Toronto 2018 Interview: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Savannah Knoop, and Justin Kelly on JEREMIAH TERMINATOR LEROY
The JT LeRoy story - or hoax, as some would prefer to call it - all comes down to how one chooses to perceive it. Those who say “nay”, scoff it off as the story of a malicious literary swindler who only garnered international acclaim on account of her fraudulently extravagant backstory and her attention-addict patsy. For yaysayers, the multifaceted Laura Albert and Savannah Knoop story is extravagantly fraudulent and thus full of scintillating appeal.
At its best, the JT LeRoy story is the ultimate Dadaist, situationist, ‘prank’ on pop-culture, that not-entirely intentionally lampooned the high society art scene, while raising fascinating talking points around identity manipulation, displacement in performance art, and the liberation of permission as an essential excuse for expression.
Through the avatar, or pseudonym, of JT LeRoy - perhaps a pseudonym that graduated into an avatar - the real life author of tell-all’s like Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, Laura Albert was given the permission to explore personal repressed traumas of her very real inner world. As many artists will attest, fiction can be a far more effective vehicle for truth than reality, and through JT, Albert’s truth was able to reach an expansive readership of troubled souls who needed her stories, I’d imagine regardless of their author’s chosen presentation.
Albert in turn granted the young impressionable Savannah, a 19 year old San Francisco newbie, permission to both lose and find herself in the role of the former child prostitute wunderkind, JT LeRoy; not unlike how actors are able to express themselves through the experiences and creation of writers. When Savannah first took on the role, it was almost as an afterthought to Albert’s success. By the time it all blew up as extravagantly as it began - taking down with it a young director who identified with LeRoy’s work so intimately that she chose to adapt ‘his’ short story compilation - Savannah was 25 years old and very ready to tell her side of the story, in her own voice.
Now for a story that one would think couldn’t get any more meta, we have Justin Kelly’s biopic, Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, which, co-written with Knoop and based off of her autobiography, Girl, Boy, Girl (2008), realizes the events in dramatic terms while also offering two of today’s finest actors, Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern, permission to bring their own truths to the lives of Savannah and Laura.
In portraying the reluctantly famous Knoop, Stewart offers the film a compellingly personal performance that shines in a state of constant reaction: to her manipulative mentor, to her seductive new crush, to her internationally snowballing circumstances, and so forth. Meanwhile, Dern balances the complexities of Albert with a delightful depth that makes it difficult to judge her too harshly.
There’s been many takes on the JT LeRoy story thus far, told from a variety of perspectives, yet Justin Kelly’s Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, with its captivating performances, makes the argument for one of the least heard voices to date - Savannah’s - that of the big city neophyte swept into the tornado of attentive praise - as perhaps the most arresting of all. With the restrained guidance of Kelly and Knoop, Steward and Dern are able to communicate the unreal truths in a story of lies with the hard earned wisdom and compassion of knowing experience.
Throughout two roundtable discussions on the morning of the film’s World Premiere, I was able to pose a few questions to Justin Kelly, Savannah Knoop, Kristen Stewart, and Laura Dern. I began the morning seated across from Justin and Savannah:
Justin, why would you say you gravitate toward real stories?
Justin Kelly (JK): Well, I have done three, and honestly it's not seeking true stories out, it just keeps happening. But I will say, of course, I wouldn't tell them if I didn't love them. I think it's, you know, truth is stranger than fiction, and there are so many amazing stories out there, and there is something with each one. There is something that feels very good about trying to find and craft a true story.
There's a tabloid one liner - for my first film (I Am Michael), it was something like ‘Gay Activist Becomes an Anti-Gay Pastor’, you know? And this one is, ‘Two Women Trick the Literary World’. And it's kind of fun to do research - whether there's a book involved or an article or something - and tear it apart and try to find the real story behind that tabloid one liner. There's something very fulfilling for me about doing that.
Savannah Knoop (SK): Mystery is so much about a reveal. You look at the reveal then you go backwards and it's like this tangling of all these people's lives.
JK: Through her details.
What was your first conversation like? Justin, were there things that you especially wanted to bring out of Savannah's story - that you encouraged her to hone in on?
JK: I think for me, since I was living in San Francisco when the whole thing happened, and was truthfully obsessed with the story- I loved the book Sarah, but more so when I would look through images in magazines and see JT's photo, and then reading Sarah, it was just like ‘What is happening?!’
I didn't think it was fake, I mean the rumors surrounding whether or not JT was real, as you see in the film, made people believe even more, because if he wasn't real then why is he out in the world? Why is Courtney Love saying they're friends?
JK: I believed it! So for me it was reading the memoir (Girl, Boy, Girl) and after I finished the book, I thought, ‘Oh my god, this story is something completely different. It's so much more complicated than what some people would say,
‘These women who tricked everybody for fame and money’, that's not what happened and that's not what this story’s about, so, when I read it, it was less of me wanting something from Savannah and more so me realizing that she already had this incredible story written down, that we wanted to realize.
Savannah, are you still in contact with Laura Albert at all?
SK: Occasionally we email. We send each other YouTube links that we think the other would enjoy. She will see the film.
A decade ago, Albert didn't have the nicest things to say about the prospect of you writing your memoirs...
SK: For sure. That's true. I mean actually when I first started, like after the reveal, I said ‘Wow, this is crazy. I have to start writing this down and figure out what had happened and I asked Laura to do it with me. We should kind of…
SK: Yeah, kind of go back together, and she wasn't interested in that. And so when I wrote the book, in some ways it was sort of a breakup publicly. There's that line, “Just because you played a writer doesn't mean you are a writer” (Albert’s initial response). It's interesting. It's an interesting statement in context. But obviously I think she's an amazing artist, and I have a lot of respect for her and I probably wouldn't have engaged in the first place if I didn't feel that way.
I enjoy the meta moments in the film that tease reality, like the cameo from JT’s old friend, Courtney Love.
JK: Yeah! Right? That's another moment where it's like that person actually was involved.
SK: She doesn’t play herself. She’s a producer.
Did Love enjoy being a part of the film?
JK: Yeah she did. We were really hoping to have at least one of the real people involved, meaning one of JT's friends, and Courtney Love, being a seasoned actress, felt like the logical first idea. I really had no idea if she would say yes or not. She just kind of liked the idea of this full-circle moment after having been friends with JT for so long out, being able to come back and play a fake character herself in the JT story. She was so cool, so fun to work with, and I was there when she saw Savannah for the first time.
Tell me about it!
JK: I can't remember what she said. But it was something like “I know you... Get over here!”
What were the biggest changes from your first draft to your final draft?
SK: So many.
JK: In the first draft, Laura and Savannah travel basically. It was like you see how Savannah becomes JT. They go to all these places and then the movie ends. And then in the last draft we sort of removed the information, the exposition with travel- I mean they still travel in the film, but… I remember a particular producer friend read the first draft - that we thought was so good, of course - and he was like, "This story's incredible. I love it, but I don't know who these two women are."
So the biggest change was flipping it and making it less so about JT and how they pulled it off and more why, really getting into their lives, which is why so much of the film takes place in their apartments, really, or inside. I almost think people when they get to see it will expect a much broader scope. But the story just became better and better and better the more we get more internal and intimate.
At this point, Justin and Savannah leave to join another small table of journalists as Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern take their seats across from us. A fellow to my right begins the conversation by comparing the onscreen relationship of Laura and Savannah to Clarence and Alabama of True Romance, adding that, “of course there is some inequality in this powerplay…”
Kristen Stewart (KS): It is a love story, 100 percent, which is strange because if you look at the story on a surface level, you can make assumptions that might lead you in the wrong direction. Such as, ‘Oh Savannah was manipulated and she was swept up in something so much larger than her, and there was this weird Svengali like figure behind the curtain.’
They were both really facilitating, in an ironic way, very, very deep embedded truths. They're sort of allowing each other to have them and really taste them. They really saw each other and they were really deeply protective of one another and still are. And they spent so much time together as well that they became a little consumed and a little addicted and codependent to a certain extent. And that's obviously never the healthiest thing, but real like real rock 'em sock 'em love stories are never healthy. It was really fun to get to know them as a couple.
Laura Dern: It was amazing!
KS: She just keeps saying that. (Teasingly imitating Dern) “Everything was amazing!”
LD: It was! I mean, that part of it was forever a love story. We had to find each other in it, and it got to be this amazing incredible human being who was as generous as Savannah is. (Gazing at Kristen) You open your heart, you tell me the truth with your eyes. (Turning back to us) You don't get that even from the finest actors. It's a different requirement to be an open human being.
What excited you most about taking on your individual roles?
KS: Well, the story takes place over like six years. When you meet Savannah, in the beginning of the story, she's a really sort of a lovely, fragile, delicate little forest animal. Seeing someone like that get swept up in something so much larger than her and then come out the other side of it the way that she did, and the sort of self exploration and sort of articulation of her identity was, to me, just like so cool.
And I think that I wanted to protect that. I wanted to protect her. I didn't want anyone to come in and fake that, because I have experience with that. I know what that feels like to be affected by the fact that maybe the way you're presenting doesn't necessarily line up with how you're feeling inside, and struggling with that and being in the public eye. It was so meta, I was like, ‘Dude, I got you. I know exactly how to protect you in this and tell that story truthfully.
And then, additionally, I think that Laura and Savannah's dynamic - the ‘art as savior’ story - is also something that runs through my veins. I think that if I didn't have my outlets, I don't know who I'd be, how I'd feel, I don't know how I'd survived, so I think it's a survival story on another level... and a dope love story and a weird and cool part of history.
LD: (Enraptured by Stewart) Oh! Um, same. Ditto.
KS: “It was amaazing!”
LD: Yeah it was soooo amazing!!
I mean, your character, Laura, is so complicated. We fault her, but we also feel for her, thanks to you.
LD: Well, that certainly was, as an actor, a great, delicious challenge that made me want to do it. If I read (a character) and don't know how to find deep empathy, then I want to take it on to figure it out, because it means I'm not seeing the truth, and I'm not being generous.
So then I want to find my way to understanding her, someone who's that desperate to be heard or be seen. It was an incredible opportunity to try to figure that out. There were moments where I felt venom and viscousness but I love her. Unfortunately, and fortunately, we've not been our best selves in our deepest love stories.