John Cameron Mitchell, the theater artist, filmmaker, actor, writer, singer, drag star, radical faerie, and DJ, is also sort of an unofficial queer historian. His dance night Mattachine is named after the Mattachine Society, a pinko- commie gay-rights group that predates the Stonewall Inn uprising by 20 years. The mission of the Mattachine Society—subject of an FBI internal-security investigation in the 1950s—was "promoting ethical homosexual culture" at a time when being gay was illegal. With his club night, which happens once a month in New York City, Mitchell says he's trying "to bring back the Mattachine vibe. Not only because we play a lot of old music, but also the community feel: friendly, socialist, non-ageist..." The DJs at Mattachine—Mitchell along with Shortbus stars PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson—actually like to play songs all the way through "instead of 15 seconds of the climax, which is the usual ADD DJ thing. But going from climax to climax to climax, unless you're watching porn, it doesn't happen in real life. And you can't feel anything after a while," Mitchell says. "Ours is very much about play-the-whole-song, slow dancing, mixing genre, mixing sexuality, and also celebrating our queer forebears"—musicians, artists, activists. We talked on the phone last week, a few days after my boyfriend and I took mushrooms and re-watched Hedwig projected on a bedsheet in our apartment, which explains all the Hedwig questions.
What does "promoting ethical homosexual culture" mean in 2012?
Well, I think there's a lot of stupid homosexual culture that's just sheep-like following the masses in the wake of Lady Gaga or whatever's going on. That seems to be more about fashion and surfaces, which are certainly important, but they are emblems for what's underneath, which is community and nonconformism and encouraging people to cultivate their male and female energy, whatever sexuality they are... So that's the ethical part: Come one, come all, let's not get obsessed with digitalism and surfaces and meanness that comes from hiding behind your Facebook, and let's just be here. We know we're successful when I don't see anyone texting at the party. They're there rather than thinking about what's next.
So you're going to be snatching phones out of people's hands?
I actually do say no pictures. If they want to take a picture of me with them, it's like, you know, that becomes product. And the indigenous people thinking it's stealing their soul—I think they have a point. It takes you out of the moment. You're having a good time and then you have to represent having a good time. So I say, "No phones, only hugs." For me. And people are shocked! But they remember it longer. So we have a very cuddly vibe. And also, you know, let's dance together, let's do a slow dance, ask someone you've been looking at across the room to slow dance.
It's interesting that you're suspicious of surfaces, but you're a filmmaker.
I'm suspicious of hollow surfaces. People settle for the Batman movies because there's a kind of semblance of metaphor, when it's really just a bunch of shiny surfaces. I don't see any depth there at all. The bar's low in digital culture. The photo shoot's the most important thing. You know, there were chameleons in art—there was Bowie, Mae West, there were great filmmakers who would work in different genres, there were the Beatles, who were kind of postmodern in their time—but there was always depth under it, there was always something synthesized that you'd never seen before rather than kind of just worshipping a surface. And starting with Madonna, that was less important to people. It was just like: Have a good beat and then give a good face. And then change the face quickly. And now of course it's been fast-forwarded and sped up into Lady Gaga and various people who feel the need to change every week. Which must be exhausting. It's like if you keep moving, no one will know that there's really not a lot of depth... You used to go to concerts to dance and cry, and now you go to concerts to shoot them on your phone and hope that you feel it later.
Your amazing creation Hedwig—created with your songwriting collaborator Stephen Trask—is also sort of betrayed by the surface of her body.
Yes. And then also tries to heal herself by building a new surface with drag. It's like: This is my armor. Obviously under it is a broken person. And at the end of Hedwig, the drag is removed and the cocoon is shed and underneath something has actually formed that's more unified than she thought. But I'm actually working on a sequel right now—
Yeah. It'll take years, like the other one did. Working with Stephen has been the most important artistic collaboration in my life and I'm so excited to reforge our partnership. And it's very interesting to approach a character you've done before 15 years later, to think of how you've changed, how I've changed, how she might have changed, how the world has changed, and how there's plenty to be said about all of it. She says, in it, "It's fascinating when your middle age coincides with humanity's." Because now we're told everything's downhill, right? It's the new generation where young people are being told: Actually, it's all getting worse... And you're opiated by media overload, so you're wondering whether you can change anything in your life. Even 10 years ago, maybe before 9/11, in the industrialized world, there was this sense of, "Oh, everything's getting better, and we can just fix things." And now there's a kind of middle-age malaise that you see in a lot of young people. And in the third world, there's strangely more hope because Twitter can bring down Mubarak. So technology is moving things quickly in very different directions in different parts of the world. Which is really interesting to me. So I'll be talking about that stuff in the new Hedwig.
So are you going to go back to the Jane Street Theater to develop this one like you did the first one?
Well, that's now a Euro-trash bar. [Laughs.] That's not a theater anymore. Anything that Hedwig made fun of has actually won there. So it's models and Euro douches in the space where we once peed on the stage. There's a pocket of SRO drunks who are still by law in their rooms at the top who will, like, throw their own urine in a water balloon down the hall at the German tourists because they can't get them out. And I feel solidarity there. Also, I wanted to have a wrap party for my last movie and they said, "You can't unless celebrities will be there for at least three hours." Nicole Kidman was the celebrity. And I was like, "I can't guarantee Nicole Kidman's presence for more than 30 minutes. And, uh, I BUILT THIS PLACE BY THE WAY." And they're like, "Who are you? Are you on the list? What list? Whose list? What are you wearing? Who are you wearing?"
Have you done any acting yourself lately?
Just did my first acting gig in 12 years. Shot a guest-star role on Girls. I was terrified, but the awesome Lena Dunham made me feel so welcome. Ended up being a blast. It was like doing a scene in Shortbus. Same cozy vibe.