Call it the final, or perhaps first, frontier of entertainment.
Like elaborate British radio dramas of the past, Homunculus, John Cameron Mitchell’s 10-episode weekly podcast, is an elaborate aural storytelling experience—but as queer as Hedwig.
A witty, gay, small-town shut-in with a brain tumor, Ceann Mackay (Mitchell) attempts to raise $100,000 for surgery via an online radio telethon, and in the process endures tumor-induced hallucinations and flashbacks featuring 31 songs co-written by Mitchell and Bryan Weller (who composed songs and the score for Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties), and a stellar cast of 40 including Glenn Close, Patti LuPone, Marion Cotillard, Denis O’Hare, Cynthia Erivo, Ben Foster, Justin Vivian Bond, Laurie Anderson, and Nakhane.
Out now, the Topic-produced show—which was originally conceived as a TV series but universally rejected as “too weird”—is the first season of an anthology, Anthem, on the new subscription-based podcast service Luminary.
Mitchell has made visual appearances as well this year on Hulu’s hysterical Shrill as Gabe, the health-obsessed editor-boss of Aidy Bryant’s large-and-proud journalist Annie, and touring with a Hedwig 20th Anniversary concert, which also functions as a fundraiser for his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother’s care.
Speaking by phone, Mitchell told NewNowNext about making Homunculus, how it’s a Hedwig sequel, and more.
In the first episode we learn that Ceann lives in the same double-wide trailer as Hedwig did. Will Hedwig show up at some point?
This story originated as an idea for a Hedwig sequel, and it was she who had to do the telethon. But I realized I was trying to do an autobiography, and rather than the boring one where you’re talking about yourself and sitting alone and writing it, I thought, “why not create an alternative autobiography that I can collaborate with other actors on?” So, the Hedwig thing was dropped when we realized I was ramming my story into hers. It was like putting a wig on a wig, so I took a wig off. But that little reference is a wink, saying this is me and that’s part of me, but there’s no Hedwig cameo.
How is Ceann an “alternate” John Cameron Mitchell?
He’s me if I never left my small town. The characters of my mom, dad, aunt, and lover are adapted from real life. I wanted to explore the fact some of my life was dealing with death. Even as a kid, my favorite playwright was Becket, who was staring into the abyss but also laughing, and one of my favorite movies is All The Jazz, which is Bob Fosse’s life flashing before his eyes. The idea of looking back with regrets, love, and healing is something…at a certain age you forgive your parents, you start to see the bigger picture, and this is that. Healing the loss I felt, and maybe giving comfort to others and finding a way forward.
How easy was it to recruit the cast?
Very easy, because there was so little time involved. Most were already friends, and in between movies they can record for two days. I didn’t know Cynthia Erivo, but I was blown away by The Color Purple and really wrote this part for her. And Nakhane is a queer South African musician and actor who’s blowing up in Europe. I found him on Instagram, DM’d him, and he responded immediately saying “I was just watching Shortbus.” As soon as I sent him the script, he said “yes, please,” and we’re good buddies now. Marion Cotillard was in Paris, but we recorded her in a studio remotely.
It’s nice to not worry about makeup, costumes, and hair, isn’t it?
I know. I said, “Marion, you don’t even have to shave.” The other fun thing is, with a film you might have to do reshoots costing hundreds of thousands, flying people in, their hair is wrong. In this case, I could ask Glenn Close wherever she was to say a line into her iPhone with a towel draped over her head, text it to me, and I drop it into the mix. But it’s hard to do a “making-of” documentary because we’re just standing in our slippers. It’s not very dynamic.
How did your collaboration with Bryan compare to working with musician Stephen Trask on Hedwig?
Bryan taught me that I can co-write songs without playing an instrument. He said, “we’re going to write 20 songs in 12 hours together.” I think we ended up with 8, but it broke through my fear of writing songs. I co-wrote all the songs, and he’s a true musical genius and I will continue to work with him.
I understand there will be a soundtrack as well. When will that be released?
The songs will come out the week the respective episodes come out [like EPs], so you can pre-buy the whole soundtrack, and they’ll add the songs as they come available. Because we’ve been working on this for years, we have extra material we can drop later, and we expect to have a triple vinyl record in the fall. My dream is to someday have a vinyl version of the whole podcast.
What is the ideal listening situation for Homunculus?
You need really good over-ear headphones or a great speaker system in your car, because it’s not just two people in a room with a mic. There are 40 actors and 5 and a half hours of dense story. So, if you miss one line, you get messed up and can lose what’s going on. I like density in all of my work. I like words, and the podcast form worked really well for a wordy musical.
Shrill has been renewed for a second season, and your character was originally based on Dan Savage in author Lindy West’s memoir of the same name. Have you run into Dan since the show dropped?
Yes, but I’m not really playing him. They let me write my character’s backstory, so I’m a former Portland alt-rocker who had a record label and now edits the weekly paper. I didn’t really think in terms of Dan at all, but I guess that’s where the character was born.
Finally, how is your mom doing? The Origin of Love concerts have been going well, and you’re slated for a three-night engagement in NYC during Pride week.
Mom is very happy. She’s in a later Alzheimer’s state and very smiley and giggly. With both of my parents, it was a merciful situation. They entered a place of childlike sweetness and peace. She’s living in the caregiver’s house, in a family environment, so it’s like financing a nursing home for one, but it’s so much better than zombies in front of a TV in assisted living. I’m having so much fun with those Hedwig shows. I don’t have to do eight a week, so I can really blow it out, crowd-surfing in seated venues. Trask will join us for the New York shows. It’s going to be a blast.