A Transmission on the Midnight Radio: An Interview with John Cameron Mitchell
From the haunted and scented drag revue of its origins, via Broadway and the silver screen and onto global cult status - this tale of a slip of a girly boy from East Berlin has seduced and bamboozled countless hearts for over 20 years. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the anti-musical. The musical with the good music. The musical that speaks from the heart and not from the soft shoe shuffle. A revelation for each successive generation. Love the front of it.
Now in 2018, one half of the creative cauldron that birthed this phenomenon and it’s most recognisable voice and presence - John Cameron Mitchell - is at last gracing Australian stages with his most bittersweet selection of bon mots. So put on some makeup, he’s pulling the wig down from the shelf.
We’re a couple of weeks away from the Hedwig spectacular here at the Sydney Opera House. It’s been quite a journey for the show, one that mirrors Hedwig’s own journey in a way - even up to you stepping away from it. I think the reason that Hedwig endures is because it’s universal, and it’s universal because it’s authentic, and I think that’s because there’s a lot of you in it. In her.
Stephen Trask and I made it in just pure reaction. We loved theatre and we loved all kinds of music, but we both realised that musical theatre was a little hidebound and stuck in tropes. Occasionally we would see things like Robert Wilson’s 'Black Rider' that would let us know that a musical can be anything, as long as it has songs and a story.
I was thinking of the metaphor of 'The Origin of Love' from Plato and imagining a character looking for different other halves, searching for the thing that was going to complete him. Stephen and I were hanging out in this drag and punk club called The Squeezebox and that was where Hedwig was born. We never did it for a certain audience, we never did it for money, we never did it for Broadway or any kind of venue - we just did it for us, which made it harder to find the places and people who would support it and house it. But that also made it a cult thing; a smaller group of people love it, but they love it more than anyone else. I've always thought I’d rather be ten people’s favourite thing than a million people’s so-so thing.
Developing the show outside of the threatre must have been beneficial, in that it allowed you to workshop the show and let the songs evolve organically, leading up to the Broadway shows, the movie and all that followed.
We were worried that by doing it within a theatre venue and developing it the usual way, it would lose its edge with the band. A lot of ‘rock’ musicals aren’t very rocking (laughs), so keeping as a play in the form of a gig prevented that.
Peter Askin, our producer and original director, built a theatre for us in an old flophouse hotel where the Titanic survivors had stayed, so it had this incredible history of disaster and survival which was perfect for Hedwig. All along the way it was harder to get it going and get it up and get the film made and get it to the audience because it wasn’t easily marketable. Even on this tour where the big motivation was to make money for my mom’s healthcare, it was a little bit ‘how is this gonna work?'. David Hawkins, our producer who did the original production here with iOTA, was reminding the venues that ‘Hey this is something that people will come to’, and they’re asking ‘Well what is it exactly?', and we were like ‘We don’t know!’ (laughs).
The show that I’m bringing is kind of a mix. I’ve got this incredible costume by Eric Bourke that breaks down into six different levels, and everyone is kind of doing it for free for my Mom. Mick Rock shot the photographs for free, and the t-shirts were done for free, so everything is kind of a like a benefit of love. The origin of love. In the show I tell stories about how the musical was born, where the songs came from, autobiographical details, philosophical things, Plato, gnostic gospels and all the underpinnings of the piece - which works for people who haven’t seen Hedwig. I do tell the story. And then we do out-takes, songs that never made it in. I’ll do some songs from my new musical, and Sydney will have some special guests - someone who provided music for ‘Shortbus’ who’s a Brisbane native. There'll be lots of surprises.
I was actually wondering if there was any inspiration you drew from your role of Jacek in the film ‘Misplaced’ when creating Hedwig with the whole immigrant story and the idea of the immigrant as the outsider, in the same way that the punk or the queer is the outsider…
No one has ever mentioned Misplaced! It was well named. It was a PBS American Playhouse piece, I think only I have a copy of that. But yes, I was an army brat so I was always the new guy. I lived in Germany, the UK, all over the States. And the military life… the military is a socialist state for conservatives. You’re taken care of. And it felt very free of racism. I mean it’s a macho culture, but everyone’s from somewhere. It was a leg up for a lot of people and it was integrated earlier than the US. But there were always Army wives from somewhere, and Hedwig came out of that. I think the story of the immigrant is the story of America. And Australia, and Canada. These are immigrant cultures with indigenous cultures that were crushed, and you had people who were the losers of other cultures coming to make a life, or in the case of Australia to just be… warehoused.
The film is also awash with iconography and multiple layers which was especially appealing to those of us who had read Plato and who had worshipped at the altar of the holy trinity of Bowie, Lou and Iggy…
How did that scene and mindset first enter your life? How were you awakened to it, so to speak?
Well I grew up partly in Scotland, so I saw Bowie as a kid. It was very strange and exciting and I wasn’t really comfortable because it was so queer, and the feminine side was so scary. Although he was mostly straight he was super queer.
He was the alien. The queer alien. Later in high school I remember seeing him on Saturday Night Live and he did his famous appearance with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias where they did ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ and ‘TCV15 and ‘The Man Who Sold The World'. He had crazy drag and crazy outfits. He had a marionette body for 'Boys Keep Swinging'. It was just crazy and it probably formed me fully, this 1979 appearance. Seeing some of that stuff at the Bowie exhibit that’s been touring was really exciting. So Bowie was definitely very powerful.
Lou I discovered later in the 80’s and suddenly realised that Bowie looked to Lou and Iggy as his pole stars. Lou was the dark lord street poet with that seemingly emotionless exterior that masked great love for his characters, and of course the music was so spare, as was Iggy’s but his was more violent. Iggy was what what Mick Jagger always wanted to be but never was. The true primal shaman. Iggy never really made a whole lot of money because he didn’t want to and it wasn’t about that. So when I think about the people that I admire, he’s the one that survived isn’t he? I think about those three. Bowie trying to be Iggy and Lou and instead becoming Bowie, which is beautiful.
I think Bowie looked to Lou and Iggy for a sense of authenticity. Bowie was much more a chameleon whereas they were who they were down to the bone.
Yeah, they didn’t change much. Their music could change but their persona didn’t. Of course Bowie was an actor and mime and was always about reinvention, but unlike Madonna or Lady Gaga or something, it didn’t feel like fashion. It felt like character. He synthesised stuff from himself and, of course, stole from the best too. And it felt original unlike some of the other artists who are considered chameleons. So being an actor, Bowie was very important to me and the queerness of glam rock was super important. Even if the three of them were fairly heterosexual, they always had part of themselves in a queer place and certainly sang about and experimented with it.
Do you ever get taken aback at the thought that Hedwig has had that same kind of impact on a lot of people?
Well it doesn’t seem right to say that because these are my idols! I guess I’ve always had a kind of Scottish ‘Just don’t get too big for your britches’ kind of attitude. The least attractive thing is people who are blowing themselves up. Certainly rap and rock is often about blowing yourself up, but I play a fake rock star. I’m not a real rock star. Bowie said he did ‘white plastic soul’, he wasn’t a soul guy, so I acknowledge that what I do is a role. But it is very gratifying to meet people who say that Hedwig or Shortbus really helped them, because there’s so much stuff that’s just about self-aggrandisement. That's fine - art is great for telling yourself that you exist - but it’s got to be of use. It’s got to be something that pushes things forward, as opposed to dragging you back into some baser instinct. Especially now, I just feel really ashamed of a lot of our country at the moment, it’s really strange…
One would expect that there would have been a lot more art to have come from this tilt to the right and neo-cons taking it to the next level. When Thatcher was around there was lots of great music, when Reagan was around there was lots of great music as a reaction, which doesn’t really seem to have occurred or transpired this time…
I think people are scared. They’re terrified. They’re paralysed by the internet too. The internet made Trump possible because it started to distort truth. It’s reducing empathy, it’s building fear. It started with Bush to a degree, but he seems like a moderate now despite the Iraq war. And now there’s a kind of coarsening. Hate is now okay and in fact cool for some. I just hope that now that means we can identify the sources of it as opposed to before, where there was a bit more hiding. But those people who were saying that there’s no difference between Trump and Hillary and who didn’t vote? I just can’t believe it. It’s maddening.
You’ve returned to the punk well for your new film ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’. One of the things I found interesting and appealing about the whole punk rock phenomenon was the art of transformation and the DIY element. There were personas being forged; people took on pseudonyms like Johnny Rotten, Rat Scabies and Palm Olive to help complete the transformation. It seems like a great example of ugly duckling syndrome where you can become transformed and reinvent yourself.
Totally, the do it yourself thing and the democratisation of art is very important. And questioning everything. That’s why it has a lot in common with Queer.
Punk and Queer felt very naturally allied, and sometimes when they crossed over it was very exciting. I mean, Little Richard was the first real punk. He was Bowie’s favourite, and then Bowie helped to make punk happen. So the idea of self-invention, the idea of questioning authority, questioning complacency, that’s the way it’s always been done. Although anything can settle into conformity, including punk. Punk itself did that very quickly with the whole ‘that’s not punk’ attitude and the adoption of rules. It’s not very punk to have rules. Sadly it started out as a kind of anti-capitalist thing too, but fashion can co-opt anything, the right wing can co-opt anything.
By itself, punk is like a neutral disruptive energy. In some ways you could even argue that Trump is a kind of right wing punk, kind of smashing things inordinately without any reason but pure ego. It’s sad to see that in the US the old people have become punk and the young people are paralysed. Although I like the Parkland Teenagers, they seem like the new kind of punk that I like.
It seems that as things have become more open and free, the act of transgression has swapped sides and taken on this ugly right wing manifestation.
Which of course is what happened with the National Front in Britain in the 80’s, and you could say the Nazis too. Whatever is exciting, new and disruptive is punk. There’s a sense of helplessness now among young people. Millennials specifically came up in an economically uncertain time, post 9/11 and with the internet, which kind of disempowered them. It made a lot of people feel detached. It robbed them of agency as well, because they didn’t have to find their own thing anymore.
There such an abundance of content available which you used to have to dig for, and in the art of looking you were gifted a sense of identity that was yours.
Yeah, it’s very strange to be young right now. It’s very strange to be anyone right now. I need to remind people that things are rough, but they were rough at other times and it’s just how we’re getting the information that’s different. In many ways the 70’s was rougher for a lot of people in the UK, US and other places, but there was a sense of subculture that could counteract the monoculture that wasn’t working anymore. But now internet subculture just feels different. It doesn’t feel real. In order for it to feel real, you have to be in the room.
So what’s next for you? It’s always been difficult to predict what you’ll do next because you’ve zigged and you’ve zagged, but what do you have in the works right now?
What I’m mostly working on now is my new musical, which is going to be released first as an audio play in the form of a podcast series. It’s called 'Anthem', and I’m starring in it with Glen Close, Patty LuPone and a lot of amazing actors. Working in this form is very freeing because I can make notes and edit and record things from my bedroom. Although It’s expensive for a podcast, because there’s a lot of music, actors and editing in five hours of story, it’s very freeing to do something without the responsibility of a giant budget. So that will hopefully come out early next year.
I’m also more of an actor for hire now. One of the reasons I’m here is to pay for my Mom’s healthcare, so I’ll need to do some TV to get back out of the money pit of American Healthcare. There are shows where I can do like what I did in the 90’s, play the gay best friend, the gay dad or the gay boss, which is fine 'cause then I can work on my other stuff and just shoot a little bit. I’m working on a few television series ideas, I don’t really have a film on board. Small films are harder now than they ever were because people’s attentions are elsewhere and people aren’t rushing to theatres for small films anymore - that’s why you’re seeing less daring small films. Less daring films, period. The small ones were the daring ones. The big budgets don’t dare.
The Origin of Love: The Songs & Stories of Hedwig will show at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival on June 22, Canberra Theatre Centre on July 4, Sydney Opera House on July 6, Melbourne Arts Centre on July 10 and Brisbane QPAC on July 17. Tickets on sale from the venues.