John the Divine
BY Ari Karpel
January 11 2011 5:00 AM ET
Add to that Mitchell’s knack for putting people at ease, and he was the right person to coax a layered, intimately emotional — even, at moments, darkly humorous — performance out of Kidman. “The more truthful we were with the performances, the more funny it was,” she explains. “He giggles. He’s got a great giggle. You kind of want to make him giggle.”
The actress continues, “John is very sweet. He doesn’t have any airs and graces. That’s why you can almost tell him anything. He’ll draw anything out of you. But at the same time, he then goes and DJs at like 3 in the morning.”
As Kidman suggests, Mitchell’s sweetness coexists with a certain renegade intensity, the kind that drove him to spend more than two years developing Shortbus. He improvised with actors and nonactors, sex workers, people of many sexualities, to concoct a romantic sexual epic that shunned simulated sex and made many people uncomfortable in the process. “It’s funny, a lot of people, even peers, just don’t want to talk about it,” he says of the film. “I feel like they’re embarrassed that they were scared to see it.” He attributes that to a culturally ingrained panic: “People are just scared to see gay sex.”
Nonetheless, the 2006 film was a success. Mitchell says it turned a profit and was a mainstream hit in Italy and France. It was banned in Korea, where the distributor sued, bringing the case all the way to that country’s supreme court, “which overturned the entire censorship board as unconstitutional. So that was kind of exciting. It had its effect.”
Hedwig lives on in a different way. Mitchell’s been fashioning a Broadway production, but details have yet to coalesce. “There are plans that are real,” he says, reassuringly. “Broadway is ready for Hedwig. But there’s too many obstacles [right now].” One of them: He can’t imagine performing the taxing lead role eight times a week, so he’d have to find someone to split his duties. “I could never do eight shows in my prime,” he says of the 1998-2000 off-Broadway run. “It was seven, and that almost killed me.”
A Texas native, Mitchell grew up on Army bases in Europe and studied theater at Northwestern University before making his Broadway debut in 1985 as Huck Finn in the musical Big River. Then a four-year stint in Los Angeles yielded steady work on such TV shows as MacGyver, Freddy’s Nightmares, and Head of the Class and in movies including the 1990 romantic comedy Book of Love. That same year he returned to New York, where he’s been since, and appeared in the original production of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, the musical The Secret Garden, and Larry Kramer’s sequel to The Normal Heart, titled The Destiny of Me.
It was while in Kramer’s play that Mitchell came out of the closet publicly, in a 1992 New York Times story, but he says he was out at work long before that. “I was an actor and it was not cool to come out at all, which made me mad, and I was very ‘fuck you’ about it,” he recalls. “I was open at every job. Not pushing it in people’s faces but letting it be known so that there weren’t homophobic remarks passed around by the crew, which was possible at the time.”
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