When Savannah Knoop offered the director Justin Kelly the rights to her 2008 memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy, it began a nearly decade-long development process to bring the story to the screen. The film chronicles Knoop’s experience as she became swept up playing the mysterious alter ego JT Leroy, who was created by her sister-in-law, the San Francisco-based writer Laura Albert. In public, Knoop embodied the elusive gender-fluid teenage author who became a national phenomenon in the early aughts. Eventually, Kristen Stewart signed on to play Knoop, and Laura Dern took the buzzed-about role of Albert.
The story of JT Leroy is a saga worthy of the screen, and is one that still lives in infamy. Also the subject of last year’s documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story, the adventure began with an unknown writer called Terminator, whose acclaim in underground lit circles caused him to spiral into a fever dream of cult celebrity status. Revealed to be Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy (JT for short), the writer published a series of acclaimed magic-realist books chronicling his experiences as a queer, gender-fluid teenager, raised in rural West Virginia by his prostitute mother. Celebrities and the media devoured the novels, Sarah (1999), The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (1999), and Harold’s End(2005). Fashion and Hollywood became obsessed with the elusive author, who often appeared at photoshoots and events in a blonde wig, sunglasses, and black hat, hobnobbing with everybody from Winona Ryder to Asia Argento, Courtney Love, and Bono. But it was all a lie. Albert was behind the persona of JT, authoring the books and posing as him on phone calls and emails; Knoop became the public face, putting a person to the name for cameras and public audiences, while Albert tagged along as a brash, British woman named “Speedie.” When an explosive New York Magazine piece outed the two of them, Albert’s literary world came crashing down, and Knoop was left to pick up the pieces.
Now, with the film freshly wrapped, Kelly and Knoop (who co-wrote the film) are offering W an exclusive first look at Kristen Stewart in character as both Savannah and JT, and Laura Dern as Laura Albert. They also hopped on the phone to discuss working with the two A-list actresses, perfecting characterization through wardrobe and hair, and privacy and identity in a post-JT Leroy world.
You’ve been working on this project for a very long time. How does it feel to be on your last day of production?
Justin Kelly: It feels amazing. Savannah and I started working together in late 2009. We’ve been writing, rewriting, developing and getting it off the ground for so many years that it feels amazing. It’s wild.
Savannah Knoop: And it feels like it took as long as it needed to take. We just kept writing and working and thinking about it until it was time to go.
I know the casting process was a big element in getting the film made. Laura Albert, for those who know her, is kind of a larger-than-life character. And with Savannah, you’re casting yourself, which is also daunting. How did you end up with Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart in these lead roles?
Knoop: We’ve always had Laura Dern in our earliest preconceptions of the character. Images of her were actually even in our first lookbook.
Kelly: She’s obviously a genius, and it was very surreal that we were lucky enough to get to work with her. She got the layers of the part in a way we didn’t expect, and it became very exciting. I think people are going to be enamored at the complexity of her performance as this eccentric genius.
Knoop: And she plays it with so much heart. Laura [Albert] is so dynamic and complicated as a character. It was always about merging her interior sense of self and her public sense of self. It felt like this total gift, because she could flip so fast into these different parts of the character. She’s a master of improv, which felt essential to capturing the essence of Laura Albert. One of the things that’s key to the character is how funny she is, and Laura Dern is hysterically funny. And when it came to Kristen, I didn’t have any preconceptions about who was going to play me. I didn’t have any idea. It’s a queer coming-of-age story, which is different from an ingenue coming-of-age. The character is a mix of being in control of her destiny, and letting life take her where it may. It felt exciting to think of Kristen playing the role because it felt like she could identify emotionally with that.
Kelly: I first met with Kristen about two years ago, and she really truly understood the material. She asked a lot of questions I hadn’t even thought about. The nuances that she brings to this character are really incredible—it’s almost hard to talk about. She’s such a precise, detail-oriented actor, and she never stopped getting to know the character, just like you never stop getting to know a person.
In a way, both Laura and Savannah are shapeshifters. So you have actors playing characters but then the characters are also playing characters.
Kelly: Right, you constantly have Laura Albert switching between playing a 20-year-old West Virginian gender-fluid person on the phone and this loud British woman, “Speedie”, in person. Laura Dern had to navigate those three roles.
Knoop: And, for both “JT” and “Savannah”, Kristen really embodied her research into the dual characters. She’s a master at copying gesture—she would do this mouth thing, and I was like, “That’s me!”
Kelly: We got to do a bunch of test shoots, and Kristen worked on this very particular kind of smile that Savannah does herself, but which becomes more exaggerated when Savannah is dressed up as JT. I remember sending a photo of that moment to Gus Van Sant, because he had met Savannah as JT, and he couldn’t believe that it was Kristen. He was like, “That is Savannah, you’re playing a joke on me.” So I was like, “Oh my god, we’re doing something right!”
Knoop: One thing I didn’t think about until we were watching it was that it played almost like a fairy tale. To see JT and Speedie traveling through airports, these freaky people—their looks are so maximal. You enter this world where these people are their superhero personas; their secret selves, but in public.
Kelly: Totally! And for me, it was the first film I’ve done where we had the time to develop their looks with hair, makeup, and wardrobe ahead of time. They both have these very iconic personas that involve lots of wigs and disguises. It was pretty exciting to build these characters with them.
Knoop: And the looks are key because they change the way the characters were behaving and moving. What you put on makes you feel differently, act differently, and relate to the world differently.
In these behind-the-scenes images, you can see Kristen Stewart going through so many hair phases as Savannah. Was it weird to relive your own haircut history?
Knoop: She was a hair-hopper! That was one of the initial grounding points for her character.
Kelly: Kristen has about five hair looks in the movie, because Savannah was in her twenties, a young queer finding themselves. And Laura Dern has six wigs for Speedie. If you Google Image search any of it from that time, it really was that extreme. The crew members would go, “How did anyone believe this?”
Last year, the documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story came out. Watching it and looking back on Speedie and JT, they look like such criminals. If you encountered them, you would probably know right away they were up to something.
Knoop: That was always a huge part of the original JT mystique. It was an Emperor’s New Clothing sort of a thing. The more excessive of a disguise, the better.
Kelly: We did think about doing a softer version of the looks to make it more believable, but decided to go for it. And a lot of them are completely emulating the original ones. This is a project where wardrobe, hair, and makeup really got to use all of their talents and creativity.
Savannah, as a writer and producer on the movie, it must have been really uncanny to watch actors re-enact things that actually happened to you. Did you ever feel like you were experiencing déjà vu?
Knoop: Yeah, I did! It’s intense. In a way, the project was an exercise in taking something you remember and layering it over, and over, and over. The only thing I can think to compare it to is where you look at a photograph and the photograph becomes the access point to your memory. In making this movie it’s like a snowstorm of transposing memories over each other. And a movie is a more compressed version, so you’re trying to find the emotional arc through all of the noise.
Now that shooting is almost over, how do you feel this movie takes that time in your life and relates to our current moment, in regard to identity?
Knoop: I think we are in a different moment culturally now than when it all happened. Language is shifting and the conversation is becoming wider and more complex. It is a queer story. It is multilayered.
Kelly: Agreed. In the eight years that we have been working on this, ideas of gender and queerness have shifted in a way that we weren’t even totally aware of. For example, Laura or Kristen would be talking about JT and say, “He’s not confused about his gender, he just likes to play with gender.” When your two lead actors understand that, and you realize your audience will understand that as well, it totally changes how the story could be heard and felt.
Knoop: We’re trying to be honest to what the story is about, which is the messiness of intimacy. It’s about how you can get so close to somebody and it becomes so complicated, you know? It’s about queering relationships and it’s not necessarily about tagging an identity. It’s about identity being fluid and how that works within all human relationships.