James St. James Talks Releasing 'Freak Show' Movie in Trump's America, Working With Bette Midler & Laverne Cox
If there were ever a time when the world needed a film about acceptance and resilience, it’s now. James St. James, the former club kid and author of Disco Bloodbath, which was later turned into the 2004 film Party Monster, is now witnessing another book of his being transformed into a cinematic production, with his 2007 young adult novel Freak Show hitting theaters Friday.
Billboard caught up with St. James to find out why the story of Billy Bloom -- a young bullied drag queen living in the red state of Florida who decides to run for homecoming queen -- is even more important to tell in today’s climate than when the book was initially released over a decade ago. He also discusses how producer Trudie Styler transformed the project and recruited the likes of Bette Midler and Laverne Cox to join the cast and chats about the film’s soundtrack, which features a Boy George cover of a classic track. Plus, he shares a story about Marilyn Manson teaching a young Macaulay Culkin how to smoke a cigarette on the set of Party Monster.
You’ve previously mentioned that Freak Show is semi-autobiographical and that Billy’s story parallels your own story growing up -- at least in the first half of the book. For those not familiar with your story, can you explain how the book reflects your personal experiences?
It’s funny because after Party Monster [a film based on St. James’ memoir about the rise and fall of the Club Kids of the late 1980s/early 1990s, and the murder of Andre "Angel" Melendez] came out, which is a completely different story [laughs], I started getting a lot of emails from -- this was like in the MySpace days – I was getting messages from kids who were like 14, 15 years old, and it disturbed me because I didn’t know that they were taking away the right things from it, because there’s a lot of snarkiness and a lot of black humor and a lot of things that I don’t know that kids get, a lot of ambiguities. So when I was approached by Penguin to write something for young adults, I wanted to do something that had the same spirit of the Club Kids and still had the same joie de vivre and over the top outfits and Auntie Mame attitude and all of that but without all the sex and drugs and rock and roll. So that’s basically how it started.
I was approached by my editor at the time and he said, “Have you ever thought about writing for teens?” and I said, “No I’m a 40-year-old drag queen, what do I know?” But then the more I started thinking about it, the more I thought, well, I had been through hell in high school, and as fabulous as it is now for LGBTQ teens, it still sucks to be different. It’s always gonna be hell to be a teenager, and so I thought maybe I would just tell my story and tell a bit about what happened to me. So the first half of the book is me, and the second half is the me that I wish I would have been, because I did sort of let it happen to me, and I wish I would have been a stronger person, you know?
I think we all wish we could be a bit more like Billy.
Yes. This was my way of going back and doing my re-write.
Did you find that process cathartic?
It was. It’s funny because right afterwards, I started getting emails and phone calls from someone who had been one of my bullies, and he said how sorry he was and he wanted me to know that he was gay the whole time. And he was telling me about all the people that he had slept with when he was a teenager, and I had no idea! But it was nice to connect with him and we became friends, and it was a nice sort of way to tie the bow on it. I’ve had a lot of closure.
When you wrote the book, did you envision who would play the characters if it ever became a movie?
It’s funny because it was 2007, so all along I’ve had a running tally of kids that I thought would be perfect -- at one point I wanted Zac Efron to be Flip [Billy’s friend], at another point I wanted Taylor Lautner to be one of the bullies. I wanted Josh Hutcherson, I thought he could be Billy for a minute there. I’ve sort of found everybody at the beginning of their careers and then they became too famous for me. Over the years we’ve had many, many people locked in. We’ve had a lot of different people playing Muv, and then we had a different director, but it all ended up being perfect and I love the cast now. I think they’re just perfect.
Alex Lawther does such a fantastic job playing Billy. How did you find him?
I had nothing to do with finding him. When Trudie came onboard to be the director, she was interviewing a lot of kids. They’d gone through like a hundred and some kids and they just couldn’t find him, and then Trudie went to the premiere of The Imitation Game and met Alex, and she said that the minute she met him, she saw what a star he was and how perfect he was and she said, “That’s my Billy!” And they got along really well and she had him come in and that’s how it started. It’s funny because Alex, I don’t know if you saw he has a Netflix series out this week [The End of the F***ing World] and he plays this sort of psychopathic killer, straight, and it’s so crazy to see the breadth of his talent, that he’s so amazing and I love him to pieces. And Ian Nelson who plays Flip is adorable.
Bette Midler playing Muv [Billy’s mother] is just perfect. What was she like? How did she get involved?
I haven’t met her yet! I’m so excited to meet her. That was another one of Trudie’s things. Trudie is a force of nature. When she wants to get something done, she just gets it done. And the minute she came on -- you know, it had been stalled for a couple years, and there had been people coming in and dropping out -- but the minute she got onboard, it was like, a month later, we were filming. She said she called up Bette -- Bette lives downstairs from her in Central Park West -- and she said, “Bette, I need you!” and Bette said, “What can I do?” and she was on the next day. And that’s just how Trudie works. Trudie is somebody who knows everybody in the world, and she’s done so many good things, with saving the rainforest, other philanthropic things over the years, that she just has a great list of people who are there to help her, and it’s just fantastic.
In the book, Muv’s storyline is told only in flashbacks, but she is more present in the film. Was that change decided once Bette was cast to give her more screen time?
Yeah, that was something that we realized that we needed more Muv! Definitely. We needed to have her interact with the characters not just in flashbacks. That’s one of the things, like when I was writing it, I never wrote it with a movie in mind or anything, so I gave P.J. Clifton, who is one of the writers, I told him whatever it is you need to do, just do it. Just do what it takes to make it work. And the same thing with Trudie, I just said this is my baby, I give it to you. Whatever you turn it into, it is what it is, and you will never hear anything bad from me.
Laverne Cox’s role is relatively small in the film, playing the reporter who covers Billy’s run for homecoming queen, but she’s another great addition to the cast.
Laverne was somebody who just came in for the love of it because she heard about the script. I think Trudie invited her, as well, and I think she had one day to film and she came in and did it, because she was doing Orange Is the New Back in New York or New Jersey, I think, so she just came over and we did her hair and makeup and she did it, and it was fantastic. I’ve seen it a couple times with audiences, and people really explode when she walks on screen.
With the plot focusing on a flamboyant young drag queen living in a red state, in today’s political climate, do you think that the story of Freak Show seems even more significant to tell today than it did when the book came out over a decade ago?
It’s funny because when I wrote it 11 years ago, I guess, the idea of a trans kid becoming prom queen or homecoming queen, that was like science fiction. There hadn’t been any at that point, and right after it published, there was that whole glut of kids starting to run for prom queen and breaking those barriers, so it was a little prescient in that respect, and also, I think it’s actually more relevant now than it was 10 years ago. I think there hadn’t really been a national dialogue about LGBTQ bullying in schools. That started around, I guess, 2009/2010. And that’s when it really seeped into the national consciousness, so I think in Trump’s America…it was very hard to sit on it for year after year, but I’m glad that it’s coming out now.
The character of Lynette Franz [played by Abigail Breslin], the God-loving, homophobic high school cheerleader and nemesis of Billy’s, says Trump’s slogan “Make America great again” in the film. Was it important for you to get that in there?
It was still in 2015 [when it was filmed], so it was before the election, and I think [Trump] had just said it for the first time, so we just threw it in, they had all been talking about his press conference or something, but we didn’t realize that that was gonna become such a big deal, and now it’s just so absolutely perfect. Great timing.
Talk to me about the film’s soundtrack. You got Boy George to do a great cover of Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” – who else appears on there?
[Boy George’s cover] is so good, isn’t it? I’ve gotta give it all to Trudie because she is a fairy godmother! Trudie, of course, has music connections like nobody else on the planet. She and Boy George go back to the 70s, apparently. She worked with him in the 70s, she was his dresser or something in some play, I think she told me. So that was someone she was able to just call up and say “can you help out?”
Eliot [Sumner, Trudie and Sting’s child] contributed to the soundtrack, and Eliot’s so great. Perfume Genius did something, Princess Julia, one of the DJs in London did something, so it’s a really fantastic soundtrack and it’s very subtle, it doesn’t knock you over the head but when it does, like Boy George singing “Viva Las Vegas” is just one of my favorite moments in the movie.
Billy has so many great outfits in the movie -- which one is your favorite?
There’s a couple that are really fun. There’s the bubble machine, of course, is one that was really good. I love the montage where he’s walking down the hall in different outfits and at one point he’s in like a beekeeper hat, as he’s getting things thrown at him. At one point he’s in like a fencing outfit, and that’s something I didn’t do, but it’s so fitting, and it’s so funny that you’re getting things thrown at you all day, so you put on a beekeeper hat.
What would you say is the biggest message that you want readers of the book or viewers of the film to take away with them?
It’s an empowering message. I wanted Billy to be an Auntie Mame for the kids. I wanted it to be somebody who takes life by the horns. He keeps getting pushed down, but he always gets back up again. I had a bunch of kids that I was talking to, like I said, who would write to me on MySpace and everything, and I remember there was this one boy who was like 14 years old and he was being pushed around in school, and he would write to me these horror stories about what happened to him in school that day. Terrible, terrible things. And then an hour later, he’d be like, “Oh my god, did you see Gossip Girl?” and I’d forgotten that part of being a teenager, where your moods are all over the place, and you go from up to down, to up to down, and how resilient they are. They’re like little balls of rubber that just bounce all around, and that’s what I wanted to make sure that Billy was somebody who you never for a minute think that they’re gonna get him down because he’s so resilient and he’s so wonderful and that’s what I want people to take away from it, that it does get better and it is certainly gonna get better for Billy.
I have to ask about Party Monster -- one of my favorite parts of that movie is Marilyn Manson’s portrayal of Christina Superstar. Do you have any memories of working with him on that project that stand out?
I only went to the Party Monster set one day. I only got to meet everybody one day because they were in New York, I was in L.A. It wasn’t a Marilyn Manson day, but I knew Chloe [Sevigny], of course, and Seth [Green] and I had become friends, and that was when I first met Macaulay [Culkin]. And Macaulay told me this story about the day before they were filming with Marilyn Manson, and Macaulay had never smoked a cigarette before, and so they were up in the Bronx, standing on a street corner in these Club Kid outfits and Marilyn Manson was trying to teach Macaulay how to smoke a cigarette, and that’s something that’s always stuck with me because it’s sort of like there he is corrupting America’s sweetheart.
I love your Transformations web series. What’s been your favorite episode so far, and who else are you hoping to get on there?
Oh my God, there are so many. I love it when the crazier it gets and the more like, when you can shock me, that’s when I love it. There was a plastic surgery episode we did, one that really stands out it was an old troll, there’s an old man one. And any time that we have like Mathu Andersen on, I love those. It’s hard because there have been so many people. Let me see, who do I want still? I haven’t been able to get Kim Chi. I’m excited because there’s the new season [of RuPaul’s Drag Race] coming up so there will be all new girls for me to get.
Speaking of Drag Race, who do you think will win Drag Race All Stars? Who are you rooting for?
Oh, I can’t tell you that! Oh my god I would get fired. [Laughs] I know who I want, but I’m not gonna say it out loud.
Do you have any more books in the works? What’s your next project?
There’s a play that we’ve been trying to get off the ground for a long time that they’ve wanted on off-Broadway or Broadway, so that was based on a book that I had written almost 20 years ago that never got published, so they came to me and asked if I wanted to collaborate and I said why don’t you take this and see what you can do with this! So we’ve been hoping there’s something in it.
Can you tell me what it’s about?
It’s a diary of a mad queen and it was based on a series of articles that I wrote for OutWeek Magazine years and years ago and when OutWeek closed I just kept on writing, even though nobody was publishing me, I just kept on writing and that’s what it turned into.
Freak Show stars Alex Lawther, Abigail Breslin, Bette Midler, AnnaSophia Robb, Ian Nelson, Lorraine Toussaint, Willa Fitzgerald and Laverne Cox.