VISITING TOWN shortly after SIFF (where he was voted best actor), John Cameron Mitchell recounted the long, slow rise of his character Hedwig, who first climbed on stage in 1994. "It took a few years to flesh it out," he explains of the show. "It was always [developing] towards a theater piece. It was almost for fun, but serious fun. We had to do it right. Slowly we replaced these cover songs, like Yoko Ono and Television and Patti Smith songs." Those new tunes and a more substantial story line made the original Hedwig show an off-Broadway darling, Mitchell recalls, even if old-school theatergoers weren't all ready to rock. "We didn't change anything to let a larger audience in on it. It was always like the dirty kid on the block. It was maybe a little bit too much rock 'n' roll for the Rent types."
His long experience with the production prepared the neophyte film director for the daunting experience of working on both sides of the camera. "When it came time for the film, we did have a lot of raw material—and digested material, too—to play with. It also took the pressure off. That's where all the theater stuff helped, because I knew the character." Of the songs, he notes, "I sang some of them live for the camera, so there was a sense of immediacy. It certainly had its advantages to do it in that medium—even if we couldn't give [filmgoers] a full-on, balls-out, rock 'n' roll performance in front of their faces."
Given that strength (and vulnerability), Mitchell emphasizes, his character isn't a traditional drag queen. "Hedwig isn't really campy, but it uses the glam rock norms. The acting's very realistic, that was very important. I didn't want it to veer off into camp. I wanted you to really think that she could exist in the world. Because then you could really follow her down into the sad places as well." Referring back to both Oscar Wilde and glam rock icons of the '70s, Mitchell concludes, "Irony and sincerity are not mutually exclusive."