First, let’s talk about the title. Freak Show is not about a traveling carnival or people living under the stairs. It’s the name of the 2007 YA novel by James St. James (Party Monster), which has now been turned into a feature film by actress and longtime producer Trudie Styler (Moon, Still Alice, American Honey).
“The title speaks to what a freak really is,” Styler tells EW. “All teenagers are freaks inside. Indeed, all of us have an inner freak flag to fly. If we cant be ourselves on the outside, we are being ourselves somewhere inside. And that’s what the film focuses on.”
The movie stars British actor Alex Lawther as Billy, a flamboyant 17-year-old raised in Connecticut by his equally colorful mother (Bette Midler). Due to unforeseen circumstances, Billy is enrolled at a private high school in the deep south of Florida, where he is taunted by fellow students and causes an uproar among the ultra-conservative faculty. Ian Nelson (Teen Wolf) costars as a star football player who befriends Billy, and in supporting roles the movie also features Abigail Breslin, AnnaSophia Robb, Laverne Cox, Celia Weston, and Larry Pine.
“Billy’s innate kindness was something I was really struck with,” Styler says. “He is never a victim of his circumstance. No matter how bad things get — and they get pretty bad — he’s always upbeat. When he gets beaten up, in fact, the first thing he asks the doctor for is lip gloss. It’s this sense of forgiveness that’s so winning in Billy. He’s got a bon mot for everything. He’s very Oscar Wilde in his attitude and his quick wit drives his peer group mad.”
For Styler, Freak Show is not actually her first time behind the camera. In 2005 she directed a 13-minute short film called Wait, starring Kerry Washington and Anna Chlumsky, with a jazzy end-credits rendition of “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” sung by Styler’s husband of 25 years, Sting. You can see a low-res version of the film here.
Though she’s focused more on producing and activism (she cofounded the Rainforest Foundation in 1989), Styler still works occasionally as an actress. Fans of HBO’s The Night Of will remember her as the wealthy Manhattan matron who plays footsie with John Turturro in one of the series’ later episodes.
In anticipation of Freak Show‘s world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival on Feb. 13, Styler talked to EW about three exclusive images from the film:
Viewers of Black Mirror might recognize — barely — Lawther as the teenager held hostage by his own dark secret on this past season’s most disturbing episode, “Shut Up and Dance.” Here he appears as Billy in Freak Show.
“Alex is just extraordinary,” says Styler. “Not only is he the central character but he literally is the movie. I owe so much to him. We shot the movie in 22 days, which was quite nerve-wracking for me as a very slow, deliberate thinker, but Alex was a huge help. We would speak to each other about emotion and nuance and literally each take he would do something different, never afraid to try new things. It was just a great happy relationship.”
Pictured here, from left, are Laverne Cox as a local news reporter; Abigail Breslin as Billy’s nemesis, Lynette; Lawther; and AnnaSophia Robb as Billy’s friend.
“Billy has created something of a scandal at his school,” Styler explains. “So in this scene, Laverne Cox is interviewing the Queen Bee of the school, who is this horrendous creature called Lynette, played brilliantly by Abigail Breslin, who is utterly fearless and a total monster onscreen.”
She adds, “I called Laverne and asked if she would consider playing a cameo role. And I said, ‘Because having you in the movie would mean so much to all the people who see it and indeed to me.’ She said yes and I couldn’t be happier that she’s a part of this. She’s just great in the role.”
“This making of this movie is really a story of people’s kindness,” Styler says. “I know Bette Midler because of the work she does for community gardens and Central Park in New York. Sting and I enjoy living on Central Park. It’s the most beautiful place to live in New York and we both have really supported Bette in that movement. And she’s reciprocated by supporting our Rainforest Foundation. She’s such a wonderful, fun person.”
Styler continues, “So I called her and said, ‘Would you ever consider being in this movie?’ And she said, ‘I’m not really into acting in films right now and — oh, just send me the script!’ So I did. And then we were on holiday a little while later when the phone rings and it’s Bette. And she just said, ‘I’m gonna do it, OK!’ She said she loved the script and it underlined a lot of things she believes in. And so she joined to play Muv, our story’s very indulgent mother. Billy has rose-tinted his mother all of his life. The story is about him getting a clearer picture of her.”
Take a look at the movie’s official poster (below), and check back here for more info on when you can expect to see Freak Show in theaters.