By Jeff Walsh, Oasis editor
When I first came out, at the late age of 23, I made up for lost time by going from closeted to activist. I became obsessed with people pushing the boundaries, challenging the norm, advancing the cause. My two immediate role models became Larry Kramer and Michelangelo Signorile. As it turned out, Larry was just about to release his new play in New York City shortly after I came out called The Destiny of Me, which advanced the characters and story of his earlier play, The Normal Heart, about the AIDS Epidemic as how it divided and rallied the gay community in New York City. So, I told my straight friend we were going to New York City, and I bought us tickets to see The Destiny of Me.
In the play, I was captivated by Alexander, the young character who interacts with a character that is himself as an older man in a hospital with AIDS. Alexander was an adorable, precocious, loveable kid, and it made you wonder what happened along the course of his life to turn him into the man on his deathbed in the hospital room. Newly out, I didnt want to make my straight friend suffer too greatly after the show, since our typical Broadway fare was more about musicals and not heavy AIDS drama, so I didnt hang out at the stage door, but I took some of Alexander home with me, making sure that as I grow up I dont shut down and get distracted from pursuing my dreams and my passion, and love.
The role of Alexander was portrayed in that Off Broadway play by John Cameron Mitchell, who this month will rock out at movie theaters in his new drag musical movie, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I saw Mitchell play Hedwig onstage in a little theater in New Yorks meat-packing district, and the movie captures the power, energy, and beauty of the story perfectly. I first saw the movie a month or so ago at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and more recently (and more raucously) at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival at the end of June. Mitchell sat down with Oasis the day before Hedwig was screened at the gay film festival to discuss how he originated the role, his future, as well as how he became a better man by spending seven years of his life as a rock and roll drag queen.
For those of you who just rolled your eyes when you hit the word drag, Im sure theres a certain percentage of you who will not be swayed to see the movie. Thats too bad. This isnt Priscilla or To Wong Foo. It tackles weighty issues like soulmates and love, and the music just kicks ass (more on that later). The plot is, admittedly, familiar: an East German boy has botched sexual reassignment surgery (hence the angry inch) to please the soldier he loves, later becomes the tranny muse of an American boy who steals the songs they wrote together and becomes an arena rock superstar, and leaves Hedwig to become the transkeleton in his closet and tabloid fodder. But, when you get past the story that weve all seen so many times before, the movie has amazing heart and songs.
Mitchell, who created the role, and stars in, wrote, and directed the movie, said the overarching theme of the movie was inspired by Aristophanes Speech in Platos Symposium (which you can read here, http://plato.evansville.edu/texts/jowett/symposium5.htm). In the movie and soundtrack, the myth is translated beautifully into the moving rock ballad, The Origin of Love.
The myth is that we were cut in half in the beginning of time and that we are seeking our other half, Mitchell says. To think that it was written like 2500 years ago, in a dialogue that was people writing speeches about the beauty of the love of man for man. Its pretty powerful, and the myth includes straight people and lesbians. Its inclusive, but Hedwig interprets it differently. What is my other half, who is it? Maybe its my mom, maybe its Jesus, maybe I have another half but I shouldnt be with them.
Hedwigs road to movie theaters began seven years ago, when Mitchell first started working with Stephen Trask, who would write the music and lyrics for songs that would become an Off-Broadway smash and cult phenomenon.
It started at (the rock and roll drag bar) Squeezebox, but I had been thinking about it before then, Mitchell said. I had the Plato myth of the origin of love first. And Hedwig was somewhat based on a person who was my brothers babysitter, but very broadly. And then I met Stephen, and he encouraged me to develop that character more, because he was working at Squeezebox and said, I can get you a gig. And my dad was stationed in Berlin, so the operation story came to me. Stephen wrote The Origin Of Love, and our first gig was born. The character was fully there, its just that all of the detail of the story took the next four years to develop.
Mitchell said he and Trask were aware they were creating something bigger.
We knew we were building toward a theater run. I didnt know how big or how long, but I wanted the length of time to sort of deepen, and I wanted to have the sort of rock star fantasy thing going on, Mitchell says. I wanted something that was fully rock and roll, Stephen and I were adamant about keeping it with a band onstage. But we didnt really think of it as anything but the next gig. So, we would fantasize for a second, like This would be funny for the film, but then we would concentrate on what we were doing.
When it was popular Off-Broadway, we had the opportunity and we thought much more clearly about what we could do, and what we couldnt do onstage that we can do on film, Mitchell says. Just like we thought about what we could do on the album that we couldnt do onstage.
Mitchell thinks the movie marks the end of Hedwig, or at least where he will part ways with the role.
It does feel finished, he says. It may develop into other places, but I wont be a part of it as much.
Mitchell certainly is going out with a bang, though. He wrote the screenplay, directed the movie, and is the larger-than-life star of the movies, although he admits it was hard wearing all three hats on the movie set, especially given the size of Hedwigs wigs. A big part of directing the movie was his desire to maintain control over his vision of Hedwig.
Directing a film is something I always wanted to do and this just seemed the perfect opportunity, Mitchell says. I had ideas for the movie that, if it were another director, what am I going to do? Force the ideas on him? The director has to be the dictator, has to have the final say. And two people cant do that, its just not possible, so that didnt seem to make sense. And I was bored with just acting. And now Im acting less and directing more.
Up next for Mitchell is a childrens story he is co-writing with someone and plans to direct that he describes as a dark childrens story, a modern Willie Wonka. But, lest you think hes gone soft, the project after that is yet another new direction.
All I know is its a funny movie that has explicit sex, he says. Thats all I know, and it will probably only ever be distributed on video and DVD because of the content.
Mitchell is not concerned about putting his wig in a box and facing new artistic challenges.
Im totally not nervous about it, he says. Im happy. Im rested. We learned a lot. Some things could have been better, but Im proud of it. I like mixing completely new genres every time I try something, so I wont do another drag musical. I wont do another childrens film after this one, probably. And the following film will be my erotic, emotional story, and that will be it for that.
Mitchell says Hedwig gave him the rare opportunity to both be a rock star and to take more risks as an actor.
I didnt want to be a real rock star, because I couldnt do it. I dont have the stamina for touring and all of that. And its a little lonely, as was Hedwig to an extent, he says. I really wanted to get to a point where I could be as free and improvisational and rock and roll as people I have seen onstage. I tended to be a very controlled actor before then, with instincts that I couldnt develop that were more say what you want, sing what you want, which are inherent in rock and roll. But even the Squeezebox gigs were a little controlled, and it was only by doing a long run that I had a really good time doing it.
Hedwig marked the first time that Mitchell ever did drag, but he says it forever changed his outlook on life and who he is as a person.
I was always kind of scared of drag, I think. But I found that I became a better person, he says. I became very comfortable with the fullness of my femininity and masculinity and rock and roll and power. It kind of made me more masculine and more feminine having done it, because the idea is really both. Gay people have a gift, for whatever reason, they can key into the opposite energy, which ultimately doesnt become opposite, it becomes complementary. Hedwig was important to do, for me, as person as well as an artist.
In addition to the movie -- which opens on July 20 in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, before opening in additional cities the movie also boasts a new hard-rocking soundtrack.
With the cast recording, we didnt really get to control who the mixer was, which is a huge thing, so I think Stephen found it a little glossier than he might have liked, he says. And Bob Mould, from Husker Du and Sugar, whos a gay punk rock icon did a lot of guitars on the soundtrack, so theres more heft to them. So, the soundtrack is the album Stephen always wanted to make, plus its got bonus songs and Tommys hits that arent in the movie, like his number one single, and extra things.
As for the songs, Trask has delivered a tour de force palate through which Mitchell weaves his compelling story. From the opening song, Tear Me Down, a rolling rock and roll song that deftly weaves metaphors between the Berlin Wall and gender identity, to Sugar Daddy, a hoot of dishy double entendre fun, to Wig In A Box, which perfectly moves from drag ballad to rock anthem, Trask has turned out the perfect score. Most musicals have high points that buoy the other songs, but there is no filler to be had in Hedwig. Trask, who is currently producing Nancy Boys next album, is definitely someone to watch for in the future. Of course, we get to enjoy him on the Hedwig sountrack later this month.
Like Hedwig will later this month, Mitchell first came out in San Francisco.
I went to this dirty bookstore and some guy invited me to a Solstice Party, which are traditional things that still happen, he says. There was one last night. All orgies and sex and drugs, and I really didnt want to go there, but we went out. He was an auto mechanic and I was in love, and I disappeared for a weekend. I was staying at my brothers frat at USF, and I came back and he said, Where the hell were you? And I had changed. I went back to school at Northwestern in Chicago and was out.
Mitchell is really hopeful that Hedwig will speak to gay youth, because he thinks it has messages that would have affected him positively when he was growing up.
I want Hedwig to reach all kinds of people, but I want it to reach people like me when I was in my teens most of all, he says. Those are the letters and comments that mean the most to me. I get kids coming up to me now saying, Ive really loved this album for a few years, but I never got to see the show, and Im really excited to see it. We have this great opportunity to bring it to the strip malls where Hedwig could do some good, I think.
Mitchell also believes that gay youth get to take a lot of things for granted that werent possible when he was growing up, like being out in high school and having a boyfriend. He thinks its great that they can be taken for granted, because it shows how much progress has occurred in just one generation. But hes wary of the trap of people taking too much about being gay for granted.
So much of gay culture can be as boring as straight culture. Were caught up in the same damn music, chiseled bodies and then youre just a straight person. If you want to just be a straight person, fine, but dont call yourself a rebel. Dont think of yourself as special because youre gay. Its what you choose to do with it. If youre special, if youre an outsider, try something that scares you. For me, I got really bored doing the kind of acting and sitcoms I was doing, and I did something that scared the shit out of me, doing drag and doing rock, and it made my life better.
The "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" movie site is at http://www.get-hed.com/
You can buy the movie soundtrack (available 7/10), off-Broadway cast recording, and book.
Aristophanes Speech in Platos Symposium (the basis for The Origin of Love) is at http://plato.evansville.edu/texts/jowett/symposium5.htm
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