John Cameron Mitchell on 'Hedwig': Everybody Thought It Was "Career Suicide"

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The filmmaker picks up the fest's highest honor during the opening night festivities at L.A.'s Orpheum Theatre.

John Cameron Mitchell joined a list of his personal heroes — Gus Van Sant, John Waters, Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon — when he accepted the 19th annual Outfest Achievement Award in the opening moments of the 2015 edition of Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival.

And while he paid tribute to the aforementioned filmmakers “who were models of how to do things,” the 52-year-old spent the bulk of his acceptance speech onstage inside downtown’s Orpheum Theatre talking about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the musical-turned-feature film about an East German trans rocker that he created along with Stephen Trask. (Though his highlight reel also included spotlights on the sexually-charged Shortbus, the Nicole Kidman-tearjerker Rabbit Hole and even a Dior short film starring the fashion house's fave leading lady Marion Cotillard.)

“With Hedwig everybody was like, ‘This is career suicide. Drag? Low class. Punk rock? Never sell. And Stephen Trask and I thought, ‘F--- it, we gotta do something that we love,” said Mitchell, who prepped the statement with a comment on how “nowadays the term selling out doesn’t exist anymore because everyone is trying to make a living,” obviously a nod to other credits on his resume like mainstream TV acting gigs. “That’s what the jobs are for. Do the other job to do the thing you love. By accident the world changed in the interim and now I can pay my rent with that. It’s weird.”

The influx of cash can be credited to the current run of Hedwig on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre, a revival that has starred Neil Patrick Harris, Michael C. Hall, Darren Criss and Taye Diggs, the latter of whom will step into the gender-bending role from July 22-Oct. 11. Mitchell picked up a special Tony Award on June 7 for Hedwig, which has influenced a new generation thanks to its pop culture resurgence.

Among those who've taken to Hedwig’s unique charms is Elle Fanning, who was on hand to present the Outfest trophy to Mitchell. The 17-year-old will star opposite Kidman and Ruth Wilson in the film How to Talk to Girls at Parties, which Mitchell will direct this summer in London based on the Neil Gaiman short story.

Fanning charmed the Orpheum crowd by giggling through her introduction and revealing her love of Mitchell and his Hedwig, which debuted off-Broadway the year she was born, 1998, which she exclaimed to roaring laughter from the audience. “‘Tear Me Down is my personal favorite, which I blast in the car and pretend I’m Hedwig and that usually consists of a lot of head banging and my mom telling me to turn the radio down, but I turn it up,” she laughed. “(John Cameron Mitchell) finds the glitter in the dirt and the dirt in the glitter.”

Others who found their way into the Orpheum for opening night included producer Dan Jinks, actor-producer Dan Bucatinsky, filmmaker Don Roos and Outfest’s Christopher RacsterLucy Mukerjee-Brown and Harry Vaughn. But it was comedian Tig Notaro who stole the show, thanks to the well-received opening night film.

Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York directed the aptly titled documentary Tig (streaming on Netflix on July 17) based on the comedian’s rollercoaster months that included a life-threatening intestinal infection, a double mastectomy, a breakup and her mother’s tragic death. Longtime friend Garry Marshall skipped his Thursday night softball game to support Notaro, with whom he worked on Sarah Silverman’s comedy series.

Back to Mitchell: Hedwig never killed his career, but if he had tried to mount the project in today’s social world, Mitchell concluded that online trolls would kill his creativity. He detailed that if he’d posted the first Hedwig outing on YouTube and looked at user comments, “I never would’ve finished it.”

“So don’t over document it. Do it in the dark,” he advised those looking to create new projects. “The best things happen in the dark.”

Outfest runs July 9-19 at various venues across Los Angeles. 

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