John Cameron Mitchell hasn’t been open to a television role since the 1990s. But he jumped at the chance to be a part of Shrill, the new Hulu show based on the memoir by Lindy West starring Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant.
Best known for creating, directing, and starring in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Mitchell spoke to Out about what went into creating his character of Gabe, Aidy Bryant’s gay, fatphobic boss at the Weekly Thorn. He also told us about his new podcast starring Glenn Close, why he wouldn’t reboot Hedwig, and why there’s not enough queer sex on screen.
How did you come to be a part of Shrill? What were your thoughts when you first read the script?
I didn’t get the script. I got a Skype from Aidy Bryant and Jesse Peretz , who directed the first episode, and I just looked at my scenes when I talked to them and I thought it was great. And they were like, “You really want to do this?” and I said, “Yeah, I think it’s fantastic,” and I think that was it. I was looking to do a series regular role, which I hadn’t really been open to since the 1990s.
Were you familiar with the source material?
No, I really wasn’t. I only heard about Lindy [West, author of Shrill] later and it was a really great job. Everybody was so sweet. It’s female led, which doesn’t always mean great leaders, but there’s a different style. It’s much more empathetic and open and Ali [Rushfield], Lindy, and Aidy were just great bosses to work for. They wanted me to help create and fill in my character’s back story. In the book it was much more Dan Savage, but I didn’t feel like that was a useful thing at all, so I just kind of made my own character.
Well, Lindy did work at The Stranger and there has been some speculation about Gabe being based on Dan Savage, but as you just said, Gabe is an original creation of yours. What went into creating him?
It’s just more, imagining myself in that place and time. He’s probably a former musician and bemoaning the digitalization of the world and how all true punk rock spirit is gone and, you know, a complain-y guy who had his better days in the ‘90s and still has some fire in him, but also has to do some learning.
What do you make of Gabe’s ongoing conflict with Annie? What do you think about her bothers him?
Well he wants the world to be a better place, but he’s misdirected his energies and decided Annie is a symptom of American laziness and self indulgence, which is a pretty limited point of view. He didn’t get the memo that you can be fat now, which a lot of people don’t know! It’s a man’s world, but it’s also a thin man’s world, so fat women and others are already pushed to the side. And he does that without thinking and he’s very limited by that. We’ll see if he, in the next season, learns anything.
I think this is one of the first times we’ve seen a situation where the white gay man is the uptight boss figure. Obviously, the boss figure is not always a bad one, but what do you think about what it means for the show to have a gay man in the antagonist role?
Well, the gay man as the antagonist is a traditional one, too, though they tended to be closeted. So, it’s not that groundbreaking a role by any means, but today there does tend to be a kind of — identity politics has to do with power systems and everyone has some kind of privilege in life and I don’t think you need to define yourself by those privileges, but you need to be aware of them. Gabe’s gayness wasn’t a problem where he was growing in Portland. But it’s his superiority — which is different from privilege, because he thinks he’s built himself — and his own sense of thin privilege that has edged out some others on his way up and he needs to get sensitive.
Can you talk a little bit about Anthem, your podcast coming out in the Luminary podcasting app in April? You’ve got Glenn Close and Cynthia Erivo on board as part of it and I know it’s been a long road to seeing it realized. What can we expect from it?
Well, that’s where I’ve been putting most of my energy into for the last two years. Bryan Weller, who co-wrote it with me, and I really wanted to push the podcast form into a place that might be thought of as cinematic. It’s like Hedwig in its complexity, but there’s just no visuals. And a lot of people just can’t wrap their mind around a complex story in audio, even though of course, that’s where mass narrative storytelling began. Film fulfilled a different non-verbal form in the teens, but of course in the 1920s and 1930s there were big budget films and then there were low budget and long-running serials on radio. We’re reviving that form and pushing it into a different direction. Instead of a cowboy or a detective or a spirit or a shadow, it’s characters that might be comfortable in Hedwig’s world.
But in my case, I think of it as an alternate autobiography, meaning what would I be like if I had never left my small town of Junction City, Kansas — where Hedwig lived. But I wanted to investigate some autobiographical stuff about my family but in a way that was fictional, where I had the option for metaphor and story and imagination. This seemed like a great form. I originally wrote it as a TV series and it was too weird. If I presented Hedwig to Netflix today without any history, it probably wouldn't be made, either. People like to make things that are comparable to other things that are made and I tend to make things that aren’t like other things and that makes them harder to finance and put out to the world.
Hedwig was actually a flop in the theatres and it was only DVD that got it out into the world. And now we don’t really have DVDs and people don’t see small films as much as they used to, so TV series podcasts, these are the new forms. The fact that it takes much less time to record, you can get top flight actors because I only need them for 3 days. So all these people who are big fans of Hedwig were thrilled to be part of a new musical. So we were able to get six Tony winners and 40 actors and record 40 pieces of music. It was a new thing and it’s something I’m more excited about than anything I’ve done since Hedwig.
We’re in the midst of reboot and remake fever and almost fatigue. Has anyone approached you about Hedwig and bringing the character back to life in some way?
Well, I think she is her story. She’s not rebootable, like Spider-Man or anything. Wherever she goes, her story stays with her and you can’t pretend those things didn’t happen. There’s no prequel or sequel, which we did think about, but ultimately Stephen Trask didn’t really feel it. In some ways, this Anthem: Homunculus podcast came out of ideas for a Hedwig sequel, but it was putting a hat on a hat. Her story was already so full and to put another huge story on it, it just felt too complicated. And I realized the story was more about me than Hedwig. Other people use Hedwig in some way or extend the metaphor, do their own thing with it, their own productions, their own art. It was used in the TV show Sex Education and that’s all great. And the show I’m doing on tour now which is off and on, which is called The Origin of Love Tour, is me talking about how Hedwig was created. It’s an origin story. It’s also a gathering of friends and thinking about how to deal with this strange world we’re in now. I’ll continue doing that show around the world slow motion style so I can keep doing my other projects.
I’m a huge fan of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and I have a Hedwig tattoo. The film is going to be released as part of The Criterion Collection in June. How do you feel about that?
The Criterion is probably the greatest compliment for a film, even more than an award because this group of highly rarefied producers, in effect, the Criterion people, choose what they think of as the best films in history and so it’s quite embarrassingly thrilling to get chosen. It’s going to be scanned into 4K. They’re doing a delightful treatment and Stephen Trask and I have been a part of designing it. And it looks like they’re going to re-release it in theaters with the new 4k remaster. It’ll be select theatres, but we’re very excited about that. And hoping that down the line Shortbus will get the same treatment.
I was thinking about Shortbus and how that film depicted sex so frankly. We have seen a lot of queer films recently that shy away from sex. What do you think about that?
Well, we’re still terrified by — the U.S. is still invaded by puritans and conquistadors, after all, who were not known for their sexual liberalness or for their pansexual openness. And queer sex is always associated — wherever there is fear of sex, there is fear of women. I don’t know why those two things coexist, but when it’s a man’s world and the only thing that has power over you is a woman, you have to shut the woman down and when you shut the woman down, you shut down feminine men, too. There is no homophobia or transphobia without misogyny. They’re all connected to power and misogyny. That’s why sex is denigrated in our culture because it has power that’s undefinable by the powers that be. Regulate it, crush it, push it into porn and brothels and places that are categorizable and consumable by the powers that be while also stigmatizing it in this hypocritical way.
Shrill is now available to watch on Hulu.