Director Bryan Singer on not really coming out, the queer allegories of superheroes, and the power of Ellen Page
May 14 2014 11:05 AM EST
May 26 2023 1:53 PM EST
Photography by James Dimmock
Editor's Note: This story went to press just as a lawsuit alleging Bryan Singer sexually assaulting a teenager in 1999 was announced. Singer declined additional comment to Out beyond this public statement released last month: "The allegations against me are outrageous, vicious and completely false. I do not want these fictitious claims to divert ANY attention from 'X-Men: Days of Future Past.' This fantastic film is a labor of love and one of the greatest experiences of my career. So, out of respect to all of the extraordinary contributions from the incredibly talented actors and crew involved, I've decided not to participate in the upcoming media events for the film. However, I promise when this situation is over, the facts will show this to be the sick twisted shake down it is. I want to thank fans, friends and family for all their amazing and overwhelming support."
As a miserable teen, Bryan Singer's parents sent him to a shrink. The therapist offered to have a colleague step in, one who more often worked with kids struggling with their sexual orientation, but Singer resisted. "My sexuality is not what is tearing me up inside," he insisted. "I'm in love and he doesn't love me back and it's killing me. I need relationship advice!" Later, floundering his way through an affair with a friend who was far less confident in his identity, Singer called his mom, heartbroken and crying, needing a sympathetic ear. That's as close as they ever came to having a big coming-out moment. "I've never felt the need to be declarative," he says.
After the indie-noir whodunit The Usual Suspects became one of the most talked-about movies of the mid-'90s, there was only one kind of project Singer wanted to direct next: a sweeping, epic science fiction movie. Major studios came courting, and though he'd been more of a fantasy geek than a comic book nerd, Singer signed on to adapt the story of the X-Men, Marvel's group of mutant superheroes.
He just wanted to make one very important, if allegorical, update. "[X-Men cocreator] Stan Lee saw the mutants as children of the Cold War," he explains. "What would atomic weapons do? Mutate us and create super-humans?" But there was also what Singer calls the "logical parallel": Say there were these outsiders who first discover they're different as their bodies mature during adolescence. They long to be normal, but instead become scapegoats in a fearful society in which laws are passed to identify and criminalize anyone who is different.
Is this a story about mutants? Or is it the modern gay civil rights movement?
Singer posed that question directly to Lee. "I just asked, 'Back when you were creating this, did it ever occur to you that there was a parallel?' He said, 'Yeah, of course.' " (Singer also used this angle to persuade Sir Ian McKellen to step away from his Shakespearean roots and play the supervillain Magneto.)
It was a fresh approach to a genre in desperate need of a facelift. At the time, long before The Avengers broke every box office record in history -- before Robert Downey Jr. so much as smirked at an Iron Man suit -- comic book movies had stagnated, becoming time capsules.
When Hugh Jackman was cast as Wolverine in Singer's X-Men, he was coming off of a West End production of Oklahoma! and showed up a little soft around the edges. There were scenes where Wolverine was injured and unconscious -- and shirtless. "We were shooting around his body -- a lot of lovehandle hiding," Singer says. By the time the production had worked its way back around to the film's opening sequence, in which Wolverine, still shirtless, fights a series of cage matches, Jackman had buffed up.
Singer had planned to have him wear tight leather pants and a tank top. "He said, 'No, mate, I really want to go shirtless.' He showed me his body and I was like, Oh, I'll shoot that. That'll work."
This is basically what much of Singer's gay audience expects of him -- hot guys -- and it generates a predictable mix of gratitude and questions about his type and his process. Singer knows this. "On screen, it's different. People I cast, oddly enough, are not my type. People always assumed [otherwise] -- like when I did Superman Returns with Brandon Routh. Not my type at all. Handsome guy, don't get me wrong. He reminded me of Christopher Reeve -- also not my type."
Tentpole Hollywood movies are always flush with copycats, but there's a certain obvious style -- a swagger -- that emerged among male superheroes after Singer and his undeniably queer gaze made his mark. (Before: Michael Keaton as Batman. After: Chris Hemsworth as Thor.) Fifteen years in, the X-Men franchise seems likely to be Singer's longest, most enduring, and queerest legacy. He directed the first two films, distanced himself gracefully from some poorly handled sequels and spin-offs, and after producing 2011's First Class prequel, neatly stepped back in to pick up directing where he left off.
"X-Men has always appealed to people who felt like outcasts," Singer says, "but I also understood it had a universal appeal. Even the most popular person, or the best-looking, or the straightest, has times in life where they feel different and like they don't belong."
X-Men: Days of Future Past, the latest film in the franchise, is a have-your-cakeand-eat-it-too Marvel universe moment in which the earlier, more established characters coexist in the same movie as their younger selves, thanks to a Terminator 2-like quest to keep history from veering off track.
With a few notable absences, it's a double-ensemble dream cast. Jennifer Lawrence resumes her First Class role as the spiky blue shapeshifter Mystique. Original alums Jackman and Halle Berry are back. And, alongside Patrick Stewart and McKellen, who play older incarnations of the same characters, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender return as Charles Xavier and Magneto, whose falling out will eventually render them mortal enemies.
Back in March, a 10-second teaser trailer posted online generated hundreds of blog posts and a deluge of passionate reactions from Marvel's most devoted. No matter how loud the vitriol might get -- "X-Men fans everywhere HATE Bryan Singer to his very core," said one fan on Twitter -- it's clear that most of these armchair critics still have an insatiable appetite. "They expect them to keep going," Singer says. "They don't want them to stop."
He can relate to the heightened emotion. "I waited in long lines around the block to see my favorite scifi/fantasy films," he says. By age 13, he was wielding an 8mm camera and crafting his own mini-movies. When he took on X-Men at 30, he was suddenly in charge of Fox's big blockbuster hope. Singer was scared shitless, lashing out at everyone around him.
As he hunkered down for the editing process, everything seemed wrong. "The movie was slipping away," he says. He went for an anxious walk through the lot with a Fox executive, ranting about an inevitable critical and financial failure of the franchise. "This was my big shot, and I felt it crumbling around me." Only one outcome seemed possible: "I will never be allowed to make one of these again." The executive told him not to be so sure. "I was really sure," Singer says.
Spoiler alert: He didn't fail.
That first X-Men movie grossed $157 million in the U.S.; when counted along with its five franchise follow-ups, Fox has taken in more than $1 billion.
Today he operates out of a modern new building on Fox's sprawling lot on the west side of L.A. While still finishing post-production on X-Men: Days of Future Past -- and planning for its pre-emptively greenlit sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse -- he's also directing the pilot for Battle Creek, a CBS drama from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. Another series he's producing, Black Box, airs on ABC.
In his editor's bay, Singer reveals a few sneak peeks of the new film. He's wearing his usual uniform of black-rimmed glasses, sneakers, jeans, and a white T-shirt under a checkered button-down. On the cusp of his third decade in the business, he's feeling both contemplative and candid. A longer, more personal interview like this is a new challenge for him and a departure from the wash-rinse-anecdote cycle of junkets and sci-fi conventions.
Singer never really came out, not officially. "On Usual Suspects, I had a boyfriend on set, and it didn't even occur to me to not have him be affectionate," he says. "I remember Gabriel Byrne said, 'I really admire how comfortable and open you are,' and I thought, Really?" He was surprised anyone cared at all.
Somewhere along the way, he became "openly gay director Bryan Singer." The first time he saw that in print, Singer says, "I was like, Oh, OK. That was easy." He shrugs. "I came out by osmosis." So he skipped being asked or having to make a statement, which is probably a sign of progress. Asked now whether life is any different in Hollywood for a "gay director," he's ready to give a more complicated answer. "I'm quite bisexual," he says. "In the last five years, I've had two girlfriends -- one for two years, one for eight months." He laughs, a little more the shy, Clark Kent type than the self-assured superdirector he's been all day. "Talking about human sexuality is like talking about the second World War," he says, wryly. (If Singer has an enduring film fixation other than gay allegories, it's with WWII.)
"If you look at the Kinsey Report, human sexuality is so complex. And the reason I've never talked about it to the press -- until now -- is because sexuality is so complex. To have a real conversation about it, you really want to have the person you're talking to in front of you." He doesn't mean a reporter; he means the audience. The fans. Whoever might, for some reason, care about this thing that has been no big deal to him for so long. He wants it to be a dialogue, not an edict.
But at a certain point, it seems silly to avoid talking about it altogether. "In the end, it's probably going to be a guy," he says. "I emotionally lean towards male relationships, so I'm happy to say I'm gay, too, if it's a one-syllable, easy answer."
On the six-point, self-assessed Kinsey scale, Singer says, without hesitation, "I'd definitely be a four." His first serious relationship, at 23, was with actress Michelle Clunie, best known for playing a lesbian on Showtime's Queer as Folk. The women he dates are not threatened by guys, he says; with boyfriends, the prospect of him being with girls is more of a novelty. "I don't think it's on the radar." He shrugs. This seems like a conversation he's had often, if not to any conclusive end. "They think it's interesting?" he guesses. "Some think it's gross -- but they would be a six on the Kinsey scale."
His biggest impediment to getting serious is the oldest story in the book: He's too busy and spends months on end shooting, usually out of the country. "It's very hard to maintain something, and when I do really want to be with somebody, I get very insecure." Regardless of which answer Singer gives about his sexual orientation, he exhibits the same bold confidence he must have shown his shrink as a teen. He is who he is, and he's been out long enough now that he's sometimes consulted by queer actors in Hollywood who aren't sure if they want to come out. "I say do whatever feels comfortable," he advises. "If it's hurting you inside, if it's limiting your enjoyment of life, then by all means, be open about it. If you don't feel comfortable doing it, you're under no obligation to the public. I like to believe celebrities have an obligation to at least be nice to fans, but they don't have to explain their sex lives -- unless they really want to."
He's seen firsthand how someone who finally reaches that threshold can feel immediately lighter for it. The day after Ellen Page -- who joined the X-Men for 2006's The Last Stand and has a major role in the new film -- spoke about being gay for the first time at a Human Rights Campaign Foundation conference and the video immediately went viral, she met Singer in Montreal for reshoots. "She just seemed so much happier and relaxed and talkative," Singer says, "to the point where we all said, 'Ellen, you seem to be kind of glowing.' "
Her powerful speech, he says, should be read in schools, "especially with all this ridiculous shit that's happening in other parts of this country."
If the X-Men comics universe has leapfrogged forward, keeping pace with rapid-fire social change -- in 2012, the cover of one issue featured the wedding of the gay mutant Northstar to his longtime boyfriend; later that year, two men recreated the image at a convention -- there's still never been an out-and-proud comic book character on the big screen. And the real world still, at times eerily, resembles the fear and loathing of Singer's first X-Men film. "The American people deserve the right to decide if they want their children to be in school with mutants!" shouts an angry senator in that movie. "We must know who they are, and, above all, what they can do!"
On the day Singer and I talk, a federal judge throws out the ban on same-sex marriage in Texas -- pending another appeal, of course -- and a proposed Arizona law permitting businesses to discriminate against anyone who offends their religious sensibilities is vetoed at the 11th hour by the governor.
"The central theme of the X-Men universe is living in a world that hates and fears you," Singer says. "They all had to deal with isolation and being outcasts, and they all found each other." And just because they're metaphorically gay doesn't mean they're all good guys. "Sometimes they follow the right path, sometimes the wrong path."
Though China and Russia are a superhero movie's major international markets -- First Class made more than $200 million overseas -- this time Singer has no intention of traveling with his cast to the film's Moscow premiere. "I see Russia as such a powerful, enlightened country," he says. "But any law that invites discrimination invites assholes to be able to harm the person being discriminated by the law, because they feel empowered. That's how a beautiful, enlightened, intelligent country like Germany became a terrible, monstrous place for a period of history."
He wants Russian fans to see the film, and wishes he had the courage of his friend Dustin Lance Black, who brought Milk to St. Petersburg for screenings. Singer is used to the occasional homophobic diatribe about the X-Men movies (or him), if still baffled by them.
"How is a fan of the X-Men saying incredibly intolerant things? They just like the claws and the cool shit? Don't they get what these comic books are about? They're about tolerance. That's the whole theme. Who knows? Maybe they're just assholes."
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