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When Hilary Swank considers the trajectory of her career in the two decades since her Oscar-winning performance in Boys Don’t Cry — as transgender man Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered by two friends in small-town Nebraska in 1993 — she thinks about how the 1999 film changed the way she’s chosen roles.
“I play a lot of real people because I am drawn to these stories of people who have really persevered or people who are living their life unapologetically. Those are the type of people who inspire me,” Swank says. “Yet there is a lot of them in the end who die. So, there is a certain amount of hardship and heartbreak that comes with that. Your heart never completely mends the same. You always carry these people and their beautiful spirits within your heart. They are all a piece of me. I think I am a better person because of it.”
And in the case of the indie drama — which grossed just $15 million on a shoestring budget of less than $2 million, but has been hotly debated since its release — the actress notes, “it’s such an important story for people to know. It’s important that as long as hate crimes continue to happen, these stories continue to be told.”
The film marked the feature directorial debut of Kimberly Peirce, who first learned about Brandon Teena — born Teena Brandon — when she was in graduate film school at Columbia University. “I had various jobs, projecting 35mm movies and working the midnight shift at law firms,” Peirce says. “My best friend, Huong Duong, handed me the Village Voice article [on Brandon] at four in the morning.”
Peirce says she was devoted to the story from the moment she read about Brandon, who was murdered on New Year’s Day 1993 by John Lotter (portrayed by Pete Sarsgaard) and Tom Nissen (Brendan Sexton III). “It changed my life,” recalls the director. “It was as if I had adopted this person. I knew that night I had to tell the story and tell it in a way that dignified Brandon Teena and his journey to live the life he needed and wanted to live. I knew immediately it was about getting inside of that.”
Growing up in Florida, Peirce says she didn’t have as much of an awareness for the LGBTQ community. “I found out that there were gay men, but still didn’t think there was such a thing as a gay woman. I heard the word ‘lesbian’ once growing up in references to [tennis great] Martina Navratilova. When I got to college, there were no gay or trans students. When I got to New York, I discovered gay culture, the gay scene, but I did not see gay, queer or trans people represented in the mainstream.”
Nevertheless, Brandon’s story resonated with her. “I loved his amazing journey outside of his own hometown of Lincoln to a smaller town, Falls City, and [how he] met this group of people who both welcomed him and loved him,” Peirce says. “I have been open about this for a few years now: I’m a survivor of physical and sexual abuse, as most women are. So, I have seen and experienced a number of things. By the time I made Boys I had done 15 years of therapy, rape and incest workshops, Betty Ford Family Program, the Caron Foundation.”
“It’s very sad to say and profoundly unfair, but most women have been harassed or abused,” Peirce adds.
During her research on Brandon, Peirce discovered a group of trans people, artists, academics and activists. Peirce traveled with members of Transsexual Menace — a group of self-identified trans activists comprising Riki Anne Wilchins, Kate Bornstein, Nancy Nangeroni, Tony Barreto-Neto — in June 1994 to Lincoln and Falls City, where she attended the murder trial of Lotter and Nissen and interviewed Brandon’s girlfriend Lana Tisdel (portrayed by Chloe Sevigny, who was nominated for an Oscar alongside Swank), who was also Lotter’s ex-girlfriend, along with other people from Falls City and Lincoln who knew Brandon.
In 1995, she made a short film about the case for her thesis project. That’s when producer Christine Vachon of Killer Films entered the picture. She had read a few news stories about Brandon’s murder. “Then Rose Troche, who we had just done or were in the process of doing Go Fish with, told me that a friend of hers was working on a movie for her Columbia film school thesis project about the character,” says Vachon.
“This film was at the DuArt film lab because she didn’t have the money to pay to get it out,” remembers Vachon. “So, I paid to get it out.”
It was well worth whatever she paid. “Listening to Kimberly talk about Brandon and her passion for what had happened to him, I think it’s what made me feel like that was something worth doing. The combination of the film and Kimberly’s ability to articulate her vision effectively put me and my partner Pam Koffler over the edge,” Vachon says.
Peirce began working on the script with Andy Bienen. “The script just got stronger and stronger,” recalls Vachon. “We had this really terrific script and we hooked up with a company called Hart Sharp, which was John Hart and Jeffrey Sharp. They had a movie they were going to do that fell apart for whatever reason, and we were able to convince them to instead use that money for Boys Don’t Cry.“
The process of writing the script was difficult, says Peirce, “but once I understood that Brandon’s need was to get love and that he was fashioning himself in a way that he needed to fashion himself in order to get that love that he wanted in the way that he wanted, then it all started to make sense.”
Peirce looked for her Brandon for three years before Swank was cast. She auditioned people who self-identified by “some of the following terms: trans men, butches, genderqueers, drag kings and others.”
Notes Peirce: “It’s important that people realize that I always assumed that I would cast a queer or trans person. It never occurred to me that a straight person would play the role.”
Sevigny and Lecy Goranson — who plays Candace, the fictionalized version of Lisa Lambert, a young mother who befriended Brandon and was shot to death the same night — both auditioned for the role of Brandon. “At the end of the audition,” recalls Sevigny, “Kimberly was like, ‘Have you ever wanted to be a boy?’ I said no. That’s when she said, ‘Why don’t you come back and read for Lana.’ So I did.”
“I auditioned many times for Candace,” says Goranson. Because she was fictionalized, “I felt like there were more liberties I could take because she is pretty much the only person that doesn’t have the same name as the real people.”
Peirce remembers seeing the tape of Swank, who tucked her long hair into a cowboy hat and dressed as a man. “This person came onscreen. They were captivating. They were beautiful. They were masculine. They smiled right at the camera. They connected to us. They won us over. They were handsome. They were charming. This person blurred the genre line. They won us over and they knew how to act. They could act that part. That was Hilary.”
Swank, who was 24 when she made the movie, was then best known for 1994’s The Next Karate Kid and appearing on Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210. “I was searching for the opportunity to be an actor in a role and movie like Boys Don’t Cry,” Swank says, adding that her previous roles were “just opportunities to grow my craft and trying to find out what I am doing until the opportunity allowed to be in something like Boys Don’t Cry. It was nine years of work that I was doing until I got the opportunity.”
“I actually didn’t think anyone would ever see it,” says Sarsgaard. “I don’t know if Kim had told anyone this, but the move was originally called Take It Like a Man. So, with that title and this movie and the cast, I thought it was going to be a supercool indie that played maybe at Film Forum. That was my expectation.”
To get Sarsgaard to play both the charming and sinister sides of Lotter, Peirce would challenge his masculinity. “That’s how she got me to do it,” notes the actor. “She would say things like, ‘I thought I hired a man.'”
Peirce, says Sevigny, “was really digging into people’s emotional core and wasn’t ashamed to press you in ways. It works for the film. I was pretty smitten with her. I feel like a lot of my performance, what I am giving to Hilary, I was actually giving to Kimberly. I wanted to please her. I had a bit of a crush.”
“Some people feel like directors are kind of these alpha forces who tell you what to do,” says Goranson. “But the best directors are the one that talk to you, that do whisper in your ear. Also, you whisper in their ear, too, because you understand that all of you want to bring the best out of each other.”
Peirce, Swank recalls, was very specific in not wanting anyone to meet her as Hilary. “She wanted me to do the best that I could in kind of passing as a boy everywhere before [meeting] them. If they saw me as a boy, that was important to her.”
Boys Don’t Cry was shot outside of Dallas. And the cast and crew, said Sarsgaard, stayed in “a weird complex by the side of the highway in Dallas for businesspeople. It was shaped like a donut with a courtyard in the middle.”
Because there were so many night shoots, says Sarsgaard, “we would be drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in that courtyard or in somebody’s room starting in the morning. Then we would go to bed maybe at around 1 p.m. and then we would wake up, go to work and then come down. I think it really made our abstract, free-associative minds come alive.”
Swank wasn’t part of these gatherings, however. “Looking back at the work that we were doing, we were creating people that had known each other for a long time,” Sarsgaard notes. “I imagine Hilary was working in a more professional way. I think that really helped us because Hilary carried the story of the movie on her shoulders.”
The intensity of the shoot got to the actors. Goranson had an emotional breakdown in the scene in which Candace sees Brandon stripped. Sarsgaard threw up while shooting the rape scene. “I was run ragged,” he says. “It had been going on so long and shooting nights. Everything started to seem really kind of…not like the movie was real, but the making of the movie was so real.”
Two decades later, Peirce is now involved in several anniversary screenings and events for the film, including at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the University of Chicago (that event also includes a master class led by her) and a major reunion and screening next spring at Columbia University in association with the Sundance Film Festival. The filmmaker is also archiving her five years of original research on Boys Don’t Cry with the Academy’s Herrick Library.
In the years since the film’s release, Peirce has been criticized for her decision to cast a cisgender actress to play Brandon, as well as the brutal depiction of the violence against a transgender person. In 2016, there was a protest at Reed College in Portland, Ore., when Peirce screened the movie and did a Q&A.
But Riki Wilchins of Transsexual Menace defended Peirce in a recent interview with NPR, saying “it’s not fair to go back and apply standards 20 years later that didn’t exist back then. What she did is a major, major accomplishment. It legitimated and made possible all of these other representations that we’ve had since.” And Peirce stresses that audiences should understand that when the film was cast, “the outlook was to find a human being who could carry out this part. I thought it would be a queer person.”
In the industry, some advances have been made in terms of LGBTQ equality in the years since the film’s release, and more transgender roles are played by transgender performers. But 18 transgender people, mostly transgender women of color, have been murdered this year, leading the American Medical Association to describe it as an “epidemic.”
“I am outraged at mistreatment of queer and trans…people of color, women, etcetera, but given what I experienced when I was young and how bad things have been for queer and trans people, I am amazed that we have made any progress and at the progress we have made,” says Peirce.
As for Swank, people who weren’t even born in 1999 stop to tell to the actress how the film has changed their lives. “They are emotional when they tell me these stories,” she says. “I sit down with them and I hear them tell me it was the one way they could describe themselves to their loved ones and give them some idea of what it was they feel they are inside.”
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Sterling K. Brown