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Friday, August 3, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movies

Man behind Hedwig captures her on film

Seattle Times theater critic

It's a bit startling to meet John Cameron Mitchell after seeing him in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

In the acclaimed film rock saga, opening today at The Egyptian Theatre, Mitchell plays an indelibly flamboyant role he originated onstage: that of Hedwig, a lovelorn German transvestite punk diva on a mission.

Sitting in a Seattle hotel lobby, Mitchell exudes none of Hedwig's onscreen, glam-trash flash. A slight, puckish fellow who could pass for Dana Carvey's little brother, Mitchell dresses in plain shirt and jeans, in contrast to Hedwig's loud minidresses and wild capes, platform pumps and war-paint makeup.

And when Mitchell talks of "Hedwig," which he also wrote and directed, it's with the studiousness of a guy more interested in Greek philosophy and experimental drama than dishy camp.

Despite the superlatives heaped on his portrayal of Hedwig (including a "best actor" award at the Seattle International Film Festival), Mitchell says he's really closer to the character of Tommy Gnosis.

Tommy is the teen boy Hedwig falls for while working as a baby-sitter on a Kansas army base, and whom she stalks after Tommy becomes a superstar and dumps her.

"I sort of based Hedwig on this German army wife in Grand Junction, Kan., who was my brother's baby-sitter and, I later realized, a prostitute," notes Mitchell, whose father was in the military.

But the film is an R-rated rock fantasia, not a memoir. Developed first as a music act in New York clubs, then scoring as a hit Off-Broadway play (it spun off a Seattle production, with Nick Garrison), "Hedwig" blends Mitchell's interest in Platonic myth and absurdist drama with his love of punk and glam rock.

David Bowie, Lou Reed, Patti Smith — "they were very important to me when we lived in Scotland and I went to a Catholic boys school. I felt their music was so powerful, rebellious, emotional."

Mitchell started out as an actor, appearing in "Six Degrees of Separation" and "The Secret Garden" on Broadway, earning a coveted Obie award in Larry Kramer's "The Destiny of Me."

"I was quite happy but a little bored," he reflects. "I started writing `Hedwig' because I wanted to become a playwright."

He found a strong collaborator in rock musician-composer Stephen Trask, who created the show's memorable songs and led the band during its years-long ascent from nightclub stage to wide screen. (Trask also appears in the film.)

"With Stephen it's been a great partnering and a stormy marriage," says Mitchell, with a wary smile. "He's like a professor of rock — he's the Lennon-Lou Reed guy, and I'm maybe more the Bowie-Patti Smith guy. Between the two of us, we had it covered."

Mitchell, who is openly gay, had no interest in doing drag before "Hedwig." But he found the experience liberating. "Everybody should try it, no matter who you are. It kind of distills parts of you into a very concentrated form. I used to be scared of the feminine and didn't find feminine men attractive. But doing Hedwig got me reconnected to the feminine energy in other men and in myself."

After the New York success of "Hedwig" and a popular Los Angeles run, Mitchell was able to sign a film deal with Killer Films and Fine Line Features that allowed him to direct his own script. The movie has yielded mostly positive reviews and some film-festival prizes (including the audience award at Sundance), and has excited a new throng of ardent fans — or "Hed heads."

But Mitchell is ready to move on. He's writing a children's fantasy film he describes as "Roald Dahl-meets-Ingmar Bergman." And he's retired Hedwig's togs and wigs for good.

"I don't want to be Hedwig anymore, at all," he states. "It was really five years of doing it, off and on, sometimes for seven shows a week. That's enough of that."

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