In Conversation: Margaret Cho and Tristan Scott-Behrends

In Conversation: Margaret Cho and Tristan Scott-Behrends

What becomes of a star once the applause has faded? Who do we become once we get older? How are we seen? How do we see ourselves? Curtain Down, a new short film by Los Angeles-based writer, producer, and actor Tristan Scott-Behrends and director Emett Casey aims to answer these questions, through a distinctively queer lens.

Scott-Behrends plays a fading film siren named Storme Du Bois, who is grappling with the fallout of a big picture deal that fell through. The fallout becomes a meta-commentary on the complex politics of aging, admiration, and desire. Margaret Cho, who also stars in the film, plays a sage mentor figure to Du Bois, a metaphor for the importance of queer mentorship. Through connection with mentors, queer people who struggle with being seen can come to see themselves more clearly.

Du Bois is a character who further blurs the lines: Scott-Behrends uses he/him pronouns, and Du Bois is she/her, but neither of them are defined by gender. This comes out as well through the depiction of Du Bois' complex relationship with their studly male live-in assistant. The actor, embodying masculine and feminine duality in his character, isn't playing "a man in a dress," nor is he playing to audience expectations. He is simply portraying a person who deserves to be seen — and desired, whether romantically or artistically — exactly as they are.

In that respect, Curtain Down also becomes a razor-sharp criticism of internalized homophobia, misogyny, and ageism prevalent within cisgender gay male communities. This almost satirical farce deftly bends fantasy and reality: director Casey applies a Golden Hour haze to the lens, giving each shot a dreamy, nostalgic quality.

Curtain Down has been hitting the film festival circuit this year, making its festival debut at the Defy Film Festival in Nashville. PAPER premieres the director's cut exclusively, and moderates a conversation between the film's co-stars (and real-life pals) Cho and Scott-Behrends, where they talk about queer desire, aging, and value of role models.

How did you two connect for the making of this film?

Tristan Scott: You've always been someone to me that has really broken down whatever box she's put in, and stepped outside of that box and created her space for people to exist outside of it by declaring that the boxes don't need to exist. I've always seen you doing that throughout your comedy and throughout your career, whether it was about gender or sexuality or race or whatever the theme that you grappled with at the moment. So when I met you, I had just finished writing the script and it seemed like a very obvious choice to put you in the space to help say a lot of the things I wanted to say with the film.

Margaret Cho: Yes, it was wonderful! I mean, I was and still am really impressed by you. You always played different roles, whether it was acting, or helping with the crew or costumes and stuff, and you were also around for most of the music videos that I made over 2016. So it was really fun to make this movie with you. The look of it is something like, Reflections in a Golden Eye [starring Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando], a very '60s or '70s, very avant-garde, esoteric film. I loved the script and I love you, so it was really great. I still remember that time I ran into you.

TS: Yeah?

MC: You were head-to-toe dressed in gold and your skin was colored gold. [Laughs] You were like, entirely, 100% gold, and it was so great!

TS: I do want to win an Oscar, but until I have one, I'm going to dress like one.

MC: Yaaas! Exactly, so we know what you have to do, you have to be dressed for success, obviously. You're just the ultimate in that, just being 100% gold, which is basically your life philosophy. It's kind of like, Goldfinger, but it was not just the finger, it was your whole entire body. [Laughs]

TS: I did not at all remember that that's what I was wearing, but I remember being there to see Psychic TV, and I don't think you and I had ever talked about this, but Genesis P-Orridge was one of my biggest influences in terms of the way that I started to think about gender and think about my own sexuality and identity, and what that means. You were performing with them, a dream come true, and you fucking killed it.

MC: Oh, thank you.

TS: It was such a good performance.

MC: I love Genesis, and she's definitely a role model for me, I mean forever. So it's great that we come together there.

Margaret, you play a mentor character in Curtain Down, and both of you mention Genesis P-Orridge as an influence. Who are some other queer icons you've looked to as mentors?

MC: I mean, there's so many. I probably start, always, with Madonna, and then it goes... When you start learning to walk, then it's like, Madonna. Your gay life begins, you're like, starting to walk and talk — it's still Madonna. Then you get more into it, and it becomes Holly Woodlawn, and then it becomes Genesis, and then it becomes somebody like Björk. For me, it's also like Quentin Crisp and the old gay bards of the world too. Style icons who did and said the most iconic things you've ever seen or heard. Also, organizations like ACT UP and you know, everybody at the Stonewall [Riots]. Even RuPaul, too. If you look at anybody from Drag Race too, whether it's Bianca [Del Rio] or Raven or Miss Fame. Miss Fame is my favorite, by the way.

TS: I have to say you, Margaret, are really taking on that mentor role yourself, actively. You're constantly finding young comedians in the LA area and supporting them, and having them open for you and really giving a lot of people a platform for more exposure that wouldn't maybe otherwise have it. You're definitely an active mentor in the community and deserves to be honored.

MC: Thank you, that's so nice.

TS: It's true! Also I really view our queerness and queer people as our ancestors and I always look backwards and to the people around me who are older, because I think that they're our family, and they paved the way for things to change. And someone that really influenced me that I got to know a little bit was Stormé DeLarverie. She is said to have thrown the first punch at Stonewall, and she's the person I named the character that I play in the film after, and was a radical gender bender and lesbian drag king. On my arm I have the names Judy, Patti, and Nina tattooed for Judy Garland, Patti Smith, and Nina Simone, and they're really metaphysical mentors to me in that with everything that they've done in their art, there's so much truth and vulnerability to their work, and I really hold them dear and hope to emulate those ideals in some way going forward.

Some of the film's overarching themes include queer aging, and the struggle for admiration, whether artistically or personally. Do you have thoughts on these issues, and even ideas on how they can be addressed?

MC: I think part of it, the way that aging is warped a little bit is because in a sense, my generation feels like the first real gay generation alive to get old, because everybody in the generation before us died of AIDS. So, there's like this missing rung of our generational ladder where we don't actually have immediate elders. Most of the people that we had that were maybe 10, 15, or 20 years older than us are crystallized in their youth because now they're a panel on the AIDS quilt. Especially being from San Francisco, that's what I noticed about aging and how few elders we actually have. So I think that's one of the reasons that people around my age have a real issue with aging because it seems like it's very exclusive to us when it's really not, it's just that we're missing a lot of our folk.

"Past 30, I think a lot of gay men feel aged out of being youthful and desirable, and instead hit the gym really hard and kind of transform their bodies to just take on this more hyper-masculine ideal. [...] Fuck that." — Tristan Scott

TS: I hear that. For me, it was reaching the age of 30 and noticing that a lot of the physical value that I once held in these gay spaces was really starting to dissolve, and this gay world was really starting to treat me differently. Past 30, I think a lot of gay men feel aged out of being youthful and desirable, and instead hit the gym really hard and kind of transform their bodies to just take on this more hyper-masculine ideal. I kind of wanted to just say fuck that. Why should that have to be what it requires to be lovable or sexually desirable, or just not invisible in a public space or in a bar? Plus, with living in LA, and knowing a lot of actors and having seen a lot of films that influence that world, it was very easy to set all of those conversations in the world [of this film] of an aging Hollywood actress who feels nostalgic for a time long gone.

I think many queer people have the same struggles, looking to fulfill whatever it is that we're lacking, whatever it is that we didn't get to have, or didn't get to give ourselves because we were ashamed of who we were, because we were told that we weren't good enough. I think we look to fill that for a lot of different reasons, and I think the parallels between that and fame can be really close. There are many queer struggles with addiction and substance issues, and dating or fucking the wrong people to fill that void.

MC: There's also so much joy in really embracing the idea of aging. I always look at menopause as a gateway drug. It's so freeing. It's a key to a whole new planet and world of experience where you're not tied down to things like hormonal desires or things that drive you. You become less of an animal when you're older, and you really start to become a being. It's a very different set of rules that you operate by.

"There's also so much joy in really embracing the idea of aging. I always look at menopause as a gateway drug." — Margaret Cho

What parts of the Storme DuBois character did you feel most closely identified with?

TS: In the film we don't address Storme's gender at all, and I love the fact that there's a person with a beard wearing a dress and no one ever comments on it. In the press kit, she's called she/her, and I wanted to also call attention to how the non-binary space is expanding. No one is less masculine or less feminine because they do this thing or that thing. I don't believe there's really any moments in the film where the pronouns come up, and that was really intentional because I want to really create a space where this person exists perfectly as they are. I want to always create these worlds that are really queer and gay and offer no explanation. You either get it, or you can catch up and get it. A lot of queer film festivals rejected the film for that reason [lack of explanation], because they didn't know which LGBTQIA box to put it into. The main plot point in any queer person's story shouldn't necessarily be about what makes them queer.

MC: I hear you there. I mean, for me, I think the glamour and the desire to just stay glamorous is very authentic. We also love a good kaftan. It transitions from room to room, from day to day, from identity to identity. That's all I want to be, and that's who Storme is, so I of course love that.

What do you think the biggest takeaway of Curtain Down is?

MC: I think it's just about celebration of self, celebration of the uniqueness of who we are and the enjoyment of that. That's what's really important to me, and it's really the politics that I've always operated by. That's all I'm about.

TS: Yeah, I really think that the biggest way to fight that back is by continuing to make beautiful, explicitly queer, celebratory art. There's so many people doing it at the moment, There's Taylor Mac, there's people like you, Margaret, and countless young voices leading the way forward. I think that representation is really important, but also, younger people should continuing embracing that the world doesn't have to just be one way. As far as writing and making this film, I learned that one can't keep looking outside oneself for validation, because it's a road leading nowhere. You really have to find that first from within yourself, before anything else can change or get better.

Photography: Dominoe Farris