Hed over Heels
Audiences wig out over 'Hedwig'
AT FIRST, his voice is so quiet I can barely hear him speak. "Thank you for coming," he says warmly. "I very much appreciate your interest in my film." Every word is uttered so softly I have to move closer just to catch them all. As the conversation picks up, he does raise his voice a bit to laugh and make jokes. But one would never think of him as loud or extroverted--or the least bit dangerous. In short, he's not at all what I expected.
In person, John Cameron Mitchell is unnervingly nice, so self-effacing that it's hard to believe he's the same actor who plays Hedwig, the hard-hitting, hard-rocking transsexual fireball from the new movie musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Based on the hit off-Broadway show of the same name, which Mitchell also wrote, directed, and starred in, the energetic new film version--also directed by Mitchell--was the must-see event of this year's Sundance Film festival.
An outrageously edgy achievement, Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the story of an East German boy named Hansel, who suffers a grotesquely failed sex-change operation that leaves him with the titular "angry inch."
Renamed Hedwig, she ends up in Kansas, abandoned by the American GI who married her. Bitterly hurt and addicted to shocking behavior--and big wigs--Hedwig forms a rock band called the Angry Inch and launches a quest for fame, fortune, and self-respect.
The stage show, which spawned a popular soundtrack album, has already won a legion of fans--affectionately dubbed "Hed Heads" by Mitchell. But Mitchell, 38, wasn't sure how audiences would react to the film, which was independently financed and filmed on a shoestring budget.
Based on the Sundance reaction, the film looks like a potential hit of culture-bending proportions. "I'm excited. I'd love to see Hedwig in every little strip mall in the country," Mitchell says. "I know I would have liked to have seen it when I was a kid."
Asked if he's grown weary yet of comparisons to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a rock-and-roll flick that also began as an off-Broadway hit, Mitchell shrugs.
"Well, it's hard to describe this film," he says, diplomatically. "So if it's useful to compare Hedwig to Rocky Horror, that's fine. We certainly share a kind of glam rock history, though Hedwig is not the camp playground that Rocky Horror was. I think there's a lot more going on in Hedwig, actually."
Though Hedwig, clearly, is a much different entity than John Cameron Mitchell, he admits that she and he have a lot in common.
"Hedwig, I think, is emotionally autobiographical," he says. "I certainly felt like an outsider, growing up, moving around the country a lot with my family. And later, realizing that I was gay, it's a natural separator from the mainstream."
Mitchell, however, seems on the verge of mainstream success. Recently, Entertainment Weekly put him on its list of up-and-coming It people. And long before Hedwig, the multitalented Mitchell was already a well-established stage actor, having appeared in the original Broadway production of Six Degrees of Separation, among other roles. Now, after more than seven years with Hedwig, Mitchell is ready to move on to other challenges.
"I've loved this, but I'm actually very tired of it," he admits with a weary smile. "I'm quite anxious to let go of Hedwig. But I wanted to send her off in a good way, make sure she's taken care of."
The Hed Heads, old and new, will see to that. And Hedwig will see that audiences take something away with them as well--a lesson that John Cameron Mitchell learned long ago.
"You're given an inch," he says, quietly, "and you do with it what you will. The facts of your life are boring and neutral. It's what you do with them that counts."
'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' screens at the Sequoia theater in Mill Valley (for details, see ). The film opens at Rialto Cinemas Lakeside in Santa Rosa on Aug. 17.
From the August 9-15, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.