Jimmy McMillan is wearing women’s stockings on his hands. That’s the first new thing I learn about the eccentric founder of “The Rent is Too Damn High” party, whom the world turned into an overnight viral celebrity after his role in the 2010 New York gubernatorial debate exploded onto the internet. The 65-year-old McMillan’s distinctive beard-and-muttonchops look has inspired Halloween costumes, ballads, and even a lucrative action figure.
Before all that, however, McMillan was already the star of a documentary. “Damn!,” which opens at New York’s Cinema Village on August 12, follows McMillan from his relative obscurity as a one-man-band activist of his self-made cause in 2005 through last year’s sudden events that brought him instant fame. In the movie, directed by Aaron Fisher-Cohen, McMillan alternately comes across as a raving maniac and a sincere, lonely rabble-rouser with serious convictions. A Republican whose platform is obvious to anyone remotely familiar with his shtick, McMillan is gearing up to run for president in 2012, which might mean that “Damn!” needs a sequel. And McMillan may need a fresh pair of gloves. indieWIRE sat down with one of the strangest faces in modern politics for a meandering hourlong conversation involving his feelings about the documentary, his comedy routine, an upcoming presidential campaign, and his open affection for pornography.
What do you think of the movie?
For me, it’s a message. If you didn’t like the movie, I know you’d admire one thing: The messenger is not playing with the message. That’s the way I look at it. It keeps the message out there. Someone has simplified it in a way that no one else has been able to do, and that person is me. The media – “Meet the Press,” CNN, CBS – they’re talking about the budget deficit. The people they’re talking about don’t have a clue. When I hear them, I don’t want to hear no more.
The interesting thing about the movie is that you seem very convinced you’re going to be elected governor, even though your chances were very slim.
I made dinner. The people rejected my dinner and they ate [current New York governor] Andrew Cuomo’s dinner. So when I got the chance to be a part of a documentary, I said, “Let me show a side of me that you don’t see.” Meet me, and how I do this and that, like how I cut up clothing to make new things instead of throwing things away. That’s why at a certain point I said, “Let’s end it.” I needed to save room for desert, for who I am. You got part of the dinner at the debate. Now the desert comes. I realized that people are silly. Those who need to get from point A to point B, they are voting and getting involved in the political process and don’t have a clue what they’re doing. And that’s where we are right now. We’re in a mess.
Going back to the movie: You say at one point that you had no idea you would attain instant celebrity status after the debate. But you also say that you’ve been planning this all along. How do you reconcile those two statements?
What I meant is that I had no idea people would embrace the Rent is Too Damn High Party. I had no idea that it would take me to the status of an icon. I knew I was on to something. I had no idea people would be coming for my autograph, but I knew this wasn’t 15 minutes of fame. I had to reach out and get people’s attention. So that’s where the beard comes in. I sat in my car before the debate and started to push my hair back like Don King, and then realized I didn’t want that. I laid it all back. It was all planned. I didn’t want to sound like Don King, Jessie Jackson or Al Sharpton. I thought about Hulk Hogan. He’s a white guy but not a pastor at a church. The only people in the black community who have done what I’ve done have been pastors in churches. The media only pays attention to ministers like Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson. They have become the negro spokesmen. I said, “I want to keep ethnicity out of the campaign and focus on rent.” This is my time. Every dog has its day; this is my day.
What did you expect would happen when these filmmakers came to you with the intention of making a documentary about your career?
“Y’all got tape? Let’s go.” It didn’t bother me. I wasn’t ashamed of what I did. You want to tape stuff I do? Bring it.
Then why did you eventually tell them to stop filming you?
They had enough dinner. You don’t serve dinner and dessert at the table at the same time. Everything I do is well planned. I didn’t get into this for fame. I got into this because people can’t pay their rent.
When did you decide you wanted them to stop filming you?
When I got home one night, there were TV cars on my block and I couldn’t get into my neighborhood. I called the landlady and asked if somebody had been murdered, because people get killed in my neighborhood. She didn’t know what was going on. I decided I wouldn’t go home. I drove to the river and went to sleep. I came back later on and a few press cars were still there. I decided to go get some breakfast. I turned the radio on and heard: “McMillan has stolen the show.” (laughs) That did it. I said, “I never stole nothing in my life and I don’t plan to steal this.” I’m a jokester. CNN called me a wacky candidate because they don’t understand. I learn how to turn the truth into humor like Ronald Reagan did. I brought his attitude to the debate: Have a lot of humor but be serious about what you say.
Reagan was an actor. Do you see yourself as an actor?
I overlook the actor part. He got his point across. I simplify stuff in a way. I focus on the necessity. The necessities are the issues, the rent. The accessories are the issues they were all talking about. When I focus on the necessities and you can’t make me go off course.
There’s a scene in the film where your manager tells you that you need a better answer when people ask if you pay your rent, but all you reply when asked is, “I pay.” Do you wish now that you had a better response?
Those are accessories. That’s not what I want to talk about. It’s that people can’t pay their rent. I’m here to get to the core of a people’s crisis. They can’t afford to live here. Talking about me is an accessory. Everyone needs to learn that. I listened to the Republican presidential debate on CNN. Don King was asking them questions about the accessories. This is why the country is failing. The media needs to learn from me, because if they don’t, they’re going to get a good education from me when they ask me these questions. I am a teacher. People listen to what the press has to say, and they’ve sent America into an ignorant mode. They’re ignorant of math, economics. When they come up to me and say it’s not about rent, I know that they’re ignorant.
But…you have to understand why someone would ask about your rent, since rent is all you talk about. It’s just a logical step.
To a moron, yeah. I’m here to teach about how we got into this $14 trillion debt. If I go behind you and steal $10, are you going to steal it back? Or do you leave it there? You can’t just go along with the program. That’s why we’re in this mess. You have to change. If you don’t, you’re going to continue going on a bad path and be part of the problem. You have to say, “Enough.” I said, “Enough.” I’m not going to go down that path.
There’s another scene where you’re supposed to take a call for a radio show but don’t seem up to it. Why were you sick of media requests?
You get your grey hair because you’re not relaxed about what happens. You can’t go to the bathroom and take a call at the same time. You’ve gotta hold that bad boy. I am in charge of me and that’s how it’s always going to be. I control what I want to do and you’re not going to stress me out. I was new at the game, but these filmmakers were only ones who listened to my message, because they’re young and stupid. You know, they’re kids. When you try to be yourself, things are good.
At the end of the movie, you start looking around for gigs as a spokesperson. How do you feel about that line of work?
For this campaign, I only had $16.91 in my account. I got no support from nobody. I got the opportunity to serve dinner, using the documentary as part of it. I knew there was a domino effect around the world. I needed economic resources so I could branch out further. I wanted to do that–Coke, Pepsi, you name it. I wanted my name everywhere. I wanted it so that when you talk about me, all people say is, “the rent is too damn high.” And guess what? It worked.
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Now you’re working on a presidential campaign. Do you think “Damn!” will an impact on it?
No, it don’t show anything about a president. It shows that I got here with no money. I wouldn’t have been on that debate if it hadn’t been for me, myself and I. Nobody gave me a penny or a dime. I had no one. I was determined not to stop. Sometimes people come up who do extraordinary things you’d never believe possible. JFK is one of them. Martin Luther King was another. And Jimmy McMillan was the third.
Barack Obama doesn’t qualify in your book.
No. He didn’t do nothing. What’d he do? Because he’s black?
You tell me. Is there anything about Obama that you like?
There’s nothing I don’t like about him. He’s just putting people in a worse condition than they already were in. Every child is my child. I need to save my sons. I wrote [Obama] a letter a few times; he won’t respond to my letters. So I said, “I’m going to run against your black ass.” People said if I was a white guy and said that, I would be racist. You don’t understand, I use words in quotes. If it comes out, I have to say it. People aren’t taught about humor. I’m a jokester. Barack Obama is the head of the Democratic Party. Their symbol is an ass. So I’m coming after his black ass. I’m coming after the Democratic Party.
Now that you’ve learned about the power of viral media, do you want to capitalize on it for your presidential campaign?
The approach is much different because my popularity is booming. I never expected what I’ve gone through. I want to keep it disciplined. I’m here to do a job, to teach everyone a lesson. Nobody has sent me a donation. I’m not worried. The people I’m running against in the Republican Party are not qualified to be there. There are a few debates coming up. The Ronald Reagan debate is coming up in September. When I do get invited, it’s over. Let’s be for real. The other men who are running, they were governors. They don’t understand that they were responsible for this problem. I will crush them like an orange in my hand.
Do you interact with your fans?
They email me a lot, tell me I have their support, a lot of volunteers throughout the world. At therentistoodamnhigh.org, I just did a Skype conference with Israel. They’re having a rent crisis in Tel Aviv. They can’t afford to pay the rent. The same corrupt government that is in the Arab world is right here in America. The Arab world is doing something about it. They’re protesting it. The European government, the kids are protesting. America is not.
In the movie, you don’t seem to like talking about your personal life, although as a presidential candidate you won’t be able to avoid that sort of scrutiny. Is there a reason you won’t discuss it?
As a karate teacher?
No, just as a person.
If you’re hurting so bad, you just lost your mortgage, you just lost your home, why do you want to know about me? It takes a special kind of person…I used to be a stripper. It’s on my Facebook. You want to know how I wiggle my weed? What do you want to know about my private life?
Are you planning on releasing a new album?
Yeah. I want to start doing a live show. I’m always writing. When I leave here, I’ll write a song about you. I want my children to see daddy look good.
What sort of movies and TV do you watch?
I watch porno.
I…was not expecting that.
It’s real. I believe the government should stay out of the bedroom. That’s why I said during the debate, “If you want to marry a shoe, I’ll marry you.”
What do the next few months hold for you?
I gotta be real with you. I’m tired. Do you know what it took to get me on that debate? I’ve been doing this for two decades. I really need a vacation. Now I do more sleeping. But there’s still a lot of work to do. I got “The Rent is Too Damn High” patented so nobody can touch that now.