"I Think It's Steeped In A Lot Of Truth:" Laura Dern & Kristen Stewart Talk Jointly Playing A Scammer In JT LeRoy
Who was JT LeRoy? Between the years 2000 and 2006, he was a rare literary phenomenon, as popular among as Hollywood stars as he was among book critics. LeRoy was the author of three semi-autobiographical novels which drew from his abusive childhood, marked by sex work alongside his mother, an HIV positive diagnosis, and a heroin addiction.
JT also wasn't technically real. The West Virginian author was the joint creation of writer Laura Albert, who penned JT's books and conducted phone interviews in a breathy voice, and Savannah Knoop, Albert's sister-in-law who donned the now-iconic wig and sunglasses to embody JT in public. The movie JT LeRoy, which is co-written by Knoop, explores the complicated emotional motivations behind this long-running hoax.
As Savannah and Laura, respectively, Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern play the women who are simultaneously creating and caught up in something bigger than themselves — clawing to get out of a smothering lie, but not wanting to abandon the glamorous lifestyle that this lie affords. Instead of depicting montages of Hollywood glam, JT LeRoy approaches the story with almost claustrophobic interiority, focusing on the women's "why" instead of their "how." Refinery29 spoke to Dern and Stewart about co-creating LeRoy, the weight of lies (including "big little lies"), and really good disguises.
Refinery29: Laura, your character Renata Klein on Big Little Lies is one of a troupe of iconic liars. Laura Albert in JT Leroy is a very different sort of liar. Between Laura and Renata, who's the better liar?
Laura Dern: "They’re not even on the same planet! I’m really interested in people who tell the truth, and those women believe they’re telling the truth. That’s where I think they’re similar. Their truth is their truth. Renata is someone who feels so projected upon by the world. What’s beautiful about JT LeRoy is despite the seeming hoax, there’s a real purity to these female characters. They're both desperately longing to find self and identity. Laura felt to me like a cat in a bag. Scrambling to get any way to get the truth out and not to be seen. I was very heartbroken and moved by that."
In a way, you both share the role of JT LeRoy. How did you work together to create JT?
Kristen Stewart: "We had all the footage and photos of their appearances, as well as interviews and people’s impressions of them from that time from the documentary. But I had to take the part from Savannah. I listened to Laura Dern read a story as JT, not necessarily Laura Albert. We needed to make it together."
Dern: "Which is amazing. I almost forgot about that, that we both played that person. Some of the scenes were hard to get to and really refine, but also fascinating — it felt like working on a play together — were these scenes in her office where Laura is pulling Savannah in."
Stewart: "And pulling JT out."
Dern: "There was a desperate need to have an avatar. And to find a muse that would keep that avatar alive. I believe that was really true for Laura."
Stewart: "I think she saw a displaced energy in Savannah, and she said, ‘Hey, I’m going to make you feel better about having that, because I have it.’"
Savannah and Justin said they were interested in the why, not the how, of the women's scheme. Have you come to your independent conclusions as to why Laura and Savannah sustained JT for six years?
Stewart: "How it happened is a judgmental standpoint. To say how: How would people want to lie about something so personal to other people? How did this all happen? But why makes a lot of sense. Given all the details, you understand why Savannah would want to be around such a compulsive artist and such an infectious person — she was trying to find herself in a world that wasn’t really listening, in a world that definitely found her confusing and when she was confused herself. She found Laura, a talented writer who's also her big brother's girlfriend, who was able to say, ‘You can take your agency by the scruff of your neck if you want to.’ Until then, no one told Savannah that. I totally know why Savannah would’ve gotten wrapped up in this and lost control halfway through. It’s easy once you get to know them to not judge so harshly."
And Laura has another set of reasoning.
Dern: "I can’t speak for Laura Albert. I’m an actor just trying to find my way in [from] a place of empathy. To understand the why. JT LeRoy is from Savannah’s perspective — the goal was to create Savannah's experience of Laura versus Laura’s broken-down innards. But I had to know them anyway. From my perspective and from what I learned on the outside, Laura was someone who was feeling uncomfortable in their own skin for a very long time. She'd already invented JT. If someone is calling suicide hotlines as another person for help, there’s a lot of shame and trauma there. An invention of another self in order to be heard breaks my heart. At the core, it’s what Savannah related to, and it’s what so moving about this movie.
"JT is a part of her. JT was alive in her. She did want to give JT a body and a voice. That has some real depth to it. I don’t think it’s a lie or a hoax. I think it’s steeped in a lot of truth. Then, it gets out of hand — there’s media and people needing things from her and JT. But I think it’s about a need to heal. "
What was involved in the JT disguise?
Stewart: "It was trippy. As both Laura Albert and Speedy [Albert's disguise as JT's manager], Laura's face is very much hanging out. I felt like I was being John Malkovich. I could only see a little bit through the glasses and wigs. I grumbled a little bit. Savannah would talk about the immense amount of anxiety she felt when people would address her, and she had to speak as JT. She got better at it as time progressed and was able to develop aspects of JT that she owned. Typically, though, she was on this simulation ride, and I felt that as well.
"It was nice, too. We had a lot of extras on the movie and oftentimes if I get self conscious or shy around a ton of people, it was nice to have the disguise. It really works. I went away. I didn't exist anymore."
This disguise can be your new thing when you’re out in public.
Stewart: "Yeah, yeah. People will think that supes normal. That'd be really good for me."