Accepting her Visibility Award at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual San Francisco gala dinner Oct. 20, Cloud Atlas co-director Lana Wachowski delivered a brutally honest, funny and empowering speech in which she opened up as never before about growing up transgender.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Wachowski about the speech on the eve of the film’s U.S. premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did this all come to be?
Lana Wachowski: They’ve been contacting me off and on for a while, and I’ve always said, “No, I don’t do that sort of thing.” But they happened to call again, which was interesting. I think they were reacting to the video that we posted. I said, “I don’t think I can do it; I don’t think I have time because the schedule was too difficult.” But then, it just sort of worked out strangely that a hole opened up and I was going to be in San Francisco, and I thought, “Well, it was just the universe saying I should do it.” And my wife thought it was a good idea to do it now. Then I said, “Uh-oh, now I’ve got to write something.” I was in Chicago the night before; I literally flew into San Francisco, sat down, wrote it, woke up at 3 a.m., finished it and gave [the speech] that night.
THR: Was it easy for you to write, or did you find it difficult to bring up some of these memories?
Wachowski: I guess it’s always hard to talk about yourself. I don’t think anyone has an easy time with that. It’s a form of self-consciousness, and when you compound it by thinking of it being in front of a thousand people in tuxedos, it becomes, yeah, difficult. I didn’t want to trip coming up the stairs, and I got up there, and Chad [Griffin, president of HRC] was a very sweet man, and he had my Visibility Award, which was completely transparent, which I thought was funny. I thought about making a joke about that, but then I thought, maybe not. Then I was just trying to be as honest in talking about my own life and engaging with this process, which is what I’ve been doing since we decided to do press for Cloud Atlas.
THR: What was the response in the room during and after the speech?
Wachowski: They were really generous. They were very kind in their reactions. They seemed to be quite present with it, and they were clapping, and I kept saying, “Oh, God — is this going to go on too long?” in my head. Then it was over, and people were really affected by it, I guess. People were saying a lot of kind things, including [openly gay Bishop] Gene Robinson, who spoke after me. He was quite gracious. It was a very positive, beautiful gift to get a reaction like that. It felt very similar to Toronto [Film Festival] when we screened [Cloud Atlas]. I felt embraced by … this roomful of tuxedos.
THR: In the speech, you refer to “this moment,” as in, the moment your whole life had been leading up to. Did it live up to everything you had built it up to be?
Wachowski: I knew that I would do this eventually, but it was interesting that I didn’t want to inhabit the memory too closely. A lot of them are very painful memories. I had practiced the speech once before I went on with my partner, and I cried several times while I was doing it, and she said, “Come on! You don’t want to be blubbering in front of a thousand people in tuxedos.” So when I did it, I did try to have a little bit of distance from the actual emotion of the memory. And then when I wasn’t talking so much about myself, and I was thinking about someone who was like me when I was young, feeling that I was fulfilling the example that I was looking for when I was young. Then it was weird how potently the emotion hit me when I was thinking about someone else. It caught me off guard, and I started to get very emotional. And I had to stop.
THR: You say in the speech, “Invisibility is indivisible from visibility.” What do you mean by that?
Wachowski: So you have a relationship between being seen and being unseen. Every human person does, and George Berkeley, a philosopher I bonded with very young, says, “To be is to be perceived.” Our humanity is located in a social context always, and a part of that social context is inhabiting both a private and public identity.
For transgender people, that public and private identity is more complicated by the fact that if they are not seen, in some ways they have no identity. On the other hand, if they are seen, that in some ways can actually be life-threatening, like the case of [murdered transgender teen] Gwen Araujo. When I say it’s a matter of life and death, I’m saying that some people who have problems with transgender people suddenly recognize [us] as transgender, and that can have dire consequences when you live in a culture that’s so uncomfortable with gender variation.
But all human life has aspects of their identities that they present as physical signifiers of who they are. At the same time, they all have things that are not visible, but invisible — private lives that we kept separate from public lives. The locus of our identity is in the whole of that conundrum. We’re represented both by visible things and invisible things, but you can’t pull them apart. You can’t say, “I’m just this,” or “I’m just that.”
People don’t always think about meaning and the philosophical implication of their lives, but my relationship with gender has always driven me. It’s been very important for me to constantly look at these kinds of ideas.
THR: You start with two anecdotes, the first being about the hairdresser who knows everything about you except the fact that you directed The Matrix trilogy.
Wachowski: Where I am now, as a matter of fact!
THR: Well, once we’re on the topic, what’s the name of the color that you dye your hair?
Wachowski: “Atomic Pink.”
THR: So you say your hairdresser knows everything about you, except what you’re probably most famous for to the rest of the world. Then you contrast it to a story of moving among people who know you solely for your fame. And then later you tell the story of dealing with the studios. There seems to be an arm’s-length relationship between you and your brother and Hollywood. Do you feel like an island working within a system you don’t particularly identify with, meaning the major studio system? Or is it something you’ve reconciled in your own mind?
Wachowski: I mean, all art and especially expensive art has been subject to complex relationships. I always say that if I have a choice between working for the studio system or working for the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, who would I want to work for — even though they both have really rigid forms of conformity, and you have to go through them if you want to make art on a large scale? I still would take the studio system any day.
I think that Andy and I pursue nonconventional approaches to cinema in the same way that David Mitchell approaches nonconventional forms of literature, or did in Cloud Atlas. It’s a hard subject. I don’t want to be reduced or marginalized into this identity of the “noncomformist,” yet I realize there’s something inherently nonconforming in the way that we approach cinema in this studio structure that has many of its decisions made by mathematical formulas.
But I also think that the studios need originality. It’s not an accident that Warner Bros. has ultimately greenlit most of our movies. Originality and nonconformity is still possible, obviously.
THR: Speaking of, Cloud Atlas opens on Friday.
Wachowski: Yes. Go see it!
THR: What are your feelings as we approach that day?
Wachowski: Very similarly to that speech at HRC, Cloud Atlas was this beautiful act of — well, really of love. We waived all of our fees. In the end, the movie was still a huge amount of money short. Our financier went bankrupt four days before [shooting]. And so we put our own money up and mortgaged the house. It was just too important to us to make it. The fact that this movie, which is in some ways the most nonconforming thing we’ve ever done, the fact that it exists has already affected a lot of people who have seen it. We love it so much, and I’m so proud of it that I’m kind of OK with whatever happens. It’s fine. I’ve already in a way received so much from the process of making it that I’m happy no matter what.
THR: You can’t argue with that.
Wachowski: It’s a really good place to be.
Cloud Atlas arrives in theaters Friday, Oct. 26.