John Cameron Mitchell

Four didn’t seem like enough and six seemed like too many and so five it was. Specifically, The Live Five, a place in WONGDOODY space where we drag in figures of note and blast them with five questions about creativity. In the hopes that if you look at something long enough it might change how you understand it. For the better.

John Cameron Mitchell, they/them of stage, screen and page, is in fine fettle when we find them in their New York digs. Relaxing into a realization that while, in a lot of ways it is the worst of times, for them it’s without a doubt at least one of the best ones as well. Not just because they’re jazzed, in the most puckish of ways, about the possibility of their soon-to-come podcast called Cancellation Island being a reality but, with no fewer than two major bookings in 2022 so far — Joe Exotic in Joe Vs. Carole, as well as something significant in this summer’s much-anticipated The Sandman — Mitchell is, in actual fact, having a very good year.

“You know in the ’70s, everything was worse than it is now, except for the climate change, right?” Mitchell smiles before honing in on their point. Which almost feels like a secret. “There was more poverty, there was more terrorism, there was more war, there was more hunger and more disease. But the way we got the information didn’t destroy us. People were focused on what was going on in front of them. For better or worse.”

So it goes that in light of the firehose that now feeds us all of the news that was fit to print, blog, tweet, Tik Tok, IG, Reels, and back around again, we’ve got a pretty significant job task in front of us now. Which is why we’re going to need you to take a breather, lower the heart rate and walk awhile with us while John Cameron Mitchell tells us that everything is kinda/sorta going to be OK.

And, oh yes: Welcome to The Live Five!

 

It seems, creatively speaking, that where acting is a craft, everything else connected to it is an art. You’ve done it all long enough that you’d know better than most. So, is that bifurcation even sensible to make?

Yeah, I think they both contain both elements. You know, when you think about craftspeople, you’re like, ‘wow, they made that table.’ You know that’s a craft. But it can move into art. Well, here’s a perfect example: fashion. Clothing fashion has craft in it. But it doesn’t necessarily always go into the into art.

Or a sitcom. I think making a sitcom has craft in it. And, certainly, it’s entertainment, but art is something else entirely. I mean it goes to another level, and oftentimes you can’t define even art, right? It’s like the old take on obscenity: sure…I know it when I see it.

I had an amazing mentor in college, Frank Galati, who said, well, there’s the old image of you seeing the full moon and it’s beautiful. But you move your head and it’s cradled in a tree. That’s art. You know, as soon as you put it there. It’s not necessarily good art, but it is defined by art because of your perspective on it.

So, you know, directing can be workmanlike and craft like. I mean we’ve all seen things where we are like, ‘OK, that they just put it together”, but rising to the next level of art requires intention. As well as the eye of the beholder.

I used to say you’re not really in love unless the other person is in love with you…if not that then it is just obsession, or infatuation, which can be just as powerful. But the circuit, of love and being loved, isn’t there, right? So, I like the circuit being there for our viewer.

And I do call myself an artist more than other things because it’s a kind of broader term. And I absolutely don’t have disdain for people who just called themselves entertainers at all. It’s a beautiful thing, and when it crosses over into art, it’s my favorite intersection.

But it’s refreshing to be talking about art because you know, you and I come from a pre-digital generation where art for art’s sake was a thing. The kids today don’t really know what you’re talking about. They haven’t heard that term in a while and selling out is kind of a difficult term for them to understand because they’ve been trained by digital culture to brand themselves and sell themselves from a very young age.

Everything has been commodified. Capitalism even sort of took over sex. You don’t even see it really in art much anymore. It’s kind of been claimed by the Internet and flattened. Like I was just speaking on a TV show, which is kind of like a Drag Race offshoot and there’s a perfect example: you know, drag has been all kinds of things. Drag could be anything, and it comes from ancient traditions in Greece or Japan or whatever.

But, you know, RuPaul took it, standardized it, gave it rules, gave it a competition, which we love to do in America and sold it by kind of smoothing off the rough edges. Still doing it with humor and a sense of a humanity, you know she does mean well, but it’s like American Idol for music, right? It just became a product.

And something else: if you win that your future is tied in up in a track because if they do well, no one wants to hear the artists’ own songs, right?

So, a lot of what I do now is remind young people that they are unique, and that imitation is the beginning of art often, but it can’t be the end because if you’re looking for clicks, you’re not listening to your inner voices, and you’re crushing originality at the source.

In light of what you just said, is Hollywood dead? That is, has the burst of creativity and the cash and the desire to radically impress through cinema that you had in the ’70s, will that ever return?

You want to know why I disagree with that? I mean, yes, that was an interesting, and probably my favorite era of American film. It was an art that came out of Vietnam. It came out of the Civil Rights movement. It came at the end of the ‘60s in a few, a couple of films, Easy Rider, and a couple of others came and busted things up because people suddenly wanted to see something that hadn’t been seen. Some would call it more reality. Some would call it anti-authoritarianism.

But you know, Bonnie & Clyde was one of them. Even though when you look at it now, it seems very stylized, and it’s not really realistic, but it sort of was. It was. Maybe its violence was the rebellion, and it was also super anti-authoritarian. So that’s what I grew up with…that ‘70s’ thing where it was cool to hate the man, however you defined ‘the man’. A mailman, a white man, a president. You know, it wasn’t quite the straight man yet, but it was. And it often came from, say, a left point of view because Nixon and Watergate and Vietnam were ascendant.

But it led to a kind of…the playground was opened, and suddenly people were throwing bits of money at people to make weird things. And there was a sense of, like, anything eclectic goes. An ugly person could be a movie star, a weirdo could be huge. But then that door kind of slammed in the US with Reagan, and then in the UK with Thatcher, where there was a like, ‘alright, enough with the inmates taking over the asylum.’ Which tracks back to money, really.

I mean, in my school it was so uncool to be rich. Everyone just wanted to dress down and then during Reagan it was cool. Which was weird. I didn’t get it. Then AIDS hit and that was for my generation, the defining thing about the ‘80s.

But I think film started to return a bit in the ‘90s. Maybe the leftover punk spirit, which was also, initially, critical of, at least, the powers that be. And in this weird 10 years of Clinton and economic, at least on the surface, stability ushered in The Year Punk Broke, 1991, where it became mainstream with Nirvana. Which is what confused Kurt Cobain. Like ‘what am I? I’m the biggest guy in the world?!?’ A fact that was clearly too much for him, but at the same time, starting in ‘89 with sexualizing videotape, there was a good 15 years of I’d say a third Golden Age of American film.

Films like Happiness, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Wong Kar-Wai’s stuff, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, crazy stuff that is uncategorizable, but was free and oftentimes going to places that would be uncool.

I still feel optimistic though because I guess I’m remaining active and doing what I do and I’ve always had people who said just do your thing, you know everything else will come after that.

You came out to your family like seven or eight years before you came out professionally. The media suggestion was that this was a decision that was based on your perception of homophobia in the industry. Now in 2022, how much does that feel like justifiable paranoia and how much not?

I was always out. The public coming out was really just because I was in a play that somebody wanted to do a feature about, so that was just the first time I had a public pedestal to say it, but whenever I would, even when I was doing action movies in the ‘80s, you know in Miami or whatever…people were like, ‘You’re in these movies. You’re gonna have to be in the closet for your career.’ And I was like, ‘well, that’s the way it is.’

But it was in the middle of the AIDS epidemic and I had some good teachers so my attitude was that you can tell me what to do for the role. But don’t tell me what to do in my life because people are dying over here. It seemed really selfish to go be in the closet when this was happening.

So there’d be homophobic comments amongst crews, ‘faggot’ or whatever, but I didn’t mind the language or the words. It’s just how you use them, right?

However, whenever I was in a new job I would just sort of let it drop that I had a boyfriend and it just came out casually the way they would talk about their girlfriends. And so then it was like in the air and the comments stopped. It was just like a little like prophylactic, you know, just throwing it out there. It wasn’t needed to make a big deal out of it. I’m just the same as you, but let’s just, you know, let’s even it out and be civil and those small things are little teaching moments for people. I don’t feel the need to be a poster person, but I didn’t want to be in that environment because that’s where I was my whole life.

I’ll give you a better example though: In the late ‘80s, for a teen film called Book Of Love and the director was the head of New Line Cinema. I went in, hadn’t read it until I got there. And the character was horribly homophobically written.

I mean, it was the equivalent of a Black character and he’s carrying in a watermelon. Every joke. Every stereotype. AND the character was a pedophile and into S&M, and the director said, ‘what do you think?

I said, “You know, I have to say this character seems very homophobically written.” He said he had never heard that term before. So I explained and he said ‘Well, how would you do it if he wasn’t gay?’ So we made him straight and he cast me. It was a bad experience. Bad enough that I left Hollywood and moved to New York, but then 15 years later, this man who, you know, made Lord of the Rings and everything else came to see me in a play and afterward, with tears in his eyes, he said that the play was so beautiful but ‘I really appreciate how you dealt with me back then and I would like to finance the Hedwig film with you directing’. And I had never directed a film before.

He said it’s because ‘I love it, but also because the way you didn’t scorn me. You just kind of let me know in a constructive way. And I was ignorant. You didn’t scream at me and cancel me. You just said… “this could be better”.’

What’s coming up that’s exciting to you that we wouldn’t know or haven’t figured out yet?

You know, I surround myself with people who do have hope and have energy and are doing things. So great teachers and mentors. And it’s very important for me to pass stuff on too. I have like three young friends who I’m trying to inspire. One could be a really wonderful writer. He’s already very good. The other is like a Southern white boy who wants to be a professional wrestler. He’s gay and you know, he’s very Midnight Cowboy.

But outside of I May Destroy You, I love Veneno. It’s two Spanish guys named Harvey. They go by Los Chavis, and they’re boyfriends. They made a limited series but it’s about a real life person who is a trans sex worker in the ‘90s who became a celebrity a little bit like Hedwig. It’s real and they dramatize it, and he found five actors to play her at different ages and they’re brilliant.

Plus my idea for Cancellation Island. I’m making a fictional podcast now called Cancellation Island. Where all the cancelled people go. And all the therapists are Gen Z. I’m just writing now, but we have an offer for financing coming in and it would probably be early next year.

Since 2022 your pronouns have become they/them. We touched on the professional aspect of coming out but what was the personal one like?

If you’re a queer person, generally, you grow up in a straight environment, and you become obsessed with your difference, and this defines you. It can be good in that it forces you to question everything. But then you always feel like you don’t belong and you seek your community where you can just forget about your difference, right? That’s the goal. Ultimately, we want to forget about why we’re different and we’re just living and we’re having a good time.

And I got to that point because one of the weird things about being a queer boy is, your femininity is the worst thing you can be, right? So, if you’re a boy, it’s worse than being a murderer. It’s worse than you know…anything.

But my dad was a general in the army. And he was a lovely guy who was actually in the closet I found out later when I came out. He was proud and told me that he thought I’d just do what he did and marry a woman. In his instance it was my mom who was super Catholic and from Scotland, and obsessed with the Virgin Mary. She had visions of the Virgin Mary and she would travel the world where visions were happening, and then she’d paint the visions.

So, I was hamstrung from the beginning, and weirdly, it took something like acting. It took Hedwig to love myself, you know, to go: Wow, these feminine energies I was crushing are kind of awesome. And it also suddenly made me attracted to feminine guys, which says a lot in the queer male world.

But you haven’t really become an adult if you don’t come out, and I don’t…look everyone’s journey is different and I would never force someone out unless they were a homophobe. So when I came out my mother, who had suspicions about my Dad, was like, ‘oh great. Now everyone’s gay against me!’

She was a strong, vibrant person who was funny as hell, but she was a victim and everything was happening to her. Dad was the one who calmed her down because once he realized I was on my own path, he was supportive. You know, he was a loving guy. Everyone loved him. He was just the best guy and I think in his career, even being closeted, this really helped him as a leader.

Then he got Alzheimer’s, and even then he still schooled her. So when she said I was going to go to hell, even in the Alzheimer’s, he snapped out of it and said ‘Joan, stop it. Your son is a good person and you know that.’ Then he’d forget what he just said. But I was still moved that he would care.