When John Cameron Mitchell was directing his new movie, Rabbit Hole, he hated the idea of commuting nearly three hours round-trip from his West Village apartment to the house on the outer edge of Queens where the film was shooting. So he did what any frugal, old-fashioned artist obsessed with his work would do: He slept at the house in Queens.
“I’d see his toothbrush and his breakfast in the morning in the sink,” says Nicole Kidman, laughing at the memory of her director’s unusual habit. “He bathed in the house. The only other person I knew to do something like that was [avant-garde Danish director] Lars von Trier.”
The queer writer-director-actor behind such peerless creations as the transgender glam-rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the sexual boundary–pusher Shortbus has headed into international movie star territory for the first time, but he has definitely not gone Hollywood. Instead, he’s bringing the red-carpet regulars over to his way of doing things. “The movie stars are learning the pleasures of making it on the cheap,” says Mitchell, who shared an on-set bathroom with Kidman. “These people are working on our level,” he explains. “I’m very Scottish in my keeping everything under budget and hating anything to go to waste. The most important thing to me is creative freedom.”
But creative freedom doesn’t always come cheap, and Mitchell’s come by his with another recent project — writing and directing a seven-minute “commercial” for Dior, featuring Marion Cotillard and Sir Ian McKellen, that debuted online in December. “Hopefully this will pay some bills and I won’t have to do my films for money,” he says.
The 47-year-old didn’t do Rabbit Hole for the money; he says he took the job because he felt a connection to David Lindsay-Abaire’s script, based on the screenwriter’s own Pulitzer Prize–winning play, which starred Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery on Broadway. It’s about a couple (Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in the film) whose 4-year-old son has died in a horrible accident. Mitchell was 14 when he lost his own brother. “All the feelings that the characters deal with came up in our family,” he says. “So it felt like a necessary experience for me, something I had to do.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — Mitchell’s transgressive work, Lindsay-Abaire and Kidman, who is one of the film’s producers, knew he was right for the job. “Obviously, most people think of John’s films as being so out there and bold, [whereas] Rabbit Hole is, by design, incredibly naturalistic and unadorned,” says Lindsay-Abaire. “And yet I think the heart of Rabbit Hole and the heart of John’s stories are the same. The wigs and the sex scenes, those are just the wrapping paper. Underneath that, both Hedwig and Shortbus are about people desperately trying to connect and trying to make sense of an upside-down world.”
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.”
Back then, Mitchell says, he felt a kinship with anyone he met who was gay: “I used to think that someone being gay was enough to be cool.” Now it’s no longer enough, as he demonstrates with this mock exchange:
“What do you mean you don’t like Lady Gaga?”
“Nope, I, I, she’s fine. I never liked Madonna.”
“These are shocking?” he asks. “Why are these shocking things, when someone is being himself? So I get a little homophobic lately when I meet young people who just assume that this is what you’re supposed to be because you’re gay. It makes me feel like I’m in some sort of frat society where you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to listen to that, you’ve got to wear these clothes. Ageism is stronger. There’s more sort of an anorexic point of view about body issues.” And don’t get him started on gay cinema: “’Gay film’ means ‘stupid kind of lamebrained date film with pecs.’ ”
Mitchell is on a rant, but he doesn’t seem particularly angry, just sad—and philosophical. “The price of assimilation is mediocrity,” he states plainly. He then quips, “I think we’ve made great strides toward mediocrity.”
For the past three years, Mitchell and Shortbus actor P.J. DeBoy have been doing their part to keep the creeping conformity at bay. They host an old-school gathering in New York once a month called Mattachine (after the pioneering gay rights group the Mattachine Society). “It’s sort of an unadvertised, unmonetized party at Julius’ bar, the oldest gay bar, I think, in the country,” Mitchell says. “We were tired of gay bars as they were. We wanted to have our own queer bar and DJ.”
Mattachine doesn’t have a Facebook page, and it’s not held the same week every month. Wait, so people might have to actually talk to one another to find out when it is? “Exactly,” Mitchell says with a wry smile. “People are shocked.”
In other words, it’s just another day for John Cameron Mitchell.