We had the opportunity to chat with JT LeRoy stars Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern when they were in Toronto. The movie, directed by Justin Kelly, was the closing gala film at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
The film is based on Savannah Knoop’s memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, and tells the story of one of the most compelling literary scandals of our generation.
Laura Albert (Dern) is an author who writes insightful fiction under the pseudonym of a disenfranchised young queer man named JT LeRoy.
When her debut novel becomes a bestseller, she comes up with a solution to preserve her anonymity by getting her boyfriend’s androgynous sister Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart) to be JT in the public eye. Together, they embark on a wild ride of double lives, infiltrating Hollywood and the literary elite.
I sat down with Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern to discuss how they delved into the many layers of their characters and how they related to this concept of finding yourself while portraying someone else. Kristen also reveals why directing might just be her next step. ~Marriska Fernandes
How familiar were you with the story of JT LeRoy?
Laura: I learned about the story after the fact from a couple of friends who knew them. It was from Justin, Kristen and also the documentary that I learned more.
Kristen: Same. I was unfamiliar with all of these wild happenings. I had heard of the book and the movie, but never read them. When I read the script, one of my first questions to Justin was, “Wait, did this really happen? You must have taken liberties to make it more interesting. People couldn’t have believed this for so long.”
Laura: And speaking to how did they get away with this? I remember one of the moments that was most shocking to us that we shared — I mean we worked on it and rehearsed it — but the day we filmed the scene when they arrive at the airport in Paris in these horrible wigs and my horrible accent and everything and realizing, “They got away with this?” (laughs) It was incredible. It was really stunning. It went away when we made an effort to curate it and make them look subtler and I would work on the accent more and then someone would say, “No, it literally has to be so obvious that you’re in dress up.” Because that was part of the phenomenon, that they got away with it. People believe what you tell them.
Was that the reason you wanted to do it, because it was so unbelievable?
Kristen: I really love the idea of self-invention. I think that it’s a tricky thing to talk about because I’m also, as anyone would claim to be, a huge proponent of honesty. But at the same time, what is honesty and what is the truth and if your truth doesn’t always align with how you present it or factual details that people are addicted to, but then there’s this ambiguous story within you that feels truer to you than what it seems like on the surface. So I love that theme. And also Savannah’s story of finding herself. She has this warmth and this openness that is the opposite to what she had to convey as JT. I really loved Savannah as a character. Also as a human being, she’s wonderful — the warmest, generous, insanely intelligent, very unique weird person, and I say that in the most loving way.
Is it more challenging to portray someone who’s a real person versus a fictional one?
Kristen: It’s different. It’s a huge responsibility to make sure you’re conveying that person responsibly. Whenever I read a script and I go, “I’m telling you I can do this and I don’t feel irresponsible saying so,” that’s when I know that I should take a part. And on this, I knew it would be a little more work and it’s not as easy to live and breathe and explore, but once you put in the work and you prepare, the point is to get to the place where you can be in their skin and not be obsessed with doing a perfect impression.
How do you relate to your public persona being seen as someone you’re not and feeling other’s expectations?
Laura: Well, it’s an interesting parallel. As actors, it’s part of a story. You’re all projecting an idea of how we see a character. When it becomes personal, that’s different. It’s something every public figure navigates. In terms of taking on a role as performance art, it was of deep interest to Savannah. It wasn’t as Laura talks about in the film and did in life. It wasn’t unusual. Something we were seeing with a lot of artists, David Bowie for example, creating other characters. But what I think is beautiful about Savannah as our muse, she is so generous to Laura and it let us have a love story that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
Laura Albert wrote about a person who created a persona to survive a thing and then she asked that of Savannah. It’s like the only way she knew how to survive life was the thing she kept offering. For her, it wasn’t about a lie as much as it was a survival technique. Probably to this day, she sees JT as a part of herself. And I think for us what’s beautiful is that as actors you’re given a job and you create a character, but our job was to know each other in the deepest way. And that’s what these women had to ultimately do together.
By playing JT, Savannah discovered more about herself. What did you learn about yourselves when portraying these characters on-screen?
Kristen: It’s obviously very much about identity and carving that out for yourself. In making the movie I was really happy to be playing younger, because I feel like there was a normal stage of my life a couple of years ago when I felt overwhelmed, a bit of a sensory overload to the point where it’s sort of hard to know your own name. You know what I mean? Like, “I don’t know how I fit into this? I’m trying to wedge in.” That’s exactly what Savannah is doing, albeit internal but sort of creative. She asked, “What’s my part? What are things I want to say? What do I want to look like? Who do I want to be with? How do I want to identify?” I’m older than her in the movie. So one thing I realized was that I was so happy to be older (laughs), but also it was fun to shepherd that period of her life because she stands so firmly in herself now. She’s a really clear, distinct person and it was cool to go through that particular period where she wasn’t that sure and to hold her up and get her to the other side. That was fun.
Is that one of the reasons you want to start directing now?
Kristen: I have always had an eye roaring inside me. I don’t draw a huge distinction between acting and filmmaking and directing. When I was so, so young, I was fueled by the energy of people coming together and sharing an idea to the extent that they would literally do anything for it. I would love to lead that charge. Even though the best movies have a singular vision, it’s a precarious, really delicate process. You fill up this bowl of water and it takes so many hands to retain every drop and getting to the end of an experience is literally like, “Phew.” You’re juggling this really precious thing and everyone involved is sort of going, “Keep a hand on it!” And when you get to the end and most of the water is still in the bowl you can all have it. It’s just the best feeling I’ve ever had and I want to get under people’s skin. I want to fuel that because I’ve been fueled and it’s really made me. I am so lucky to have it. I don’t know who or what I would be without it so now I would like to do that with people. It’s a really natural progression, not like “I’m going to direct movies now!”
Laura: But she is a director. There are a few actors you work with, who work as a director, as we all had such an amazing experience of having each other’s back. She saw everything as a director, not just as an actor. It’s so seamless.
JT LeRoy releases in theaters on May 3 in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Victoria, May 17 in Vancouver, June 14 in Regina and on June 28 in Ottawa.