The Man That Got Away

“A crowd will part for a drag queen as it parts for a nun.” Such an intimate take on drag mystique is jarring when spoken by John Cameron Mitchell, who at first impression has the composed, clothes-always-pressed demeanor of the perennial good boy. And yet, for seven years, this boyishly handsome man has been donning multicolored wigs to portray a transsexual with a sealed-up vagina and a one-inch penis in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the off-Broadway smash he starred in, co-wrote and has now turned into a film. Onscreen, Mitchell is ferocious, almost frightening, yet here in the Los Angeles offices of Fine Line Features, which released the film, he is so much Hedwig's opposite that his performance suddenly seems even more remarkable.

Mitchell, 38, is a good talker. Right off, he reveals surprisingly personal stories from his life that at first appear to have little to do with Hedwig. He tells them with the hushed, intimate cadence of a fireside storyteller, his voice rising up and then falling to a whisper. One concerns a Hedwig-inspired talk he gave at his former New Mexico high school, where he took a moment before his presentation to thank his startled drama teacher for arranging the speech-tournament trip on which he lost his virginity to another boy. Later that same day, Mitchell was shocked into a speechlessness of his own when that very same boy walked into the room a grown-up, out gay man—and a teacher at the high school.

Mitchell also recounts a date he had a few years back with a man who turned out to be a woman, a fact he discovered at an embarrassingly intimate moment. He laughs and shakes his head as if he finds the experience still puzzling. “It was great . . . very much Hedwig territory.” Eventually, it becomes apparent that in calling forth his own life stories, Mitchell is tracking an internal journey that runs parallel to Hedwig's. As with his alter ego, Mitchell has traveled from the confusions of youth, when questions of gender and sexuality are of soul-shaking import, to the relative clarity of the present. With the clear-eyed earnestness of a man who's arrived at a place of resolution in his life and work, he declares labels and social classifications “no longer the point. The point is love. . . . There really isn't anything else.” For Mitchell, “Everybody's got some inch that they have to deal with.”

Mitchell had never given much thought to gender, much less dressed as a woman, before 1994, when he and composer Stephen Trask created Hedwig for a show at the Greenwich Village club Squeezebox. Stepping out as Hedwig was a powerful act of transgression for a young actor who had methodically risen in the ranks from bit parts to an acclaimed role in the Broadway musical The Secret Garden. “I was scared at first,” he admits. “But drag is a liberating thing. It's kabuki. It's power.” Audiences kept coming back for more, and by 1998, Hedwig was the centerpiece of a full-fledged musical play that quickly became the hottest ticket in New York. “Doing it was like building a house within which I could be myself. I felt better about being gay, about being feminine and masculine. It's made me more of both.”

The very model of a well-mannered man, Mitchell shows a quick flash of impatience at a question that mixes sexuality with gender. The two are “mutually exclusive,” he admonishes, and although he doesn't quite sigh, there is a sense of carefully veiled exasperation, as if once again the basic facts of his thesis have been misunderstood. Two beats later, he's back to his genial self, suggesting, “We're at a point where the fact of your sexuality is boring. It's what you've done with it or what happened to it.” If Mitchell is weary of explaining the nuances of identity, he may also be weary of Hedwig. He loves her, there's no doubt, but his mind has clearly moved on to his next project—a children's film, of all things. After years of clearing a path for Hedwig to enter the world, Mitchell is definitely ready to boot her out the door. “It's like I'm looking at colleges for her,” he says wistfully, “so she can go out there and find her own way.”

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