Three Cheers for Cheerleader
An Interview with But I'm a Cheerleader director Jamie Babbit and stars Natasha Lyonne & Clea DuVall
by Lindsay Marsak
PlanetOut: I read in the press notes that this film was made from the "femme's" perspective, whereas most mainstream lesbian films are not. How would you describe the "femme's" perspective?
Jamie Babbit: My mom was friends with a lot of butch lesbians. And when I was trying to figure out if I was gay or not, I kind of thought I was, but I didn't really know. I looked around and I saw a lot of really butch women and thought, OK, if I become gay, does that really mean that I have to be butch? I never really saw myself that way. I was always really bad at sports, and I always worshipped butch women for everything that they could do that I never could do. I was just a scrawny kid who played with Barbies. When I've seen other lesbian films, I've never really seen that perspective. Regardless of what I've seen, it's just where I've come from.
PlanetOut: Were you sent to gay reform school?
JB: No, never.
PlanetOut: How did you come up with "True Directions"?
JB: My mom runs a rehabilitation [center] called "New Directions." She's the executive director of this place for teenagers, a rehab for drugs and alcohol. When I was growing up I always spent time with all the kids that were there, and it was totally ridiculous, that sort of 12-step lifestyle, when you're 5 years old. So I kind of wanted to poke fun of that movement but at the same time do it in way that was constructive, 'cause I do think that the movement helps people. But at the same time it certainly doesn't help gay people become straight. That whole [ex-gay] movement is a joke. I read an article in a San Francisco paper about a guy who had been sent to gay rehab outside of San Francisco, and [I] thought it would be a good place to explore issues that I'm interested in -- the absurdity of gay rehab and also gender stereotypes and constructive identity.
PlanetOut: Why explore these themes through a cheerleader?
JB: Because a cheerleader is an American icon. The movie is all about stereotypes: cheerleaders and football players. It's about what it means to be a girl. What it means to be a girl is also Barbie. All of the constructed reality -- the sets are very plastic, the costumes are very plastic, the characters in some ways are very cartoonish. These conversion camps are a place where they try and form people into cardboard cutouts of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. That's why I chose a cheerleader. I mean, obviously Natasha plays a cheerleader in character, too. The title refers to, "How could she be a lesbian? She's a cheerleader." She is still a cheerleader at the end of the film -- it's not a movie about a cheerleader who becomes a lesbian and then she rides a motorcycle. I wanted to kind of affirm her identity at the
same time. You know, it's a love story.
PlanetOut [to Natasha Lyonne]: So why did you take this role?
Natasha Lyonne: I had just come off this movie where I played this convict who escapes prison -- a real Chola. She kills 16 people, a real badass, and smokes a lot of cigarettes and stuff. And so I just thought it would be insane within four days of wrapping that movie to become suddenly this perfect uppity cheerleader, which I had never done, or ever been. Apart from that, the real reason [was] Clea showed it to me, and I looked at it and thought it was pretty cool. So I said, "Who is going to be Megan?" and she said, "I don't know," and so the next thing I knew they had allowed me to be Megan. I was pretty excited about that because she was so different, it was going to be a good story, and I wanted to work with these two.
PlanetOut: What experiences did you draw on, since you were never a cheerleader?
NL: I had a couple of cheerleading magazines. Also, Jamie flew in this girl from San Diego who was a real cheerleader, and she was like, "Hi guys!" I was standing there in fishnets and platforms and a leather skirt, and I was like [raspy voice]: "Oh hey, how ya' doin'." She said, "Well! I'm going to teach you guys how to cheer! Come on, I come from San Diego!" And I said, "What's San Diego like?" And she said, "Best place in the world!" with a big smile, and I said, "Oh, that's cool. I'm from New York." And she was like, "Oh, really? I have a mom and three brothers and sisters. Best family in the world!" And I was like, "Geez Louise ...". They're for real. I mean, [cheerleaders are] authentic.
NL: They're really not kidding.
JB: They are absurd, and they are really not kidding.
NL: And so I really drew on that a lot.
PlanetOut [to Clea DuVall]: The character of Graham is right on the money, as far as the portrayal of a young queer woman is concerned. How did you create her?
Clea DuVall: When the script was first written she was not like that at all. She was very stereotypical, unlike anyone I had ever met -- very extreme. That really didn't appeal to me at all. I talked to Jamie, and Brian, the writer, and through talking to them, we kind of came up with her.
JB: All of us talked about it a long time. It was funny because Megan was always more sort of fully formed, and Graham's part was always sort of changing. Clea had a really big burden trying to make her sympathetic, not just a big badass from hell. And just trying to make her really human. In fact, Graham is actually the weak character in the film. Graham is the one who stays at the rehab when Megan has enough courage to leave.
CD: What I wanted to do was put her on a very emotional level and not just make her just a stereotype. I really did want her to be like a real girl, so that you completely understood everything she was going through. And I wanted you to understand why she was doing everything she was doing. And I think that made her very fleshed out, and very real to people. Everybody [who] has seen the movie has come up to me, and that's exactly what they've said. They could relate to what I was feeling. It was very important to me to give people something they could relate to.
NL: Megan's so plastic, and the stereotypical image of the cheerleader is so plastic. This world that they've been thrown into, this rehab center, is so plasticized. Graham is really the only one who is not. Megan is not really plastic either; she's just kind of a naive good girl. Meeting someone as raw and as real as Graham is really intense for Megan. Meeting someone as naive and real, in the sense of being unknowing, as Megan is real for Graham. That's probably why they connect as people.
PlanetOut: I thought that the make-out scene was really authentic. The kissing, all the intimacy, was very believable. I think that's a real point in a lot of queer films where they either really mean it, and they're really good at what they do, as far as acting is concerned, or they're really uncomfortable, and it shows through. Was there any awkwardness approaching that scene for you, or did you just go for it?
CD: I think there definitely was some. It was a little awkward, but I think it was supposed to be, because it is such an awkward thing at first. The first time you're really truly intimate with another person it's so intense ...
JB: Especially when you're so young ...
CD: You don't know what to do with yourself. You're just, like, five years old again, and you're the most vulnerable thing in the world. That was the most important thing for me to show, because it's ... [pause] ... because it's the truth.
NL: And for Graham, you know, this big talker, like she's been around so much ...
JB: She has been more around than Megan ...
NL: Megan is a virgin, but Graham, who talks big, probably never had a real, intimate love.
JB: She might have fucked, but she never liked anyone and had sex with them.
NL: She probably got fucked, but this was probably, in a real screwy sort of way, the first time. And certainly the first time for Megan, because she was grossed out kissing guys and she didn't know why. And so we kind of felt it should be awkward. It was a little awkward for me and Clea, because we're friends. Even though I did want to jump her bones ...
NL: ... you know. They held me back.
JB: We held her back.
CD: Not very well.
JB: That's not true. It was very clean. But also it was a pretty closed set. It was just me, Natasha, Clea, the D.P. [director of photography] and the A.C. [assistant cinematographer], and that was it. That helped, too.
PlanetOut: Well, I think this is a really excellent example of queer film in an area that hasn't been covered before. This film is going to provide a lot of visual representation for an audience that maybe hasn't found that before. So, congratulations on your work with this film.