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Wig Wise

With Hedwig's Buzz, John Cameron Mitchell's Having a Great Hair Day

By Adele Marley | Posted 8/1/2001

When chatting with John Cameron Mitchell, the sprightly, soft-spoken mastermind (along with composer/lyricist Stephen Trask) behind the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, one topic repeatedly bobs to the surface. The first time it comes up, it's not clear what Mitchell's talking about.

To wit: As Mitchell, the 35-year-old writer, director, and star of Angry Inch, discusses turning his cult-hit off-Broadway production into a major motion picture, he declares, "It's great, because the film can get to the kids, you know, and get to the corners of the world The Wig hasn't yet penetrated."

Did I hear correctly? Did he just say "The Wig"?

Later, the discussion moves to the challenges of the stage-to-screen metamorphosis--a transformation not unlike that experienced by the film's central character, Hansel, a gay East German lad who undergoes a sex-change operation--which gets botched--in order to marry an American soldier and immigrate to the United States. Once in the States, Hansel renames himself Hedwig, winds up living in a trailer in Kansas, gets a divorce, works as a baby sitter and occasional prostitute ("the jobs we call blow," as she memorably puts it), falls in love with a cornfed teenage boy, and forms a rock band. Although Angry Inch was "always geared towards a theater piece," Mitchell says, performing the nearly one-man show on stage gave him many ideas on how to translate the tale for the big screen, should he ever find himself in a position to do so.

"I would keep notes on things that might be better for the film, so when we were suddenly able to proceed we had a lot of material already," Mitchell says. "A lot of films don't have that kind of time to get that kind of texture, and I tried to pack it with jokes and ideas and wigs, so that you could come back and get another layer" with repeated viewings.

Again with the wigs. It takes a while, but eventually it becomes apparent that when Mitchell refers to "The Wig" he's not just using shorthand for his and Trask's creation in shorthand. (It's a nickname with historical resonance too; Mitchell explains that "wig" was a suffix for many Germanic female names in days of old and that St. Hedwig "is the patron saint of marriages or something.") He's also alluding to the anticipation that surrounds Hedwig, which was a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival and is garnering critical raves, buzz he hopes will resonate with younger audiences, breathing life into the decaying rock-musical genre. Well, that and Mitchell's thing for lavishly styled fake hair.

"I never put the wig on anymore," Mitchell says, referring to the crimped, feathered, cornflakes-gold tresses that are Hedwig's trademark. He laments having to don the canary-hued rug yet again for an upcoming photo shoot. Poor guy.

Mitchell is holed up in a hotel in Washington's Dupont Circle, the final stop on a promotional tour for Angry Inch. Unlike the character he plays, he's not a stranger in a strange land: He lived in Northern Virginia for a time while growing up, and his grandfather was a Social Security Administration commissioner ("one of the cooler parts of the government," Mitchell opines).

The idea for the play emerged about seven years ago from an improvised collaboration between Mitchell, an actor frequently seen on the New York stage and in television (he was on the short-lived Fox TV show Party Girl in 1996) and Trask, who played in Cheater, the house band at Squeezebox, a weekly drag/punk performance showcase at Don Hill's in SoHo. Mitchell experimented with bits and pieces of the Hedwig persona at Squeezebox, performing numbers written by Trask and backed by Cheater. This improvised performance piece eventually jelled into a play, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which made its theatrical debut in 1998. (City Paper explored the Angry Inch phenomenon in February 1999 upon release of the play's cast recording; you can link to that article from the online version of this one at www.citypaper.com.)

The first-time filmmaker says he was heavily influenced by his interest in the theatrical aspect of rock 'n' roll, particularly the glam era of the early '70s. Trask doesn't share that enthusiasm, however. "Stephen is more the Lou Reed guy or the John Lennon guy," Mitchell says.

He also reacts positively to comparisons between Angry Inch and The Rocky Horror Picture Show ("I love the loyalty of the fans, and Tim Curry was seminal in that performance") and Todd Haynes' 1998 glitter-rock extravaganza Velvet Goldmine. Haynes is "a friend of mine--we were the only two people in New York who loved British glam rock," Mitchell says. "We would check each other's stuff out in their earlier incarnations, and I think we kind of rubbed off on each other."

Ultimately, Mitchell hopes to continue writing and directing. He's working on a children's story that he hopes to turn into a film he describes as "a cross between Willy Wonka and Fanny and Alexander." "It's kind of a dark story with music," he says. While he may not return to rock musicals anytime soon, he hopes Hedwig and the Angry Inch will make some inroads with ticket-buyers, particularly younger audiences--to prove that similarly adventurous rock odysseys are bankable.

He shrugs. "Jekyll and Hyde and Phantom of the Opera just aren't going to do it for someone who grew up after punk, you know?"

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