Exclusive Interview: star of Outfest 2020 Closing Night film ‘Two Eyes’ Nakhane “I’m drawn to the whole idea of play in queer identity”

This year’s Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival closes on Sunday August 30th with both drive-in and virtual screenings of Travis Fine’s exceptional Two Eyes. It’s an ambitious, stirring, rich cinematic tapestry that weaves a triptych of narratives exploring the spectrum of queerness and gender identity over more than a hundred years. Set in the late nineteenth century, the 1970s and present day USA, we meet characters who are discovering and questioning themselves, and those full of acceptance, who embrace and guide them. Thandi, played by Nakhane, whom we meet in the 1970s segment of the film, is free-spirited, wise and warm, the kind of figure any of us would have loved to encounter early on in our LGBTQ+ journeys. Some of Nakhane’s music, taken from their albums Brave Confusion and You Will Not Die, is also featured on the film’s soundtrack.

The queer South African novelist, musician and actor, Nakhane (they/them), received international attention for their award-winning lead performance in John Trengove’s 2017 film The Wound/Inxeba. Both controversial and widely acclaimed, The Wound was selected as the South African entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards, making the shortlist but not the final selection. Having seen their performance in the film, Hedwig creator John Cameron Mitchell cast Nakhane in his epic musical podcast Anthem: Homunculus, which also features in this year’s Outfest.

Nakhane as Thandi in Travis Fine’s Two Eyes. Courtesy of Outfest.

Ahead of Two Eye’s world premiere at Outfest, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively to Nakhane from their home in London about their experience growing up queer in South Africa, why they were initially hesitant about taking on the role of Thandi, the pain of returning to their own deeply personal songs, their approach to gender identity, the inspiration they take from several queer figures including Rufus Wainwright and James Baldwin, and much more.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on Two Eyes. In each of the three narrative strands there’s a character who is having a queer or LGBTQ+ awakening. Before we move on to the film directly, could you talk about your own experience growing up queer in South Africa and the kind of external and internal struggles you’ve overcome to be the person who you are now.

Nakhane: “To be honest with you, because we live in such a heteronormative world, I think everyone who identifies as queer has some level of difficulty, however accepting and loving their family and friends might be. The world in itself is difficult to navigate because up to a point you always struggle to see that you belong because the imagery is showing you that you are ‘other’. In some places that’s more concentrated than in others. I know that when I grew up there wasn’t much imagery of people like me who were queer and if there was then it was very stereotypical. If it was in a film, they were sort of the background joke, you know, funny, sassy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it became a trope. So I just couldn’t find myself in those images. I’ve always looked at art, whatever the medium or genre it might be, and belived that one of its jobs is to remind you that you’re not alone. That there are other people out there who are going through similar, if not the same, experiences. So I had media, magazines, music, films and theatre reminding me that I was alone. Then there was the church, and the convergence of feeling completely alienated from my friends, my family, and the world in general. And with the church there was this repetition of the conversation that something is wrong with people like you, something needs to be changed. This is a “tumour” that needs to be excised. So I belived it, and I was a Christian for a really long time. I tried to excise my “tumour” so to speak, but “the tumour” just wouldn’t go away. My nature, so to speak—which is a word I really don’t like, but for the benefit of this argument I’ll use it—it just wouldn’t change. No matter how many times I prayed or stayed away from people who were encouraging of who I was truly supposed to be. But strangely enough, I grew up in a family that was very encouraging of expression, even though only a certain kind of expression was accepted. I don’t know where it came from, but I had the confidence to express who I was in art; with music, musicals, acting and writing.”

And we’re grateful that you did. Going on to Two Eyes, what was it that drew you in and why was it something that you wanted to devote your time to. This is your second film isn’t it?

“Yes, it’s my second film. Travis Fine, the writer and director, had difficulty getting hold of me initially because I had no agent at the time and I wasn’t really checking my messages on my Facebook artist page because of the whole The Wound debacle. Then somehow he got hold of my manager and he emailed him with a letter, a really romantic letter saying how he felt like I was the right person to play the part. I really liked the script, I thought it was epic. I wasn’t quite sure how he was going to make it work, but I still remember that my first feelings were, ‘Nah, I don’t know if I want to do this.’ Normally if I feel like that I give it a couple of days to think about it, and then go, ‘Oh, sure, whatever I’ll do it!’ it. We’ll see how it goes.’ And so I re-read the script. I was conscious that it was dealing with Native American culture and characters, and although Travis is white I wanted the treatment of that to be sensitive and not be the same bullshit that we’ve been watching for forever in American cinema. So when I read the script I really liked the power that the characters were given. There’s a really incredible line in the film, when the nineteenth century artist, Dhilon, played by Benjamin Rigby, meets the two-spirit Native American character played by Samuel Jaxin Enemy-Hunter, and Dhilon asks why is he dressed as a woman. Dhilon’s guide Jacy, played by Kiowa Gordon, answers that some people are special, they are both male and female. Then the artist says, ‘That’s really confusing.’ And Jacy says, ‘No, it’s not.’ And I really, really loved that. It’s simple. He says ‘that’s confusing.’ But, no it’s not. You’re just not willing to understand it.”

Self-portrait by Nakhane. © Nakhane.

With films like Two Eyes, and HBO’s We’re Here recently for instance, it feels like there’s finally starting to be an acknowledgement of nuanced indigenous perceptions of gender, which essentially Christianity came along and obliterated.

“Wiped it, yes. I just finished reading the Symposium. It’s really fucking fantastic and it shows that we’ve done nothing new in the world really. It’s just a recontextualisation of things over and over and over again. But, you know, it’s such an old text and I suppose it’s dangerous to call it queer literature, but by the standards of today, it’s queer literature.”

Yes, if someone wrote it now it would be probably be found in the LGBTQ section of Barnes and Noble.

“Completely! Of course it would be in the queer literature section. I think the only woman that is mentioned in the piece is the slave girl, the flute player, and I mean, most Greek literature is incredibly misogynistic but it’s contextual. I was saying to my boyfriend that it’s interesting that this piece still exists in the world, that it wasn’t wiped out because Christianity and a lot of the religions did that when they colonised spaces. It’s sort of a belief in an us against them mentality which I’ve always had a problem with.”

Nakhane as Thandi and Uly Schlesinger as Gabryal in Travis Fine’s Two Eyes.
Courtesy of Outfest.

So let’s talk about your character Thandi in Two Eyes, they are such a warm, wise, nurturing person and the sort of figure that any of us would have loved to have had around us when we were unsure about our queer identities and questioning ourselves.

“Oh God, right?”

Did Thandi remind you of any figures in your own life in your queer development who made you feel like it might not be easy, but that it was going be okay?

“No, I didn’t have that. I bumbled about. I think when I was playing the character I was imagining that I’d had that kind of person in my life, and I was also doing it for myself, playing Thandi as the odd parent that I really wanted, someone who was there to tell me, ‘You know what, it’s okay.’ Not to encourage me, but just to let me know that there was nothing wrong with me. I didn’t have that. I had to learn that myself. I’m still learning that myself right now. You know, I think these are traumas that you have to undo for the rest of your life. I think that’s why when Travis said he wanted me to play this character I thought, I hope someone watches the film and sees this character, like Gabryal does in the film, they see a new representation, a freedom of expression, that they have never seen before in the world.”

You mentioned the two-spirit Native American character played Samuel Jaxin Enemy-Hunter, and your character Thandi has a line that refers to them which gives the film its title, Two Eyes.

“Yes. One to see as a boy and one to see as a girl. You’re special.”

Nakhane, foreground, in John Trengove The Wound .Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Does that reflect your own take on on gender at all?

“I think it’s a really complicated thing actually. And also not at all. Growing up I was obviously effeminate, and I was teased by family and just people in general, so I was always trying to act, to jack up my masculinity, but doing it badly. First of all, I didn’t have friends who were like that because they were interested in the same things that I was interested in. So my friends were sort of similar. I think we are always really interested in people who are like us. But I still remember the language, the derogatory slang used to describe people, and a lot of my cousins who were much more macho would use them. And when I was telling stories to my parents or friends, I guess the pronouns I used, or the way I would describe the person would be somewhat general, so they’d always ask me, ‘Are you talking about a boy or girl?’ And I’d say ‘a boy’ or ‘a girl’. I really always struggled with the idea of drawing lines. I was encouraged to be very masculine. Xhosa culture is that, the whole idea of going to the mountains and becoming a man and shouting ‘I’m a man.’ If you’ve seen The Wound it’s all in there. I still remember a cousin came to visit me while I was healing and he said, ‘Well, how do you feel?’ And I said ‘I don’t believe myself. I said it, but I don’t believe it.’ He was older and he said that there would be a change in me, that I’d fit into my case as a man. But I said ‘I’m not feeling this thing that you said you had.’ Now looking back I realise it’s because I’ve never really felt comfortable owning this legacy of hyper-masculinity. I’ve always felt like I was something on the spectrum. Genderqueer I suppose. Non-binary. I wish we lived in a world where those titles didn’t matter. You know, I wish I lived in a world where I didn’t have to say, I’m a Black queer person. I wish I lived in a world where I could just be like I’m a person, but we don’t. Yes, the labels are on some level boxing in themselves, but for the sake of politics and for the sake of where we are in the world, where our mere existence is threatened, I do think that to speak it and to name it, and to not only acknowledge it, but actually give it power is really, really important.”

Self-portrait by Nakhane. © Nakhane.

Do you personally identify as non-binary, genderqueer and genderfluid?

“Exactly. All of it. Because identity is fluid. We never arrive. That’s what I really love about it. I’m drawn to the whole idea of play in queer identity and in queerness in general, because once we arrive that essentially means that there’s nothing else to learn, but we know that human beings are not like that. We know that the Earth is not like that. Our cells, our skin, everything keeps on regenerating. Arrival is death. Though maybe it’s not an arrival itself. There’s endless realisation in life, and I really love that. As a child all I wanted to do was learn. Even now my house is filled with books everywhere. I want to read everything, I want to watch all of the films, I want to listen to every album ever released in the world, but the more you know, the more it keeps leading you to new things. You know, like ‘Oh fuck, now I’ve heard this I have to listen all of this now.’ It’s like the Erykah Badu lyric in On & On, ‘The man that knows something knows that he knows nothing at all.’ And that’s where I am I suppose when it comes to identity. It’s play.”

I love seeing what you’ve read, watched and listened to on your Instagram feed.

“All I want to do it to make art and share art. I’ve had a lot of people say that they love the music or films or books that I recommend. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, no one’s listening’, but then I realise that they are. So for me it’s really important to share what I’ve learned, because back when MySpace was a thing it changed my life. Like you’d follow Radiohead for example, then you’d realise that Radiohead follows Cat Power, and Cat Power follows Mary J. Blige, and Mary J. Blige follows Björk. It was this matrix of taste. It wasn’t just an algorithm, it was up to you on some level. Of course there was probably an algorithm at work too, but it was your own biases, whereas now it’s difficult to learn something new because Apple Music, Spotify and Instagram, all of those things, give you what you like already. So I really like pages where people say, ‘Go check this out; listen to this; read this book.'”

Yes, that’s what we try to do with The Queer Review’s social media and the website.

“Yes, I know and I love your website and Instagram, I really, really do.”

Thank you. You’ve got some beautiful songs in the film, can we talk a little bit about those? There are six songs in total.

“Yes, four original and two covers that I perform in the film.”

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*insert glib inspirational quote here* 📷 by @mrgodfrey

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Perhaps you could say something about each of them. Let’s take the covers first, there’s New Way of Lovin’ and Cruel, Cruel World both originally by Jackie Shane.

New Way of Lovin’ is such a beautiful song. It’s a driving rock ‘n’ roll song, and I’ve always thought that whenever you cover a song, you shouldn’t do it just as it is, because it already exists that way, so what’s the point. And I can’t sing like Jackie Shane, she was a force. My boyfriend makes fun of me all the time when we’re talking about rock ‘n’ roll songs and screaming, he says, ‘You’re not a screamer, are you?’ And I really want to be, but I just can’t. I was classically trained and I’m always scared of hurting my vocal chords, because I want to sing forever. That song is so brave. Maybe at the time people did’t even realise about this new whole idea of ‘I’ve got a new way of lovin’ babe, yeah I wanna to teach you.’ People didn’t realise what she was talking about was perhaps herself. She was of course other. She was creating something. I guess her life itself was the creation. It’s like with Beverly Glenn-Copeland, he’s a trans musician who was quite open as well especially in 80s when it was really difficult. So those characters always existed, but history writes them away. There’s a long history. We are here because of other people. What I really loved about performing those two songs by Jackie Shane was that it was a way to remember her, and also to reintroduce her into the world to people who don’t know her.”

Then there are four of your own songs that are used in the film.

“Yes, two songs are from my first album, Brave Confusion, which is not available in the UK or the USA. It’s just available in South Africa, so I’m trying to fix that now. So I don’t know how Travis found out about it.”

Had he already chosen the songs that he wanted to include in the film?

“Yeah, I didn’t know that my music was going to be part of this. It was only after he sent me the first cut and I asked him if they were just placement songs, and if he’d replace them with other music because it was a lot of songs. But he was like, ‘No, we we want to use them.’ So I was I was feeling really happy that he thought it was good enough to carry the film, because in some ways I think those songs are sort of the web that carries you across the film.”

Yeah, because the film is a triptych and the songs are one of the elements that carries through and connects the three narratives at certain points.

“Exactly. So I was really happy. And also because of the cheque! So I said ‘Yes, go ahead, use them!’ These are Covid times, you know.”

So tell us about Abraham and Utopia from your first album, Brave Confusion.

“When I wrote those songs I was Christian. And, when I wrote Utopia I was speaking of the Christian concept of heaven. I was so sad. When I listen to it now I can’t bear it. It’s a cry for help. Not that You Will Not Die is any less sad, but there’s light in You Will Not Die. Whereas with Brave Confusion I don’t think I had any light, I was so fucked. So I think particularly with Utopia that was me dreaming, ‘Well, okay maybe the world is shit right now, but there’s a future, and the future is death! I’ll be happier there.”

You Will Die album artwork. Credit: BMG.

And the other songs written by you included in the film are Hey Lover and Violent Measures.

“Yes. Violent Measures is the opening track of my album You Will Not Die and Hey lover was on the deluxe version of the album. Strangely enough that song I wrote when I was in my hometown. I was going to this nature reserve and this guy, whom I assumed was homeless, stopped me and said, ‘Don’t walk down there you’ll get mugged.’ So I said, ‘Thank you’, and just sat there by the carpark taking in the nature and when I was about to leave he started to talk to me again. So I thought, okay I’ll give him some time and he started I’m telling me about his past, doing crystal meth and being in prison. And then he started talking about some really frightening things like rape and kidnapping, so I said, ‘I have to go now.’ And he started to change. It started getting really sinister. Then he robbed me at knife point. And I went home and then I woke up the next day and I wrote that song, because one of the things that he said to me was, ‘I can see that you’re gay’, that was the word he used, and he asked, ‘Don’t you want to take care of me? I’ve been with men before.’ I think he’d done some sex work. I can remember saying, ‘No, sorry, I don’t want that from you.’ So I wrote the song from the perspective of someone who has Stockholm Syndrome. Because there’s a line at the end where he says, ‘You’ll never be wrong. You’ll never be alone. I’ll take care of you.’

Nakhane performs Violent Measures live at home.

Violent Measures is a love song, but also a song about not wanting to name the thing because you don’t want it to become real. The first line of the song is ‘I didn’t give it a name, I didn’t need it to come alive.’ One of the things I’ve learned over the past two years is that we have to face the truth. You can only run away from it for so long, it always catches up with you. Whether it’s a lie, or a deception, or something much more metaphysical, but you have to face the thing however difficult or sore it is. It has to be faced.”

Nakhane – New Brighton feat. ANOHNI (Official Video)

I imagine there’s a cathartic, therapeutic aspect to autobiographical songwriting, but is it difficult to return to some of your songs to perform them now because they are so deeply personal?

“Oh, God yeah. When I toured You Will Not Die I remember thinking I never thought that it would be so difficult to sing these songs live. I mean, yes, technically because I’d written some ridiculous melodies, but also because I used to believe that you have to write the thing away. But it doesn’t work like that. You can’t just write it away, you have to face it, or have therapy if you can afford it. So the tour for You Will Not Die was gruelling, not just physically, but mentally because I kept on having to go back over things, over and over again. Almost as if I was forced to face it. And when I was writing my next album, which is coming out next year, it was almost in reaction to that that I decided I didn’t want to do ballads anymore, or at least I don’t want to write autobiographical cry cry cry ballads right now. I’m balladed out!”

Nakhane – Interloper (Official Video)

So the new album will be less about the ballads, is it any less autobiographical?

“No, it’s no less autobiographical, but I think a lot of people are going to miss how fucking distraught this album is because it’s so rhythmic. I just wanted to make something uptempo.”

I love uptempo music that when you actually take a moment to really listen to the lyrics you realise that there’s something dark or painful there. Like a lot of Belle and Sebastian songs, which are so jaunty, but when you listen to the lyrics they’re really sad.

“Yes, you go, ‘Wait a minute, this is some heavy shit.'”

Anthem: Homunculus.

As well as Two Eyes at Outfest, John Cameron Mitchell’s podcast Anthem: Homunculus is also being featured in this year’s festival. You play Jairo in it, how did you get involved in Anthem?

“John is a genius. That’s undisputed. Well, to me it’s undisputed.”

I won’t dispute you on that. So it’s undisputed in this conversation anyway.

“My God, his ideas. I remember being in New York and having dinner with him and being like, ‘How the fuck did he think of that?!’ And he’s just a really lovely person. I’ve always loved his work, so I was quite surprised when he asked me to play Jairo. I was in Joburg at the time and strangely enough that day I was at a friend’s house and we were having lunch and we were talking about Shortbus, and John called me. And I was like, ‘What the fuck?!’ Like literally in the middle of the conversation that I was having with my friend about his film Shortbus! And he said, ‘I like your work and I would love to work with you’, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute.’ Initially I thought it was a joke or something, or that it wasn’t really him. But of course it was. I really loved the experience of working on Anthem.”

Were you together in the studio with some of the other performers you interact with in the piece?

“Yes, all the scenes with me, John and Cynthia Erivo we were all together in the room. It was a strange thing to do because you’re acting with your voice, but in order for you to act with your voice you must use your body, but you are limited because you can’t move a lot because of the sound recording. It was a really interesting exercise, but I struggled to listen back to it because my speaking voice always surprises me. I can listen to myself sing all day long, I really like my singing voice, but with my speaking voice I’m like, ‘What the fuck? Why does it sound like this?!’ One of the songs that I really love on Anthem is sung by Cynthia Erivo, Love You For Free. It’s just an incredible piece of music and it’s sung so quietly and tenderly. This whole idea of being loved, just for the sake of being loved instead of because of what you can give someone. Well, of course all love on some level is transactional, but some are much more taxing than others. And I think that song really exemplifies that.”

Rufus Wainwright. © Rufus Wainwright.

What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, play, book, musical, piece of music, artwork or person; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you throughout the years. Or something current.

“Let’s start with music. Rufus Wainwright changed my life. I was 18 or 19 and my dad used to go to his office every Saturday and at that time for some reason we didn’t have Internet at our house, so I’d tag along with my dad, and I discovered Rufus on MySpace. Here was this guy who was out from the moment that he released his first album. He was never outed, there was no humiliation, there was no shame, he just always was, he owned his story. That influenced me to be out from the get-go. At the time I thought that gay men could only make a certain kind of music and so he opened doors in my mind that I didn’t even know were there. So I owe a lot to his influence.”

He’s one of my favourite artists to see live. I remember the show he did at the Albert Hall in London a few years ago when he was touring Songs for Lulu. He asked people to keep their phones off for the first act which was a bit more sombre. And then the second act if you wanted to you were free to get out your phone, but most people didn’t which was really nice. I like it when artists ask you as an audience to put your phones away.

“Yes, because you’re in the moment. Be in the moment. Be there for what you’ve paid for.”

Yes, and that’s one reason why I think Madonna was late to come out for her shows, because no one had their phones and I think she wanted us to get into that vibe of being phoneless and just present, and it was quite nice in that people were talking to their neighbours.

“I remember that, yes. That show was incredible as well. And the whole idea made it what live shows were intended to be, for people to share the moment together. Yeah, I remember that too strangely enough this thing of people talking to their neighbours, which you never do, especially in London where I saw the show, but people were not only making eye contact but talking to strangers too. But I never get my phone out at live shows. My best friend, when I tell her I’m seeing someone live, she always says, ‘Did you take a video for me to see?’ And I always say, ‘No, I’m sorry I didn’t, I was watching the concert.’ I really do like the whole idea of being there for the moment and then it’s gone forever, but it will always be an experience, something spiritual, that lives in your memory and creates something that may not have even been there.”

Baldwin, Just Above My Head.

Was there anything else that you wanted to mention in terms of LGBTQ+ arts or people?

“James Baldwin is my dad! Up until I discovered him the most brazen—that’s the word I choose to use—the most brazen queer representation I encountered was white. I was obsessed with Michael Cunningham because I felt like he was the only one, and of course he gave me something as well. So I was 19 years old, it was summer, I was bored at home and for some reason I decided to take a chair and stand on it and I opened up a box of my dad’s old books from university. I found this novel called Just Above My Head. And here he was my family. Here were men I grew up with. Here was complexity. Here were Black men having sex. It wasn’t rape, it wasn’t violence, it was consensual, it was beautiful, it was romantic, it was honest, it was authentic. And I was thinking about the fact that he published his first novel in 1953, and he was that artist in 1953. Where do we get the bravery? Where do you get that hutzpah? I’ve written essays about my relationship to Baldwin’s work, I’ve written criticisms of of Baldwin’s work. I have loved his work for over 10 years now, but it’s hard to articulate how much his work means to me.”

Sometimes it’s difficult when there’s such a deep connection. It’s almost like being asked what do you love about your boyfriend isn’t it? It’s not really just something you can list off.

“You can intellectualise it and write down the characteristics, but you never reach the essence of it. Because it’s much more spiritual it’s almost vaporous the whole idea of love. You can’t explain it, it’s not even scientifically proven that love exists, but we believe it does and we practice it. Or we should at least.”

“Virginia Woolf change my life as well, because her sentences are epic. Of course with some of it there’s classist bullshit that annoys me now. But sometimes reading any old white writer pre-1980 can be really sore, but I think her work is incredible. I also think Jean-Baptiste Del Amo is an incredible writer. He wrote a book called Animalia which is really beautiful. Tchaikovsky was queer and made incredible music. John Cage. There are so many people. David Hockney, I love his work. Angela Davis. Meshell Ndegeocello. My, God. No one seems to be talking about her these days and we forget how much he gave us. There are so many. Benjamin Britten. Ajamu X. David McAlmont.”

The World Premiere of Travis Fine’s Two Eyes starring Nakhane is the Closing Night film of the 2020 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival. It will be available to stream at OutfestLA2020.com from 12am PT on Sunday August 30th for 72 hours, or until the viewership limit reached. There will also be a drive-in screening in Malibu.

Follow Nakhane on Instagram @NakehaneOfficial and on Twitter @NakhaneOfficial.

Stream or purchase their second album You Will Not Die here.

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