By the time he published his first book, Sarah (2000), 19-year-old Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy had endured the unthinkable: sexual and physical assault, abuse from his fundamentalist Christian grandparents, an HIV positive diagnosis, a heroin addiction. Sarah was about LeRoy's experiences working alongside his mother as a sex worker at age 12 (“She felt angry about the competition, but she also liked the money, too,” he told Terry Gross on NPR in 2001).
Though LeRoy’s writing was praised by critics, stark prose isn’t what made him a darling of both the literary community and glamorous circles of Hollywood — it was his harrowing life story and unclassifiable persona.
The only problem? JT LeRoy wasn’t real. Never was. LeRoy’s three books were written by a writer and artist named Laura Albert, who developed JT’s persona while calling hotlines in her late 20s. Albert cast her 21-year-old sister-in-law Savannah Knoop as JT's real-life manifestation. Now, 13 years after the scheme fell apart in spectacular fashion, Knoop (who prefers they/them pronouns) has developed a movie about their experiences along with screenwriter and director Justin Kelly.
JT LeRoy hit theaters on Friday, April 26. Laura Dern captivates as Laura Albert, brimming with creative energy and nowhere to put it but a masquerade. Albert's frustrating position — talent but none of the credit — reaches a head when she dresses up as Speedie, JT LeRoy's overbearing and reviled British manger in a red wig. Kristen Stewart plays Savannah Knoop, who gradually sinks into JT's disguise of a blonde wig and dark sunglasses until she feels JT is as much hers as Laura's. Filling out the trio is Geoffrey (Jim Sturgess), Albert's (now ex) husband.
Geoffrey and Albert met in 1989 when they were both 23. By night, they were a musical duo. By day, they engaged in phone sex — that's when Albert honed her skills doing characters over the phone. However, Albert had been channeling a harrowed Southern boy since her days at the New School. When she started writing fiction in the mid-90s, it was that boy's voice who came out on the page — and that boy's voice who contacted famous authors like Dennis Cooper for mentorship.
There was no deliberate start to LeRoy hoax. "In both [Laura and Geoff's] eyes the Terminator calls were only extensions of what they had been doing for years — pretending to be reporters, role-playing for phone-sex clients, making cold calls to promote the band," Vanity Fair wrote in 2006, after the real JT was exposed.
Through creating JT's harrowing "autobiography," Albert probably achieved more success than she could've writing her own autobiography of a woman in her early 30s in a tiny rock band. But the introduction of Knoop took success to the next level. Now, JT could be a part of the world that was crazy for his work.
Knoop and Albert spent much of the early 2000s living a Hollywood fairy tale. There were two distinct JTs: Albert's, who had long-winded conversations on the phone in a breathy voice, and Knoop's, prone to flings but not much talking.
Both JTs were close friends with Winona Ryder (“He’s one of those guys you can lay in bed with and watch movies with and cuddle with and feel safe doing that. He is so true, such a poet," Ryder said) and Liv Tyler (“My secrets I can share with him. I trust him and feel safe with him. I tell him things I probably don’t tell anybody else,” Tyler told Vanity Fair in 2003), in addition to many other celebrities. Bono gave him career advice. Courtney Love, who appears in the movie as a composite character, was also JT's admirer. As The Guardian put it in 2006, "It is a reasonable assumption that there are now more celebrities devoted to JT LeRoy than there are to Scientology."
In fact, the story of JT LeRoy holds anther interesting footnote in Hollywood lore. Asia Argento wrote, starred, and directed the 2004 adaptation of LeRoy's book The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. Argento (who, in the movie, is played by Diane Kruger and made French) had a romantic relationship with LeRoy (as Knoop). In 2018, Jimmy Bennett – who starred in the film as JT — accused Argento of sexual assault in a hotel room in 2013. They met on set of The Heart is Deceitful, when Bennet was 7.
But JT LeRoy largely ditches any gossipy Hollywood strands in favor for exploring the emotional engine that fueled the entire six-year-long scheme.
"It's less about how everything was able to be pulled off and more why Savannah and Laura did it, why they both became JT," Justin Kelly told Refinery29. "It was important to lay out what happened but without being judgmental. Let people make up their own minds."
So instead of showing, say, a montage of the celebrity-filled Cannes parties of the early 2000s, the movie's action is largely confined to Laura's house, Savannah's studio and restaurant job, with some other scenes sprinkled in. "It's claustrophobic," Knoop told Refinery29.
By narrowing the lens to the women's emotional trajectories, this movie about a sensational hoax becomes a ripe ground for big questions. Was Albert justified in creating a character? If JT meant something to so many people, is he still real? How did playing JT prompt Savannah to reconsider their gender identity?
You get the feeling, watching JT LeRoy, that there are enough complicated dynamics in Albert and Knoop's scheme (and relationship) to fuel more that just one feature film and the documentary that came out in 2018.
"Part of why I'm engaged with this story is because it was so complicated. There are so many contradictory feelings within the experience," Knoop said. That's also what kept them coming back to the JT character for six years. "Being a queer person, I could slip into this other life. And being a creative person, there were other things that could pull you back in."
But for Knoop, the process of making JT LeRoy was the opposite of claustrophobic — it was freeing. Knoop and Kelly began writing the script 10 years ago.
"I’m so grateful to be doing the work, and to share this story with people in all the complex ways that it is," Knoop said.