By the time most entertainers receive lifetime achievement awards they’ve amassed voluminous resumes with dozens of films, but John Cameron Mitchell has always been a step ahead of the others. The 52-year-old multi-threat has directed just a trio of films so far: Rabbit Hole, a devastating drama in 2010 that earned Nicole Kidman some of her best notices; Shortbus, the 2006 seriocomic roundelay that flirted with hardcore; and the dazzlingly subversive 2001 musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Of course, it’s Hedwig with which he is most — and will probably forever be — synonymous. Mitchell wrote (along with composer Stephen Trask) the witty, groundbreaking story of the “internationally ignored” trans rocker and originated the character in the New York stage production in 1998. It’s a demanding role he returned to earlier this year, following a Tony Award-winning stint by Neil Patrick Harris that’s also drawn turns by Andrew Rannells, Darren Criss and soon Taye Diggs. This Thursday Mitchell will join another prestigious group of entertainers that includes Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant and Sir Ian McKellen when he becomes recipient of the 19th annual Outfest Achievement Award, for “leaving an indelible mark on the LGBT community and mainstream audiences alike,” according to Christopher Racster, Interim Executive Director of Outfest. If you find yourself in Southern California this weekend, you might get to meet him in person when Mitchell cohosts with Jake Shears his popular New York party Mattachine at L.A. hotspot Akbar on July 12. Mitchell chatted with Queerty about which superstars he’d like to see take on Hedwig on Broadway, how marriage equality will affect queer culture and what he considers his own most important achievement.
Queerty: You’re receiving the Outfest Achievement Award for your incredible body of work.
John Cameron Mitchell: I’m getting awards for my body at this age.
It’s just as impressive as your resume. I wonder for which projects you would most like to be celebrated and remembered?
Hedwig is the most complex thing I’ll ever do, in terms of it being different parts of my life line and a synergy with the composer that will never be equaled again. It was the most difficult experience of anything I did and the most rewarding. I’m sure that will be the thing I’m remembered for and the thing I’m most grateful for happening. Shortbus was the most pleasurable. We did want to challenge audiences and remind them that sex is more complicated than porn or French existentialism. I’m also very proud of helping bring Tarnation [Jonathan Caouette’s 2003 documentary about growing up with a schizophrenic mother] to people’s attention. Tarnation came to my attention because the director auditioned for Shortbus with a video that used elements of Tarnation. His story was so powerful to me. It really was the first film of the YouTube generation. It was the most creative autobiography I’ve ever seen.
Strangely, in the 10 years since then I haven’t been as excited about what’s come out of the blue. It is possible to make interesting things on a low budget. I was expecting more wunderkinds coming out. Where are the David Lynches and the weirdos? Perhaps ADD sets in and they don’t finish the projects. Maybe they’re afraid of being judged so quickly. It happens lightning fast online. User comments curtail actual creativity. If I’d shown Hedwig as my first gig online I’d have never done any more on it. People would have commented on it and I’d have looked at it and said that’s very crude. You have to be in the dark. You have to be ignorant to create something over time. You have to keep it from prying eyes for a while.
Do you find that you’re still affected by criticism?
I can be. The only reviews I remember from the Hedwig film are two negative ones and they’re the only ones I could find that are negative. If you grow up a certain way where everything isn’t roses, you get used to that. You look for trouble. It makes you creative. You have to keep your skin thin to let creativity flow through it. I just don’t read reviews until a year or so later and then you’re immune to them. You’re too sensitive right when the project comes out.
If you were handing out this achievement award, who are some of the queer filmmakers you think deserve it or have influenced you the most?
The people who’ve won this award before have influenced me a lot, like Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant. They were making films when I was wanting to learn how to do it. I learned from their aesthetic and their purity how to go about it. Before them, they’d probably point to Derek Jarman, who’d have won it if he was around. He was a very influential person on all kinds of queer art. He brought Tilda Swinton to our attention. The queer filmmakers who worked underground are the ones who are most interesting to me. Way back you looked to Jean Genet in a film called Un Chant D’Amour. He made one film that was very influential on me and on Shortbus. The other person is Frank Ripploh, a German filmmaker who made Taxi zum Klo. That influenced Shortbus a lot. Bob Fosse, even though he wasn’t gay. He was certainly queer and had a huge effect on the Hedwig film, as did Hal Ashby and Robert Altman, who had a weird butch queer feeling about him. His films almost flirted with camp but in an extremely realistic acting way. He was always questioning authority, which is very much a part of the queer aesthetic for me. The people that were most interesting were always questioning the status quo. Fassbender is another who should have won one, although his despair annoyed me after a while. [Laughs] I’m sure it was honest, but it wasn’t useful to me. His skill was incredible. Earlier there was George Cukor, who had a wonderful way with women and comedy and sophistication. There are a lot of people.
You’ve only directed three films so far, which have been not only widely acclaimed but wildly different. Do you plan to direct another movie?
Yes, I’m shooting a film in the fall that’s based on a Neil Gaiman short story called How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Nicole Kidman’s in that, too. She’s playing a punk rock designer and band manager. She’s like a Malcolm McLaren figure. It’s set in 1977 in London and is kind of like Romeo and Juliet but with punks and aliens. Elle Fanning is the alien girl.
I don’t know. There was always a smaller, fringe-type group of people who knew about us. They were the kind of people who wouldn’t judge other people by their gender. I don’t know if we were preaching to the converted a little bit. Hedwig is not a trans statement. She’s not speaking for the trans community. There’s a metaphor for a person who was forced into an accidental trans space. Intentionality is very much a part of trans. You certainly can grow up intersexed and not have a choice and you have to work with what culture does to you because of that. Maybe that’s closer to Hedwig than someone who chooses to define their gender differently. What I like about people’s response to Hedwig is everyone can see themselves in her. It’s an equal opportunity metaphor. He was powerless and didn’t fit in and was fine about his sexuality. To be free he had to make a decision that he didn’t want to make about a sex change then it was botched. She was left behind and there was a sense of “I have to make due with what life has given me.” Ultimately, that’s what everyone has to do. There were no other options for Hedwig. Culture, patriarchy, East-West female divide forced Hansel/Hedwig into a very narrow space within which to live. He chose by pure will to widen that space by embracing the female by embracing the punk rock by falling in love and having her heart broken. I love that trans people see something there, perhaps it’s Yitzhak playing a woman playing a man who wants to dress as a woman. It’s a much more complex situation. Trans men who feel free of their sexuality and explore relationships with gay men. I love that. It’s fluid. We are all our own gender of one. That’s more the Hedwig message rather than any kind of rigid trans activism.
How had audiences and the response to the show changed between when it premiered in 1998 and when you performed the role again this year?
There was just more of them. There’s always a group of people who go because they’re supposed to go. We certainly have super fans who go back many times. We just tried to make a piece as good as it could be. It was for us: Stephen Trask and me and our close friends. That’s who we were making it for and it turned out that it was useful for a lot of people. It’s accessible. It’s a Broadway show. When it first came out, Broadway wasn’t ready for us, but we were ready for it. It’s hard to understand what’s going on onstage, formally. There’re jokes, costumes and a number of things that it’s about combined together, which is unusual for Broadway.
It’s on the back burner. I’ve got this film which will take a couple of years. Stephen’s got a new musical he’s workshopping. It’s not going to be anytime soon, but we have done a lot of work on it.
Will you play Hedwig in it?
In the meantime, I hope Hedwig continues its run on Broadway. Who are some of the performers you’d like to see play the character?
I’d love to see a woman. It would have to be the right woman. I think it wouldn’t have been right to star with a woman because of what it’s about. We are about artifice and it’s theater and we have a woman playing a man already. I think it works best when you have already had men playing the role so you can add this experience to it. It would have to be the right woman, just as it has to be the right man. I’d love to see Justin Timberlake do it and Lady Gaga. They’re people who have the skills who I don’t think have used them all at the same time in an emotionally substantial piece. They’ve acted well, sang and danced in good things, but this would be putting that all together in something that has a lot of weight to it dramatically. Some of these people we think of as incredible entertainers might find it a great challenge. It would really exciting to see these incredible rock stars really act in something like this.
There’s been discussion following the recent Supreme Court ruling that with full equality some of the unique aspects of gay culture and sexual liberation could be lost to assimilation. What are your thoughts on this?
That’s definitely going to happen. It will take a little while. Queer sensibility comes from some biological uniqueness but often how that uniqueness is treated by family and culture. It will take another generation to see a change in that. You can already see people who grew up queer, not necessarily feeling they fit in, suddenly having many more rights now. There’s a kind of homogenization starting to happen now in gay culture, more than even 10 years ago and certainly more than 20 years ago when AIDS was happening. It’s formulaic. You have to listen to this music. You have to wear these clothes. There’s always been a bit of that. The good part is it’s tribal. The bad part is it’s conformist. Unfortunately, the answer is complex. The price of acceptance is there’s going to be way more gay Republicans, people who think more about themselves and their money. In other words, losing some empathy for other people, such as immigrants and poor people, which is what the liberal experience is about. Unfortunately, I think with more acceptance we’re going to get less and less gay sensitivity to the plights of others. The advantages are I think gay marriage will actually help straight marriage. In a lot of straight marriages people lazily fall into roles they’re supposed to play as men or women. There’s no questions of things like monogamy and child-rearing. There’s fewer straight couples right now who write their own rules and find their own way, instead of men are supposed to be like this and women are supposed to be like that. Sure, there are biological differences between a lot of straight men and women, but there’s also laziness in accepting what you’re supposed to be like in a relationship. The best gay relationships I know have come up with their own models which are more equitable, more communicative, more understanding about sex being different from love and more open to raising kids in a better, freer way. I think conservatives are right that gay marriage will change the definition of marriage, but in a good way.
Back to your own career, there are some very interesting early projects on your resume. I recently watched The Stepford Children [a 1987 made-for-television thriller]. Your character has hair and a wardrobe that would be the envy of Duckie in Pretty in Pink.
[Laughs] It was a classic TV movie full of former stars from other shows and mediums like Barbara Eden, Don Murray, James Coco and Richard Anderson from The Six Million Dollar Man. It was fun. I was the obnoxious New Wave kid, who was the first casualty and who ended up as the perfect paper boy. The one thing I remember is being in a boat and I was fishing with my dad in a totally New Wave outfit and not wanting to be there and making an earring out of a live worm with a hook. It was a good time.
You costarred with John Ritter in a 1990 TV film about L. Frank Baum called The Dreamer of Oz.
Yeah, I remember John Ritter was one of the nicest people I ever worked with. He was one of the kindest. There are people who have that reputation, like Tom Hanks, Rene Auberjonois… John Ritter was really one of the great mensches. This was a passion project for him. I had a little role but I loved being part of that family and he got presents for everybody. I was spoiled by these people and learned from them. It’s very important for me to create a set where everyone feels very appreciated down to the interns.
In 1992 you received a lot of attention for starring in the off-Broadway production of Larry Kramer’s The Destiny of Me.
That was a very important — probably the most important project I’d done up to that point. It’s the sequel and the prequel to The Normal Heart and in many ways it’s a better play. Larry Kramer is in the hospital dying and he’s remembering his younger self, who I played. It’s really a dialogue between older and younger selves who hate and love each other in possibly the last months of someone’s life. I was able to use everything I’d learned up to that point. I hadn’t had such a large role on stage before, except Big River. It used up all my memories of growing up gay. I came out and got a lot of attention for it. I came out in the New York Times in an article about me. I didn’t really plan to but it just happened. He asked if in my life I could relate to the character. It seemed silly to stay in the closet. It seemed selfish to be in the closet during the AIDS era, too. I’d been in L.A. and had felt pressure to be in the closet. I wasn’t about to let people dictate my private life and how I lived it. Part of that was keeping the air flowing through the way I lived. It was not about closing closet doors. The windows were open. I thought, If you don’t want to work with me because I’m gay, I don’t want to work with you. It was challenging people in a calm way. I’m an actor. I can play straight. I can play gay. The ball’s in your court.
Check out Mitchell performing Hedwig‘s anthemic “Origin of Love” last year below.