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 13 2003 12:00 AM ET

Meanwhile,
unknown to Nyswaner, producers Linda Gottlieb (Dirty
Dancing, Citizen Cohn
) and Doro Bachrach (Citizen
Cohn, Truman
) were setting up their own
Winchell-Addams project at Showtime. By serendipitous
coincidence, a mutual friend of Nyswaner’s and
the producers was at a dinner party and heard Gottlieb speak
about their Winchell film. The friend reported the
conversation to Nyswaner, who tracked down the two
producers and offered himself as screenwriter.

They accepted and
provided Nyswaner with the firsthand source he had been
lacking: Calpernia Addams, who had sold the rights to her
life story to Gottlieb and Bachrach and was a
consultant on their film. The screenwriter was then
able to spend time in Nashville and New York with
Addams while writing, and during the shoot they often spoke
by telephone. Addams also supplied Nyswaner with
material from a memoir she was writing (since
self-published under the title Mark 947). Frank
Pierson (Truman, A Star Is Born) came on as
director, and casting began.

“We
struggled with the role of Calpernia the most,”
Nyswaner says. The actor would have to be believable
as a pre-op transsexual, neither a fully anatomical
woman nor a drag queen. After auditioning countless
actors, the film’s creators decided on Lee Pace, an
Oklahoma native fresh out of Juilliard whose audition
had stunned everyone. “Lee’s talent was
so spectacular that it seemed obvious to choose him,”
Nyswaner notes, “but we were concerned about
his physical build. He’s very tall, very
broad-shouldered, and he’s a good-looking, lean, but
hunky guy. In the end, someone said to the director,
‘Frank, you always go with talent. The other
stuff can be worked out.’”

On the set, Pace
seamlessly created the illusion that he was Addams, and
he was rarely seen without the three hours’ worth of
prosthetics and makeup it took to turn him into a
preoperative transsexual. Male crew members fell
naturally and unconsciously into treating him with
gender-based courtesies: holding doors for him, touching him
lightly on his back as they guided him onto the set.

“I’m clearly a guy,” says Pace today,
laughing. He is just back from a weekend in upstate
New York, visiting Nyswaner, during which he acquired
what has become a hellish cold. Dressed in cargo pants and a
sweater, he has regained the weight he lost to play
Calpernia, his eyebrows have grown in, and there is no
real trace of the feminine persona left. A recent
photograph in Details magazine reveals a jockish,
broadly smiling Pace with his arm around costar Shawn
Hatosy. “You’re never going to forget
that I’m 6 foot 3,” Pace sighs.
“That’s never going away, no matter how
many prosthetics you apply.

“As far as
playing a role this specific,” he continues,
“I had to just trust that I was a woman and
focus on Troy, falling in love with him and playing
the scenes as honestly as I could.”

Pierson advised
Pace to avoid drag clubs and instead watch real women and
let their physical and emotional movements guide his
performance, both when he was alone and in his scenes
with Garity. “Calpernia told me that they did
behave in a very heterosexual fashion,” Pace
confides. “She really valued that in him, and
that’s what he was comfortable with in
her.”

Addams—who
didn’t consider Winchell gay and says Winchell
didn’t think of himself in those terms
either—visited the Toronto set during the
shooting. She gives Pace high marks for the subtlety and
empathy of his performance. “I walked into the
theater [set, where Pace performs as Addams] and it
felt so eerie,” Addams says, “because it was
such a close match to the theater I used to work in.
It had the balcony and everything. There was a moment
when I went into the lobby and peeked through a crack
in the open door and watched Lee, and it was like looking
three years into my past.”

Having recently
moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to start a production
company called Deep Stealth, Addams, whose final
gender-reassignment surgery was completed just after
her visit to the set, is tall, slim, titian-haired,
and camellia-petal delicate, and she bears more than a
passing resemblance to Julianne Moore.

“It felt
magical in a way,” Addams confides of the time she
spent on the set. “It gave me what I never
thought I would have: a revisitation of places and
moments I thought were gone forever. It was a surreal,
cathartic experience for me.”

“Meeting
Calpernia actually got me to tone down my
performance,” Pace says. “At the time I
met her, I hadn’t shot anything yet, [and] I was
prepared to play her really girly and really flirty and lay
it on really thick. But when I met her, I realized
that she doesn’t try that hard. She’s
serene. She just is. And she’s exactly as complicated
as I thought she would be.”

Speaking of the
finished film, Addams is unequivocal. “It’s
hard for me to see this film as I would if it
wasn’t mine or Barry’s story,” she says
softly. “It’s hard to look at this in a
detached way and judge it as a film, but Troy’s
performance was so beautiful. Obviously, he wasn’t
trying to clone or duplicate Barry exactly, but he got the
core of it right: the powerful masculinity and the
strength that was held in check by a peaceful, gentle
spirit. The sense you get of Troy on the screen is the
same sense you got of Barry in person: great strength
controlled by a beautiful heart. He could have beaten
up Fisher or Glover anytime he wanted to,” she
adds poignantly, “but he was a gentle and good
man.”

Almost a year
after that first interview on the set of Soldier’s
Girl,
Troy Garity is at his Los Angeles home. He has
come in out of the sun, having spent most of the
morning and early afternoon working in his yard. As he
rummages around looking for some after-sun lotion, he
reflects from a greater distance on the evolution of his
performance as Barry Winchell.

“In the
original draft, I think Ron was a little afraid of
Barry,” Garity muses. “I don’t
know whether that was out of respect or an inability to
define his character. He was initially scripted as this
‘gosh, golly’ 1950s movie star, so
incredibly chivalrous and shy that you wanted to
vomit.” He laughs. “In fact, Barry Winchell,
although very decent and stoic and quiet, was very
firm in his wants and desires. Barry was tougher than
even I was able to portray; here’s a guy who was
catching people as they fell out of
helicopters.”

“I think I
idolized Barry a little bit,” Nyswaner admits.
“I felt I was making a tribute to him—an
homage—and I think I initially erred in my
first screenplay by making him too Gary Cooper-ish and
almost subarticulate. I had always seen Justin Fisher
as an Iago, and I gave him these wonderful, florid
speeches. Troy walked on the set and said, ‘Why
is my character not as exciting as the other characters, and
why isn’t my dialogue interesting?’ And
I took that to heart. Troy really wanted to emphasize
the fact that Barry was a sexual person, that he desired
Calpernia and was turned on to her. He loved rock and roll,
and the sexy heavy-metal rock and roll fan persona
wasn’t originally present in my
screenplay.”

Garity, growing
up in a politically active Hollywood family, had the
importance of public service instilled in him at an early
age. Balancing his career with activism, Garity is
founder of the Peace Process Network, a worldwide
anti– gang violence network. For the son of Jane
Fonda and onetime California state senator Tom Hayden,
politics is something of a birthright.

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