Harvey Milk's friends: Interview

By Jeff Walsh

Many of the actors in Milk didn't just have to play a role, but portray people who were not only still alive but often on the shooting set. The night I was an extra in Milk's crowd scene (the one where Sean Penn as Milk has a bullhorn saying 'I know you're angry. I'm angry, too.') Emile Hirsch was onstage as Cleve Jones. As he and Sean were filming the scene, the crowd would chant things like 'Gay rights now!' and such. In between takes, you'd hear a bullhorn asking Cleve if any other chants were popular at that time, and the real life Cleve Jones would go over to the crew, and give them ideas, which would then be incorporated into the movie. So, at every step of the way, some of the real life people behind Milk not only helped Dustin Lance Back with the accuracy of the script, but they were still there on set, making the film as accurate as possible.

I got the chance to sit down with three of Harvey Milk's friends (shown in this article with the actors who play them in the movie).

Cleve Jones, played in the movie by Emile Hirsch, worked on Harvey's political campaign and later founded the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Anne Kronenberg, played in the movie by Allison Pill, started as Harvey Milk's campaign manager for his election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. This was the beginning of a long career in politics, and she now services as deputy director for administration and planning of the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Danny Nicoletta, played in the movie by Lucas Grabeel, worked as a clerk in Harvey Milk's Castro Street camera shop, and is still a photographer in the city. At the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone last week, Nicoletta wasn't there to speak. He was shooting pictures of it for the local press.

This interview was another roundtable, and not me sitting down personally with all three. My question has an asterisk before it, if you care, but what they had to say was interesting enough that I felt it needed to be captured here.

Here's what we said...

The question I most wanted to ask of you was, how do you feel about the historical accuracy of the film and how it represents that time period, which was such an amazing time especially within the gay community.

Anne Kronenberg: I think it was very historically accurate and I was nervous ahead of time when Cleve first called and said he knew this young man who wrote this script, because we read so many horrible scripts before that. But after meeting with Gus Van Sant and Lance Black, and being able to read the script, my comfort level was great. Danny and I just saw the movie yesterday, and it is right on.

Danny Nicoletta: Yeah, I'd say there's a real tenderness for the period in terms of the art direction. They really loved working on this ad it comes through.

Cleve Jones: I think it's also remarkable and wonderful that the political storyline remained intact. For Hollywood -- and none of us come from the entertainment world, this is totally a new experience for all of us -- but for Hollywood films it's usually all about the personal relationships. And that's in the film, of course, but the political struggle is there. The campaign against Proposition 6, the campaign for the gay rights ordinance, Harvey's own campaigns, his efforts to build coalitions with minority communities... even the desegregation of the police department is in there, so I'm really pleased the political content was not abandoned.

What did you learn abut Mr. Milk, and what did you learn about yourselves in the process during the time you had relationships with him?

Cleve Jones: For me, it was learning to move beyond my own heterophobia. I really hated straight people when I came here. I came here to live in a ghetto that I wanted to help build the walls around. And Harvey showed me that I didn't need to be afraid of straight people, that I'd be able to reach them, and that was a really important example for me.

Anne Kronenberg: I learned to be a stronger woman than I was. We all were really young when we met Harvey, and I learned that I could do anything I set my mind to, because Harvey created a scenario where he taught us, gave us the framework, and he let us just go and excel. So, confidence.

Danny Nicoletta: In addition to confidence, he taught self-love, because he himself came from a self-hating context, as did I. And that was very short-lived, because of my meeting that man. He was one in a series of people who very gently coaxed me out of confusion about my sexuality, and I'm very grateful for that coming so early in life. I was 19.

I grew up in San Francisco, and I'm a lesbian, and I'm almost 50 years old, so I lived through these days, although I was in high school when Harvey was elected supervisor. I remember very well that the lesbian and gay community, women and men, we had a wall between us. And it's something that came down during the AIDS epidemic, but prior to that, it was a pretty unbreachable wall, and I was really curious to hear from you what your experience was at that time as a woman coming in to manage his campaign, how that felt to you, and the point you just made about your heterophobia ... the barrier between women and men, had Harvey not died, do you think our community would have developed in a different way, where it didn't take AIDS to bring us together?

Anne Kronenberg: Harvey was all about reaching out to the disenfranchised, not just lesbian and gay men, but African Americans and women, you know? Feminism... and he really got the connections there. It was about human rights, and so long before I came on the campaign, Harvey was a crusader for women's rights. I didn't change him in any way. But he was smart enough to see that bringing some new blood into the campaign, because these guys had gone through numerous campaigns already, I was just in the last one, that bringing new blood in, and bringing a woman, would change the dynamic. I can't speak for you guys , but I think it definitely did. There was a lot of suspicion when I came in. And I think that those walls were up, but we learned to play together well, and we had lots and lots of fun. By my being involved in the campaign, that naturally brought more women into the campaign, so I think the whole dynamic changes and, what would have happened if Harvey had lived? I think that would have just continued, but how do we know?

Cleve Jones: I think your point about the epidemic changing that is a really important one and one that we mentioned in previous interviews today, that we really were organizing living separately to some extent. I was the one who introduced Harvey to Sally Gearhart, who was his debate partner, and I remember being a little worried because Sally wasn't really a separatist, but she definitely came from that part of the community. And the two of them just hit it off like that. I think Harvey was old school in some ways, but no part of him included any bit of misogyny. That duo was remarkable.

Anne Kronenberg: They were unstoppable.

Cleve Jones: Would it have made a difference if he lived? I think it could well have. But I think it was the pandemic that did it, and it was women stepping forward in traditional care-giving roles, but also being required to take on the leadership roles because the men who had occupied those positions had been killed off.