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John Cameron Mitchell, the multi-hyphenate talent behind the ambitious new musical podcast Anthem: Homunculus, stopped by The Hollywood Reporter‘s studios for an in-depth revisiting of his most famous creation: Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
“I wasn’t seeing my world,” Mitchell, 56, tells the It Happened in Hollywood podcast of the New York theater scene at the time he conceived of Hedwig. “AIDS was reaching a frenzied peak in the mid-1990s. I just wasn’t seeing the things that moved me onstage.”
After a chance encounter with rock musician Stephen Trask on an airplane, the two joined forces to create a new kind of theater work — a glam-rock musical that felt grittier and more authentic than shows like Rent, which debuted off-Broadway in 1996.
“We wanted something very doable — just me and a band,” Mitchell says. For his inspiration, he reached back into his childhood growing up the son of an army general in the tiny town of Junction City, Kansas, and based Hedwig on “Helga, a babysitter for my brother who was also a prostitute. … She was not that good-looking but was so popular.”
The idea to make the character one who straddles genders came out of Mitchell’s nights spent partying at Squeezebox, a “punk rock drag club” on New York’s west side, where Trask was the guitarist for the house band.
They workshopped the project at the club from 1994 until it finally opened off-Broadway in 1996 and became an instant sensation, fueled by Mitchell’s tour-de-force performance and Trask’s now-iconic score, featuring songs like “Tear Me Down,” “Wicked Little Town” and the lighters-in-the-air show closer, “Midnight Radio.”
The show went on to become a cult film in 2001, which Mitchell starred in and directed — newly restored and available to stream on Criterion Channel — and then had a successful Broadway run in 2014 with Neil Patrick Harris in the lead role. Mitchell took over the lead for a three-month stretch in 2015 and completed most of it in a leg cast after an onstage accident early in the run.
In that time, trans identity has coalesced into a full-fledged movement, thanks to shows like Transparent and Pose. But Mitchell says Hedwig — who undergoes a botched castration as a teen — is not a transgender story.
“He was a boy who was quite comfortable in his gender and was coerced into a mutilation, really, by a boyfriend, mother and really the patriarchy, if you think about it. [Coerced by] the binarchy that says you have to be one or the other for certain things to happen, for you to get married and so on,” he says.
“But it’s not really a trans story. There’s all kinds of gender fluidity and exploration. But to be trans you have to want to be. You choose to be.”
Mitchell — who went on to direct the 2010 film Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman — has always taken an outsider’s view of Hollywood.
“I was nominated for a Golden Globe [for actor in a motion picture in a comedy or musical], and it was fun to go, but I could leave,” he says. “I could enjoy it, laugh and leave. I felt a lot of the other people there felt like they were trying to do the right thing, and this was high school for them and they were trapped.”
The success of Hedwig did lead to more offers, but they often involved a character with a Germanic accent, like Hedwig’s. “There was the Emcee in Cabaret. And I was offered a role in X-Men…it was Nightcrawler who was actually my favorite X-Man as a kid.”
He passed on both — “I was tired. I had quit acting. I just saw a lot of makeup being put on” — and they both went to the British actor Alan Cumming. “He did a great job,” Mitchell says of Cumming’s Nightcrawler. “But I think he didn’t have a very good time. He told me.”
For much more from John Cameron Mitchell on the origins of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and his new musical podcast Anthem: Homunculus, produced by Topic, listen to the Season 1 finale of ‘It Happened in Hollywood’ and be sure to subscribe.
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