A few women have played the title character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch since it hit off-Broadway in 1998. But last fall, when Tony Award winner Lena Hall stepped into Hedwig’s signature fishnets, platform boots, and blond sausage curls only to peel away the artifice during the show’s latter third, emerging topless in skintight boy shorts with mascara streaming down her face like war paint, her voice soaring with inimitable grit, she laid bare Hedwig’s triumph of self-discovery and acceptance in a performance that was deeply of the moment, considering she played that role right before and after the 2016 election, during which individuality was under siege.
Now the woman who won her Tony for her portrayal of Hedwig’s beleaguered lover, Yitzhak, opposite Neil Patrick Harris and several other male Hedwigs, stars in another transformative role in the film Becks (winner of the U.S. Fiction Award at the L.A. Film Festival) in which she strips away more layers as a folk-rock musician licking her wounds at her very Catholic mother’s house in St. Louis after being unceremoniously dumped by her girlfriend thousands of miles away in Los Angeles. Whether she’s belting out an anthem like “The Long Grift” as Yitzhak, “Midnight Radio” as Hedwig, or exploring the softer side of her voice as she does with Becks’s original songs from Alyssa Robbins, Hall excavates identity through raw power.
At 37, Hall has appeared in films in minor roles before, but Becks — directed by Liz Rohrbaugh and Daniel Powell, with a script from Rohrbaugh, Powell, and Rebecca Drysdale (The Big Gay Sketch Show, Key and Peele), marks her first lead film role, and although she said she was nervous when she began shooting, audiences would never know it from her commanding performance that teems with equal parts vulnerability and swagger.
“Film is not something I do all the time. Throw me on a stage and I’m like, so in my element. I’m so comfortable and golden but throw me in front of a camera and I’m still learning the ropes,” Hall told The Advocate in a phone interview. “So I’m still a little bit nervous.”
While Hedwig taps into the search for self via, on one level, the addition and subtraction of literal layers of clothing, wigs, and makeup, Hall’s character of Becks arrives on-screen minus the accouterments and undergoes an emotional flaying at the hands of her adulterous girlfriend (played by musician Hayley Kiyoko) right from the start. From there she rebuilds her life, career, and self-esteem amid a world peppered with former high school classmates who never moved beyond the St. Louis city limits and who are wide-eyed at her unabashed queerness and Brooklyn sensibility.
Hall could not have been raised in an environment further away from the one depicted in Becks, where she crashes with her widowed mother, a former Catholic nun (played with heartfelt grace by Christine Lahti) who’s coming tenuously to terms with her daughter’s overt sexuality. A native of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Hall is the daughter of a choreographer father and a dancer mother who at one time performed with the Joffrey Ballet. Considering her artistic upbringing in the heart of the Bay Area and her trajectory as a Broadway diva and LGBT icon, it’s no surprise that Hall’s played queer several times. In addition to Hedwig and Becks, fans of Girls will recall her turn as the charismatic yoga instructor who inspired Hannah (Lena Dunham) to explore some hot new positions in a sauna, a role that caught the eyes of the creators of Becks, she said.
“I don’t ever look at a role as queer or not, or straight," Hall said. “I look at it like, do I just like the character? Do I like what I’m saying?”
But Hall added that she thinks casting directors have eyed her for some of the queer roles she’s taken on due in part to a strength she’s exuded since she was a teenager that belies conforming to traditional gender roles.
“I’ve always known what I’ve wanted and I’ve always been strong and gone after what I wanted and been very direct. And that’s strength,” Hall said. “And it’s not something that women are lauded for.”
While Hall said she chooses her roles based on what speaks to her, she’s aware of the impact she has an artist when she portrays underrepresented identities.
“When I was doing Hedwig, I would come out of the stage door and, in my mind, I’m playing a man who is a drag queen [Yitzhak], who is an underdog, and who was not allowed to be who he wanted to be,” Hall explained. “And for me, it was very straightforward. But when I would come out [of the stage door] it had such a profound and lasting effect on people. People would say, ‘Oh, my God, you know, you helped me realize my sexuality. Thank you so much.'”
While Hedwig is operatic in its exploration of identity, Becks is more muted and subtle, yet Hall’s capacity to evince an internal journey is no less affecting. Midway through Becks, her character, who’s managed to piecemeal together an income gigging out at a dive bar and offering guitar lessons, is about to perform with a student who’s also the wife of her high school nemesis, played with a lovely openness by Mena Suvari. Prior to the gig, Becks assesses herself in the mirror, slicks her hair back and dons a vintage leather jacket, telegraphing an external confidence that will later show up in their visceral love scenes that Hall said were the first they shot together when she was still nervous about her transition from stage to screen.
“It was like we’ve known each other for a long time,” Hall said of working with Suvari. “We really started with our love scenes, essentially. I was so nervous about it, but she’s a pro. She’s been doing TV and film for so long, and she put me at ease as well.”
Beyond her awareness that giving voice to LGBT characters comes with deep rewards and responsibility, Hall doesn’t appear to extricate her art, or art in general, from the political. While portraying Yitzhak on tour opposite Darren Criss and Hedwig during certain performances this fall when the country was embroiled in a contentious election in which marginal identities were under assault, highlights of the daily news cycle made it into the show in the form of searing topical punch lines.
“There’s a big adjustment happening in the way we view ourselves and the way that women are viewed and the way that the LGBTQ community is viewed, and it’s a fight,” Hall said. “We as a nation are starting to really see the stuff that’s been kind of brushed under the rug and ignored.”
But more than Hedwig’s lines of dialogue that were ready-made to be injected with the politics of the day, Hall’s transformation as Hedwig, one of the few times a cisgender woman has tackled the role of the East German “girly boy” punk-rock star, was in itself political. At the denouement of the show, her vocals reaching an all-consuming crescendo as she sang as if in rebirth, “Breathe feel love, give free, know in your soul, like your blood knows the way from your heart to your brain, knows that you're whole,” depicted an inspirational resilience that would prove necessary for the fight ahead.
While Becks, a gentle story about a lesbian navigating adulthood, family, and love, which is sure to garner Hall an entirely new segment of devoted fans, is not at its surface political, in an era when the National Endowment for the Arts is under attack, and LGBT people and women face increasing pushback, Hall’s fearlessness in choosing her projects is radical and necessary.
“I can give people hope and give them strength to live the life that they really want to live. … That to me is the best thing that I could ever hope for, as an artist, is to affect hope and strength in someone," Hall said.