Soderbergh on Soderbergh
By Jerry Portwood
Photography by Jessica Craig-Martin
Director Steven Soderbergh has made movies about crime capers, sexual inhibitions, and revolutionaries. Along the way, he won an Academy Award for Traffic the same year he was also nominated for Erin Brockovich, the only director in the awards’ history to be nominated for two films simultaneously.
Last year, he had an unexpected hit about male strippers, Magic Mike, starring Channing Tatum, and then announced that he would retire from filmmaking to focus on painting. The last film he shot was Behind the Candelabra, a passionate exploration of the relationship between pianist Liberace—known to his friends as “Lee”—and Scott Thorson, played by Oscar winners Michael Douglas and Matt Damon (it premieres on HBO May 26).
“I’m not a snob,” says Soderbergh. “I like a lot of different kinds of movies—that’s why I’ve made a lot of different kinds of movies. And in some ways, Candelabra was an opportunity to make use of all those hours spent immersed in an attitude and aesthetic that I’ve wanted to mix up and add my own thing to.”
Steven’s younger brother, Charley, is gay and has a successful hair salon in Atlanta. We invited the two brothers to sit down for a free-wheeling conversation about childhood, power dynamics in relationships, and the meaning of Dr. Terwilliker.
Charley Soderbergh: Our relationship growing up was very typical of younger and older brother. There wasn’t really a dramatic moment around my sexuality—I think my family knew well before I did. As Steven told me, “We were all just waiting for you to come to what we already knew.”
Steven Soderbergh: I called him Charlotte.
CS: That’s true, he did call me Charlotte.
SS: It was clear immediately that he was different than I was, and a five-year gap at that age is a big gap. We were sharing a room up until we moved to Baton Rouge. I don’t think it was until I came back to Louisiana, until Charley got out of high school, that our relationship was sort of re-established.
CS: And during that time, Steven introduced me to two of the highest forms of gay culture: Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve. I believe they were on laserdisc?
Out: Was there a ritual of watching movies together in your family?
SS: Every Christmas we watched the same movie, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, which came out in ’53 and was a gigantic flop. It’s a cult film. Dad would rent it and get a projector—that’s an indication of how invested he was in movies.
CS: Mom and dad went to see it on their first date, or early on. It was a big deal in our family. The lyrics to all the words and the set decorations are all by Dr. Seuss. In the beginning of the film, this young boy is being forced to practice piano by his mother—I believe she’s a widow—and he falls asleep and has a dream. And in his fantasy, Dr. Terwilliker—that’s Dr. T—his piano instructor in real life, is rounding up all these children for one big performance of the greatest piece of music ever produced. He stands up there in this beautiful violet robe. And I’m realizing, it’s very…
SS: He’s played by Hans Conried, who is unbelievably hilarious. It’s really smart and beautiful and hallucinatory. When you watch it now, you think, This was in a theater 60 years ago? It’s really, really stunning.
CS: The two main actors, Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, were always to us a slight representation of our parents up onscreen.
SS: When they were younger they looked similar.
CS: My mom, at 83, is still referencing the film. In the fantasy, Dr. Terwilliker has designs on the mother and puts her under his spell. At night, he puts her in the “Lock Me Tight,” and he closes these ornate gates with a padlock. She goes dormant behind them and sits at her dressing table in her chiffon. To this day, when I go visit my mother in Florida and it’s time to go to bed, I say, “OK, time for me to go next door and put you in your Lock Me Tight,” and she follows. It’s part of our blood, I think.
Out: Behind the Candelabra is set in the ’80s, which is when Steven was living in Louisiana and his first big movie, sex, lies, and videotape, came out. What was that time like for you, Charley?
CS: When sex, lies came out, I was in school to do hair and makeup. Steven later invited me to do a very small movie with him in ’96, Gray’s Anatomy, with Spalding Gray. I was Spalding’s hair, makeup, wardrobe, confidant, lunch partner, chauffeur, dream interpreter, everything. I really enjoyed the experience, but I realized the set-up of making a movie, of how you have to be available at all times, didn’t gel with my work.
SS: I think Charley found the perfect thing to do. There’s a technical skill that he has—which is the hair—and a social skill. I knew Spalding would like him, and they would get along. He adored Charley. But it’s true: There’s an enormous amount of downtime, and it takes a certain kind of personality to thrive on that.
CS: There was a scene that they were trying to light in a specific way and it took five hours. And Spalding was falling over in a chair, going, “How much longer?” And I thought, Yeah, how much longer to light a scene? It gave me a new appreciation for what Steven does and how calm and how patient he is. When I went to see him on the set of Candelabra, he was just very focused and very calm. And I was like, “OK, what are we going to do next?”
Out: You got to visit the set?
CS: Yeah, it being his last film, it felt like the right thing to do. I’m really sorry I missed Debbie Reynolds.
SS: She’s a trip. Debbie knew Frances Liberace really well, so she had the voice down. She and Lee were in Vegas a lot together, performing, and they would go out afterward. She knew Scott Thorson, so she was really helpful in describing the relationship with his mother. Talking about that era, there’s such an undercurrent of melancholy about the whole movie, because of what we know was going on with AIDS. The fact is, if this were happening now, they wouldn’t be having a lot of these issues. They could be Elton John; they could be married. Nobody would care.