4 min

Facing the worst

Over the rainbow & back again

PUMPED IN PUMPS. John Cameron Mitchell is still enjoying the rollercoaster ride that is Hedwig And The Angry Inch. Credit: Xtra files

Last summer at a strip mall in Markham, a rag-tag band of actors and musicians made their way from their make-up trailers across a parking lot, when suddenly they stopped and gazed off into the afternoon sky. The cast and crew of Hedwig And The Angry Inch found themselves under the arches of a double rainbow stretching from horizon to horizon.

The Hollywood North film machine screeched to a halt. John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig herself, brushed the blonde wig out of his eyes and for a few moments was just another freak looking at a double rainbow.

Almost a year later, the transsexual punk rock musical Hedwig And The Angry Inch storms Toronto. Fresh from having won awards in the Berlin and Sundance film festivals, Hedwig opens the 2001 Inside Out Lesbian And Gay Film And Video Festival.

Back in 1995, at a New York punk rock, fag club named Squeezebox, a slip of a girly-boy with toilet paper rolls in his wig took the stage for the first time as an East German transsexual named Hedwig.

With ’70s porn images flickering on the back wall and a few hundred drunks slobbering in front of him, John Cameron Mitchell began the odyssey that led him to where he is today: The threshold of box office success.

Along with composer Stephen Trask and backing band Cheater, Hedwig And the Angry Inch rose out of the bars and settled into a West Village theatre. The show gained momentum and a following, and on Feb 14, 1998 Hedwig And The Angry Inch opened at the Jane Street Theatre for what was to be a mind-blowing two-year Off-Broadway run. Everybody came.

The show became a favourite among critics and celebrities.

Soon Killer Films (Boys Don’t Cry, Velvet Goldmine) came knocking. It took five years, but that German trannie was about to get her due.on the big screen.

With a buzz swarming around his ears, John Cameron Mitchell gears up for the movie’s North American release in July and the inevitable press blitzkrieg. I talked to him recently over the phone from his Greenwich Village apartment.

XTRA: Filming in Toronto last summer, there was that day with the rainbows. What other moments made you stop and just take in everything around you?

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: We actually got a second double rainbow later in the shoot. That’s a lot of rainbows. But there was one day when the whole band was wearing only bathrobes – I think we all had to be naked that day or something. And we walked to set on Fraser St with Ted [Liscinski, the guitarist in the Angry Inch] and his portable amp strapped to his ass singing “Come Sail Away” by Styx.

The shoot was generally not a lot of fun for me. I think everyone else had a lot more fun.

XTRA: How did you keep sane directing and acting in your first feature with full makeup and heels?

MITCHELL: Viaslav, my polish masseur, saved my ass.

Anywhere, anytime. He would burn sage – and all these Teamsters would be running around thinking there was a fire. But that was the only time I could be emotional.

XTRA: You were an army brat growing up. Your father was a general. What was that like?

MITCHELL: I got used to moving around. Different bases every couple of years in Europe and America. I was never an integral part of any of the places I lived. I was always changing to fit in. So I developed a really active fantasy life in my head.

XTRA: And you see it in Hedwig. There is a loneliness in this movie. A betrayed heart; real pain. You want to cry with this person and say, “I know, I know.”

MITCHELL: Yeah, the stage show seemed to attract people that have had something happen to them. Damaged goods. One girl started coming to the show a lot and wound up working in the theatre. She said she had stopped singing years before, and because of these songs, started singing again. That’s an extreme example but I think Hedwig is just a metaphor for going through the worst and seeking something better. It’s actually pretty simple.

XTRA: What went through your mind that night at the Sundance festival when you won both the audience and director awards?

MITCHELL: It was so unexpected. I just wanted to open myself up to it and enjoy it. But Sundance was so crazy. It’s a press mill and I had 20 family members and 20 cast and crew there, too. It was weird. It’s like, “Mom, this is my agent.”

XTRA: What are you going to do next?

MITCHELL: I’m working with Julian Koster [of the Athens, Georgia band The Music Tapes] on a project called Grammaphone, similar in tone to The Phantom Tollbooth, Fanny Alexander, or Willy Wonka. It’s about parenting, accepting what that means when maybe you didn’t do such a hot job. It’s about a boy and his grandmother. The father is gone.

XTRA: You’re going to all these gay film festivals. Aren’t you going to be a little gayed out?

MITCHELL: No, they’re actually more fun [than straight festivals]. It’s like playing a home game. It’s not like I make a career out of being gay, it’s just a part of me. As long as you don’t spend your whole life carving out your chest, it’s a real gift.

XTRA: What’s the cutline for the film?

MITCHELL: “Get Hed this summer.”

Somehow I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.

The $20 gala screening of Hedwig And The Angry Inch is at 8pm on Thu, May 17 at the Paramount (John and Richmond St W), with Mitchell in attendance. Keep your eyes peeled for all the local yokels who pop up in the film.

As for Mr John Cameron Mitchell, he asked me to relay one last message to all the cute and smart boys attending this year’s festival: Feel free to introduce yourselves.




$9 for most screenings.

Thu, May 17-27.

(416) 925-XTRA xt 2229.