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John Cameron Mitchell on playing Hedwig again: 'It's much more of a living document'

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Joan Marcus

Seventeen years ago, John Cameron Mitchell originated the title role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which he wrote along with Stephen Trask Off-Broadway. Now, he’s the fourth person to play the rocker from East Berlin with that titular “angry inch” in the show’s Broadway run, giving longtime fans and newcomers an experience that’s both invigorating and cathartic. 

Today, Mitchell has a freedom when playing Hedwig that he didn’t used to have. It’s much more of a living document than it was in the old days, where I was coming out of Broadway, which tends to be kind of rigid in the lines and the way you sing it,” Mitchell told EW. “Now I have nothing to lose.”

But returning to Hedwig has also been, according to Mitchell, a “painful process, physically, emotionally.” He left the role this past week following a knee injury that had him performing in a brace. He starts up again on Tuesday, and will play the part until April 26. (Michael C. Hall played the role in Mitchell’s brief absence.)

EW talked to Mitchell, who also directed in starred in the show’s film adaptation, earlier this month (before his brief absence) about how Hedwig had changed for him over the years.  

EW: At what point during the process of doing the show on Broadway did you see yourself stepping into the role again?

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: Just because it was always there as a possibility, and Broadway is hopefully unending, it was always sort of in the back of my mind. I didn’t feel the need to open it. I didn’t feel the need to be the tentpole guy. Neil is so much more right for that. Because so many people know him, and he, coming to this role, brought so many people there who were perhaps afraid of it being too strange for them. His incredible skills were able to let people know that Hedwig is for everybody. It was always in my mind, but I didn’t want it to get in the way of other projects I was doing, and it just kind of worked out.

Is stepping back into the heels and wigs and role of Hedwig second nature to you, or are you discovering elements of the performance anew?

There’s a lot of discovering on this. It also was quite a painful process, physically, emotionally. There are a lot of emotional roadblocks. Thinking about what’s happened since. Lost a lot of people who were close to me and who worked on it. It just brought up a lot. The character is older now, as I am. There’s more depth of feeling. There’s more an awareness of how New York has changed since we did it. There’s a lot more improv in this version, where I kind of lash out at the changes and talk about what’s happening lately and a little more backstory. There’s even elements of the sequel I’m trying out, you know, some lines and material from the sequel.

It’s much more of a living document than it was in the old days, where I was coming out of Broadway, which tends to be kind of rigid in the lines and the way you sing it. Now I have nothing to lose. I’m much less rigid than I was so everything’s coming out much more like a real rock show or stand-up slash performance art slash improv comedy. It’s much looser, rougher, maybe darker. I was kind of plumbing the depths of the relationship between Yitzhak and Hedwig as a real f–ked up relationship, that’s constantly changing and sexual. I think of an open relationship where I’m not really fully committed and he really wants to be. I’m keeping the other actors on their toes. You never know what I’m going to say to them. It’s still growing and changing. In the old days I tended to be, oh my God, I’ve got to hit that exact emotional marker on that line, and now I’m like let’s just see where we are today, let’s see where the audience is, and it can change. And that keeps it alive.

Was there anything you saw during the other Hedwigs’ runs that sparked inspiration?

Neil’s a comic genius, so I was learning from him of stuff that I could do. He was coming up with great lines. I want all the Hedwigs to feel that free. He built an incredible structure on which I could just add filigree and put icing on top of. Incredibly strong undergirding that he built that we all depend on and just add to, sometimes subtract, and if there are jokes that have been going on for a while, let’s try a different thing here, different joke. I want that to be the case for all the Hedwigs in the future. Hopefully there will be many, many more on Broadway and in London and other productions around the world.

What do you think has changed most about your Hedwig from doing it onstage and in the film and doing it now?

Like I said, it remains living. It remains changeable. It remains loose depending on what’s happening in the house with the audience. It’s probably darker. I’ve seen more. Hedwig’s seen more. She can be any age as long as she was alive before the Wall came down. Theoretically, people can do it when they are 70 because the timing works out. The things that interest me are less to do with perhaps finding myself and more to do with surviving and mercy and forgiveness. But there’s a lot of anger in it too. I’ve seen things change and people forget: the history of Berlin, the history of queer struggle, the history of AIDS, the history of New York changing from an artistic powerhouse to more of a financial one now. Young artists aren’t as welcome here because of the prices. They need to go elsewhere. The Meatpacking District is different from what it was then, where we did the show and now it’s for rich foreign people and trust fund kids. There are all kinds of things like that that we treat and think about. Hedwig is not one of the one percent even though she’s on Broadway by accident, she’s lashing out at the people that have as opposed to have not. She comes from having not, and she links herself to the woman who sold her hair for her wig: the Sri Lankan mother of 10, just trying to survive by selling her hair. So it’s somehow harder won love, harder won connection, a digital world is a harder one to find community in for some people who need real flesh and real faces in front of them opposed to screens. The theater, of course, is one of the bulwarks against that kind of isolation.

We see a real hunger in our audience. There are a lot of Hedheads coming, people flying in from Korea and Japan and Argentina. It’s very emotional for me, meeting these people after the show, seeing their tattoos of Hedwig and the gifts. Asia is a very gift-giving culture, and so the Korean girls and Japanese girls bring me beautiful things that they’ve made as offerings to the character that made them feel better. That’s very touching to me. That’s happened over time, because of the film traveling the world and finding its way. Even though it was never a hit, it found its people.

About connection—was that why you had that moment where Hedwig finds someone in the audience on Grindr? Does that play into those ideas of digital culture?

Definitely. Hedwig’s trying to fit in, but there’s also kind of an absurdity about it. We all know that the lies that happen because of the digital mask are absurd, just as absurd as any other mendacity. It’s just reminding everybody that we’re all trying to connect in some way and we can laugh about it and we can not take it too seriously and do it all in the same room, which sometimes can be a revolutionary act, just getting everybody into the same room.

Has the changing of Hedwig affected the way you see the music at all and your favorite songs to perform?

Oh, they are all wonderful to perform. I think “Midnight Radio” might be the most intense because it’s at the end of it all, and the costume and makeup have crumbled and her defenses are down. It’s not a show song, it’s a kind of sing-a-long, reminding us of why we’re all here and saved by rock and roll and, you know, everybody is a strange rock and roller in that room and that can be very very emotional. So that’s probably my favorite song. They all have deeper, richer meaning, having been around longer. They are harder to sing then they used to be. I sort of let go of having to sing it exactly the way I used to or perfect note as much as the perfect feeling.

You mentioned that it was emotional and hard. Was it about returning to the thing that was in your past? Was it related to the physical challenges of the role?

A lot has happened since the last Hedwig: A lot of loss, a lot of thinking about the people involved. It’s certainly the physical combined with that, and then being sick during tech, which is the most stressful time. It was very, very hard, but somehow I knew I was going to be able to do it, and all the other Hedwigs who have had a hard time reminded me that once you’re in it, it’s much easier. All the people who had helped the other folks reminded me of this throughout, and it was a large team of singing teachers and directors and choreographers and physical therapists, Pilates, Alexander Technique. It was a huge team, which is very different from Off-Broadway when it was a very skeleton crew. Now there’s a huge number of people helping you.

Is there a sense memory associated with getting back into the wigs and makeup?

A lot of that comes back. The pain of the wigs too. The makeup definitely helps and the heels. I made sure the heels were a bit lower than they have been because I can’t handle it on my back. It’s a huge amount of exoskeleton to keep it all together. Once you know where your feet are supposed to be you can sort of deal with all that stuff a lot better. It’s just when you don’t quite know the space or how much pressure you’re putting down or how to get up on the car, you tend to expend twice as much energy. It’s just more exhausting. So now like an improv yoga class and you know generally what you’re supposed to do and then you can add a little to it.

I saw you brought Sugar Daddys to the stage door and you mentioned meeting all these people from around the world. What has it felt on stage responding to that audience?

It’s like a real rock show. I feel like I stepped into Bruce Springsteen’s boots—not heels. There’s an instant approval right up front. Often times people stand up at the beginning, which doesn’t really happen in Broadway shows so there’s a kind of half rock show thing that certainly helps when I’m feeling exhausted. It’s also louder. It’s a little harder on my voice when there’s screaming going on. I suddenly realize what these guys do, though the rock guys don’t usually do seven shows a week. It’s just very powerful. But also you want to work it. You want to silence someone at the right time so you can go from comic to serious to a mix to a rock explosion to a poignant moment. There’s a tightrope to be walked in having a conversation with the audience. But they are all there, they are all very much there. And there are a lot of fun freaks in the audience as well the more traditional theatergoers. So it’s a great mix. The traditional people even if they don’t quite know what’s going on get caught up in it, and the fans feel almost like extras in the show. They are part of the show and Hedwig’s communication with them is strong, but also she’s aware of the rubberneckers in the audience as well, because Hedwig’s just sort of—in the story, she’s just temporarily famous. She knows her 15 minutes are almost up.

The sequel has been coming up a lot with you returning to Hedwig. Has the process of doing the show helped? Is it something you expect us to see anytime soon?

There are no real plans right now because there’s so much else going on. I’m working on a film; Stephen’s working on another musical. But you know it’s there, no one’s going to steal it. There are no age limits on it. We’ve worked on it a lot. We’ve done a couple of readings that were very useful. It will keep until the time is right. I don’t feel the need to rush into it right after doing Hedwig on Broadway. That’s too much Hedwig.

Has doing it on Broadway informed anything you’re going to work on for the sequel?

Yeah, yeah, thinking about it. Like I said, trying out new material from it on Broadway. So yeah, I’m sure it will inform it. But it’s a very different thing; it’s more of a play. We have other actors. It’s sort of in the form of a telethon. I don’t know what form it’s going to be in either in terms of theater or television even. It’s hard to say.

I wanted to ask you about the film you’re directing, How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Are you working on that now? Or mostly just focusing on Hedwig?

I’m sort of easing back into it. Working on some animation design. Some music. James Murphy is hopefully going to be working on it. There are different kinds of music in it, punk and we created a new kind of extraterrestrial music, extraterrestrial dance music. Also Nico Muhly, who is a famous classical guy is going to be involved. It needs its own time. We are reaching out to a few actors now. Elle Fanning is already attached as the lead. Hopefully we’ll be shooting next fall in London. She’s the alien lead.

It’s based on a Neil Gaiman story, right?

It’s based on a story that a friend and I adapted and expanded.

It will have elements of animation and all this original music?

There’s a lot of original music. There’s animation. It’s a period piece in 1977 London, the punk scene. But it’s a comedy on the surface, but quite touching as well. It’s almost a little bit like Romeo and Juliet, but it’s punks and aliens rather than Montagues and Capulets.