you show a naked woman, you may be exploiting her, even though she’s part of the process of creating it.” So I don’t know if we’d be able to be financed today.

With Shortbus, you crafted this great social experiment, casting non-professional actors and having them rate each other in terms of attractiveness. That kind of adventurousness seems so rare today.
We had an open call and asked people to join us: “Who’s willing to go there? No one does anything you don’t want to, but I want everyone to challenge themselves.” I want to be part of projects that are trying to not just push the envelope but move the envelope forward, [be] progressive, make things better.

We have so much information now, and a lot of it panics us. A lot of facts seem to tell us we’re going downhill. But it’s important to me that whatever story I tell has hope in it, has tools to deal with the future and the past — including trauma. It has to be healing, joyful, communitarian-based, even when it’s about isolated individuals. And maybe that’s gone out of fashion in this Game of Thrones, there-is-no-justice-there’s-only-revenge world. It’s no surprise we have millions of school shootings. Every show seems to say you have no recourse but getting the best revenge.

Your work, even when it’s built around “taboo” topics, has this incredible sweetness to it. Where does that come from?
I was a sweet kid. My parents were very “You can do this” — they were a safety net, but they weren’t cuddly. They were loving, but they were loving in that British kind of get-on-with-it way. And they were very funny. There was a sweetness about the 1970s, too. We weren’t overloaded — yes, in many ways it was much darker than it is now, because there was terrorism, economic collapse and Watergate. But as kids, it didn’t really touch us. We had the smiley face, right? We had the leftover of the 1960s, but we took it seriously: We thought the world could be better.

I grew up in the military, which was more liberal then. [Editor’s note: Mitchell’s father was Major General John H. Mitchell.] The military was like a socialist state that works: “You do your job, you get healthcare. Why can’t it be like that for the rest of the country?” Desegregation happened in the military before it happened in our culture. Gays were in the military before we had gay marriage. Yes, there’s a macho thing in the military that would get on my nerves, but I also grew up in a bubble of “Take care of yourself, do your job, and we’re gonna be okay.”

Reagan kind of shifted into a more greed-based, fake traditionalism. And then AIDS certainly put a dagger in our back. The Republicans ignoring hundreds of thousands of citizens dying because they didn’t really like their lifestyle — that really angered me, but again, ACT UP forced these drugs through and saved my life and others. So there’s optimism in that.

I still am an optimist. Punk had an aggressive optimism about it. And that’s what all my work has. I grew up with loss — I lost my brother when I was little, and I’ve had a lot of loss in my life. But there’s a kindness in making art together that keeps me afloat. When people say, “Oh, I didn’t know sex could be sweet,” it’s like, “Honey, look in your own life — I hope it’s sweet for you.”

Your movies will never make Marvel money, but how does it feel when they don’t catch on at the box office?
The thing is, all of my films find their audience later. The opening-grosses mindset comes from blanketing the airwaves or internet, [selling] a genre or a star or some crazy image. And if your thing doesn’t fit into that, people are just gonna find it later. Hedwig was a flop on screen, and then millions of people gave it to their friends and found it on DVD, and that made us money. I haven’t seen a cent from any of my films, personally. You don’t make small films to make money — Broadway gave me more money than Hedwig ever did on film. I’m expecting the same thing with [How to Talk to Girls at Parties] — it doesn’t fit into any expected genre. But then they find an audience. It takes a few tries. Plus, people don’t want to go to the theater anymore; they want to wait until it gets on Netflix or iTunes, but that’s fine.

Of course, with How to Talk to Girls at Parties being set in the 1970s punk scene, I think about how many of those bands were never super-popular. It’s like with the Velvet Underground — it was cool to know these bands and to share them with other people, because it wasn’t mainstream.
There’s a beautiful joy in being the sacred underdog. When I meet people who like Hedwig, they’re generally people that I like. I don’t know what it was like for Kurt Cobain or someone who came from the underground to suddenly be liked by the fucking frat boys that he hated. I’ll never know what that’s like, luckily, unless there’s some miracle or disaster where I’m in a TV show that becomes massively popular.

I’ll have, like, one or two people per day give a smile or ask for a picture, and that’s great. It doesn’t make for a lot of money — like when you need to pay for your mom’s Alzheimer’s [care] — but it makes for a great, nourished soul, which is as important, and probably more important in the long run. We all know people who’ve had to chase money or have chosen to chase money for various reasons — for their family, for their greed — and they’ve succeeded at it, and there’s some massive hole in the middle of their heart. It’s sad when that becomes their obsession. But there’s a necessity to feed different parts of you — your wallet and your soul. And soul-wise, I’ve been fine.

As you said earlier, in America we like to label things and people —
I’m not a Marxist, but identity politics feels a little bit like an extrapolation of capitalistic marketing — if you can call it something, you can sell to it. If you want to separate yourself and say, “I’m a white, heterosexual such-and-such,” great. “I’m a non-binary trans person of color,” great. Those things are empowering for people — they’re also things that you need to do when you’re young. But sometimes those things start to dissolve. Like when you hang out with your friends and you forget that they’re gay — or forget that they’re black — which is how we all really want to be, where we are all being respected and we forget our differences and everyone has the same opportunity.

We’re certainly not there yet — and I know the splintering can feel empowering, but sometimes it can be a trap and can be something that limits. Growing up gay, I needed to come out and make that known, and then I moved on. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman or a person of color. But let’s not alienate possible allies — let’s find the things in common. That’s what I try to do with my work.

But how does that work in terms of how you identify? I know directors, who are women or people of color, who catch flak because they’re not making movies about people like themselves. Do you feel pressure to tell stories about gay characters?
I’m from the theater, where masks are important and role-playing is important. I’ve played straight people, I’ve played women. To say that only straight people can play straight roles — or only gay people can play gay roles and [only] trans people can play trans roles … There’s such a variety of trans, and if I wrote a trans role now, I would try to cast a trans person. But trans is what you make it and what you call it. And one trans person might be better than another trans person for a role. A straight person might be better than a gay person — we all know our feminine straight male friend and our butch gay male friend, and it’s better to cast the straight in that role.

I get annoyed when stars get special treatment — I understand it capitalistically, because they’re a commodity — but I get annoyed when, because they’re a star, they get first dibs. I’ve felt that pressure to get more names in my film. But I’ve been lucky enough not to have to do anything I didn’t want to do — which is why I wait five and six years in between films to make them.

That’s what interesting to me about Hedwig: It’s been part of the culture for so long now that, in a lot of ways, we’ve caught up to it. The subject matter no longer feels so shocking.
I never saw it as shocking — I guess somebody did. My parents did. What is great about Hedwig is that people interpret it in different ways, and it’s usually the way that I like. Hedwig isn’t a trans character, because you have to identify yourself as trans to be trans. Trans is often an empowering decision, as opposed to a kind of coerced mutilation by the patriarchy. She was forced into a sex change to get out of East Germany, which he didn’t want, by a duplicitous husband and controlling mom, who weirdly was doing it to help him be free — and then is abandoned in a trailer park, identified by society as a woman but feeling like they don’t know who they are because they didn’t choose it.

You could say, “None of us choose it at the beginning — we define it, we make something of what we’re given.” But the Angry Inch is a metaphor — it’s not a trans statement, it’s a metaphor for all of us. What has happened to us? What was cut off of us? What’s the other half that was ripped away? What’s the missing love? What’s the primal wound, and what do we do with that? In her case, she put on some makeup, she sang rock ’n’ roll, she listened to Patti Smith and Tina Turner, and she saved herself.

Everyone knows that Hedwig is about masks. And what’s beautiful about it is that anyone can play it. Now that it’s in the zeitgeist, any gender, race or age can play the role, and we all know it’s a role — it’s about masks, and when you need them and when you don’t.

So [Hedwig] isn’t speaking for anyone but Hedwig — or anyone but me. Gender flows — it changes. That’s the definition of queer — the awareness that gender flows. It’s not about who you fuck — that’s why straight people can be queer, because we all know those people who felt “other” because of gender expression. Someone thought they were a butch girl and they were straight — they understand what it was to be the outsider, and they understand the humor that comes out of being the gender outsider. That’s queer. People you don’t expect are queer — and a lot of gay people aren’t queer because they just follow the norms of even what is supposed to be gay.

In 2014, you mentioned that you’re working on a new chapter for Hedwig — that it might be a trilogy, reflecting your own aging process. How has it been to think of that character as a fiftysomething?
Well, Stephen [Trask, who wrote the Hedwig music and lyrics] and I have sort of abandoned the sequel idea. At first, I was thinking it would be a mouthpiece to talk about other things I’m interested in, but it was almost like borrowing someone else’s wig. [Laughs] The things I wanted to talk about, I shifted over to a different musical, Anthem, which will come out in a podcast form and be more autobiographical. I was trying to graph Hedwig’s wig onto my body, as opposed to telling my own story from a certain point-of-view.

As you grow older, you start to want to talk more about your family as your parents age or pass away. You’re like, “Okay, maybe I’m free to talk about that stuff now without people being hurt.” Every artist or writer does that as they approach the middle of their life. When you’re in your 20s, you don’t always have good perspective about how you grew up — you’re still mad. [Laughs] Then, later you go, “Oh, my parents had childhoods, too, and they did the best they could, and at worst, they were victims.”

You said earlier that your mom has Alzheimer’s. With either of your parents, did your relationship change? Did you stop being mad?
I was angry at my parents. They were very sweet but very Catholic. My dad supported gays in the military back in the Clinton days when it was not cool. And my mom was sophisticated, artistic and taught me about art. But they were by-the-book Catholics. My mom was an anti-abortion activist — abortion is a very complex issue, and I would never judge someone [on their position], but I believe in choice. But other things seemed black-and-white: dealing with AIDS, dealing with gay rights, trans rights. I didn’t talk to them for awhile because I saw them shifting — Fox News was doing [to them] what it did to much of America, which is forcing people who didn’t really have an opinion about something into having an opinion, or they weren’t conservatives. Catholics were famously socialists, but I saw them suddenly tick off the boxes of what you’re “supposed” to be to be conservative. I saw them changing and suddenly not thinking that I should be able to get married. It really hurt me.

But I had an aunt who was a nun, who is the most liberal nun, my Aunt Terri, who I love dearly, my surrogate mother. She said, “I want your parents to come to Chicago, and you to come to Chicago and talk this out. This doctrine is getting in your way.” She let us talk it out — there was a lot of tears and a lot of anger. Then my dad said, “If you choose to get married to a guy that you love, I will be there at your wedding.” That was huge. It was suddenly about someone in front of them who was their child.

I thank Sister Terri all the time for that. My parents were embarrassed by Hedwig, but then they saw that it made people happy. They named their dog Hedwig. The Denver Post asked them, “How can you be friends with Archbishop Chaput” — the most right-wing [archbishop] in America — “and [be okay with] your son doing what he does?” And my mom said, “We love the Archbishop, but he never had a son.”

Both my parents have had Alzheimer’s. My dad has passed. As soon as I knew my dad had Alzheimer’s, all of my anger drained away. I said, “They’re gonna die — we’re all gonna die. There’s no time for political or religious contention.” Weirdly, it takes a health crisis to remember that.

I tell all my friends who feel alienated from their families — because of politics and because of Fox News and Trump — that that [anger] will fade when it’s time. Unfortunately, it comes later.