‘What’s up, Winnipeg!?"
That’s Laura Dern, at full volume, when a publicist tells her she’s on the phone with the Winnipeg Free Press.
And that’s Kristen Stewart, playfully laughing at her co-star.
It’s just a snapshot of the chemistry the two have together onscreen in JT LeRoy, a new film detailing the hoax that rocked the literary world in the early 2000s from the perspective of the person who ended up at the centre of it.
Dern plays Laura Albert, the fabulist who wrote a bestselling novel as Jeremiah "Terminator" LeRoy — a young southern boy writing about his life as a truck-stop prostitute and the abuse at the hands of his mother. Albert started portraying LeRoy on the phone, but as his star began to rise, she felt increasing pressure to put a face to the name.
Enter her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop (portrayed by Stewart), who pretended to be JT LeRoy at his public appearances for the better part of six years.
JT LeRoy, which opens this month, was produced by Winnipeg’s Buffalo Gal Pictures and shot in and around the city over the summer of 2017.
"It was amazing," Dern says of their time in Winnipeg. "I mean, we had summer vacation there. It was a gorgeous time to come there, and get to navigate making a small, independent film on a shoestring budget, which is more and more complicated to do, with a subject matter we see as deeply complicated and out of the box and not easy."
"And Winnipeg was deeply hospitable to that," Stewart adds. "We found a lot of our backgrounds in weird, cool little bars where cool youths were hanging out and wanted to be involved. There was a cool counterculture."
Because JT LeRoy’s star rose around the world, Winnipeg was required to double as many places throughout the film. Back-alley Exchange District murals stand in for artsy San Francisco. The ruins at the Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park pass for Paris. A rural Manitoba truck stop becomes a truck stop in Tennessee.
"We definitely repurposed stuff — walls, environments, people," Stewart says. "We were throwing around T-shirts on extras."
'It was a gorgeous time to come there, and get to navigate making a small, independent film on a shoestring budget, which is more and more complicated to do, with a subject matter we see as deeply complicated and out of the box and not easy'
Indeed, it wasn’t just Winnipeg places but Winnipeggers themselves that helped shape the film.
"The one part that feels really alive in that sense is in the party scene that happens early on," Stewart says. "We shot it over a weekend with, like, whatever five to 10 people on the crew that were down to hang out with us. Everyone in that sequence is one of our friends or a relative or a person who Sav literally found at a queer bar or a weird bookstore and brought them in. They were really colouring the scene."
"Like, if you hired extras to do that?" Dern interjects.
"It would just look awkward and, I don’t know, you get what I’m saying," Stewart finishes. (I do get what she’s saying: It would look inauthentic.) "For that, Winnipeg definitely helped us out."
The film, directed by Justin Kelly, is based on Knoop’s 2008 memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy. Stewart wasn’t familiar with the bizarre ballad of JT LeRoy — nor the people behind him — before she read the screen adaptation.
"I read that and it was really difficult to understand how it was possible it was even real," she says. "I thought maybe they took liberties and made the story a little crazier than it had been. But then I watched the documentary (2016’s Author) and kind of delved into what happened and how many people were involved, and my head blew off. I couldn’t believe it was possible.
"After meeting Savannah — there’s a delicacy to her energy and it’s also very truthful. I was like, ‘how can someone so present, and odd, and real, and genuine in person survive something like that?’ And how the hell did all that happen? It’s a widely known subject, but this is one element that no one has heard: what it felt like to be in the middle of it."
Stewart gets to the heart of those questions in her understated, nuanced portrayal of a vulnerable person who is trying to reconcile their own identity (and gender) while pretending to be the creation of someone else.
Knoop also provided a blueprint for Dern.
"Savannah was my way into Laura, which was quite beautiful," she says. "As (the film) is (Savannah’s) point of view, it allows Laura to be as elusive as she was to Savannah, and as she was to everyone experiencing her, as opposed to ‘Let’s know the person behind the writer.’
"It’s really about understanding what it was like to be pulled inside this world that seemingly could be a hoax but, in fact, as Savannah taught me more and more and as we learned more and more, is really about someone’s struggle with not only identity, but trauma. And how to be understood, and feeling such shame that they can’t be with themselves, that they have to create characters over and over and over again."
Dern portrays Laura Albert with incredible empathy, walking the line between a ruthless manipulator and fragile victim. She cuts a rather tragic figure, a person who believes she has to invent characters so people will like her.
(A heartbreaking detail: Laura Albert used to call suicide hotlines as different people, including JT, in order to be listened to.) "Laura’s entire journey is about false narratives in order to be truthful," Dern says.
As a film, JT LeRoy feels strikingly timely, not only because it explores themes of identity and gender, but because it’s arriving at a time when scammers are having a major cultural moment. Stewart thinks our fascination with grifters may have something to do with our innate desire, as viewers, to solve puzzles.
"Anything that is tricky, anything you have to crack — I think an audience really, really likes to be surprised, and audiences have gotten a lot smarter, so I think there’s a, ‘Oh, wait, is there a bait and switch? Because I know I’m going to get it before anyone else.’ And if they don’t, well, I think that speaks to the angry, reactive nature of the press to JT’s life then. The wool was pulled over their eyes."
"It’s so in the zeitgeist," Dern says of grifter content.
"It’s like that movie with the people who move to D.C. and they’re living in that big house, and then there’s, like, a report that comes out and everyone is trying to figure out whether it’s fake or real...
"Oh, wait," she says, slyly. "That’s not a movie."
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Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.