Out - July 2000 - The New Girls Of Summer

As storylines involving gay teenagers on TV and in the movies have exploded, more and more of the hottest young actors - whatever their orientation - are playing queer characters. Two of the most visible of these performers, Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall, star as adolescent lesbians in this month's 'But I'm a Cheerleader,' a screen satire about misguided parents, reparative therapy, and girls (and guys) secretly aching to get it on.

In the real world, Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall are just very good friend. But on celluloid, in the new satire about reparative therapy But I'm a Cheerleader, they're so much more: lovers, conspirators, confused baby dykes who come of age. A surreal comedy about ex-gay movement, gender roles, and homo stereotypes, Cheerleader is also a romance about two teenage girls. And it's just the latest eruption of the gay teen wildfire, stoked by queer characters on the WB's Dawson's Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and now spreading to a movie theater near you.

"This is my third one!" Lyonne cheerfully brags. In addition to her famous roles in Slums of Beverly Hills and Everyone Says I Love You - not to mention American Pie - she played one of the radical lesbian students in HBO's If These Walls Could Talk 2 and kissed Natasha Gregson Wagner in the straight-to-video lesbian-bloodsucker film Modern Vampires. DuVall hasn't done a gay-themed feature before, but it seems clear that, if given time, her scene-stealing tomboy character in the 1999 hit teen horror film The Faculty would come out as a hipster lesbian with gobs of attitude. She's good at goth chicks; she played one in another teensploitation hit, She's All That, as well as in guest roles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Popular. Not coincidentally, Jamie Babbit, the director of Cheerleader, is also a director and producer of the WB's Popular, and the film has the same fantastic, technicolor lunacy as the TV show - which, also not coincidentally, is one of the gayest on TV.

For many years, the only place you could find images of gay teenagers was in illegal porn (or, subliminally, in high-toned fashion ads). But with the advent of high school gay-straight alliances in the late 1980s, queer adolescents became a hot-button political issue. With politics comes culture, and vice versa: Gregg Araki's little-seen, ultra-low-budget Totally F***ed Up, about queer teens, was released in 1993. In 1994, ABC ran My So-Called Life, a series notable for introducing the world to Claire Danes, but also the first network television show to have a regular character who was both gay and a teenager - Rickie, played by Wilson Cruz. Sadly, it was canceled after 19 episodes. In 1995 Maria Maggenti gave us The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, another below-the-radar indie release.

But after Ellen came out and got kicked off TV, the world changed. In 1998 Dawson's Creek, one of the highest-rated TV shows among teenagers, added to its regulars Jack (Kerr Smith), who later came out and then joined the football team; on this year's season finale, he had his - and network TV's - first romantic man-on-man kiss. This spring, in HBO's If These Walls Could Talk 2, Dawson's Creek's Michelle Williams fell in love with Chloe Sevigny. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer's best friend, Willow (Alyson Hannigan), fell for another woman, a sensitive Wiccan. Then there's the WB freshman show Popular, where the gay themes, plots, and subplots are so pervasive you've got to wonder who it's really being written for - suburban teenagers or the subscribers of this magazine.

"On Popular, the creators of the show are gay and a lot of the writers are gay," says Babbit. "So they're interested in characters on TV who represent themselves. But we've had the network complain about the smallest things; you just have to be really persistent." Bizarrely, when she decided she wanted to do Cheerleader, all she and her producer needed to get funding was a one-sentence pitch; Two high-school girls fall in love at a reparative therapy camp. Considering how hard it is to make a gay film, Babbit says, "We were really lucky."

Then, when the cast signed, Babbit was blessed again: besides Lyonne as the clueless cheerleader and DuVall as the privileged but streetwise dyke, Cathy Moriarty plays the camp founder, an out-of-drag RuPaul is her assistant, Richard Moll is an ex-ex-gay, and Mink Stole and Bud Cort are Lyonne's loony-tune religious parents. ("If I have to play a lesbian cheerleader, Mink Stole and Bud Cort have to be my parents," Lyonne says.) There are cameos by Michelle Williams and Julie Delpy. With such a cast, Babbit was able to nearly triple her budget to $1.3 million. The actor's, however, continued to work for scale with most of Babbit's budget going into the Fauvist art direction. With polyester and plastic costumes and intense and unnatural colors, Babbit shows how false the camp's goals are - as any movie with RuPaul chopping wood in man's clothes is bound to be.

Yes, the film is very funny, but it's also high-concept and distinctly political. "I would hope for any reaction as long as it's strong," says the screenwriter, Brian Wayne Peterson, who witnessed reparative therapy firsthand when he worked as an intern in a prison clinic for sex offenders. "I want people on the right to get mad about it and I want gay people to get angry, too." People got angry when they were making the movie in Palmdale, Calif. The locals got confused and thought the movie was Butt I'm a Cheerleader, a porn film. The local minister lived across the street from the purple Victorian house where the campy camp was created, and he wouldn't let Babbit film on his lawn. "I told the crew, 'Please don't tell anyone what the movie's about,'" says Babbit.

"From the screenings we've had...yeah, some people hate it and are really offended by it," says DuVall, sitting in the sunny bar at New York's SoHo Grand Hotel. She's wearing a jean jacket buttoned all the way up, and she's dyed her hair blond. "Some people can be very weird about these issues, but I think it will speak to people who have any kind of a sense of humor. It's a special movie, and I think it's very well done."

Demure, bangs in her eyes, DuVall doesn't seem to have the sharpest posture. She's a bit shy. Just as Lyonne is prone to say anything, DuVall is earnest and thoughtful, and she's definately mature for her age, which is 22 "and a half." She has several tattoos.

DuVall chain-smokes Lucky Strikes. It's the sort of habit that isn't surprising for a woman who's lived on her own since she was 16. Her parents were divorced when she was 12, and when her mother remarried, DuVall didn't feel that she fit into the new family. So she dropped out of school and got her own apartment. She decided she would go back to class only is she was admitted into Los Angeles's School for the Performing Arts. She got in, but her academic career didn't go all that well. "My senior year I was basically supporting myself, so it was like, 'Do you want to eat and pay the rent, or do you want to go to school?' I wanted to eat and pay the rent. That was more of a priority to me than passing a biology test." She worked at the take-out counter of an Italian restaurant and skipped a lot of classes. That's why, despite her obvious talent, the school didn't cast her in any shows.

"They didn't like me," she says sadly. She can't stand it when people don't like her. "She creates comfort by being friends with everyone on the set," says Babbit, who is one of DuVall's best friends and has also directed her on Popular and in a short film shown at Sundance. "She's a total caretaker, which is such a weird quality for an actor to have. She's getting me coffee, getting the key grip coffee, getting the gaffer coffee, making sure everything's OK. She's a joy to have on the set. Everyone loves her. But even though she's not asking for it, she needs to be taken care of.

Learning of her family history, it would be easy to assume that DuVall became an actress because she needs to be loved, to get the attention. But who doesn't? A better explanation might be simply that she loves to perform and that she loves movies. An only child, she spent a lot of her younger years by herself watching TV. She memorized scenes, which she would perform for her parents. She could recite entire sections of The Empire Strikes Back, Mr. Mom, Annie, and The Jerk. When she got older, she became more of a cinephile, watching movies, she says, that "have made me reevaluate myself." One sample: After seeing Gas Food Lodging, says DuVall, she and her mother burst into tears and had an intense conversation about their problems. They have a great relationship now, she adds.

On her own for much longer than a typical 22-year-old, DuVall is a self-created, fiercely private woman. After she graduated and went into the biz, she was smart about her career. She was instantly successful, not waiting long to get good roles: First, shorts and extreme indies were followed by bit parts in teen comedies; her break-out performance as Stokely in The Faculty helped her land Girl, Interrupted with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. But since making Cheerleader a year and a half ago, DuVall has gone through "personal changes." "I'm a lot more grounded now, a lot more settled in my skin," she says. "I think Natasha's the same way. She turned into such an amazing person. I'm so excited for her."

If it is true, as psychologists say, that some of the most perfect friendships and relationships are between the introvert and the extrovert, then Lyonne and DuVall's is a textbook case. DuVall adores and takes care of Lyonne, who explodes and shocks - and worries that DuVall thinks she isn't cool enough. "Clea's so cool it's, like, disgusting," says Lyonne about DuVall, beginning one of the riotous riffs that she weaves into her conversations. At a cafe across the street from her home near New York City's Gramercy Park, the 21-year-old is wearing a buttoned-up jean jacket virtually identical to the one DuVall wore two days earlier. "I'm a smoker and Clea's a smoker, but she does it a lot better than I do. Whenever I'm around her, I want her to think I'm cool too, because she's so darn cool. And then I, like, trip or something. I'll just be getting the knack of it, you know, and she'll just be thinking I'm cool. I'll be sitting there and I'll be slick and shy too, and I'll fall down or I'll drop my cup. Or, Oh, shhhhhit, I didn't inhale! God! Why do I have to be such a dork? I want to be cool. I want to be like Clea." (Lyonne seems to have an insatiable craving for cool: Rumor has it that she's been dating Eddie Furlong, one of Hollywood's hippest young dudes - and it's a relationship the actress hesitates to discuss.)

While DuVall grew up in L.A., Lyonne is a New Yorker through and through, with the accent, the jaded, streetwise attitude, and the crass irreverence that have made her the first to call if casting directors need a wise and funny daughter or older sister. She seems to have been around the block a few times, probably having given a cabbie or two the finger along the way. She'll say anything. For example, the following comes out after she says she's annoyed that some people in the media think Brandon Teena was a hermaphrodite: "That's what I am," Natasha Lyonne deadpans. "Oops."

"You weren't supposed to tell anyone."

"Oops...I did it again," she says. Then she realizes she's just quoted Britney Spears' latest hit. "I guess that's what she meant! I've been trying to figure that out for the last week. That's what she means! Oops...she did it again: She came out as a hermaphrodite. They told me not to tell anyone! Damn!"

Like DuVall, Lyonne has been on her own since she was 16, but for a different reason (although she too is a child of divorce). When Woody Allen cast her in Everyone Says I Love You, her mother had just moved to Miami, so Lyonne lived with a guardian in New York. Both DuVall and Lyonne have been acting since they were kids, but while DuVall was in her living room doing scenes from The Jerk, Lyonne was playing Meryl Streep's niece in Heartburn. Nevertheless, their shared agent kept insisting they would get along, and when the two met they became fast friends. "Yeah, we met and then she came back to my place," Lyonne says, almost winking, half-chuckling. She was riding in DuVall's car when she first saw the script for Cheerleader.

She plays against type in Cheerleader, straightening and lightening her frizzy hair, losing her intelligence, and doing a perfectly silly parody of an American cheerleader. Though she's more politically aware than most actors her age - and aware of how political this film is - underneath all the jokes there's something about her playing a ditsy blonde that makes you wonder how much she just wanted to surprise everyone. And it's impossible to believe this: "I don't need to shock people anymore." She wanted to do tampon commercials in Japan in which she would say, "Have you ever bled down your leg? Try Tampax." And while doing press for Everyone Says I Love You in People, she talked about setting fire to the Jewish private school she attended - and hated - in New York. "I guess you're not supposed to talk about burning down Jewish schools," she says, smirking.

"She's a rebel," says Babbit. "Her acting was born out of being an outsider. She has to create a rebellion, and then she gives an amazing performance." Like DuVall, Lyonne is intensely serious about her craft. She works in indies because the roles are better. She thinks about what she's doing, asks questions constantly. At one point, she asked Babbit why she was using a black-and-white monitor. When the answer was that it was too expensive to use color, Lyonne paid for a color monitor herself. And when asked if she wanted to direct, Lyonne said no - she respects the craft too much. She needs to learn more first.

Nevertheless, she's pretty savvy already. Especially about publicity. It would be fun to do the cover of Seventeen for this movie," she says, getting political, echoing the desire of every writer and director of a gay-themed film or TV series. "If kids in high school would see this movie and feel comfortable about falling for a person, and it's irrelevant what sex they're falling for, that would be the ultimate response to the movie. I also wanted Clea and me to get married to promote the movie. But she wouldn't do it. I'm not her type. She likes them taller and hairier. God, what am I saying? She's going to kill me."