You know how we all have people we want to be when we grow up? Well, mine was (and still is) John Cameron Mitchell.
A brief history for the uninitiated – In 1998, Mitchell and Stephen Trask conceived and created a groundbreaking, subversive rock musical called Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It amassed a worldwide cult following and became an off-Broadway hit. In 2001, Mitchell co-wrote, directed and starred in the film adaptation, which scored him Best Director at Sundance Film Festival and earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
There hasn’t been another original musical in the last 20 years to have gained such a strong cult following with the crossover appeal, of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Quite an impressive feat for a musical centring on a transgender East Berlin rocker who lands in New York via a Kansas trailer park.
Mitchell has recently announced an Australian tour celebrating Hedwig and the Angry Inch, where he will channel the essence of Hedwig for four performances through 22 June to 17 July.
We talked with John Cameron Mitchell about his debut Australian tour, why cult is cool and his latest film, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short story – How to Talk to Girls at Parties.
Hello John! You’re coming to Australia!
I am. It’s my first time. I’m very excited. I’ve been invited before and I could never make it work before, timing-wise, and now it can work.
How are you feeling about bringing a little Hedwig to the Opera House?
It’s exciting. To us, Sydney is the Opera House. That’s the image you’re always seeing. It’s the Empire State. So it’s thrilling to be there. It’s an ancient castle too with ancient customs that you have to follow. It’s like Versailles. I’ve been invited at other times to be in the smaller room but this time we’re in the big room!
John Cameron Mitchell performing live as Hedwig
Since it’s your first time to Australia, will you get to do much site-seeing or will you be stuck on tour?
I don’t get to go too far from the cities that I’m performing in. I don’t get to go crazy west or too outrageously north but it’ll be a good vacation because the shows are spread out. It will be winter but it will still be nice. I actually prefer the cooler weather anyway. We were hoping to go to New Zealand, too, but it didn’t work out.
The main reason I’m coming is not only to have a good time but also to help pay for my mother’s healthcare. She has Alzheimer's. We don’t have great healthcare in this country, as you may have heard. So I’m on tour for a month. Ironically, I have to put on a wig to pay for her, which she would never approve of.
I’m sorry to hear that but glad that you’re gracing us with your presence. What can we expect from the show?
It’s really more of a free for all. I’m going to be doing some Hedwig favourites and telling some stories about what it means to me and where certain songs came from. I’ll talk about the songwriter, Stephen Trask, and about how we met. It’s really going to be more about the moment. Anything can happen. It’s not really a written thing; it’s more of a concert, a party. I’ve never done this before so it’s going to be whatever happens.
I’m travelling with my buddy Amber Martin who’s an amazing cabaret singer. She’ll do some of her songs. I’ve got a great costume that’s Hedwig-inspired but I’m not playing the role of Hedwig. The costume is kind of part of the set. It’s more of a metaphor. I might also do a song from my new film that I wrote [How to Talk to Girls at Parties] and a few songs from my new musical.
It’s going to be out in podcast form – it’s an audio experience. It’s called Anthem, I don’t have a date yet… maybe end of the year. We found that there’s more freedom to do it as an audio thing. We’ve been able to get actors like Glenn Close, Patti LuPone and Laurie Anderson. It’s just ripe with talent. It’s also starring me. It’s more autobiographical but will be inspired by a five-hour story broken up into ten episodes.
How are you feeling about revisiting Hedwig?
These songs are like old friends. Hedwig is like an ex-wife that I loved. Sometimes I am my ex-wife. It’s a beautiful thing to have been a part of. Stephen and I made Hedwig for pure love, not for money. It turned out to help us out and the world changed enough to have it on Broadway. The film was actually a flop financially but came to fans around the world through other forms, DVD mostly, which meant we never really made any money from it. But we made so many other friends and had experiences that were more valuable than a hit movie would have been. Hedwig has been a kind of personal ad for the rest of my life. Your work is your personal ad, that’s why you should be careful what you put out there. If you put out something half-assed then half-assed people might want to hang out with you.
Do you have an all-time favourite moment or song in Hedwig?
Origin of Love was our first song so it’s probably my favourite. It’s just a brilliant song that Stephen wrote. I gave him the story from Plato and he came back with that and I couldn’t believe it. It was just word for word; maybe one word was changed. There’s also an outtake called Milford Lake that never ended up in the piece and it’s a song for Tommy. It was kind of an apology song but we already had an apology song with him singing Little Wicked Town. So I’ll sing that at the concert too.
"Your work is your personal ad. If you put out something half-assed then half-assed people might want to hang out with you"
How can filmmakers and writers create something without pandering to social media likes and popularity?
I’m not sure. There used to be a thing called selling out, which has disappeared. I always believed in art for art's sake. You work for your work's sake and if the money came – great. We all have to pay the bills, so people did money things and then did their own artistic things. Of course, the joy is to support yourself with the thing that you love. I think social media shifted things so that branding has become something young people talk about, which is a weird thing to talk about when you’re a teenager. And that branding is not necessarily connected to the work.
When you have the Kim Kardashians who are more famous than someone who actually makes something, it warps peoples view of what success means. Is success being the best known and the richest? In that case, Hitler was the biggest star of all. He had all the money and was the best known in the world. To me, fame and money are useful things certainly to do your work and to live, but not the goal. When it becomes the goal, it changes the work. If you’re thinking about what other people want before what you want, you’re already killing your baby. If you’re showing your baby on Youtube in the womb without giving it a chance to develop, then the Youtube comments might be negative and you might abandon the baby. If I had videotaped my first Hedwig gig, it had great moments but was not great, and put that on Youtube and read the user comments, I might not have finished it. Because I wouldn’t get that many likes. To me, making something original and lasting cannot be based on instant likes and instant gratification from people who probably won’t even finish the video. It’s got to be for you and for your friends.
What advice would you give to people who are trying to juggle expressing their creativity while making money from their craft?
Monetisation is not really your job. It’s a secondary job. The job is to make something. My job is to make something that’s useful in a storytelling way. If you’re making something that is actually making the world a little bit better, your soul grows. If you’re making something to get the largest number of people to notice you, you might be making shit. Making a lot of money from something that you’re not proud of can really fuck you up. I’ve seen a lot of people who are rich get really depressed because they’re famous for TV shows that they don’t like, but a lot of other people do. They have fans that they don’t like. It’s worse to be starving for sure, but there’s a kind of starving of the soul that can happen too.
Still of John Cameron Mitchell from "Hedwig & The Angry Inch" movie
Your films have always been very sex-positive and pushed boundaries. I would say that they are ahead of their time. What drives you to create films that challenge people?
It excites me. Being queer means you’re an immigrant to a society you were born into. It means you’re an outsider. It’s hard being the odd woman or odd man out and that’s fertile ground for art. I don’t think art needs to come from trauma but it doesn’t hurt! I came out in the middle of AIDS when sexuality was connected to mortality for gay men; when people were dying and the government was turning a blind eye. Ronald Reagan was ignoring all of these hundreds of thousands of people who died on his watch. It was disgusting. So when you see artists actively trying to save lives in a punk and pragmatic way, it makes you suspicious of authority and suspicious of complacency, and that includes things like Hollywood and Broadway which are the status quo.
I did a sweet teen comedy in the 80’s called Book of Love and the role I was playing was originally homophobic. The director Bob Shaye hadn't noticed. He was straight but not narrow. Stereotype was just the order of the day. I read the script and I didn’t yell at him, but I told him it was disrespectful. He listened but decided at that time it was too much of a teen comedy for him to have a gay character so he asked me to play the role straight. I mean, imagine you were black and a black role was offensively written and someone said, "You're right, we’re going to make the character white." But I did it. I liked the guy, he was trying hard. He was the guy who ran New Line Cinema and later put out Lord of the Rings. Years later, Bob came to see me performing Hedwig and with tears in his eyes said, “I want to help you make this film and I want you to direct it.” I’d never directed before, it was incredible, but I really think it happened because I was non-judgemental and had a constructive engagement with him about a homophobic character that could be written better. He just appreciated me being straight about being gay. He let me make the film I wanted to make, so I’ll always be grateful to Bob. His company was about to go under if Lord of the Rings wasn’t a hit and he still helped me make Hedwig and promoted it and got me a Golden Globe nomination. I owe much to Bob, and Mike DeLuca who first discovered us and to all the folks at New Line.
We were too weird to be in the Oscars. Maybe nowadays, but back then, Hedwig was too weird. Being queer is different from being a different race, but you’re definitely still on the outs when it comes to mainstream culture, and that makes you want to do stuff that is challenging to other people. With that being said, I’m a pop guy too and I want to be entertaining. I want to challenge people's sex panic and "outsider panic". But I also wanted an accessible, loving story that could be useful to anyone.
"Is success being the best known and the richest? In that case, Hitler was the biggest star of all"
Both Hedwig & the Angry Inch & Shortbus managed to infiltrate the mainstream with some queerness and weirdness. How does it feel to have gone from cult to cool?
Cult always was cool in my book. Ten million bought the Frampton Comes Alive album but maybe only 10,000 people bought the Velvet Underground’s first album. But you know what, every one of those 10,000 started a band. Cool is cult. It was a miracle Hedwig got financed. That probably wouldn’t happen now with the same budget, and it wouldn’t star me. People don’t rush to see small films today – they wait for it to go on Netflix. It’s a different culture. There’re still good films but there are fewer adventurous films being made, certainly in the US, because people aren’t rushing to them. It’s a TV world. But we still love our films.
What was the moment in your career when you realised everything had changed?
Once the film came out. It wasn’t a box office hit but it was a critical hit. We won a lot of awards and the film went on the Oscar circuit. We knew we were never going to be in the Oscars because we were too queer with no stars but there was a certain freedom in that. We knew we could be the punk rockers, knowing that we would never become homecoming queen. We weren’t pretty enough or popular enough. Plus, you do have to make and spend money to be nominated for an Oscar and there’s only a slot for a couple of newcomers and we weren’t it. But a lot of people wanted to work with me after that, however, I was older and I wasn’t really up for doing a lot of mainstream Hollywood projects because I knew if I wasn’t doing something I loved, I got cranky. I was a little punk. I didn’t want to do it just for money and fame. I wanted to do Shortbus. I wanted to do Hedwig. I wanted to do something that pushed me in another way. I actually wrote a children's film that was too bizarre and the budget was too big. I could use the money now but I knew I wouldn’t have been happy doing things that I didn't have a strong emotional connection to.
Your new film is called How to Talk to Girls at Parties and it’s an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short story of the same name. How have you found the process of working on a mainstream film with big names?
I don't know if it's a mainstream film. But the stars were joining our party. Rabbit Hole was different for me because I was hired by Nicole Kidman and it was her party. It had a story that moved me deeply because I lost a brother. Nicole had seen Shortbus and Hedwig and thought I should do it. I don’t know why. I think she saw how much I loved the script and she goes on instinct and that’s what’s very special about her. She’s not a career-calculating person. For all her regal bearing and country western provenance, people are now realising how bad-ass she is. She excels with unusual directors. She’s a Tilda Swinton or Isabelle Huppert. She’s ready for it. She’ll work with all types of directors. She commits to not always comfortable situations. So when I asked her to do How to Talk to Girls at Parties, it was a role she’d never done. She was excited. Elle Fanning was already in – she’s brilliant, she’s going to be one of our greats like Nicole. Alex Sharp is wonderful – I always like introducing a young male actor in each of my films. This was his first film and he had these extremely experienced women to help him along. So really it was like my party. I made it the way I made Shortbus. Except, well-known people didn’t want to do Shortbus because stars don’t really have sex.
John Cameron Mitchell & Nicole Kidman
How’s it been working with Neil Gaiman?
Neil’s a doll. He’s not a micromanager. He’s a kind of father figure. He’s someone who does more than any young man can possibly do. He always has a million projects going on at the one time. His wife, Amanda Palmer, introduced us and we found that we had a lot in common. I didn’t really know him that well. I had heard the name and read The Sandman. We really liked each other. My producer brought us together and Neil just checked in every year to see where the script was and didn’t really say much other than great job.
Other times, people blew his stories out of proportion and they lost their Gaiman charm. It seems to have been very warmly received, as Neil has said it’s his favourite adaptation.
What first attracted you to the story?
The short story is a beautiful little tale that didn’t have any punk. It had aliens, but it didn’t have the character that became Elle. Philippa Goslett, our writer, really injected the punk and I was able to then see it as a larger piece. I loved her questioning the idea of female versus male and how do they interact; alien versus human; how do they create a new colony; what is the cosmology these Brexit-like aliens who don’t want outsiders? I was able to talk about a lot of the things that interest me. The film starts out as how to talk to girls at parties, like, how to get laid, but very quickly becomes about parenthood and whether we "evolve or die." Everybody has to evolve, Goddess knows.
Catch John Cameron Mitchell on his The Origin of Love tour which will tour to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival (June 22), Canberra Theatre Centre (July 4), Sydney Opera House (July 6), Arts Centre Melbourne (July 10), and Queensland Performing Arts Centre (July 17).