Craig Chester has starred in a series of offbeat cult classics, from the drama of Swoon to the horror of Frisk, by way of counter-culture rom-coms like Grief and Kiss Me Guido. And now he’s become a full-fledged hyphenate as writer-director-star of Adam & Steve...
What made you want to move beyond acting?
I wrote dam & Steve because for years I’d been going all over the world with my films, and there would always be gay couples in the audiences. They would come up to me and say ‘When is someone going to make a movie about us - a couple?’ I heard this over and over and I began to notice that no one had touched this subject. There are no movies or anything about what it means to try and have a relationship when you are two men. So that’s why I wrote it. I wound up directing the movie out of default - the tone was so specific to me that the producers felt I would be the only one to sort of get it right. I wanted to make it a silly comedy so as not to make things too preachy - comedy to me is anarchy, or at least it should be. So while the film is accessible in the sense that it co-opts romantic comedy formulas - I see it as also incredibly subversive.
So how was it to direct yourself as an actor?
The day-to-day work of directing really fluctuates. Some days everything runs smoothly and other days it doesn’t. I loved the process of watching my words come to life before my eyes; sometimes, it was rather surreal. When we were shooting the big 1980s ‘accident’ scene, I couldn’t stop laughing. I kept screwing up every take - and I was the director. The reason was that sometimes the thing in your head is manifested exactly how you saw it. That’s so fulfilling - like playing God in a way, and you just want to try and get that as much as possible in every scene. And the challenge of directing is very different from that of acting. An actor’s job is really to sort of go in the corner and finger paint on the wall, be childlike in a way, self-obsessed. Directing it the complete opposite. Your job is to be aware of everything going on around you, it’s a huge responsibility - the most one can experience in such a short burst of time.
The film may be a silly romantic comedy, but it also touches on very serious themes. Have you had any criticism that you are being flippant about 9/11 or homophobia, for example?
I think the world needs a little bit more flippancy these days. We live in a culture of issues, of terrorism, of drama - to me the film is very post-9/11. I was there that day, and I took it very personally as a New Yorker. I use the World Trade Center as a symbol of Adam & Steve’s lost innocence, and I use gay bashing as an obstacle to falling in love in public. I don’t place value judgements on anything - to me tragedy is just part of life, the same as comedy. They both exist equally in most people’s lives, I think.
There’s also an intriguing subtext about a psychiatrist with psychological problems.
I have met a lot of people who are great at giving advice, or who project this very evolved image yet are incapable of functioning in their personal lives. I think that kind of dichotomy is very funny and endearing. I also think we live in an era where everyone thinks they are an expert on everything - especially pop psychology. We are the Oprah generation, the Dr Phil generation: we all think we know what’s best for every relationship and every person. I find it almost Christian - this concept of ‘healthy and unhealthy’. I think someday we’ll look back and laugh at this period where we diagnosed everything.
So what is your background?
I always knew that I wanted to be involved in the arts, even as a little boy. I moved to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in the mid-80s. While I didn’t learn much at the school, it did introduce me to the city and I started doing hole-in-the-wall, underground theatre. I was 19 in NYC in 1985 and it was also the height of the Aids epidemic. Back then, your self-worth as a gay man was very tied into activism and politics and what you were doing for the community regarding Aids. I went to ACT UP meetings and marched on Washington twice. From a very early age, I saw how peoples’ lives were directly influenced by political action or inaction. I had friends die; it was just a very intense introduction to being gay and it was very unique to my generation.
Did this influence your work as an actor?
When I got my first film, Swoon, this was the state of mind I was in. So it didn’t make sense that I would somehow lie about who I was once I had a career as an actor in films. I was out from the beginning, but I was also an artist who took his craft as an actor very seriously. Many of the people involved in the New Queer Cinema of the ’90s also came from Aids activism. That film movement was driven by a sense of being outsiders, of being political outlaws in way, so you had these subversive films like Swoon, or [Todd Haynes’] Poison or [Gregg Araki’s] The Living End, and I was right in the middle of that. It was an exciting time - and also scary as I had no idea what I was doing. Many people thought I was committing career suicide by being out, but what happened instead is that I carved out my own niche. I worked exclusively in gay cinema, then Hollywood took notice and co-opted what we were doing, which lead to Will & Grace and movies like he Birdcage.
So everything changed.
Back then, I played gay characters because no straight actors wanted to. Suddenly, straight actors, name actors, realised they could play these roles and show that they were ‘brave’. They see them as challenging and perhaps a good career move. Suddenly, people like me were not getting these roles. As a result, I started writing. I wrote a book about this very thing - Why the Long Face? And then I focused on writing Adam & Steve. In the ’80s, the relevant issue was Aids, but now it’s marriage rights. That’s why you see movies about gay love like Brokeback Mountain or Adam & Steve. These films just reflect the current political landscape. There is just no way gay men can escape the politics of their lives, much as we all just want to have a good time.
So why are gay themes toned down in mainstream movies like Brokeback Mountain, Kinsey and Capote - and also in television shows like Will & Grace?
We are still in our Blaxplotation period. It’s very important to look at the struggles African-Americans had in Hollywood and how they were represented on film. New Queer Cinema was like our Blaxploitation, in the sense that gay men took their cameras and made movies about themselves - they embraced the stereotypes, the negative terms like ‘queer’, and made them their own films in the same way African-Americans did. Eventually, Hollywood co-opted that, and now we have Barbershop or Soul Plane. It’s always going to be a balance of movies that gay people find authentic and then others that feel kind of icky and off. It’s all a process.
How did you find the cast for Adam & Steve?
I knew Parker Posey and Malcolm Gets, and sort of wrote the characters with them in my minds. Chris Kattan came on board via his agent who suggested him to me. He wasn’t at all how I saw the character, but he and Parker had such interesting chemistry that he made me see the role in a different light. They each brought a lot. Parker is really about economy; she’ll take an overwritten line and just reduce it to a look or a witty remark. Malcolm is from the theatre and brought this kind of professional discipline that I’ve rarely seen. He was so brave in the role, I thought, and the movie is really Steve’s journey. Chris comes from Saturday Night Live and hasn’t really ‘acted’ so much. In this he really gets to show he can play a real person.
You also got to choreograph and shoot a big musical country and western number, and to dance it as well.
The battle dance was the most difficult thing we did. We shot it in one day, and I’m not a dancer. Yet I had to direct myself in a musical number. My choreographer, Troy Christian, was fantastic - a genius, really. It’s all because of him that it turned out so well. Of course, it was wish fulfilment for me. No one would ever cast me in a musical number - so I cast myself!
NEW YORK and LONDON • 24.JUL and 9.AUG.06
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