If there's any reaction that John Cameron Mitchell doesn't want, it's "meh." Since the 1998 Off-Broadway premiere of his glam rock-inspired musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Mitchell has spent his career creating stories that aim for the new and original. The musical, adapted into a film in 2001, follows a transgender rockstar as she travels across the country with her glam and punk band, The Angry Inch.
Among Mitchell's recent projects is Anthem: Homunculus, a ten episode-long rock opera co-starring Mitchell and a who's who of big names, such as Patti LuPone and Glenn Close. Something of a spiritual successor to Hedwig, it portrays a struggling artist living in Kansas, who is broadcasting a live telethon to fund his cancer treatment. Mitchell can also be seen in the Hulu original series Shrill, where he plays Gabe, an egomaniacal boss at a Portland alt-weekly alongside Saturday Night Live's Aidy Bryant.
In a conversation with NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York, Mitchell discusses the enduring legacy of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, writing Anthem: Homunculus, and what it's like playing a nightmarish boss in Shrill.
Then, Mitchell plays a game called "We're Going to Make You Sing. Inspired by the music from his 1970's-channeling musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Mitchell guesses the titles of 1970s glam and punk rock songs based on their lyrics.
On Hedwig and the Angry Inch's legacy:
"We were too weird to be up for an Oscar, or even make money at that time. We always try to do something new — which means, no money. But the people who like it care about it more. It's the old thing: 'I'd rather be ten people's favorite thing of all time that changes their life than a million people's meh thing.' It's really cool when a new generation finds it."
On writing Anthem: Homunculus at author William S. Burroughs's Kansas estate:
"I lived near [William S. Burroughs's estate] but never could get to Lawrence, which was the 'cool town' in Kansas. So I'm on my way to my 35th high school reunion, and I knocked on William Burroughs's door and the caretaker... was like, 'What?' and I'm like, 'I'm writing a musical that might take place on this porch.' He's like, 'Okay, that's a new one. Come on in.' Then [I] met Burroughs's partner, James Grauerholz, who invited Bryan Weller, my composer, and I to write the first draft. Bryan wrote the music in the living room and I was in the garden writing the script. It was so cool."
On meeting David Bowie:
"I did meet David Bowie once. He came to [Hedwig and the Angry Inch] and, thank God I didn't know he was there. I met him later when he was rehearsing, my boyfriend worked at his rehearsal studio. He swiveled his lighthouse smile towards me and was like, 'John. You got it right.' I'm not alive right now."
JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He's the creator, writer and star of the cult classic film and Broadway show "Hedwig And The Angry Inch," and his new musical podcast is called "Anthem: Homunculus." Please welcome John Cameron Mitchell.
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much for joining us.
MITCHELL: It's been years since I've been here.
EISENBERG: Five years.
MITCHELL: God. How do I look? You look great.
EISENBERG: You look fantastic.
MITCHELL: Thank you.
EISENBERG: I have to tell you, I saw "Hedwig" in every iteration on Broadway because you had...
MITCHELL: Every "Hedwig?"
EISENBERG: Every single guest star that you had. Every single one. You, of course, were the best. Of course.
EISENBERG: But Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall, Taye Diggs, Darren Criss - you debuted "Hedwig" off-Broadway in 1998.
EISENBERG: Then the movie version came out in 2001.
MITCHELL: Yes. We're approaching our 20-year anniversary.
EISENBERG: And then 2015, it goes to Broadway.
MITCHELL: I know. Late.
MITCHELL: That was the only time I made any money, was Broadway.
EISENBERG: The film didn't make any money?
MITCHELL: No. It was a flop on screen, and then people found it on DVD, which means no money for me. You know, those companies hide their bookkeeping.
EISENBERG: Right. It's sold back-end.
MITCHELL: Broadway is transparent. You know how many tickets. You know where it's going. It's like - the record industry used to be like that.
EISENBERG: Right. Does "Hedwig," the Broadway show, tour on its own?
MITCHELL: There was a national tour. But there's also local productions. Like, it's been running in Korea for 12, 13 years, it's been running in Japan for a long time. We just got an offer from China, a huge advance from an unknown person who's never made theater before, you know.
MITCHELL: But, you know, it is about someone who changes their gender to escape communism.
EISENBERG: It's just interesting because I think these themes that were - you know, you were writing about and putting on stage in 1998, I feel like anyone watching that right now will go, wow, this feels very new and fresh and timely. And I'm wondering if you're getting new fans who are just discovering it now.
MITCHELL: Yeah. We do get young people every - you know, every generation, which I love. You know, we were too weird to be up for an Oscar or even make money, you know, at that time.
MITCHELL: We always tried to do something new, which means no money. But it also - the people who like it care about it more.
MITCHELL: You know, it's the old thing of, like, I'd rather be 10 people's favorite thing of all time that changes their life than a million people's meh thing, you know...
MITCHELL: ...That made a lot of money. So yeah, you know.
MITCHELL: So it's really cool when, you know, a new generation finds it. Also, we made it in a way that you don't really know when it was made because, visually, it's - you know, it could be any time, which I like also.
MITCHELL: So it keeps giving back in many ways that are not monetary, but super...
MITCHELL: But more valuable.
MITCHELL: You know, some of the best people I've ever met in my life are because of it, you know.
EISENBERG: So you have a new podcast called "Anthem: Homunculus." Now, you said the idea started as potentially a sequel to "Hedwig."
EISENBERG: And then it is not.
MITCHELL: I had some ideas about - I wanted to explore death and God and all these things, and I thought, you know, I have this voice of Hedwig. But she was too complicated, and a lot of the story was autobiographical, so it was too many - too much information. So I got rid of Hedwig and made my character a version of myself. I imagined what I would be like if I never left my small town.
What would I be like now? I would be some kind of a dangerous, liberal shut-in, you know, living in a trailer, bitter, angry, paranoid and out of insurance, and he has a brain tumor, and he is crowdfunding for his brain tumor on an app. You know, he's found a telethon app, so he's going to stay online till he gets the money or till he dies.
EISENBERG: It's like a live telethon - it's like content. Content...
MITCHELL: It's a live audio telethon.
EISENBERG: ...Of crowdsourcing.
MITCHELL: Yeah. So he tells his life story while he's waiting for the $100,000 that he doesn't have much of a chance of getting. And Glenn Close plays my mom. Patti LuPone plays a version of my aunt, who is a super cool nun. Cynthia Erivo plays my wife.
EISENBERG: I mean, amazing people that you are doing this podcast with.
MITCHELL: Yeah. It's almost like cinema, audio cinema. It's dense - 40 actors, 30 songs.
EISENBERG: When you approached Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, I mean, were they all like, yeah, whatever you say?
MITCHELL: Yeah. Because they were big "Hedwig" fans. And when we did "Hedwig," it was an interesting mix of people who didn't usually like musicals or, you know, who would come - like, a lot of music people. You know, there'd be, like, David Bowie and Lou Reed and Marilyn Manson and Barry Manilow and Gallagher, you know.
MITCHELL: And Gallagher loved it. Patti LuPone just was in tears. Bea Arthur - you know, like, the Broadway, you know, battle-axes would come and love it.
MITCHELL: And they're like, Hedwig is me. And Glenn Close came 10 times.
EISENBERG: And I read that you wrote the first draft of this at the estate of William S. Burroughs?
MITCHELL: Yeah, I wrote it at William Burroughs' house in Lawrence, Kan. I lived near there but never could get to Lawrence, which was the cool town, you know, in Kansas. So I'm on my way to my 35th high school reunion, and I knocked on William Burroughs' door. And the caretaker - you know, because he had passed - was like, what? And I said, I'm writing a musical that might take place on this porch. He's like, OK, that's a new one. Come on in.
MITCHELL: And then met Burroughs' partner James Grauerholz, who invited Bryan Weller, my composer, and I to write the first draft. So Bryan wrote the music in the living room, and I was in the garden writing the script. It was so cool.
EISENBERG: Yeah. You also star in "Shrill" on Hulu.
MITCHELL: I'm just a co-star.
EISENBERG: OK, you co-star in "Shrill" on Hulu. You play the hard-nosed editor, the boss at the alt weekly.
EISENBERG: You actually play kind of, like, horrible bosses a lot.
MITCHELL: I do.
EISENBERG: Yeah. That's like...
EISENBERG: And you like doing it.
MITCHELL: I get paid for doing it.
MITCHELL: You know, it used to be that the greatest British actors, you know, who would play Hamlet and such, the best they could hope for in Hollywood was to play a Bond villain. And that's what I'm doing.
EISENBERG: Bond villain. I read in a Buzzfeed interview you referred to these characters as worst gay nightmares.
MITCHELL: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of gay nightmares in my life...
MITCHELL: ...That I have tried to avoid, and, you know, and now I'm playing them all.
EISENBERG: All right. John, are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
EISENBERG: Fantastic. Let's bring Jonathan Coulton back on stage. So in the music of "Hedwig And The Angry Inch," it's easy to hear the influence of glam, pop and punk rock music from the '70s. So now we're going to play a game called We're Going to Make You Sing Now. Jonathan and I will read lyrics from an influential 1970s hit, and we're going to stop right before the part where the song's title is heard in the lyrics, and you're just going to come in and give us the song's title.
MITCHELL: Is it in the original key?
EISENBERG: You can do it however you want.
COULTON: It is in a key of your choosing.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right. And if you do well enough, listener Michael Notti (ph) from Anchorage, Alaska, will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube. All right. Here you go. You ready? I'm going to find you. I'm going to get you, get you, get you, get you, get you.
MITCHELL: (Singing) One way or another, I'm going to find you.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right. So easy - it's so easy.
COULTON: Hello, Daddy.
COULTON: Hello, Mom. I'm your...
MITCHELL: "Cherry Bomb."
COULTON: That's right.
MITCHELL: Runaways. Runaways.
EISENBERG: Then the loud sound did seem to fade - ade (ph), ade, ade. Came back like a slow voice on a wave of faze, haze - a, aze (ph). That weren't no DJ. That was hazy cosmic jive. There's a...
MITCHELL: I don't know. I should know this.
EISENBERG: That's OK. "Ziggy Stardust," 1972 - is that helping you?
MITCHELL: But that's not lyrics from "Ziggy Stardust" the song.
MITCHELL: Oh, from "Starman."
EISENBERG: Yeah, "Starman."
MITCHELL: (Singing) There's a starman...
EISENBERG: There you go.
MITCHELL: (Singing) ...Waiting in the sky.
I did meet David Bowie once. He came to the show and - to "Hedwig" - and, thank God, I didn't know he was there. But I met him later when he was rehearsing at - my boyfriend worked at his rehearsal studio. And he kind of swiveled his lighthouse smile towards me and was like, John, you got it right.
COULTON: Oh, wow.
MITCHELL: I'm not alive right now.
EISENBERG: Right. I mean, what do you even say that? Just, like, thank you. Thank you.
MITCHELL: Nothing. I just walked away.
EISENBERG: That's good. That's good.
COULTON: Well, you're slim, and you're weak. You've got the teeth of the Hydra upon you. You're dirty sweet, and you're my girl. Get it on.
MITCHELL: (Singing) Bang a gong...
COULTON: Yes, that's correct.
MITCHELL: (Singing) Bang a gong.
T. Rex - I did - there's a T. Rex cover album coming out that I'm part of...
MITCHELL: ...With Marianne Faithfull and U2. And I'm doing a song called "Diamond Meadows." It's going to be really good.
EISENBERG: Oh, wow.
MITCHELL: T. Rex.
EISENBERG: T. Rex.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that was from 1971 - "Electric Warrior."
COULTON: This is your last clue. Qu'est-ce que c'est? Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-far...
COULTON: ...Better run, run, run, run, run, run, run away. Oh, oh.
MITCHELL: (Singing) Psycho killer.
COULTON: Yeah, that's right.
MITCHELL: (Singing) Qu'est-ce que c'est?
EISENBERG: Talking Heads, 1977 - all right. Congratulations, John Cameron Mitchell. You and listener Michael Notti won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
EISENBERG: John will be back later in the show to play another game, but for now, give it up for John Cameron Mitchell.
EISENBERG: Want our next special guest to play for you? Follow ASK ME ANOTHER on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.