John Cameron Mitchell on ‘Hedwig’ and Coming Out
How did writer, actor, and filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell come out? “I think I told a woman who was on top of me,” he jokes in his segment of Big Think’s special series Coming Out: Stories of Gay Identity. In his Big Think interview, the writer, actor and filmmaker best known for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” talks at length about what it was like to come of age as a gay man in the AIDS era and contrasts his experience with how gay people come of age today. “It’s like this sort of false … knowledge that people foist on you,” he says. “You’re on Facebook and you’re supposed to know your sexual orientation at 13. … Nobody really knows what’s going on at that time and people seem to … know stuff or they have to act like they do, and they make decisions before they really need to.”
Mitchell says that “Hedwig”—his Obie-winning off-Broadway play that also saw success as a 2001 film, and is now headed for Broadway—was based in large part on characters he knew growing up as an Army brat in Berlin. “[Hedwig’s] emotional core just came from … an understanding that we’re all very much these hybrids of all the people that we’ve met, you know?” he says. “And men, women, lovers, mothers, fathers, and reinterpreting the myth of the origin of love as a kind of collage of all the people we know, rather than just two halves.”
Having both directed and starred in “Hedwig,” Mitchell talks about how he enjoys having final say on his projects as a director, and that working on films with smaller budgets tends to make a director more relaxed about and open to taking notes. “I like all kinds of input,” he says. “I have a lot of screenings; I have friends, I have strangers, you know, giving me their opinion, as long as I know I’m not going to be forced into something, that’s important to me. Obviously when you get into larger budgets, you have less of that freedom and I just, I’m not a person that tends to make stories for those larger budgets. To me, it’s not much fun to have that kind of pressure.” Mitchell thinks big, popular movies can still be great, though he worries the economic problems in the film industry may ultimately result in fewer art features being produced.
Should gay culture go mainstream? Mitchell thinks it’s inevitable—and necessary for gay people if they are to lead happier lives. But that this mainstreaming brings with it a certain cultural homogeneity. “Acceptance and assimilation, you know, breeds mediocrity and perhaps an even more sheep-like, conformism in terms of what kind of music you’re supposed to listen to if you’re gay… What are you supposed to look like? What’s your body supposed to look like? How are you supposed to have sex? How are you supposed to vote?… can get very boring and very, you get a lot of unexamined lives.”