Lovers in a dangerous time

In the groundbreaking film Soldier’s Girl, actors Troy Garity and Lee Pace take on the real-life romance between Pfc. Barry Winchell and transgendered entertainer Calpernia Addams—an affair that led to Winchell’s brutal murder

BY Michael Rowe

May 12 2003 11:00 PM ET

It’s a
sultry summer evening on the Toronto set of
Soldier’s Girl, and the
film’s star, Troy Garity, is almost ready to talk
about playing murdered soldier Barry Winchell. The
keyword is almost. Garity has been a distant, looming
presence throughout most of the shoot, accessible to his
immediate colleagues, but wary of most everyone else,
particularly anyone resembling a journalist.

Now, a month into
the filming, it’s coincidentally three years to the
day since Pfc. Barry Winchell’s death. In the
predawn hours of July 5, 1999, inside the 101st
Airborne infantry barracks at Fort Campbell, Ky.,
Winchell’s head was smashed to pieces against his
pillow with a Louisville Slugger baseball bat while he
slept. The force of the blows was such that bits of
brain matter and bone fragments mixed with blood
splattered against the wall behind him like a crimson halo.

Garity was
powerfully affected by the story of Barry Winchell’s
short life and brutal death. Inside his
air-conditioned trailer, far from prying eyes, the
actor almost apologizes for his reticence about being
interviewed, conceding that the role is one of the hardest
he’s essayed. He lost 15 pounds to play the
part, not only working out with a trainer but also
working on building a house. “I tried to do as much
manual labor as I could,” he says; that
included putting up drywall, digging holes, and
smashing tile to bulk up.

Garity is very
much his own man, and crew members have warned me to avoid
bringing up his lineage to him at all costs. Production
staffers feel the actor had fought long and hard to
distance himself from qualifying titles: son of Jane
Fonda and Tom Hayden, grandson of Henry, nephew of
Peter, cousin of Bridget. Garity is his paternal
grandmother’s maiden name, and it’s
conceivable that a great number of viewers won’t make
the Fonda connection at all when they see him
on-screen as Winchell, a role he has been fighting his
way into since shooting began.

“We’re four weeks into shooting, and
I’m still finding out things about this
guy,” Garity says thoughtfully. “Whenever I
think I have it, I realize I don’t. I probably
won’t have it until the movie is done and over
and I see it and I’ll say, ‘Oh, fuck,
that’s how I should have done
it.’”

Winchell never
regained consciousness after the beating, and he died at
Vanderbilt University Medical Center the next day. His
murderer, an emotionally disturbed 18-year-old
near-alcoholic Army private named Calvin Glover, had
been steadily provoked and manipulated into a drunken
rage by Winchell’s roommate, Justin Fisher, who had
taunted Glover over having lost a fight earlier that
day to Winchell, “a faggot.” In the
previous weeks, Winchell had been the object of mounting
antigay harassment, taunts, and slurs because of his
relationship with Calpernia Addams, a transgendered
nightclub performer in nearby Nashville. While the
explanations remain mostly speculative, the affair provoked
Fisher to what appeared to be an obsessive, jealous
fury. Although Winchell was murdered with a baseball
bat, the real weapon appears to have been Calvin
Glover, wielded by Justin Fisher.

The story
captured headlines worldwide, as much for the unprecedented
savagery of the attack as for the other elements: the
increasingly desperate failure of the Army’s
profoundly homophobic “don’t ask, don’t
tell” policy, the prurient hint of forbidden sexual
and romantic scandal, and the near-Shakespearean
tragedy of the circumstances surrounding
Winchell’s death. Here was a handsome, clean-cut,
tough, stoic, all-American soldier in the classic
mold—the sort the Army claims to
venerate—murdered for no other reason than suspicion
of homosexuality. Articles in Rolling Stone, Vanity
Fair,
and The New York Times
Magazine all asked the same question: Why?

Garity, although
insightful, articulate, and politically precocious, has
a professional armor that doesn’t crack until
he’s asked at what point the intensity of his
role struck him full force.

“There
were two moments when it became overwhelming,” he
says. “Through the process of reading the
script so much and doing a lot of research, I began to
endow [myself with] certain emotions from the script, namely
paranoia and fragmentation”—to the point that
he began imagining that members of the crew were
talking about him behind his back. “This
happened specifically during the week we spent filming Barry
in the middle of the witch-hunt on the
barracks,” he says.

“I feel
disgusting saying that,” he adds furiously,
“because it has nothing to do with the hell
this kid went through.

“The
second moment,” he continues, “was the day we
filmed the murder scene.” His voice trails off,
and he takes a deep breath and leans forward, eyes
downcast. When he looks up, his eyes have grown moist.
“They had to put the prosthetics on my head to match
the injuries that this kid endured. And to think of
the misery that this act of complete cowardice cost,
and this poor kid’s family…”

His voice is now
thick with tears. “I don’t know how to play it
honestly because I didn’t know Barry and I
don’t know his family. He didn’t tell
anybody. Not once in these five months of torture he was
going through did he complain. Not to anybody.”
He pauses, brushing away the tears with the back of
his hand. “My goal is to take his face down off the
poster and make him a real person again.”

If the specific
details of the last months of Barry Winchell’s life
remain visible only as an incomplete mosaic of recollections
by the various people who knew him, much of the
question of “Why?” seems to be answered
by Soldier’s Girl. The movie’s script
is the fruit of a long fascination with
Winchell’s life and death on the part of out
screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), who
encountered the story in 2000 in one of the magazine
articles detailing the murder and its aftermath.

“I called
my agent on my cell phone and said, ‘I’ve
discovered the story I was born to write, and you have
to make sure I get the chance to write it,’
Nyswaner says. Initially without access to Addams or
Winchell’s friends and family, Nyswaner did as
much research as possible via magazines, newspapers,
the Internet, and trial transcripts.

“It always
takes two things to interest me in a drama,” Nyswaner
muses, “and they have to be opposed to one
another. There was Barry’s Midwestern decency
and Calpernia’s articulate and somewhat ironic sense
of herself.” Later, when he met Addams,
Nyswaner adds, she told him, “I know my life
has a somewhat Jerry Springer tone to it.” Says
Nyswaner: “I thought, This is someone who has
irony and a sense of humor, even though she was
involved in this horrible tragedy. Those two things coming
together interested me.’”

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