Feature intervew

After Hedwig: John Cameron Mitchell on his father’s bisexuality, his tragic ‘anthem,’ and LGBT life under Trump

The Daily Beast

May 6, 2019

Hedwig’ creator John Cameron Mitchell tells Tim Teeman about his father’s bisexuality, his parents’ Alzheimer’s, the deaths of his partner and brother, and LGBT life under Trump.

The bullet hole is still in the ceiling of William Burroughs’ bathroom, and his Datsun is still rusting in the bushes outside his home in Lawrence, Kansas, John Cameron Mitchell said. Burroughs’ bed still stands in his small bedroom. “It’s a tiny Midwestern house, barely holding itself together, and it’s adorable,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell and composer Bryan Weller spent two weeks working on their musically influenced podcast drama, Anthem: Homunculus, at Burroughs’ home, welcomed by James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ bibliographer and literary executor.

“Burroughs’ spirit hovers over our piece,” Mitchell said. “It’s a cautionary spirit also entwined with mortality and apocalypse. His wry, paranoid, hysterical voice suffuses everything.”

In its 10 episodes and 31 songs, Anthem: Homunculus—produced by Topic and released on Luminary—focuses on a man called Ceann, who has a tumor and who launches a public appeal for funds for treatment. The story expands into a complex, strange, beautifully realized portrait of a life.

In all he does, Mitchell said, “I like to throw a bomb or two, but they’re love bombs, not smash-ups. They’re more like flares than explosives.”

An actor, playwright, screenwriter, and director, the Tony Award-winning Mitchell is most famous as co-creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which began life as an Obie-winning off-Broadway show (with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask), before becoming a 2001 movie (written, directed by and starring Mitchell), which won Mitchell the Best Director award at that year’s Sundance Film Festival, as well as a raft of other awards and a Golden Globe nomination.

Mitchell also directed the 2006 movie Shortbus, which showed explicit sex; has collaborated on projects spanning music, theater, and film; has starred in TV shows including Girls; and presently plays Aidy Bryant’s villainous boss in the comedy Shrill.

Mitchell is also reminding audiences of Hedwig right now. He is currently mid-tour performing The Origin of Love: The Songs and Stories of Hedwig, which will come to New York City’s Town Hall over the Stonewall Riots 50th anniversary weekend next month. Later, Mitchell will discuss his father revealing his closeted bisexuality to him, and why he feels LGBT people are turning on each other like “rats in a cage” in the Trump era.

“I’m really enjoying the Origin tour,” Mitchell said in his gentle, lilting voice when we met one recent afternoon at Topic’s offices. “I tell stories and also get crazy. I love to continue to tell stories. I’m not that interested in being Hedwig again. I just love words and passing them on.”

In Anthem, Ceann lives in a trailer in Junction City, Kansas, that once belonged to Hedwig. Mitchell himself once lived in the town. Around Ceann unspools a complex and painful portrait of family and personal times past.

Anthem sounds beautiful, an immersive bewitching soundscape, and features such stars as Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, Cynthia Erivo, Denis O’Hare, Laurie Anderson, and Marion Cotillard. Bridget Everett plays “an amalgam of two cool crypto-lesbian teachers who taught me about [Harold] Pinter and psychology.”

Mitchell set Anthem in Junction City, about 40 miles from Burroughs’ home, “the most interesting thing for hundreds of miles.” He appreciates Midwestern directness, “sly intelligence,” economy of speech, and dry humor, especially as they all remind him of his Scottish relatives (his mother is originally from Glasgow).

“Ceann is me if I never left that small town,” said Mitchell. “My dad was in the army (he was a major general). We moved to 15 or so places. But Junction City was interesting because it was more diverse, it had a high crime rate because of the servicemen. I pubesced at its Catholic school. And it’s where my brother Samuel died, and I discovered I was gay. I keep coming back to it.

“This is the autobiography of me that never was, the alternate me. If I stayed there I would probably still be creative but not share it. I’d be working at a library or as a teacher, slipping some liberal things into lessons, then getting fired.”

There are a lot of people like Ceann in small towns, Mitchell said. “They don’t have a recourse to leave, they are beaten down by guilt and failure. They have frailties.”

Ceann’s parents are based on Mitchell’s. His mother had emigrated from Scotland as a teacher, and met Mitchell’s father at an officers’ club in Colorado. “They were fun people, dancing, good-time folks. They loved each other a lot.” (His father had Alzheimer’s and died five years ago; his mother now has Alzheimer’s.)

As a young boy, Mitchell attended a boarding school in North Berwick, Scotland, “which was quite a miserable experience. British kids are meaner than any. My sense of humor comes from Britain, but less cutting.” Humor, because of his power to disarm, is the healthiest dramatic form, Mitchell thinks.

Mitchell first imagined Anthem as a sequel to Hedwig. “She’s probably a non-binary professor in a small Midwest college teaching German philosophy and rock and roll, and she’s fine.” The sequel began with Hedwig dealing with a health crisis. “But there was not much conflict,” said Mitchell, laughing.

Ceann has a brain tumor, said Mitchell, because “we’re all going to have one. My mom is dealing with diseases of the brain.” Referring to Susan Sontag’s 1978 book, Illness as Metaphor, he sees Ceann’s tumor as an undeveloped version of himself that is killing him. Also, “In his fucked up Catholic mind, he is dying for his sins”—something Mitchell can identify with, not just because of the death of Samuel.

“When my boyfriend died I thought I was responsible too,” said Mitchell. Jack Steeb, a musician with Trask’s band, died in 2004. “He was an addict. That death really was the impetus for this whole piece.”

“Growing up with loss my whole life and then losing my boyfriend to addiction, and the metastasizing guilt and grief in Anthem’s case becomes cancerous flesh,” he said. Eventually, in Anthem, the tumor itself sings.

“I really believe this piece helped me a lot with this guilt,” he said. “Art has always been a comfort and catharsis for me. I hope I’ll be able to think of a new chapter in my life after this.”

Ceann’s father in Anthem hits his son at one point. I asked Mitchell if his father was violent.

“There was a darkness within him. I think it came from self-hatred of his queer side. In Anthem, his son kisses him on the lips. Something happens. My dad did hit us. It was only one time, but I can’t forget it. My dad beat himself up, and all those tensions exploded.

“The time he hit us he punched my head into a wall, and like in Anthem he had a ring that cut my forehead. He was horrified. It never happened again. It was just the tip of the iceberg of some rage. Then he mellowed out a lot. He was always loving—just tied up inside.”

In what way? Mitchell said, “When I came out, my dad let me know he was actually bisexual and before he met my mom he’d been with guys, and then he did what he termed ‘the right thing.’ He did love my mom, but in his time and place there was no place to be gay. That was a shock.”

Did his father ever have sex with men after his marriage? “I don’t think so,” said Mitchell. “I think he was quite a man of faith and commitment for better and worse. I think he got quite rigid and angry at times. He was a loving guy, but he probably didn’t like himself in some ways.”

People found Mitchell’s father to be charismatic and funny. “When I did come out, my dad was very supportive, even though he was closeted in his bisexuality. He supported gays in the military in the ’90s. He was proud of me. He had rebelled against his own father to find his own happiness, and he was proud I had done the same in my own way.”

Mitchell said they were an unhappy family. “My brother Samuel died, and we couldn’t talk about it. I was 14. He was 4. He had a heart problem and it was a sudden thing. Mom loved Samuel very much, but she didn’t have a lot of maternal skills. She had to take care of her own siblings during the war, so with us she not very touch-y. British people of that era were not cuddly.”

Mitchell puts on an English accent. “Just get on with it.” Then a Glaswegian one: “I never saw a banana till I was 12.” “You’ve had your tea, go to bed.” “I do my messages all day.”

After Samuel died, Mitchell said, “I didn’t have a way to process my grief. We moved around so much I didn’t have friends for long. I couldn’t talk about my feelings. I certainly couldn’t talk about being gay. Talking about my brother dying was reduced to, ‘He’s an angel.’ I didn’t know what to do with that ‘angel.’

“We were all feeling guilt because we’re Catholic. Somehow we had caused his death. Truly, we all thought we were responsible. The wages of sin. And it was a narcissistic thing, too.”

Mitchell said his father was proud to watch him direct films, as it echoed his own military boss-job. His mother was “more a creature of religion. The pope and all the rules kept her going. She couldn’t reconcile that with my being gay. It was very hard for her.” She was an anti-abortion activist, “and then Fox News made her think global warming was a hoax,” and its homophobia helped harden her attitudes against Mitchell himself.

The one positive aspect of Alzheimer’s for both his parents is that her “very loving essence” emerged. “For the last few years she has been in a very sweet state, and knows who I am with some prompting.”

His father died five years ago; her mother’s condition meant she had forgotten that he died and the circumstances of his death the day after it occurred. She now lives with a caregiver, and Mitchell needs to raise money for her care, which he hopes to do through Anthem and his Hedwig tour.

When he was younger, Mitchell’s mother felt she had sacrificed her career for her husband’s. “She was a woman of projects: anti-abortion, painting. She was a good teacher, she wasn’t the best mom,” he said. She once directed Mitchell in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever: “She didn’t give me the part I wanted, but gave me the part I should have got.”

Growing up, Mitchell had crushes on guys and was a dedicated reader of gay-themed literature, cherishing works by Oscar Wilde, Coward, and John Rechy. He started having sex just as AIDS hit, and “luckily was safe from the very beginning. If I’d been a bit older, I’d be dead.”

Death was always in the wings,” Mitchell said. “My brother had died. It was always there. When I was young I wondered if I died now would I regret anything, which always made me want to take certain risks, because I realized life was short.

“There were times in the AIDS period when I asked myself, ‘Am I ready to die now?’ And I thought, ‘Yes, I’m doing what I need to do.’ It’s so weirdly good to be able to say, ‘Am I ready to go?’ I think everyone should ask that periodically. ‘What have I done? What can I do?’”

As a student, Samuel Beckett was Mitchell’s favorite playwright. He eventually met his literary idol in Paris. Writing had been his first love in high school, he studied theater at Northwestern, and worried he would be drafted into the Army as then-President Reagan had reintroduced draft registration in Mitchell’s senior year.

“What was I going to do? USO? In effect, Hedwig is a USO act.”

His acting took off, then writing and directing. He never separated either discipline. He won an Obie Award and Drama Desk nomination for his role in The Destiny of Me, Larry Kramer’s 1992 sequel to The Normal Heart.

When Mitchell first conceived of Hedwig in 1994, he began performing in drag alongside figures like Mistress Formika, Lady Bunny, Jayne County, Justin Vivian Bond, and Anohni, formerly Antony of Antony and the Johnsons. Trask was the leader of the house band at the SoHo club Squeezebox, where Mitchell performed.

Mitchell was concerned he would be seen as not paying his dues, but found that he was embraced, “and I took the form to another place which I hope helped some of them think outside the box.”

He didn’t consider its longevity. “I don’t think you should ever consider the thing you’re making could have a long life because then it changes what you’re making. The only rule is to make it as good as you can. If you put a half-ass thing out into the world, don’t be surprised if half-ass people want to hang out with you. If you put out something dishonest, then dishonest people will find you attractive. If you put out something imaginative, empathetic, and make it as good as you can make it, it will make those kinds of people want to work and hang out with you. Everything is a personal ad, a message in a bottle.”

He didn’t see “a cent” from the movie (Broadway was a different matter). He doesn’t know if Anthem could become a TV series, film, or musical. He has enjoyed doing it because a podcast is a “cheap way of working with great actors.” It’s like Hedwig in that it was made as a labor of love rather than calculated career move.

“Drag and punk rock were not lucrative back then,” Mitchell said, laughing. When he himself took on the role of Hedwig on Broadway in 2015 (leading to a Special Tony Award), he made lots of changes, which he’s sure must have driven his co-stars mad, “but I wrote this, I can do what I want,” he said, mock-diva-ishly.

He has been as exacting making Anthem as he was with Hedwig; sounds rearranged to be just so, just as he once stained his jeans with tea bags to make an authentic ’80s color for Hedwig. He is, he said, “an easygoing perfectionist. You have to be super-prepared in order to let go and improvise, otherwise it gets too messy.”

In both Hedwig and Shortbus, Mitchell courted controversy and challenged convention, even the then-LGBT pop-culture conventions of assimilation.

“I was always never a mainstream person, even within gay culture. I am too much of an outsider. I enjoyed throwing entertaining bombs into the theater world and into the queer world.”

He preferred Little Richard and David Bowie over standard disco. “‘Queer’ is everything, not a marketable niche. I get really annoyed when outsiders imitate their oppressors, and even eroticize their oppressors.”

When gay men label themselves as “straight-acting,” said Mitchell, or valorize “masculine” over “feminine” gays, it’s a particularly twisted self-patrolling in the service of the dominant culture. “Hedwig cured me completely,” said Mitchell. “It made me realize people being comfortable in their own skin is hot. Sex apps are full of fem-phobia and inherent racism. These are not preferences but aversions, prejudices, which we are taught.”

Mitchell also emphasizes he is not “a big fan of censorship, PC or otherwise.” The conservatives who protested Shortbus’ sex scenes didn’t understand, he said, that it was “dishonest” to cut the act of sex from a sex scene to suddenly segue to clean sheets and the next morning. “This wasn’t porn. Porn is what you jerk off to. Sex is bigger than that. Gender is bigger than that. If drag loosened me up, I think everyone should do drag.”

While Hedwig was heralded by some as a trans icon, Mitchell said modestly that he never “presumed to make a trans statement,” especially as in the scheme of the piece the main character was forced into gender reassignment surgery against their will. The story embraces both the power of the mask and armor of drag alongside the scars from abandonment and ignorance, “a bitterness and victimhood seething through the whole show.”

Mitchell is single, and dating “someone who’s nice.” During the making of Anthem, he didn’t have sex. “My libido plummeted. But now it’s back and I’m having fun.” At the beginning of his gay life, Catholicism and the era of AIDS meant sex “felt bad, bad bad. One of the reasons I made Shortbus was to examine the specifically American version of erotophobia. It’s human, ridiculous, loving, and sad.”

He and friends set up his party, Mattachine, at New York City’s oldest LGBT pub, Julius, 11 years ago to be open to all kinds of LGBT people. It is named after the brave, pre-Stonewall campaigners of the Mattachine Society.

Mitchell said that rigid LGBT cultural politics frustrated him. “I chafe at that side of PC stuff that comes from a place of true grievance, but then gets carried away by rules and a lack of context.” He doesn’t agree, he said, with “those who say that drag queens cannot lip-sync to the songs of a singer whose race they do not share. You can keep going with that and start banning yourself into…” He paused. “The only safe form now is autobiography, and even then only with consent and trigger warnings. Without the imagination empathy dies.

“I feel like people are separating themselves from their natural allies and friends. As Trump laughs, we’re doing his work for him. We’re rats in a cage. We’re trapped in his world to an extent. We can’t do much about it for now, so we have started to legislate and purify. It comes from a good source, #MeToo culture comes from trying to correct things that need to be corrected: harassment, rape culture, and misogyny. Those abusers need to be stopped. But it can also limit and separate. We need allies.”

As with #MeToo, Mitchell applauds movements of redress and empowerment, while hoping that “defining yourself as a victim has to be transitional to get to the next stage. If you stay defined as a victim it still traps—and has full control over—you, and you’re a slave to it. I don’t believe in censorship. I believe you have to talk about it all. You really do.

“I’m all for getting Harvey Weinstein and other alleged offenders ‘out of school,’ but—and maybe it’s my Catholic thing—I also hope people can change and learn, and cancel culture doesn’t allow for that. It negates the possibility of redemption and change and learning. That’s why restorative justice campaigns are so powerful.”

Next, Mitchell is developing a TV show, very much of the moment, in which democracy is eyed with suspicion by both right and left. Mitchell’s show will investigate what new forms of community and government could be viable.

He looks an incredibly young 56, but he has always been an old soul. “Even as a kid I sometimes felt like I was impersonating a child. One of my goals is to find that child part again and let it out more now. I know who I am and like myself.”

Mitchell is also a member of the Radical Faeries, although hasn’t attended a gathering for a while. “At their best these are mixed, wonderful sanctuaries where everybody is welcome. At their worst they are hippie circuit parties. Meth and cocaine have started infiltrating the gatherings. I see them as distillations of consumerism and capitalism.” Mitchell prefers hallucinogenics like Ayahuasca and Iboga.

Death doesn’t feel as close as it did when he was younger. “I’m more afraid of something like Alzheimer’s and losing the plot. It’s more debility than death that scares me. Dying with dignity, how we die comfortably and with volition, is something I think about.”

Mitchell has made enough money for his mother’s care for the rest of this year. “She’s declining, so she may not have much time left,” he said. He is happy that his parents went to “a place of peace and love, and that we fixed our relationships which Rupert Murdoch and Pope Benedict destroyed.”

Does he really hold Fox News and the Catholic Church in a large part responsible for these fractured relationships?

“Yes, and you see it all over the place: people not able to talk to their parents, estrangement, and polarization. The good thing was, as the Alzheimer’s pared away at that cladding my mother had, her real self came through: this wifey from Glasgow who’s fun and sweet and still a bit of a queen. She can still cut you with a look. She’s still very powerful, even though she is half in the other world now.”

It’s obviously been painful watching Alzheimer’s attack his parents, but it has also helped Mitchell let go of all the issues he had with them, “or you just stay trapped forever.” Mitchell said he no felt longer trapped, so expect more controversies and cultural explosions, detonated with love.