I’ve never seen someone work an apple crate quite like John Cameron Mitchell. It’s early 2015, and two weeks into his celebrated return to the iconic role and show he created with composer Stephen Trask, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Mitchell had sustained a knee injury that severely limited his movement — especially in 4-inch fuck-me pumps. But, just like when I saw Patti LuPone do “Rose’s Turn” in Isotoners, Mitchell soldiered on, knee brace and all. Resting his leg on an apple crate, he invented a story that Hedwig had been attacked (perks of being the writer), and the whole injury seemed to make him even looser with the clever one-liners than usual.
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the radical rock opera about an East German cabaret singer who’s undergone a forced sex change, first debuted Off Broadway in 1998. Mitchell began developing the character in the mid-‘90s at Squeezebox, a since-closed drag club that boasted drop-in shows by the likes of Debbie Harry and Cherie Currie. During a lively discussion between Mitchell and John Waters at the Provincetown Film Festival earlier this month, Waters called it the “last good gay bar in New York.”
“Hedwig” reached cult status with the release of the film version in 2001, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival that year to rapturous reviews and multiple awards. A new 4k digital restoration joined the Criterion Collection this week, complete with Mitchell’s audio commentary and an eighty-five-minute documentary tracing the project’s origins. Though it’s hard to imagine, Mitchell told Waters he was terrified the first time he did Hedwig.
“Stephen Trask was head of the house band and we were working on the piece, and he said, ‘You can do a gig here but you have to do a female role, because it’s a drag club,’” recalled Mitchell. “I was really scared of my feminine side, because it was just drilled into you that it was the worst thing. So, doing that first gig, I was so nervous, and I had tucked for no reason because nobody could see below my waist.”
“Hedwig” became a symbol of creative freedom for a generation of queer people just beginning to explore alternative expressions of gender, sexuality, and desire. One queer friend said “Hedwig” was formative in her understanding of her sexuality: “That film corroborated my feeling that gender and desire were more fluid than everyone else was making it seem.” For many trans people, it was the first positive portrayal of a trans character they had ever seen onscreen, though Mitchell disputes the label.
“I’ve never thought of Hedwig as trans, because of the coercion,” Mitchell said. “Hansel, the boy, was quite comfortable being the feminine gay boy that he was. He was, in a way, forced into a kind of mutilation. There was no choice. There was no agency. It was the patriarchy saying, ‘You’ve got to do this to be married, to get out, to be free.’ So to me, it’s more of a statement about the binarchy.” He added: “Many trans, non-binary, queer, straight people have said it felt activating for them at a certain age. I’ve never, from people I’ve actually met, had any negative [reaction], because it’s a freeing thing.”
Even by today’s standards, “Hedwig” feels just as radical as it did twenty years ago. Her punk rock drag, swoon-worthy melodies, and anti-fascist spirit are just as vital and relevant to today’s political landscape. “It’s a metaphor and it’s a fairy tale. Also, on stage, it’s played by all genders. I welcome all genders. It’s a mask. Drag is a mask that you put on. It’s more about drag than a trans thing.”
At the time of the first stage show, drag was incendiary enough for many mainstream audiences. Mitchell recalls Rosie O’Donnell having to fight her producers to show a number from “Hedwig” on her daytime talk show. David Letterman, however, fought against inviting “Hedwig” to “Late Night.”
“I rip the wig off at the end of ‘Tear Me Down,’ and during rehearsal a voice from the booth said ‘Um, could you please not remove the wig during the song?’,” Mitchell remembers of the “Late Night” performance. “So I remove the wig during the song when we did the show and they cut it out. Letterman usually comes down and shakes your hand, but he didn’t shake mine.”
Always looking ahead to the next project, Mitchell has generously relinquished creative ownership of his baby. Though he’s recently returned to the part for a concert tour, during the 2015 Broadway revival, the role of Hedwig was inhabited by Neil Patrick Harris, Michael C. Hall, Andrew Rannells, and Taye Diggs, to say nothing of the countless other productions over the years.
“To me, it’s like an ex-wife that I love and I’m glad we’re apart. Or a red-headed stepchild that I kind of raised but kicked out early. I’m happy for her to be working elsewhere with other people playing it,” said Mitchell.
A working actor from a young age, Mitchell quickly discovered he preferred directing.
“There were just so many dumb directors,” he told Waters. “Or they were good at one thing and not another. They would be good at visuals and bad with acting, good with acting but bad at script. I had good ones too, for sure, but I kept thinking, ‘Oh God, I wish they would just do that.’”
Less embraced by the mainstream, but just as revelatory in queer circles, is Mitchell’s provocative second feature, 2006’s erotic comedy “Shortbus.” The film involves a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm, a sex salon run by famed New York cabaret artist Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, and features multiple un-simulated sex scenes. Mitchell performs oral sex on a woman in one orgy scene.
“My Mom was delighted that I finally ate pussy and proved it on 60 millimeter film,” he said.
When Waters asked if he could make “Shortbus” today, Mitchell was unsure. “At the time, our only problem was from the religious right. Now I don’t know if I’d be able to finance ‘Shortbus’ because maybe as a gay man having a straight Asian woman having an orgasm in front of me would be improper.”
Mitchell attributes the five-year gap between his hugely successful debut and his riskier second feature to his discerning taste.
“I was offered a lot of things. I’ve been offered dozens of movies to direct since then, and I’m just very picky,” Mitchell said during a phone interview. “I started directing later in life, so I have standards. I’d rather do something I care about for a lot less money than something for a ton of money that I don’t care about because then I become impatient and testy and I don’t like the person I am when I’m doing work I don’t like.”
His high standards led to him directing Nicole Kidman to an Oscar nomination in 2010’s “Rabbit Hole.” (He says Kidman watched “Shortbus,” never said anything about it, but gave him the job.) Kidman worked with Mitchell again on his third feature, 2017’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” a sci-fi punk epic based on a Neil Gaiman short story and starring Elle Fanning. His most recent project, “Anthem: Homunculus” is a musical podcast about a failed artist trying to raise money for his cancer treatments. It’s one of his most personal works to date, and Mitchell plays the lead opposite Patti LuPone, Cynthia Erivo, and Glenn Close.
Since acting takes less time and commitment than directing, lately he’s been having fun with performance. He played a memorable role in Hulu’s six-episode comedy “Shrill,” playing an unapologetically fatphobic newspaper editor.
“I played a gay villain in two shows this year,” he told Waters. “It’s a testament to how far we’ve come, because for so long, the queer guy was always the villain or the sad victim. Things have gotten so much better that we can safely be the villain again.”
Mitchell is less optimistic about the state of indie film.
“Film will never go away, it’s a beautiful form, and I think it will find its resurgence. But we find it very hard to get financed right now because of the death of the DVD, because of changing viewing, because you need to be up for an Oscar,” he said at the event. Later, he added: “It’s very hard for me to get financed. My last film sank like a stone.”
“Even when there were few queer films, most of them were still not great, but we took what we could get. Once in a while, there would be a Todd Haynes or a Gus Van Sant, and ‘My Own Private Idaho’ or a ‘Velvet Goldmine.’ … It’s just a different time when John Waters can’t make a film or when David Lynch can’t make a film. They can make a TV show.”
With the industry’s ravenous desire for more “content,” it’s far easier to greenlight a TV show than a film. Mitchell is currently is developing a show for Hulu, though he wouldn’t say what it was about.
“In every business, you got to do stuff you don’t like as much as other things. But I’ve generally avoided doing anything I hate since ‘Hedwig,’ which is great.”
A new 4K restoration of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” will open Thursday, July 11 for a one-week exclusive theatrical engagement at New York’s IFC Center.