John Cameron Mitchell on Writing, Directing & Starring in Hedwig and the Angry Inch: An interview
The singer is a tall, blond, and attention-commanding drag queen with obvious punk sensibilities, who is crooning into the microphone with the elegance and flair of a dejected lover. Surrounded by her band made up of “Korean sergeant’s wives who turn out a mean rhythm section,” she tells a story of identity, abandonment, hard knocks, and hope. It’s a beautiful moment of vulnerability and sincerity that’s hard to forget for fans of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Much like the character, the story has been reinvented several times, first as an original off-Broadway production, then as an awesome indie film, and lastly as an award-winning Broadway show. Conceived by American actor, playwright, screenwriter, and director, John Cameron Mitchell, along with musician and composer Stephan Trask, the incredible tale is a musical masterpiece, a visual splendor, and a multifaceted ode to love.
From podcasts to theater to movies to music, Mitchell appears to be a renaissance man. This year alone he played Joe Exotic in the Peacock limited series Joe vs. Carole, Hal Carter in Netflix’s The Sandman, and the title character in The Origin of Love: The Songs and Stories of Hedwig tour. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Over the years, the multi-talented performer has worked steadily and earned the esteem of his colleagues in the States as well as abroad.
And yet story of the genderqueer East German rock musician chasing after an ex-lover who plagiarized their songs remains Mitchell’s most iconic work. Inspired by his upbringing on military bases around the world, informed by personal experiences and those of the people he’s encountered and learned from, along with the rock and roll experiences of Stephen Trask, the celebrated cult-classic is a salute to self-love, self-determination, and self-realization.
ARTpublika Magazine caught up with John Cameron Mitchell to learn more about his life, his work, and the creative journey that gave culture one of its most original and unique characters on film, the stage, and in music.
We’ve run into each other before, but you were going about your life and disturbing you seemed unethical.
It’s funny, one or two people a day may give me a smile, but since I’ve been in The Sandman (2022), I get a lot of that from people I don’t expect to know my work.
One of your works, and the reason we are speaking today, is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. How did your youth and family influence the development of this awesome story?
Hedwig was certainly inspired by my family. I grew up on military bases in Germany and around the world; my father, having been a military commander in West Berlin, informed it, and so did meeting gay people who escaped East Berlin.
But also being in the SQUEEZEBOX club scene — which was rife with legends and has-beens and new stars, as well as drag queens finding their voice and trans punk legends, such as Jayne County and even John Waters, who was always there. It felt like the perfect laboratory to work on something that was more personal.
“The Origin of Love” myth from Plato’s Symposium (c. 385–370 BC) hit me when I saw an adaptation of it in L.A. It felt like a myth that should have been taught in school. It would help some troubled queer kids to know that 2,500 years ago, Plato (428 BCE - 348 BCE) was talking about same-sex love, even non-binariness as a natural thing, and a noble thing.
How much of you is Hedwig?
Hedwig is not “me,” but emotionally [a lot of me is in the character]. I was buffeted around the world by my military upbringing — blown by the winds of change — and I felt like I never belonged. But, I also felt free. I would absorb the terroir of wherever I was: Scotland, Germany, Kansas.
A few people set me on my path. My cool drama teacher in high school Pat Heron. My amazing mentor at Northwestern, Frank Galati, a brilliant director, actor, and writer; actor Barry Miller, we were in a movie together and he really gave me my punk sensibility, I think; and Meshach Taylor (1947 - 2014), who was more known for comedies, he was the Jim to my Huck Finn.
Those people, [along with] my family and my upbringing, all led me to try to make something that wasn’t par for the course, that was mashing up things that I loved but didn’t seem to go together. But, in my mind, they did. Broadway structure, standup comedy, punk rock, cabaret, performance art, and drag —many of these things were not particularly welcome on Broadway.
I was definitely inspired by the documentary I Am My Own Woman (1992), which was adapted as a play I Am My Own Wife. It’s about Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf (1928 - 2002), who survived Nazis and the Communists as a trans woman. Though, I don’t think of Hedwig as trans because he was a boy who was forced into an operation — I think of it as a patriarchal mutilation — and then climbing out from under it using drag and rock.
So, all of these things helped me on my way to teaming up with Stephen Trask, which was vital, and the both of us created something different. Because there was no chance that it would be on Broadway or up for an Oscar, it freed us up to do whatever the hell we wanted.
Is it true that Rosie O’Donnell had to fight to air a clip and that David Letterman didn’t shake your hand after your performance?
I’m not sure what happened with David. But, I definitely defied the powers that be on David Letterman, because they wanted the audience not to get flustered and to think I was a woman. In rehearsal I ripped off the wig at the end of the song. A voice from the booth that never identified themselves said: “Please do not remove the wig during the song.” And I was like: “Why? Who are you?” And they were like: “Please do not remove the wig.” I did rip off the wig, but I did it right after the song and they cut it out and then David didn’t shake my hand as was the custom. And Rosie, she’s been very supportive and stuck her neck out for us. I think the studio for the show was like: “We can’t have a drag queen on daytime TV.” And she was like: “We can have a drag queen throw a chair on Jerry Springer, but you can’t have a drag queen singing about love?”
Robin Williams (1951 - 2014) read stories to children in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and no one made a fuss about it.
I know. But it wasn’t dangerous, it was cuddly. And this was a little bit dangerous and sexual; and Robin was NOT sexual. It was interesting, both the character and we sort of clawed our way to the lower middle. Hedwig had a checkered career, but it was Broadway that brought us to the mainstream; it was Neil Patrick Harris and the Tonys. That kind of made it OK for people who thought it was too racy.
How do you feel about other people playing Hedwig?
I’m excited about new productions, about new generations doing it, and doing it in new ways — not copying what we did. There was a production in Leeds, Northern England, by a wonderful trans director named Jamie Fletcher, starring Divina de Campo, who was a Drag Race star and is really spectacular. I was like: “Great, break it up — break up the binary. Show me what you got.” I don’t like to control productions, I want people to do what they want. People have done productions with ten Hedwigs, one per song. I applaud it.
Can you tell us more about the artistic journey that you took to get to the stage?
That’s a long answer. The Origin of Love concert tour tells that whole story over two hours. In effect, I wanted to write a theater piece with rock and roll, with The Origin of Love as a central metaphor. I had this idea of a general's son, based on me, who had various other halves. I was just starting to write monologues, but I didn’t have a composer.
I met Stephen on an airplane. A couple of years later, we saw each other's work and decided to really work on this. I was basically telling him stories from my youth and he was telling me what was interesting and what was not. The most interesting character to Stephen was Helga, my brother’s babysitter and prostitute on the side. So, when it came time to do some workshopping of material at SQUEEZEBOX, a drag club, Stephen encouraged the development of Helga into Hedwig.
For the first gig, we did cover songs by Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie (1947 - 2016), Wreckless Eric, Yoko Ono, and Cher — a lot of different artists. We took their songs and rewrote the lyrics to be about Hedwig, so those were our placeholders for the original songs [that came later]. Over the next four years, we did gigs here and there before getting it to off Broadway in 1998 with our wonderful director Peter Askin.
What was the most challenging thing to realize for the production?
Downtown NYC resident theaters like the Public are the ones you’d expect to support this, but they flirted with us and then there were crickets. We kind of got ghosted.
Drag was considered low class and trashy. And I disagreed. There were brilliant drag artists who inspired me, like Charles Busch and Charles Ludlam, even Harvey Fierstein. Drag is just a form that you can do anything with. Those artists worked with the ethos of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, you know the old, old, school. Mine were more Patti Smith, Tina Turner, Yoko Ono, Nico (1938 - 1988) and Nona Hendryx of Labelle. Those were our gay icons, not Susan Hayward (1917 - 1975) and Judy Garland (1922 - 1969), right? My favorite was Chrissie Hynde. She was a very literary kind of singer, definitely had a punk attitude, though her music was in a lot of styles. Like Hedwig, she’s tough as nails and not taking any shit. I recently made friends with Rickie Lee Jones in New Orleans, where I am now, and she was a huge influence on me, too. She’s a very theatrical singer.
So, the hardest thing was getting people interested and getting financing for something that was not a slam dunk, could not go to Broadway, and something people couldn’t imagine would yield a big payoff.
What was challenging creatively?
Finding the authenticity of rock and roll. Stephen and I were very clear that we needed to develop it in clubs rather than theaters. Maybe that was our problem. We invited people to the clubs and they’re like: “We’re not coming to see you at 2:00 am.” So we were hamstrung, but Stephen’s history as a real, gigging rock and roll musician, very much inspired Hedwig clawing her way to the top. The indignities, feeling like your work is being stolen by Tommy — Stephen lived all these things. The touring and the grind and the tensions in the band, I’m less aware of these things because when I do a play, it’s over in three months, but a band goes on forever, right? Hopefully. So, those tensions took priority in the story, like the kind between Hedwig and Yitzhak.
It was an interesting move to inverse the feminine and the masculine energies of the characters.
Yitzhak was originated by our friend and actor Craig Chester, who did a gig or two as we were thinking about the production. Stephen said that it would be really nice to have a high voice for harmonies and I thought it would be cool to have a fem person play a man. It’s theater, we’re all playing different things. And I love the fluidity — the rules are broken for Yitzhak and Hedwig. For Yitzhak by choice. Hedwig was assigned female by someone else for a practical reason and not by themselves or for themselves, which led to the tragedy of the situation. I think of her as AFAG – Assigned Female At Graduation.
It’s interesting that you placed such a liberated (eventually) character in a conservative state like Kansas. It makes sense given your history and the places you’ve lived.
That’s where I pubesced, in Junction City, Kansas. You’re right, there wasn’t a lot of leeway for queer people but there was an interesting mix there, because it was an Army town. It was racially very mixed and had people from all over, unlike other Kansas towns, so people weren’t judging others’ origins or preferences. You were simply asking: “What are you bringing to the party? Are you funny? What have you got? Let’s get the job done.” That’s the military way.
In one scene, you and the band are in a trailer. Its front side falls down to reveal all of you on a kind of stage playing a show. What inspired the decision to make it feel so theatrical?
When I was doing it off Broadway, we’d often have silent crowds where the people didn’t get it at all. And I was like: “This is probably what the movie is like — Hedwig singing to perplexed diners. In the first draft of the screenplay, Hedwig was on tour at unlikely places, like highway rest stops and airport lounges, but we couldn’t afford that, so we made it one chain of restaurants. So Thérèse Deprez (1965 - 2017) — our late, brilliant production designer —created a trailer home that quickly morphs into a stage. She was a genius.
When it came time to do the film, I looked to All That Jazz (1979) and Cabaret (1972); to Bob Fosse (1927 - 1987) who came from the theater and grafted theater onto film in the most successful way I’ve ever seen. And other films that were playing around with visuals, like Trainspotting (1996), and, I’d say, early Coen brothers, they were having fun with the camera so we were like: Let’s do that, too.
With All That Jazz, I learned that if you have a strong central character and narrate from their point of view, you can play around with the style of how you tell the story from scene to scene. You can go into a hallucination, or you can turn off the sound and hear someone breathing. You can do ANYTHING.
I decided to keep Hedwig talking to her audiences about her past, keeping the story going across different restaurants on tour. Each of her gigs is located next to Tommy’s giant stadium shows. Then, at a certain point, the story kicks fully into the present day, and she reunites and interacts with Tommy and they end up in a tragic accident. From the accident on, there’s no dialogue for 10 or 15 minutes, only music — nine pieces of music.
Some people have said: “Oh, well, Hedwig obviously died and this is everything she’s seeing as she’s dying.” And I’m like: “Well, that’s interesting. I don’t really see it that way.” The ending shows the beginning of her finding her wholeness and taking control of her gender, letting go of the drag and saying: “Take me for who I am. I don’t care if you don’t. You will not label me, I will label myself. I am a gender of one.”
Is the story an ode to self-love, in a way?
It is. There’s a bumper sticker that states: “You are enough.” It’s cloying, but it’s true. Thinking of ourselves as half a person that another person can “complete” is very romantic but also very arrogant. It’s a lot to ask of someone in a practical sense — to be everything that you’re not. But in extending the metaphor of The Origin of Love, I want there to be a feeling of: “I’m finding an internal wholeness through the experiences of my life and not necessarily through another person being my other half."
I truly believe that the most successful relationships are between two or more people who know who they are, who are more complete individuals, who are helping one another have more fun and more joy, as opposed to just soothing a wound. No one wants to be an antibiotic ointment; we want to be the icing on top, with the fun and the sex and the laughs. To me, that’s the goal, which of course makes me very picky now. I have not been unlucky in love, but I’ve had my own heartbreaks and tribulations in that sphere, which I talk about in the show. My boyfriend Jack, who was in Stephen’s band that we developed the musical with, died of substance abuse. And he was very important to both of us, and he was very important in the creation of Hedwig.
Thinking about the story, the phrase that comes to mind is: We accept the love we think we deserve.
I think that’s true.
When writing this story, aside from thinking about what you wanted to say and do, did you also intend to send a message to kids who may be struggling with their identities?
As someone who has been a traditional actor for a long time, and being a gay actor who’s been pressured to be in the closet — though I resisted it — I was definitely trying to create something for myself and my friends, not for money or fame. But it resonates with all kinds of misfits and I love that. The conventional work I was doing before Hedwig was killing off my individuality, my freak side. It’s a part of all of us and like a bird trapped in a wall, it’s going to die in there unless you let it out, and it’s going to stink up the house. We are all, I believe, non-binary; we have energies that we call feminine and masculine, and we’re letting peer pressure and societal norms stop the flow of expression of those energies. We are trapped; we are curtailed; we are bound.
I wanted to free myself and Hedwig was part of freeing myself. Too many people are not allowed to use their imaginations in a healthy way. Granted, it comes from upbringing and lots of pressures, but I think if everyone was allowed to use their imaginations in creative ways, we’d have much more happiness and much less sadness.
And, of course, I also wanted to make something beautiful that would be helpful for other people. I grew up Catholic and I still love the Catholic task of doing good works, not to get to Heaven but to bring a bit of Heaven here, to Earth.
What kind of music do you like?
I’d say lately I’m listening to the new The Mars Volta… an African super group called Toto Bona Lokua that is very mellow and gorgeous. I am a huge soul and gospel fan; I just commissioned a stained glass portrait of Mavis Staples from Hadyn Butler in Ontario. I am listening to a lot of classic country lately. So, I am wide open to a lot of different music, but I am not a big fan of modern auto-tuned, super computerized pop.
Have you commissioned other works?
A wonderful Ukrainian stained glass artist Yurii at Galician Stained Glass is driving in from Texas to give me another commission of my favorite actress, Gena Rowlands. I’m spending a lot of time at my house in New Orleans, creating a kind of temple of art.
What is your favorite book?
I don’t know if I have one. I’d say that when I was younger it was Howards End (1910), though I still love EM Forster’s heart. But, I love pieces of different people’s work: Octavia Butler (1947 - 2006), Imogen Binnie, Andrea Lawlor. I will read anything by Elizabeth Strout, I love her small-town, hard-nosed empathy — so funny. She has some things in common with Alice Munro. I also love sci-fi and fantasy. I think queer people are attracted to that because of the possibility of What if? A couple of things out there that I’ve loved recently: There’s Jeff VanderMeer’s slim and gorgeous book called The Strange Bird (2017), it’s a weird and brutal fable that has a lot of heart. There’s an oddly wonderful book called This Is How You Lose the Time War (2019) by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. It’s about a romance between two galactic hit persons. I’m reading a powerful new book called The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021) by anthropologist and anarchist activist David Graeber (1961 - 2020), and archaeologist David Wengrow. Changes your view of how we onced lived and can do so again without kings and coercion.
What is your favorite theater production?
I remember being very moved by a Broadway production of A Doll’s House starring Janet McTeer; I thought it was one of the best productions I’ve ever seen. It was incredibly emotional but not indulgent, and it happened right at the point when women’s rights were very seriously being considered in the western world. We, gay men, often identify with women protagonists, because for so long there weren’t queer ones. The idea of being a second class citizen is something that queer people understand, and being trans was even lower on the scale. Angels in America has had a huge effect on me, though I don’t think I saw a perfect production of it, but Tony Kushner is a huge hero of mine. Will Arbery made a play called Heroes of the Fourth Turning. I love Annie Baker, who made a beautiful play called John, which blew me away. There are a lot of good writers now.
Who is your favorite fine art artist?
I do love Egon Schiele (1890 - 1918). I love his punk, sexual, weirdly queer energy. I love Paul Cadmus (1904 - 1999), who was a gay painter that got started in the WPA scene. Denis Sarazhin and Salman Toor are awesome.
Is there anything you would like to share that was not asked?
I realize that my life’s goal — apart from finding collaboration, joy, creation, and health — is to be the same person in every situation, unless I’m on stage playing someone else. It doesn’t mean I say the same things to everyone, but I try to remain the same person no matter who I speak with. I want to be with the people who like me, and if they don’t I’ll move on and wish them well. I believe that everyone is fighting a hidden battle and you should honor that battle, so start with openness, start with respect. My dad, a closeted Army General, was very much like that. I was always surrounded by diversity in the military and I think it makes for a better party, a richer life’s stew. Sometimes people make mistakes and the possibility of forgiveness and learning must always be available.
Note* Cover Image of John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig by Mick Rock was edited to exclude a promotion for a 2018 tour. Images used with permission.