EXTENDED WEB VERSION: J.T. LeRoy: King of all indie media

Steven Harbaugh

From punk moms to transgender prostitutes, J.T. LeRoy tells all

Credit: Steven Harbaugh

Shy, reclusive artist J.T. LeRoy escaped the depths of male prostitution at age 14 after suffering a dastardly upbringing with a drug-addled mother — and later being raised by his aggressively religious grandparents.

With the aide of therapists and his early mentor, cult author Dennis Cooper, LeRoy rebuilt himself through words. The young author began his creative journey by launching into two semi-autobiographical books: Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. These books made him a cult celebrity in his own right — gaining him a solid fan base and the recognition of a slew of high-profile celebrities from Shirley Manson of Garbage to Madonna.

Now, he’s the king of all indie media.

Besides being an international best-selling author, LeRoy is also a contributing writer to the hippest contemporary culture magazines including Interview, Black Book, Zoetrope, Nerve, ID, 7×7, The Face and Nylon.

He was also an associate producer of Gus Van Sant’s harrowing and haunting film Elephant, and he is currently co-writing the film House of Boys, a colorful, glamorous coming-of-age film set amidst the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic.

His latest book released last month, Harold’s End, follows the relationships between a heroin-addicted street hustler, a middle-aged rich man and a snail — in a twisted illustrated children’s book. And as if that’s not enough, he also has a band called Thistle signed to Gammon Records.

Another project the vastly overworked LeRoy completed is the film adaptation of his second book, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, starring Asia Argento, Peter Fonda, Winona Ryder and Marilyn Manson playing at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 12:15 p.m. Sunday at The Cleveland Film Festival — a biopic based on LeRoy’s own unusual upbringing centered around the moving train wreck of his mother’s life.

San Francisco-based LeRoy, 24, took a break from his “tons of deadlines” to talk about everything from the beauty of West Virginia, where he grew up, to his Warholian appearance and the reluctance of the gay community to latch onto his work.

Let’s start with The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, showing at the Cleveland Film Festival this weekend. How has the film been received?

Really great. Really, really great. At Cannes, there was a standing ovation. The foreign press really loved it. Reuters ran this really great review of it. I think there were two bad reviews from two industry-type magazines. I didn’t feel bad about it because they also didn’t like Fahrenheit 9/11.

It’s a difficult film for straight-laced, older male reviewers to handle. They have this image of the housewife of the ’50s, the Valium-addicted Julianne Moore kind of type — all those moms have kind of become archetypes (for films). For a lot of us, it wasn’t like that. We grew up with moms who were punks and transitory. All these reviewers say (in reference to Asia Argento’s character), “Oh, she dyes her hair blond and she’s a punk — she’s Courtney Love!”

How was working with Asia Argento? I’ve read in a couple interviews that she has a bit of a fiery temper.

I think it’s really hard for a woman to get anything done. It’s a lot easier for people to attack her because she’s in her 20s, a woman, and made her American debut in an action film (XXX) — I think people are fuckin’ jealous of her and they have issues with that.

Right, someone who’s a strong, independent woman.

Yeah, she’s young and beautiful and made her debut in an action flick. There aren’t a lot of woman directors. And having the gall to direct and star. You have to get your voice out there. I watched her do press conferences and she was amazing. She didn’t let people abuse her. She didn’t let people walk all over her. She reflected it with grace and poise and humor.

This is kind of changing topics a bit. I noticed you grew up in West Virginia.

I don’t talk much about that. But I lived all over West Virginia with my mother. West Virginia is one of the most beautiful states. It’s really good that they’re cleaning it up now. There’s a new interstate going through the center of the state — 85 or something. Anyhow, it’s the most hidden state — hidden in terms of what goes on there and what you can do.

I think it’s really interesting that your work has attracted such prominent celebrities — Courtney Love, Gus Van Sant. How did you position yourself to be friends with the Hollywood in crowd?

Well, a lot of people don’t read. Look at any magazine and the amount of pages put to book. It’s really great whenever a high-profile person brings attention to someone. These are people who aren’t known for jumping on bandwagons, like Madonna, Bono and Shirley Manson. Press is really good because it gets people to buy your book. But some people think it’s just hype. Maybe these people are doing this because they’re really getting something from it.

I saw Elephant and was really impressed with it. It was so suspenseful because it took so long to lead up to the action, and the morbid anticipation was almost better than the actual predictable ending. What was your role on the film?

I was John Robinson. He’s really me. He plays my Uncle Aaron in The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, too. Peter Fonda slaps the shit out of his face.

What about your role as associate producer?

Gus and I, after he read my work, we had this really great honeymoon parade, like, “Let’s do projects together.” And I always loved him, so it was like a dream come true. He offered me all these different projects and one of these was Elephant. I worked my ass off to make that film work. He had paid to have a script made of Sarah, and I was commissioned to do the script of Elephant, but he was into doing things more without scripts. He wanted to do Sarah without a script. And I didn’t think that would work. But in terms of Elephant, Gus really included me in the process and he really gave me credit. That was nice of him to do. That doesn’t happen a lot in Hollywood. Sometimes people write and don’t get credit.

How is progress on the film adaptation for Sarah?

Good. The script’s almost done.

I heard a couple years ago that Courtney Love and Angelina Jolie were interested in playing lead roles in the film adaptation of Sarah. Any news on that?

A lot of actresses are interested. Liv Tyler told me she’s really interested. And I love Liv. … But after having the baby, I don’t know if she’ll want to do it.

So, Harold’s End just came out…

Yeah, it’s about a boy who’s on the streets and he’s got a pet snail. And it’s about his relationship with his snail and his trick, this guy who picks him up. It’s pretty great. It’s gone through many incarnations.

Any other projects?

I’m doing a short film for the band Earlimart with John Robinson. I’m writing it and producing it. Maybe I’ll co-direct it. I don’t know. Also, I have a band.

Thistle, right?

Yeah, we’ve been recording with Jerry Harrison (of Talking Heads). I think it surprises people how accessible our music is. It’s kind of like the Sundays mixed with early punk. It’s like early Blondie.


Yeah, actually, Debbie Harry really likes it. When we played, she went out and bought the same dress as our singer.

That’s cool.

It’s all about creating a community of artists. Once you get your voice out there, it’s like your job to get other peoples’ voices out there. I have a story right now in Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s (maga)zine, about a boy and his trick, too, that I’m really proud of.

I’ve read a couple of interviews with you about why you wear the Warholian wigs and big sunglasses. Is it about hiding yourself or creating an image?

For actors and actresses, they’re playing a role. For my writing, it’s out there and very personal, so it’s very painful for people to come up to you on the street and know all about you. I write about really personal, intimate stuff. Because I am transgender (pauses) I hate that label and I hate that name. I don’t know if I’m actually transgender. I just like to do what I do every single day. It’s hard, I mean, a lot of people get beat up. A lot of people get beat up for fucking with gender. You’re not supposed to fuck with gender. Even in the Bay area here. I’ve been chased before. But if I feel like dressing as a girl or dressing as a guy, it’s nobody’s business. I want my anonymity. I want to be able to do a lot of things.

Seems like it.

Creativity takes a lot of forms, and society holds us to one form. Tom Waits said to me once that the most un-American thing you can do is reject fame. I don’t reject it, but I don’t accept it. I mean, people are making fools of themselves on reality TV shows for fame. I want (fame) for my work, but I want it on my own terms. I’ll do what I need to do to get my work out there. Ultimately, it’s about the work. I have a lot of community that I’ve built up around these books. I’ve built up a family because that’s what I was missing.

Would you say your community is mostly those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community or would you say it’s those outside the LGBT community?

I think the gay community’s been really afraid of my work. You can’t even get my books through the gay book club. They told me they’re fans of the book, but they’re waiting for the movie to come out. It’s sort of like gays are so afraid of being affiliated with having sex with children, and a lot of my books are about that. But those people are not gay in my books. The fact is, there’s a lot of transgender prostitutes out there. It’s very normalized in my books. It’s my fantasy world. I think it’s really threatening to people who haven’t read the book. But now the gay media’s coming around. I have a lot of sadness about that.

What issue do you think is the biggest facing the LGBT community right now?

There’s so many issues. The gay marriage thing is a really big deal. Now is the time to push on that. It’s pretty insane that we don’t have that right. But people need to realize that gays aren’t always the kind that come in packages served to us in movies.

I read a quote from you that said people who say, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body” are basically saying “I molest small children.” Do you really feel that everyone is harboring this creative energy and some choose to use it and others don’t?

I think everyone’s born with it. But how can you tell someone they’re creative who’s holding down jobs and trying to survive? Sometimes our survival is very artistic. I think people give up too easily. I think that’s why we worship celebrities and TV and why we read Star magazine. Because we let go of our inner spirituality. It’s a way of having a connection to something bigger. Our goal is to live vicariously through celebrities. That’s why joining artistic communities is really important. Just doing something that fulfills that part. For me, it’s a spiritual kind of thing.

Any predictions for the future, just in general?

A lot of people in my generation are starting to write about their families. They grew up in that punk generation, growing up with punk mothers. The critics need to get ready. We need to sweep some of those old fucks out. I think when people can’t see past their own mind-set, they don’t even try to.

Contact guest Pop Arts contributor and religion and culture reporter Steven Harbaugh at [email protected].