Antonio Marziale, who has starred in three Netflix series—Alex Strangelove, Altered Carbon, and the upcoming Grendel—makes an impressive debut as a writer-director with his short film Starfuckers, which premiered at Sundance and is currently playing at the Berlinale. The LA-based actor, who also stars in the film alongside Cole Doman and Jonathan Slavin, was born in London and grew up in Switzerland before studying at Pittsburgh’s prestigious Carnegie Mellon.
In Starfuckers, an intimate evening between an established film director (Slavin) and a young aspiring movie star (Doman) is disrupted when a familiar face (Marziale) arrives. Antonio Marziale gives an electrifying drag performance that builds to a gripping and powerfully moving climax in this audacious queer revenge thriller tackling the abuse of power in Hollywood. Read our ★★★★★ review.
During Sundance, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Antonio Marziale about being inspired by the art of drag, channelling Barbra Streisand, establishing the tone of the film, and his favourite LGBTQ+ book.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: tell me about the origins of the screenplay, did you draw from your own experience as an actor or just what you’ve observed in the industry?
Antonio Marziale: “There are inherently power dynamics that are at play being an actor in LA and so I’ve certainly had experiences auditioning when there’s already some kind of dynamic there. But I was mainly inspired by all of the drag performances that I’ve seen and by how drag queens carve out space for themselves to create an alter-ego and at certain times renegotiate the circumstances of their place in a patriarchal heteronormative society through drag. It was so important to me that in this story the individual who had something traumatic happen to them be given all of the agency and that we focus more on them and how they perceive themselves versus focusing on the trauma of what happened.”
In terms of drag queens, who in particular inspired you?
“So many, but for this piece specifically Lypsinka really inspired me. In her acts she would pick up a phone call and deliver famous lines from movies, but in for Starfuckers I recontextualize that to turn down an invitation to an event that initially triggered the abuse. So he’s renegotiating the circumstances of his life, changing his own trajectory through drag. There are also so many other performers who inspired the piece. I’ve always loved Barbra Streisand and how well she can act a song, she’s just so incredible. I could watch clips of her sing forever. So I definitely tried to emulate her at certain moments in the film.”
What are some of the elements that we hear in that drag performance that your character lip-syncs to in the film and how did it come together?
“Those are all my voices. I wrote and recorded all of the dialogue myself to fit our specific story.”
That’s incredible because it sounds like a genuine archive interview with a movie star like Marilyn Monroe at one point.
“There’s actually a website for Marilyn impersonators and I messaged a couple of people on there, but neither of them got back to me. So I thought, why don’t I just try it myself and see where this fits in my own voice? Then when I was listening back to it I was like, ‘I can’t even tell that this is me!’ With the interviewer voice it was easier. I did listen to those archival recordings, but none of them fit well enough for the actual piece because we needed the line: ‘If one of them were here right now, what would you want to say to them?’ That leads us nicely into where we learn about the character’s history.”
When it came to the cinematography, I liked the way it feels intimate and voyeuristic initially and then once you’ve established that the director is tied to the chair, the focus shifts to your performance and it feels like the emotional POV is very much with your character and Cole Doman’s. What were your guiding principles for reflecting the power dynamics through the way you shot the film?
“I do want to say that when we shot it we were unsure if it would work, but me and Cole—who’s a very good friend of mine and such a good actor—rehearsed that dance together so much. We’d wake up every morning and do it. Ryan Walker Page is a choreographer who I worked with to get some ideas about the qualities I wanted and we came up with the dance. So we were really well prepared and that allowed us to shoot longer takes where we didn’t have to rely on cutting back to Jonathan, because at the end of the day it’s about this kid and his moment rather than Jonathan witnessing it. Once we see him in the chair we become Jonathan, so I think we only cut back to him three times, which we needed to do for technical reasons.”
What was your approach to shooting more generally and creating that unsettling atmosphere with your brilliant score too that creeps in in waves?
“James William Blades and Taul Katz did the brilliant score in collaboration. They’re really wonderful. I had a lot of conversations Matthew Pothier our director of photography about the tone that we wanted to set. I always want the audience to be on the back foot a little, trying to keep up with what’s going on. So we made the decision to hold the same shots for a long time in certain moments without being too egregious about that and then really moving along fast at other points when we wanted to as well.”
Do you see this short as a standalone piece or would you like to expand it into a feature?
“Turning features from shorts is a really challenging a thing to do, especially if you feel like you’ve accomplished something with the short. So there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to touch it, but at the same time I’m definitely thinking about that. For it to be as layered as the short it’s going to take a while to develop it, but to live in the world of this film a little bit longer would be amazing, so I don’t see why not. I would love to spend a little more time learning about these characters. It would be different but probably in the same tone I imagine.”
What was your own experience of drag before this?
I’ve never done drag before, but I’ve always wanted to which is probably why I made this film! I think all queer people are drawn to strong female characters in some way and it was really fun to have that opportunity. So if anything i’d like to make the feature just to get to do that again.”
What’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“I love Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. It’s quite an academic piece about her trans experience and challenging film’s representation of trans folks, which I was really inspired by. She’s really smart. In terms of movies, Pedro Almodóvar really inspires me, especially his use of colour.”
By James Kleinmann
Starfuckers had its world premiere at Sundance and is currently playing at the Berlinale.