“Freak Show,” which could be the first queer-themed movie for young adults to be set in a time that feels like Trump’s America, fell into director Trudie Styler’s lap almost by accident.
Based on James St. James’s novel of the same name, “Freak Show” follows Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther), a quirky teen who describes himself as a “trans-visionary gender obliviator.” Family matters soon force Billy to transfer to a new, more conservative high school, where he’s relentlessly bullied and even attacked for his love of drag and dramatics. With the help of a friendly football jock (Ian Nelson), Billy decides to stand up to his tormenters by campaigning against a popular, Bible-thumping cheerleader (Abigail Breslin) for homecoming queen. (Catch a sneak peek at the movie, which is slated for a 2018 release, in the clip above.)
Styler is making her directorial debut with the film, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and was a closing night presentation at the 2017 Outfest in Los Angeles on Saturday. The actress and film producer, who is married to rock singer Sting, told HuffPost she connected with Billy’s story instantly, and jumped at the chance to tackle the project after an earlier director left the project, citing scheduling concerns.
“I asked the producers if they’d consider me taking it on, as I’d done a lot of the homework already,” she said. Having served as an executive producer on Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and Duncan Jones’s “Moon,” Styler was “used to getting the job done,” particularly when it came to working with emerging talents. “It just felt organic,” she said.
Critical to the success of the film was the central role of Billy. Best known for playing a young Alan Turing in 2014’s “The Imitation Game,” Lawther was selected from a pool of about 100 actors and was Styler’s only choice for the role. “I thought, ‘Shit, if I don’t do this right, we are really, really screwed.’ We wouldn’t have a movie,” she recalled. “But within 10 minutes of meeting Alex, I knew we’d found Billy.” The actor also inspired a throwback take on the eccentric character; Lawther’s Billy references Boy George, “Pulp Fiction” and even Oscar Wilde. “There’s an ancient soul there – a philosopher of some intellect,” Styler said.
Though filming wrapped almost a year before President Donald Trump entered the White House, Styler said she and screenwriters Patrick J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio were refining the “Freak Show” script right up to the final days on the set. As a result, a number of recurring Trump-isms ― including the campaign catchphrase “Make America great again” ― found their way into the film, and now feel eerily prophetic when referenced through Breslin’s mean girl character.
For the small, but significant, role of Billy’s mother, Styler recruited her pal Bette Midler, whose longtime support of LGBTQ rights and gender equality aligned with the film’s message. Though Midler had been absent from the big screen since 2012’s “Parental Guidance,” Styler said working with her was, well, divine.
“I’ve known Bette for many years. I’ve admired her hugely for all of her talents – her singing, her dancing, her acting – but also for the political animal that she is,” Styler said. “She’s fearless, courageous and a consummate pro, so I knew she wouldn’t hold back.”
The director had similar praise for Laverne Cox, who turns in a memorable cameo as a local news reporter covering the homecoming queen campaign. “I admire her hugely as an actress,” Styler said.
Ultimately, Styler hopes viewers from all walks of life, and both sides of the political aisle, found merit in the message of “Freak Show,” which is about “being allowed to be the person that you are.”
Acknowledging that “there’s a knowingness to the film,” she said, “There’s so much work to be done in the community to further the right of people to be the people they want to be and express themselves in whatever way is appropriate for them.”
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