This Friday May 7th sees the premiere of the third and final season of the biting and touching comedy series Shrill on Hulu. Its co-creator and star Aidy Bryant returns as Annie, who is feeling energized by her breakup with dud boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones) and her newfound momentum at the culture website The Thorn, where she writes personal-skewed articles that frequently go viral. However, she still finds herself at odds with her prickly, self-absorbed boss Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell), and her relationship with her queer roommate and best friend Fran (Lolly Adefope) becomes strained when Annie branches out from articles dealing with body image only to find herself cancelled.
John Cameron Mitchell, the Tony-winning co-creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch the stage musical, went on to direct, star in, and co-write with Stephen Trask, the subsequent movie adaptation, which won the Teddy Award at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival, a best director award at Sundance, and earned him a best actor Golden Globe nomination. In 2019 he reprised the now iconic role on stage in The Origin of Love: The Songs and Stories of Hedwig.
As a director, Mitchell’s 2006 film Shortbus explored a queer utopia of sexual freedom and featured cabaret legend Mx Justin Vivian Bond, while 2008’s Rabbit Hole saw Nicole Kidman Oscar-nominated for her starring role. He collaborated with Kidman again on his 2018 film How to Talk to Girls at Parties which premiered at Cannes, where it was nominated for the Queer Palm.
Among his memorable screen roles as an actor, he portrayed Andy Warhol in Vinyl, Egon in Mozart in the Jungle, Hannah’s editor David Pressler-Goings in Girls, and the alt-right provocateur Felix Staples in The Good Fight. On stage Mitchell starred in Larry Kramer’s The Destiny of Me, and directed Cynthia Nixon and Peter Sarsgaard Off-Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ Kingdom of Earth.
He can currently be heard starring in the semi-autobiographical musical podcast series on Luminary, Anthem: Homunculus, which he co-wrote with Bryan Weller, and directed, featuring Cynthia Erivo, Glenn Close, Patti Lupone, Nakhane, Denis O’Hare, Laurie Anderson, and Marion Cotillard.
Ahead of the launch of season 3 of Shrill, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with John Cameron Mitchell from Mexico City, about playing gay screen villains, what he was like in the 80s, saying goodbye to Shrill, and his queer influences.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: with this being the final season of Shrill I wondered what you’ve most enjoyed about playing Gabe and being part of the Shrill family?
John Cameron Mitchell: “I was always afraid of being stuck in a show and not being able to get out, but this was just so easy. There were three women in charge, so now I’m spoiled, I only want to work with women in charge. Aidy Bryant was the star and one of the creators and executive producers, and she was able to direct me in the middle of doing a scene with me, which I don’t see a man doing. She was so relaxed and to the point, without being a dick. A lot of guys in Hollywood feel that they have to swing their dicks around, because they’re insecure and so you get a sort of Trumpy leadership. But on Shrill it was just so easy for three years, well, it was really only two and a half months per year in lovely Portland, Oregon, where I have a lot of friends.”
“They were always sensitive to me if I needed to step out and do an event, they would work around me and they were just great. They allowed us to have input with our lines at times and checked in with us on our characters’ arcs. My character originally came from Dan Savage, but they very quickly allowed me to shift him into a former rock singer and record label owner. It was just so pleasurable and it’s sad that it’s over. We didn’t know it was going be over when we shot. We couldn’t really hang out because it was during Covid, so it was a bit of a bummer socially during the shooting of the last season. But we’ve made new friends and I’m sure we’ll all work together in different ways in the future.”
Gabe isn’t the most likable of characters, but there’s obviously humor there which balances things out a bit! How would you rate him as a boss and did you find anything in him that you could identity with?
“Well, he’s sort of the part of the bad boss isn’t he. When I’m a boss myself I’m very aware, because I learned from my dad, who was a general, to make sure everyone feels wanted and valuable and to be a perfectionist, but not a micromanager and to delegate. All the things that Gabe doesn’t always do, but he does it in an entertaining way. That’s probably why he hasn’t been cancelled yet, because he was able to keep it funny at least. But you’re right, he’s not someone that I look on at all as an example. I did play a similar character in Girls, who was a crazy editor too, who was scared of being out of touch with the young people of today, and criticized them and thinks that things were better in the past. I can relate to that because I do get cranky and say things like, ‘You guys don’t know what it was like!’ Or, ‘You have nostalgia for the 80s? The 80s was AIDS and crack, you bitch! Get the fuck out of my face!’ So to me, that part of him I can relate to, as the kind of godfather of what things used to be.”
What were you like in the 80s?
“As a kid, to be honest, I wasn’t that radical. I was like, the go along guy. It was only after Hedwig that I busted out, you know what I mean? But in the 80s I was kind of scared. I was scared of ACT UP, but I appreciated them. I was scared of drugs. I was scared of New York. I was a scared kid. It took acting and then it took Hedwig to make me not scared and to make me feel part of the world again. I love the fact that Hedwig wasn’t even that popular initially and yet it spread and metastasized when people found use in it by word of mouth, rather than it being shoved down their throats by a marketing campaign. So my aesthetics are still punk, like Gabe’s, but I hope I’m a bit more consistent than him.”
You’ve been acting on and off for over three decades, and in film and television during that time there’s definitely been an evolution when it comes to gay characters. Could talk a bit about your own experience with work that you’ve been hired to act in—going back to 1990 to the film Book of Love, where you engaged with director Robert Shaye about the way your initially gay character had been written—to roles you’ve been playing in recent years like David in Girls, who you just mentioned, to Gabe in Shrill, to Felix Staples in The Good Fight, and your upcoming portrayal of Joe Exotic; these are very different gay characters than we’ve been used to seeing over the years.
“They’re all kind of villains, and they’re all kind of heavies. Which is funny. When we were coming up, and maybe it’s still true, the best actors of their generation, the best they could hope for in Hollywood was playing a Bond villain. That was the pinnacle of Hollywood for a Laurence Olivier or a Helen Mirren. You could play the lead in a small British film, or like Anthony Hopkins play a supervillain like Hannibal in The Silence of the Lambs, right? But that was the goal. The best actors who won their Tonys and Oliviers, people would go, ‘Oh, he’d make a great Bond villain’, because Hollywood wasn’t set up for unusual, individualistic types of people, they wanted cookie-cutter sex symbols, who could act and be flexible. Which doesn’t mean they’re bad actors, you know, Paul Newman was great, but he was a Matinée idol. Whereas someone like John Cazale, who co-starred with Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, looked weird. He was just as good an actor as Al Pacino, but Pacino looked better. It’s about looks in Hollywood.”
“I was there in Hollywood in the 80s and I was kind of a cute kid, but not cute enough. So I came out to New York, where I felt more appreciated and that made all the difference. I was able to work with great actors. Also being queer you tend to get sidelined into certain roles, especially if you’re openly gay, which was not cool in the 80s and 90s, but it was the time of AIDS and I was furious that people were telling me how to live my life, they could tell me what to do on screen, but don’t tell me how to live my life. So I was always openly gay and if someone didn’t want to cast me because I was gay, fuck them, I didn’t want to work with them. But other times, like you said, I would engage with someone like Bob Shaye of New Line and say, ‘You know, this queer character could be written better.’ And Bob remembered that and financed Hedwig. He said, ‘I appreciated your honesty, but you weren’t confrontational.’ It was creative engagement and I really believe in creative engagement. I don’t believe in cancel culture. I believe people need to be held accountable, but if you believe in prison reform you can’t believe in cancel culture. You know, what I mean? People can change. I’m curious to see what will happen with Scott Rudin, who is a very tasteful and can be a very charming person. Maybe he wasn’t the best person to work with in the office, but I believe he can change. Some people say people don’t change, that’s your opinion, that’s fine, but I don’t believe you can believe in art and not believe that people can change.”
We ask everyone who we interview to name their favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture, whether it’s a book, a play, a TV series, a movie, music, or artwork, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact resonated with you over the years and why. I’m particularly curious to know what your choice is because when I’ve asked this question over the years a lot of people have said John Cameron Mitchell, or Hedwig, or Shortbus.
“Well, all those things came from earlier queer role models. Bowie wasn’t that gay, but he was certainly queer and he probably informed me more than any other artist with his eclecticism, his curiosity, his bravery, his style, his sexiness. So I would definitely say Bowie. I would also say Oscar Wilde. The three great British and Irish queer stars were Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, and Joe Orton. Their styles are very different, but they all come from this outsider point of view, where they’re satirizing their own cultures through humour, and some are more punk than others, like Joe Orton. My mother’s British, so the British sense of humor, and the love of words very much stayed with me. As a kid, I was I was obsessed with performing Wilde, Coward, and Orton. Pinter as well, though I don’t think of him as very queer. The drag tradition of Britain—which was not just gay, you can be straight and be a drag queen—for sure informed me as well, it’s an ancient tradition. Then these rock and roll stars had a major impact on me: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Patti Smith, Aretha Franklin. These were all outsiders, they didn’t fit in, they didn’t look quite right, therefore they made stuff that didn’t fit in either, that is timeless. You will never forget David Bowie, but you may forget Bryan Adams, you may forget Phil Collins, not that they’re bad, but they weren’t so far outside that they were really mining other territory. So those outsiders, I worship.”
“Edward Carpenter is another person people don’t know in the queer canon, who was an acolyte of Walt Whitman, another hero of mine, and a mentor to E.M. Forster. He was a socialist, openly queer guy in the early twentieth century, who was somehow able to live openly and wasn’t victimized. I mean, he had some money, but he lived on a farm with his working class lover, and he put his money where his mouth was, he helped anarchists and socialists, and he tried to make the world better and that is the best of queerness.”
By James Kleinmann
The final season of Shrill premieres Friday May 7th on Hulu.