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Interview | Shortbus director John Cameron Mitchell teases Hedwig and the Angry Inch West End return

The filmmaker is promoting his new sci-fi romance How to Talk to Girls at Parties

By Steve Brown

The director and creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch has adapted a Neil Gaiman short story into his latest feature-length film.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties – which stars Ellen Fanning and Nicole Kidman – tells the story of rockers in Croydon who meet a group of aliens who arrive in earth and when one of the rockers – Enn – falls in love wiht one of the aliens, their lives change forever.

In an exclusive interview with Attitude, the filmmaker speaks about his new film, coming out and bringing Hedwig to the West End.

How To Talk To Girls at Parties has the sci-fi element to it – something you’ve not touched upon before – what was it about this story that made you want to make this film?

I think of it less as a sci-fi story but more of a romance, because I mean the aliens are really more of an ethos. And it’s a fairy-tale, like my other films that I’ve wrote – Hedwig and Shortbus – feel like they are coming from the same place, stylistically and even emotionally.

They all have comic book elements, they all have music elements, there’s a lot of comedy. Reading Neil’s story I loved the seed that he planted of those little messages that we are all aliens when you’re first in love and lust.

Everyone is truly an alien and you come at another person like you do another organism or species no matter if you’re gay straight human or non-human.

It’s based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, how much input did he have?

He was more kind of a les affaires godfather. He gave the rights and my co-writer began interviewing him about his own life in Croydon and about being a punk and in a way it’s an alternative reality of Neil’s life.

And his basic remit was to let this short story be the first act but then one of the aliens goes off with one of the boys and it is a day in the life in Croydon rather than a day in the life in outer space. And the third act is that there is some kind of tragedy because she has to go back someway.

As a gay filmmaker, do you have a sort of gay sensibility when doing a film about heterosexual relationships?

Well sure, you can’t help but have one if you‘re gay. I think of it as more of a queer sensibility than a gay one. I define queer as an outsider view through the prism of sexuality rather than the prism of race or nationality. Which is why I think straight people can be queer. We all know a straight friend who seems a lot gayer than our gay friends.

Shortbus is one of your most famous movies. How did you go about putting together that film and the use of real, porn-like sex?

It started out with a more kind of artistic premise which is how can I use sex in a narrative way that respected the complexity of sex, porn looks at one sort of thin layer of it. #

Other films bring a more negative layer. Sex is as complex a language as music is as it can be connected to emotion and anatomy and comedy and philosophy and I felt not many films were using sex as I wanted to.

If you saw someone having sex you could tell a lot about them. It’s like DNA. There are very few actors who were willing to go there, and not feel panicky, I thought I would cast people before I had a story so they could bring their own narratives.

You also wrote, helmed and starred in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, do you think the story has relevance to today’s audiences?

That again is for someone else to decide. But the fact that we were a big hit on Broadway and a new younger generation of people discovered it because of that, maybe just going online would be good to see how many people have had tattoos that might tell you that it’s something for the rest of their lives.

Something to think about and go back to. I don’t like to make things that are exactly of that moment, I think if you look at Hedwig or Shortbus you wouldn’t necessarily know when it was made. I like things to feel timeless.

Looking back would you change anything?

I encourage actors and directors to change stuff to make it relevant to were Hedwig is being performed.

In the play, she is performing where she is performing. In that theatre, in that bar in that whatever around the world.

I encourage people to change the lines, add in jokes to make it work for them. It is a living document like the constitution which has been interpreted in different ways.

The play is flexible. The film… I don’t think I would change anything. There are deleted scenes that are on the DVD that I would love to get back in there. But I also like the hypertext people finding those things later and like Lord of the Rings you find out the cosmology, you find the missing texts and that search is a satisfying one.

Do you think the film industry has changed when looking at the representation of the LGBT community?

Certainly, the last 15 years have seen change for LGBT possibilities and awareness that sexual orientation is natural and a glorious thing.

There’s plenty of work to do. Especially trans people who seem to be the bottom of the pile in terms of their rights and acceptance and certainly there is a lot of violence towards trans people.

There’s plenty of work to do still but there is also an understanding that we are all in this together.

There is a sensitivity in the first world countries, and the interesting thing about the trans spectrum is that it is a spectrum and non-binary and trans to female and male presenting to gender queer presenting all of that is flowing and is changing and the labels are changing and that is all good because you are what you say you are.

Some can say, you’re white you can’t be black, of course but when it comes to gender there is an openness to defining yourself. Labels are for young people coming from some repressive environment. A shield and defence. I Am This.

But when you get older you grow out of them and you become I Am Me. When you hang out with your friends you forget they are gay, straight, trans, they are just your friends.

There is currently a discussion about the use of straight actors playing gay characters, what are your thoughts on this?

You can follow that conclusion all the way to you can’t play someone who is not you. If you follow that line of reasoning than you have no right to play someone who is not you which of course means you cancel acting.

If you’re playing someone who is mentally ill and you’re not mentally ill are you appropriating? I think it’s in the eye of the beholder. You can do what feels right.

There is historical evidence that trans actors aren’t allowed to play trans roles because not a lot of trans actors are accepted into acting school and not a lot of trans roles exist but when one does and a famous actor plays the role of course trans actors get pissed.

A lot of that might have to do with heterosexualism but it also has to do with celebritism. Anything where they invest a lot of money in it, they want a recognisable star to play whatever role it is.

It’s not always about bigotry but also capitalism which can be just as much as a problem. There aren’t a lot of trans actors who are famous to bring in millions of dollars.

There will be but a lot of that to do with risk adverse investors saying we need a star and I’m exhausted with straight actors playing gay to get their Oscars or playing trans I find it annoying and let’s make some room to make some new stars and new careers.

I don’t think you can make a rule about it because it’s acting and if you make that rule then suddenly gay actors can’t play straight. The rule is not flexible enough to allow for metaphor for the complexity of what acting is. It is drag.

By the same rules, you can say men can’t be in female drag because you are appropriating if you follow that line all the way down. Then you have to outlaw drag, don’t you?

You publicly came out in 1993 but your family and friends knew back in 1985, why did you wait to come out?

The definition of publicly is changeable. I was always open at work, but nobody cares if you’re not famous. 1993 is when the first article about me appeared in New York Times and I was playing a gay role so naturally the reviewer said something like how does your life relate to theirs? and I thought it was the opportunity to talk about being gay.

It wasn’t important because no one knew me. I was always open from 1985 in the movies I made. I was very open with being gay, but it didn’t come up in conversation. When you’re meeting a stranger you don’t necessarily talk about your love life.

What is your next project?

I’m recording and editing a new musical which is called Anthem and it’s going to come out in audio-form first. I’m starring in it and a lot of wonderful famous actors in it. Hopeful that will come out at the end of the year but that is taking up my whole year. I didn’t write the songs for Hedwig I sort of godfathered them but this I’m co-writing the songs.

And I’m going on tour singing the songs of Hedwig starting in Australia, then Asia and next year North America and hopefully the UK. There aren’t plans but a strong determination to open our Broadway Hedwig show on the West End. I’m sure we will within the next couple of years.

Hedwig isn’t as well known in the UK as it is in other countries. It kinda needs to be introduced with a bigger star, a bigger star than me. But it’s hard finding someone who can sing, dance do the comedy and drama and looks presentable in drag and who is a big name.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer below: