Put on some make-up, turn on your eight-track, Hedwig is coming to town. Creating discussion since 2001, the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch was derived by writer/director/star, John Cameron Mitchell. The double Tony award winner took to the screen a character he invented on the punk scene then pitched to a musical artist, Stephen Trask, who he recognised on a plane.
Now a cult film spoken about alongside Rocky Horror Picture Show, John arrives in Australia for the first time live on stage singing tunes and sharing stories of his own unique upbringing and alter ego. Apart from appearing in a number of films and TV series’, John has directed our own Nicole Kidman twice – Rabbit Hole (2010) & How To Talk To Girls At Parties (2017) – mentioning to me she is one of the few actresses who speaks out pushing directors, challenging with ideas, not coasting, not lazy, perfect to work with as she reminds him of himself.
Will Origin of Love focus on Hedwig, or your entire career?
JCM – Focusing on Hedwig really as it would get extremely long to include everything. How Hedwig came about, stories from my own life that led to it. The outlook of many today could be different to when we made it. There is an outtake of a song that didn’t make the film but one of my favourites and the amazing Amber Martin will also sing her own song with a Hedwig tune. Plus you’ll hear a few new songs from a piece I’m working on. A grab bag of entertainment.
Where do you keep your Tony Awards?
JCM – Gave one for writing Hedwig to my mum, the special Tony is on a bookshelf, kind of behind things. I don’t want people to come in and see it immediately so it sits behind a picture of me at a Scotland boarding school. Actually while I’m here, it’s wrapped up in a chest.
Has there ever been an idea for a Hedwig sequel?
JCM – No, we did think about it as the theme would be more about issues happening today in my life. She has a lot of baggage and she had the perfect ending going into the world saying this is me, take me for who i am, doesn’t need the armour. She’s likely a non binary professor in New England teaching gender studies and rock & roll.
What are you working on after the tour?
JCM – That sequel content I did write has been repurposed into my new project which is semi-autobiographical musical released in audio form as a Podcast called Anthem. It’s probably going to be five hours, released 2019. We have a great cast – Glenn Close plays my mum, Patty D’Arbanville, Marion Cotillard among others. It’s quite the event.
How would Hedwig survive the social media world?
JCM – She would probably take to it, so much of her story was about self presenting and also being a victim which seems the legs of the social media table right! She’s attention grabbing and fabulous.
Out of all the performers portraying Hedwig, who stood out?
JCM – On stage I’ve seen many. Neil Patrick Harris, a showman beyond belief. Matt McGrath is an actor’s actor, a giant stage presence. There was a great Korean performer and the first Japanese actor, amazing. Saw Australian fantastic Iota on tape, deservedly well respected.
How do you feel Rocky Horror is often referenced with Hedwig?
JCM – Great, we share fans, cultural connections, is terrific. But our story is less camp of course, more of a heartbreaker. We are in the same video bin (laughs).
What do you remember making classic, Band of the Hand (1986)?
JCM – (laughs) Fun and torturous to do. Fun because I was young on a big movie, I was a budding director even then but knew it was not Shakespeare text, but not handled with much professionalism. We were kids not treated particularly well. Walking through swamp grass which cuts you, especially being half naked. I questioned why our characters would be like this in the grass, filmmakers didn’t care just wanting a helicopter shot as our skin was cut to ribbons handing out antiseptic afterwards. It was a tragic time for the director too, so sad. Only been asked twice before about Band of the Hand, you’re third.
Got to ask you about Book of Love (1990).
JCM – It led directly to the Hedwig film. Book of Love director Robert Shaye, owned and ran New Line Cinema studio, my character was extremely homophobic. I just had to bring it up in the audition being lazy and offensive writing. He hadn’t thought about it, actors didn’t speak up much wanting the job, Robert hadn’t thought of that and changed it. Because I spoke up with confidence and belief, he had a soft spot for me so years later he completely financed my Hedwig film with me debut directing. I tell people to talk with ambition.
Had you ever met David Bowie?
JCM – Yes, one of my great artistic heroes. He came to Hedwig, thank god I didn’t know he was attending. Met him afterwards. He looked at me and said, (in Bowie voice) ‘You got it right John, you got it right’. An incredible personal moment. He actually invested in our LA production. Lou Reed, another highlight when I could have died when telling me after a show, ‘You were beautiful’.
John Cameron Mitchell: The Origin of Love
The Songs and Stories of Hedwig
Live at Sydney Opera House, July 6
Bonus Q&A: Does the club Squeeze Box still exist?
JCM – It faded away with the 90s, a couple of reunions in the 2000s. Queer and Punk have a lot in common, not the same but they intersect often. Kurt Cobain had friends, celebrated drag, a trailblazer of sorts. The place holds a special place to me.
Shane A. Bassett