JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL AIN’T NOBODY’S BOTTOM.
“I have never wanted to be told what to do in my life,” says the Tony Award-winning creator and star of the legendary gender-queer rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Indeed, over the last 40 years, Mitchell has largely done exactly what he wanted, including currently bedazzling the small screen as Tiger King’s Joe Exotic in Joe vs. Carole, a series based on Exotic’s murder-for-hire plot against Carole Baskin, streaming now on Peacock. Building a cult-hero career on the shoulders of Hedwig—the redemptive tale of a man coerced into a botched gender-reassignment surgery—Mitchell has outperformed mere Hollywood hyphenates as a producer-director-filmmaker-playwright-screenwriter-actor-singer-podcaster-DJ. Recently, he has added yet another hyphen: nonbinary.
“Someone went on my Wikipedia page and changed my pronouns to ‘they,'” the 59-year-old says with a boyish grin. “I’m too old to change my pronouns, because I can barely remember my phone number.”
Mitchell understands that younger generations want their labels to be “accurate,” but as an amalgam of hippie, punk, and activist, he stays open to fluidity and change. “To me, ‘nonbinary’ feels temporary, because it’s defining yourself by what you’re not. And yet that’s the closest thing to what I’ve been,” he says. “I think I am a natural androgyne. I mean, at 10, I played the Virgin Mary at Carlekemp Priory in Scotland.”
Drag is more than just clothes, wigs, and makeup, isn’t it?
Drag is always a reflection and exaggeration of the times; sometimes it’s a funhouse mirror and sometimes it’s a brilliant social statement. When I watch Twelfth Night, I think Shakespeare is queer. I consider Mae West and Marlene Dietrich drag performers. Punk was invented by a Black drag queen, Little Richard. And when Tucker Carlson is vaccinated and pretending he isn’t, he’s wearing populist’s poses just like drag.
What about Joe Exotic and his sense of style?
I realized playing Joe had a lot in common with playing Hedwig—the showmanship, the blonde wig, the bitterness. To me, Joe vs. Carole is Shakespearean. I see him as Richard the III; he was bullied his whole life and had to control everything, which destroyed him. He’s almost imitating his oppressors, thinking that more guns and more mullets mean more protection from being hurt.
Do you think that’s how Exotic thinks of himself?
He posted about the casting: “John Cameron Mitchell was going to make me look like a flaming fag, when I’m just a hardworking gay male.” I responded to his post with the painted fingernails emoji.
You wanted that role so much, you even auditioned for it.
Which I haven’t done in decades! And I do feel like I gave Joe his due as a human being with feelings. I wasn’t going to do a hatchet job or a Saturday Night Live sketch. Joe liked being a redneck. He exaggerated it. But in some ways, he was also a caring guy. Exercising my masculinity in the role was fun, like stage diving and slam dancing at punk shows or playing sports when I was younger. The truth is, I could’ve been like Joe; we both grew up in the South and I had enough heterosexual competence. I played straight a lot when I was younger and saw it as a badge of honor, because masculinity is the currency of gay men.
Mitchell’s path to revered queer artist was not—you should excuse the expression—a straight shot. The eldest son of an U.S. army general (who in later years revealed to his son that he had been bisexual before getting married) and a devoutly Catholic, Scottish homemaker, Mitchell lived in 15 places growing up, many of them in the Bible Belt. “Army life made me fearless and adaptable,” he recalls. “It was a macho, misogynistic, and homophobic environment, but it was also a socialist state with free housing and healthcare. And everyone was from somewhere else, so, just like in the theatre, it was all about what you could bring to the party.”
Mitchell found acceptance and opportunity in the theater department at Northwestern University in Chicago during the early-’80s heyday of Second City improv, Steppenwolf, and teen rom-com director John Hughes.
“Being a polymath was the order of the day,” he says. “My heroes—David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith—tried everything. Why limit yourself?”
How did you test your limits?
I started out looking for Broadway theatre work in 1985, during the AIDS and crack epidemics, when New York was rough and one broken condom meant you were dead. And then I got a big movie—Band of the Hand—and went to L.A. thinking, “OK, I will have to go in the closet like you’re supposed to.” [But instead] I got more political. Homophobic remarks on the set were de rigeur at that time, but when I said I had a boyfriend, people would behave.
What was Los Angeles like back then?
I lived there the last four years of the 1980s and, maybe partially because of AIDS, there was a desperate adventurism in the air with drag queens like Vaginal Davis and performance artists like Ron Athey. There was a DJ, Billy Limbo, who had crazy underground queer clubs where he played the Ramones and the Partridge Family, and he taught me to DJ. So I would go and do work on MacGyver and Head of the Class, and then do experimental theatre and hang out in the queer clubs and learn from the punks. Los Angeles formed me.
By contrast, Hedwig seems like a New York creation. How did it come to be?
I love comedy, drama, rock and roll, drag, standup, and performance art, so I wrapped it all up with Plato’s concept of the origin of love. And Steven Trask wrote these amazing songs. We played them at Squeezebox, a gay rock club hosted by drag queens, so I had to perform in drag.
That was the best thing I ever did for my psyche. I was forced to deal with my feminine side before I was ready, and then nothing scared me anymore—except, perhaps, romantic love, and that’s something I still want to learn about.
You directed and starred in the 2001 film version of Hedwig and have seen it performed by the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, Taye Diggs, and Ally Sheedy. Why do you no longer want to play the role?
I will always love her, but I don’t want to calcify in that wig. The role allowed me to exercise muscles I didn’t use and exorcise parts of me I didn’t like, until I got to the point where I didn’t need to act, because I liked who I was.
Hedwig opened doors for Mitchell, and he marched through them to the beat of his own drum. “I was offered a lot,” he remembers. “But more money means more problems, and I would feel terrible losing my autonomy. I don’t have that much money or fame, and I’m much happier without them. I can walk down the street, afford my rent, and keep my dignity.”
Hardly a dignified slouch, he has thrived under the radar. Over the past two decades, he has, among many other achievements, written and directed the 2006 film Shortbus, a sex-positive tour through the Manhattan underground, made videos for Scissor Sisters and films for Christian Dior, played Andy Warhol and a persnickety gay literary agent on the HBO shows Vinyl and Girls, and dove into podcasting with an autobiographical series called Anthem: Homunculus. Mitchell has also forged a kinship with graphic novelist Neil Gaiman, as the director of 2017’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties and as an actor in the forthcoming series The Sandman, both based on Gaiman’s work.
“I grew up with sci-fi,” he says. “It’s always been a sanctuary for the queers and the misfits.” Mitchell embraces an outsider status. “If I could have one, my superpower would be the ability to make people interesting.”
As queerness becomes more acceptable, Mitchell has seen it breed mediocrity. “I miss the freaks and the countercultural role of being queer. We all know straight people who are queer and gay people who are Republican conservatives. David Bowie was pretty straight, but he’s a lot queerer than that gym-going gay who is so obsessed with masculinity he can’t see past his own tits.”
So what does Pride mean to you?
Pride was very important for me when I was young and coming out in Chicago. I remember the first time someone wolf whistled at me was at Pride. But in the last few years, I have found the corporateness in New York Pride—endless ugly floats paid for by companies—to be repulsive. Even so, Pride is vital to shore up community, make you feel you belong, and remind ourselves we are gorgeous.
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