John Cameron Mitchell got his hands on a copy of How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a short story written by British science-fiction author Neil Gaiman, and much like the infectious extraterrestrial organisms that lead the film, it grew on him.
While science fiction has not been the defining genre of the films that make up John Cameron Mitchell’s filmography, How to Talk to Girls at Parties does have one thing in common with the rest of his oeuvre: It unveils and analyzes the members of a subculture. In How to Talk to Girls at Parties, the year is 1977 and punk has just exploded onto the scene for Alex Sharp’s Enn, a somewhat dorky wannabe punk who is obsessed with creating his own zine and sticking it to supporters of conformity. After attending a raucous punk show hosted by Nicole Kidman‘s Labyrinth-esque Queen Boadicea at a divey venue in the London suburb of Croydon, Enn and his friends stumble upon an eccentric family of humanlike aliens, one of which is played by a curious Elle Fanning.
Mitchell is a master at telling stories that open up space for the freaks, the outsiders, the aliens, to feel welcome in a community of like-minded individuals. From Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the rock musical–turned–film written by, directed by, and starring Mitchell as the titular character, a trans woman from East Germany who moves to Kansas with her American soldier husband, to Shortbus, another film written and directed by Mitchell that interweaves vignettes about members of an underground sex gathering in New York (the 2006 film was notable for its depiction of actual sex between actors on screen), Mitchell has demonstrated his knack for outlining the frameworks that construct queer, subcultural, or inadequately represented communities. Even Rabbit Hole, the dramatic Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart film about a couple whose son dies in a tragic accident, digs into the gritty and somber social politics of a support group for parents who have lost their children, a collective of people who are not often depicted on screen.
His films may have amassed cult followings, but so has Mitchell himself; the actor, writer, and director has also had success in recent years with roles on Girls and Mozart in the Jungle, and even played Andy Warhol in a short character arc on the canceled HBO series Vinyl. How to Talk to Girls at Parties marks Mitchell’s foray into adapting someone else’s story, but he has a huge roster of material that influenced his creative direction for the film. From listening to experimental electronic music to the striking anecdotes from his childhood, the performer sketches the cultural and historical inspirations for his work in a conversation with W, here.
Do you read a lot of books by Neil Gaiman?
I do! I wouldn’t say I know everything he’s done, but he’s become a good friend and it’s interesting reading your friend’s stuff as opposed to separately because you know more about them and you’re like, “Oh, his kid is an influence on the book and he’s a great dad.” I love him. He’s a national treasure in the U.K., that’s for sure. And his Good Omens is going to be amazing!
What made you want to read How to Talk to Girls at Parties?
It was the producer who had the rights and worked with me on Shortbus, and so he was kind of wooing me in. He had another writer and they were just getting started, and I didn’t know if I wanted to do someone else’s story. I peeked in and couldn’t help but be intrigued. So I got excited and could add my own stuff to it to make it special, and my own sense of humor. It kind of became an adopted child.
Intricacies of the punk subculture are a major fixture of the film, and I was wondering what your relationship was to the birth of punk?
I mean, that was Neil as a teenager. He was in that first wave of punk in the U.K. and had a band. They asked him to sign to a label and his dad wouldn’t let him because it was a terrible contract, and he wonders what might have happened. He’s a bit older than me. I also lived in the U.K. when I was a kid in the early ’70s, which was more of the glam, David Bowie era. You can see a bit of that in this too.
That’s true, and watching the film I was wondering how old you would have been in 1977. You couldn’t have been as old as the boys are in the film, right?
When punk hit in ’77, it didn’t really become a U.S. thing until later. It was in New York, but the Sex Pistols were sort of a distant thing that didn’t really affect pop culture here. The Sex Pistols were influenced by the Ramones and Iggy Pop, who were doing underground things in New York and Detroit. I was in Kansas, so we didn’t really have that. The closest thing to punk was like, the B-52s or the Cars, and that was really more New Wave. Maybe that’s what influenced the aliens [in the film].
Yeah, and the sounds and music that the aliens make during their first encounter with the boys sound less punk and more New Wave.
It was more beeps and blips. I chose Matmos to do that music. They’re a gay couple—Drew and Martin—and they worked with Björk on a couple of her albums. They take natural sounds and loop them to make real stuff rather than create it in the digital realm. One of the jokes is that the punks are like, “What’s that music?” and that without our aliens the punks wouldn’t have become post-punks. There might not have been Joy Division without our aliens. But I’m a music nerd so I’m into that stuff.
Those themes of alienation, literally in this case, appear quite strongly in just about all of your films that I’ve seen. What drives you to center the narrative on that theme in your films?
Yeah, I was always an alien because I moved every couple years as an army brat. So I was like, “Who am I now? What accent do they have? How do I have to change my voice to fit in?” And I did fit in. That’s why I became an actor later. But I was always on the lam, running from something, even though I was just being moved. I think that was the queer thing too. You couldn’t always be open about natural attraction to people or femininity, or those things queer kids have to put a clamp on until it explodes later, or kills them—because it can kill you. My dad was also, I would say, predominantly gay but never really dealt with it. I mean, he told me, but I think he was bi enough to play by the rules. He was a good guy, you know; it didn’t make him less of a good person, but I think it caused him a lot of stress and pain inside. I think it affected my mom too— those kinds of things have collateral damage. But he came from a conservative ’50s mentality, and he was a general in the army. The fact that he told me after I came out was touching enough, but he was telling me so I could do what he did and go in the closet. So the closet and control and constraining things, to me, are always dangerous things in my films. It’s usually about some kind of outsider trying to find a community—and not just be an outsider because you could say a serial killer is an outsider—but it’s the outsider that’s trying to form a healthier community. A group of outsiders where that’s welcome. And that’s always, to me, a healthy way of looking at what I think is the best of America. It should be the land of the refugees. Should be, and was, and still can be. So I’m repulsed when it’s redefined in some way that’s alien to me. Even being religious and from a military background, there was an understanding that there was a bigger world. Even the fact that the military was pretty mixed, you know, you’d go there if you ran out of options. And it was the first place to integrate racially in the U.S., my dad’s boss was a black guy, it wasn’t weird to have a Latin guy and an Asian guy, and all of the Korean army wives would meet. Hedwig was an army wife. You weren’t judged on where you came from; it was more like, “What are you bringing to the party?” And it would still be hardcore and macho. The military still has its problems for sure about machoness and male dominance, but there was a sense of like, “I don’t care where you’re from. What do you have to bring?” which I love, and that is what making a film is. So I became a general of film.
You’ve worked with Nicole Kidman before in Rabbit Hole, which is obviously such a different film from How to Talk to Girls at Parties, but what was different about your relationship to Nicole and directing her in this film?She’s very self-directing. Sometimes actors want to be hugged and held and stroked throughout because they’re like a bundle of nerves, and I understand that. That’s not my style, but I know how to take care of that. [Laughs.] I can be “the actor whisperer” and make people feel safe. That’s very important for me that everyone feels safe. I mean, I did Shortbus, where people were having real sex. I understood what safety meant. Like, “How can we make this safer and more fun, and where we’re challenging ourselves, but we feel really safe?” An actor would say,”What if you and the cameramen were naked too when we shot this scene?” Might be a little awkward at first, and then, like being in a steam room or whatever, you sort of forget about it after a couple hours. It’s just talking, seeing what people need. Working with celebrities can be tough. Nicole, though, is very straightforward. She’s definitely a queen of her own life. She seems like a queen. She is self-directing in many ways, but she’s always wanting to go somewhere where she’s never gone before, which is why she wanted to do this. She hired me for Rabbit Hole, and I hired her for this.
Most of my time is guiding her but letting her run. She’s like a unicorn—she just runs in a certain direction. And if she’s a little bit finished with that run, I’ll step in and say, “Do you need me, Nicole?” That’s my code for, “I have a new idea.” She might say yes, or she might say no because she’s trying something else on her own. A gorgeous, self-directing creature that’s truly magical. She doesn’t like to do the same thing twice. A lot of actors will do the same old role and get paid the same old thing, and maybe they feel they’re lucky they can do the same role, but there are people like her, and Tilda Swinton and Marion Cotillard and Isabelle Huppert, who will seek out different things. “What can I do? What part of myself have I not shown? What story can I tell that I believe in?” So that’s her. And sometimes our paths will converge.
I was also struck by Elle Fanning‘s performance. She plays an inquisitive alien so well! What was your experience of guiding her through that role?
She’s absolutely luminous. She’s like her character in that she’s very life-affirmative. She’d be like, “Let’s try that!” And she makes you laugh all the time. From the beginning, it’s easy. Even when she’s hardcore, it’s still luminous. I really see her becoming one of our great screen actresses. She was 17 when I worked with her, and she was the first actor we got and loved the script. She’s the real thing.
Getting into the culture diet questions—what’s the first thing you read in the morning?
I hate that I read my emails first, and texts, but I think that’s just becoming normal now. When I’m away, I won’t. I’ll listen to music or eat and look out. I have a shack in Puerto Rico that was kind of destroyed, but we just rebuilt. There’s a different vibe that happens when you wake with the sun and go to sleep with the sun. You don’t get overwhelmed by the emails and the texts right away. But sometimes a text from the right person is great. It’s nice when you forget about your phone. You can be so disappointed by the news that I’ve kind of just been reading headlines now, which I think a lot of people are doing, which is unfortunate because then maybe you’re also letting shit happen. Let’s still vote and get these assholes out. I think there’s an anxiety that comes with news right now. I’m not very interested in celebrity culture, more so if it’s something interesting in film or some cultural thing with what’s happening in another country, or a historical thing about a certain person who died and contributed something. I like history.
How do you get your news?
Usually The New York Times online. I also miss the physical thing because you read things you wouldn’t otherwise when you open a page. I almost want to maximize the time I have to read books. Novels, specifically. There was some study that said that people who read fiction more than just nonfiction or news have more empathy. I think you have to put yourself in another character’s shoes, that’s the beginning of empathy. Journalism can do that too, but you have to get into the nitty-gritty of a whole story to really feel it, and most people are reading just the headline then saying, “Oh, I can’t read about another shooting or another massacre in the Middle East.” You end up shutting down, which is not healthy.
I always wonder, do you think there actually is more bad news and more bad things happening in the world, or are we just more exposed to the news in general?
The one thing that’s different and worse is the long-term environmental news. I can think about being in the ’70s and things being much worse.
Whenever I read about the ’70s it seems so wild, as if just as many if not more bad things were happening compared with now.
Economy, terrorism, war, pestilence. It was worse. Even in New York, the city was broke and there was rape, crime, more shootings. There are more crazy people with mass shootings, but back then it was more gang-banging and innocent victims in poor places. It was just war. It’s almost like the violence has coalesced into specific crazy people who aren’t necessarily in a network of drugs or in poverty; it’s more like their Game of Thrones mentality has told them that the only thing left is vengeance. People have ’80s nostalgia—and for some reason ’80s nostalgia has not ended for like 20 years, and I’m like, “Skinny jeans are going to have to go at some point!”—but there are people who revere certain parts of the ’70s and ’80s, and there was AIDS, there was crack, there were horrible things about the ’80s. There was Reagan letting people die of AIDS and not doing anything about it. Homophobia. The racism was endemic in a different way, where it was more about going around to the wrong neighborhoods and getting beat down rather than getting beat down on cyberspace. Some things are better, and I think you’re right—it’s the nonstop information that makes you feel worse. That’s why a diet from the Internet is useful.
You mentioned the importance of reading fiction. What books are on your bedside table right now?
I’m reading Gormenghast, which is like a thousand pages and will take me a thousand days to read. Neil told me that in the ’60s and ’70s, if you were into fantasy you were either a Tolkien or Lord of the Rings person or you were a Mervyn Peake person, which is Gormenghast. I’d heard the name but didn’t know much about it, and it’s not much magic or anything. The writing is much more brilliant than some of these other fantasy things. The language itself is gorgeous, delicious, hilarious. And there’s still good and evil. I really like dark chocolate, and it’s like eating chocolate every night, which is not always something you should eat before you go to bed, but I just love it. It kind of helps me go to sleep, and it’s not emotionally changing my life, but it’s taking me away. It’s not escapist either because it’s rich.
What TV shows have been keeping you up at night?
I’ve been binge-watching a bit. Shows that are fun to fill the stomach but aren’t terrible, and they’re not great, but they’re good. I like Babylon Berlin. In terms of comedy and sweet things, I really like Please Like Me.
I love that show! Josh Thomas is so great.
I think I’m going to meet him in Australia next week. In that show, you felt a nice balance. It’s almost the balance that Girls at its best could have. It’s about his mom, of course, and he can go both places where it’s silly and touching. Like Girls, it can be annoying, but I really like that. I enjoyed Chewing Gum—it’s hysterical.
Do you listen to any podcasts?
I’m making a podcast!
Oh yes, Anthem with Cynthia Erivo, right?
And Nakhane. He’s a brilliant musician from South Africa who’s starring in this thing with me. He’s going to play Afropunk in New York in August. He was starring in a film in South Africa called The Wound. It was a queer story in a tribal setting, and he would get all these death threats and he’s had to be quite brave. Like, “F**k you, this is a real story, I’m not trying to denigrate the tribe, I’m trying to tell a story about homophobia and masculinity.” In terms of listening to podcasts, I’m in a podcast that I also listen to called The Orbiting Human Circus with Julian Koster. I’m getting into the fictional ones. A web series I would also recommend, it’s called Brujos. You know how “bruja” means witch in Spanish? Brujo is a male witch, and it’s these five Latin guys who are queer-studies graduate students and also witches. And so people are trying to kill them. It’s really funny and political. It’s a Chicago-based group of people.
I’m getting the heads-up that this will be the last question, so I’ll ask you: What’s the last thing that you do before you go to bed?
I read Gormenghast. I put in my mini nightguard. You know, so you don’t grind? They have little ones just for the front teeth, which are more comfortable. I have my glass of water. I turn on my white noise machine because they’re doing construction outside, and it’s just the sound of a waterfall. So whenever I go to a real waterfall, I fall instantly asleep. [Laughs.]