John Cameron Mitchell is telling me about the last time he was in Scotland. It was during the independence referendum and the writer/director/star and co-creator of Hedwig and the Angry Inch was in Glasgow to host his semi-legendary New York queer club night Mattachine at The Flying Duck pub.
“It was actually the day after the independence vote,” recalls Mitchell. “We were in George Square. I got caught up in it all. Our party was the next night so there was a lot of energy. It was crazy. My co-DJ had a bottle of Buckfast in one hand, a long-ash cigarette in the other and fell down 20 stairs. But the ash remained unbroken, the bottle was unbroken and he was like: ‘I’m fine!’ That felt like Scotland to me: They’re going to be fine.”
Mitchell has a special affinity with Scotland. His mother is originally from Glasgow, having emigrated to the US when she married his father, a US army general. “She has Alzheimer’s now,” he says. “She’s in good spirits, but the only thing that can bring her out of whatever reverie she’s in is me singing Harry Lauder songs or Andy Stewart songs. Apparently the last thing you remember are songs.”
Mitchell also spent a formative part of his childhood in North Berwick, attending a Catholic boarding school while his father was stationed here in the 1970s. School wasn’t a particularly happy experience, but he found sanctuary in glam rock and this, combined with the sense of alienation he felt as a gay kid, fed years later into the creation of Hedwig Robinson, his transgender drag artist rock star alter ego, which he developed with musician Steven Trask into a cult stage act in the early 1990s, before turning it into an off-Broadway musical in the late 1990s, a festival-conquering indie film in 2001 and, finally, a belated Broadway sensation in 2014.
“It was in the 90s, in New York, in a queer punk club called Squeeze Box that I developed Hedwig,” says Mitchell, who spent his later teens somewhat culturally sheltered in Kansas. “It came out of Aids and a confluence of drag and rock. Having my sense of humour and music informed in Britain, though, I always wanted to come back and do a British story.”
Which is why I’m currently sitting with Mitchell in a hotel room in London. He’s here to discuss his new film How to Talk to Girls at Parties, an outré teen movie about an alien invasion that takes place in Croydon during the heyday of British punk. Adapted from a short story by Neil Gaiman and featuring Nicole Kidman as a sort of Toyah Wilcox/Vivienne Westwood-inspired punk queen impresario who goes by the name of Boadicea, it’s a sweet and endearingly silly coming-of-age film in which a trio of horny Sex Pistols-worshipping schoolboys (led by newcomer Alex Sharp) have their horizons expanded by a group of gender-fluid extra-terrestrials who look like they’ve stepped out of an Allen Jones exhibit (Elle Fanning, Ruth Wilson and Matt Lucas are among the alien cast). In the best way possible, it feels like a Children’s Film Foundation project directed by Derek Jarman.
“He was kind of our godfather,” says Mitchell. “We wanted to make it a punk fairytale. I wanted it to be some teenage misfit’s favourite film from their youth, which Hedwig became for some and [Mitchell’s second film] Shortbus became, oddly, for others, especially in countries where it was banned.”
In this, the film actually has a lot in common with Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine, which Mitchell was cast in but couldn’t do because of his Hedwig stage commitments.
“It’s a bit of a valentine to a certain fairytale version of punk that’s more female-centric and more queer-centric than it probably was,” says Mitchell, pointing out that “there were only so many Siouxsie Siouxs and Pete Shelleys” at the forefront of the punk scene.
Kidman’s casting is part of the reason it’s so much fun. They previously worked together on Rabbit Hole, Mitchell’s leftfield turn into serious drama, which scored Kidman her third Oscar nomination back in 2011. According to Mitchell, she leapt at the chance to do something she’d never done before. “She was doing a play in the West End so we were rehearsing during her intervals. She mostly said: you do the lines of Boadicea and I’ll copy you. I was sort of dragging it up and thinking of a braying Vivienne Westwood at her drunkest in the 1970s.”
He loves Kidman because of how game she is. “There are only a few in her class that would seek out a weirdo like me,” he says. “And finally she’s cool again.”
He’s referring to the so-called “Kidman renaissance” the media picked-up on after she had four films (including this one) in last year’s Cannes Film Festival. “For a while it was, ‘Oh that Nicole Kidman, she’s with Tom Cruise’,” says Mitchell, mocking the typical commentary surrounding her. “Or, ‘Oh, has she had face work?’ It’s like, ‘Come on: Sylvester Stallone looks like a vagina. Nobody talks about him.’ And now, in this last year, people are like, ‘Wow, Nicole Kidman…’ I guess people go in and out of vogue.”
In terms of his own career, Mitchell remains very much in vogue, having had recurring roles in recent years as Lena Dunham’s book agent in Girls, as Andy Warhol in Scorsese’s short-lived Vinyl, as an alt-right troll on legal drama The Good Fight and as a ballet company director in the Amazon show Mozart in the Jungle. He also directed recent Netflix hit Glow and is in the midst of developing a podcast musical. “That’s my main thing,” he says as we wrap things up. “I still need to cast my Scottish mother, who sings a heavy metal song. So if you can recommend any Scottish actress who vocally could sound like they’re 80, but are really good at comedy and really good at drama, then let me know.” ■
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is in cinemas from 11 May.