Closing night in Toronto brought Justin Kelly’s low-budget indie labor of love, “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy,” which lured two bankable actresses with its twisted but true tale of mistaken author/avatar identity. Dern flew to Toronto from filming “Little Women” and Stewart from the set of “Charlie’s Angels” to help Kelly sell the movie in Toronto. The filmmakers wanted to screen “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” to friendly TIFF fans in order to land some upbeat reactions. (Metascore: 63.)
“This is as independent as it can get,” said Dern on the phone from the TIFF press day. “If a distributor gives Justin the time and love he needs to shape it, it’s about being able to finesse a thing we made on a shoestring.”
Clearly, both actresses rolled up their sleeves on set. When extras didn’t arrive in late ’90s-early ’00s period clothing, Dern and Stewart threw T-shirts on them “so it looks like a rich and real environment to live and breathe in,” said Stewart. “We are really running and gunning.” For the party scene, they threw a “house party” and ordered pizza, while the cinematographer picked up the camera.
The two women also bonded as the hardworking LA children of industry pros. “We both grew up knowing movie sets like a second home,” said Dern. “I gotta say, I could never have a more perfect partner who knows how to make a $2-million movie. We’ve seen it all.”
Unlike Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” author Laura Albert (Laura Dern), who created the fictional battered memoirist JT Leroy, is not the central focus, but rather her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), who also produced and co-wrote the screenplay.
Over six years, Knoop took on the public role of the shy, soft-spoken androgynous author LeRoy, while Albert whispered into the ears of his many celebrity fans by phone. On one trip when Knoop left her Bay Area boyfriend behind, she embarked on a lesbian affair with a charismatic filmmaker (Diane Kruger plays a version of Asia Argento), who turned her book into a movie. That’s when Knoop’s identity was really challenged. Who was making love to who?
The actresses supported each other as they tried to help Kelly and Knoop deliver a believable movie, which was complicated at best. Both actresses took on and off multiple costumes and wigs as several characters: Albert has her own red-wigged alter ego as JT LeRoy’s pushy manager/publicist, while Knoop’s LeRoy persona keeps evolving, adopting a blonde wig and black hat. “We were changing constantly,” said Dern. “It was as punk rock as anything.”
“You do what you have to do,” said Stewart, “when you’re trying to get on the other side of adversity. Our intentions were aligned, with a few heartbreaks when things were not perfect and we were not getting what we wanted. We bolstered each other in way that allowed us to laugh at it as well. Considering the budget and time restraints, everyone had to stand at attention and not let things slip through cracks.”
The actress was also trying to protect Knoop, “who was not just a silly kid swept up in something that exploded in her face,” said Stewart. “She was fearful at losing herself in something bigger than her. It was a performative weird experience that was dizzying and exhilarating and confidence building. But it took a lot from her, it was draining, and at the end she couldn’t get away from it. There’s nothing worse than not being seen. I’m happy this movie exists because this is what fucking happened.”
“JT was one way for Laura to express her own pain and experience,” said Dern, who fell in love with Albert’s “brokenness.” “It was one writer’s way of expressing their truth.” As eagerly as celebrities jumped on the JT LeRoy bandwagon, after the fabricated identity was exposed, they angrily attacked Albert and Knoop for lying to them. “You’re asking, ‘Who’s using who?’ said Dern. “Is everybody so desperate that they need to be part of this thing?”
Stewart, who is openly bisexual, is thrilled that screenwriters are bringing her a wider range of women characters (she and Chloe Sevigne play lovers in “LIzzie,” which just hit theaters). “That has opened up in the world a bit,” Stewart said. “It’s not solely my journey to now start playing gender-fluid characters. More of them are now being written and presented to me. That’s a triumph for sure. I read things and say, ‘Where are the queer kids?’ I feel happy championing and telling those stories.”
She also didn’t mind joining the light-hearted set of Elizabeth Banks’ remake of “Charlie’s Angels.” “I’ve never done such a fun movie,” Stewart said. “JT was fun but it was dark and heavy, a lot of weight. This was a lot of flouncing around joking, women supporting each other, not just kicking ass and being kitschy. It was so well-intentioned and warm and strong. The only reason to remake ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was to do a super-woke version, with no objectification whatsoever.”
Dern is also remaking a classic, director Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” she said, “trying to do a new retelling from a female feminist perspective, with a delicious group of women.”