Only Miranda July would think to cast Evan Rachel Wood and Gina Rodriguez as love interests. The two stars of her new movie Kajillionaire rose to fame in what may as well have been two different universes, and the director uses our shallow preconceptions about them to her advantage. "Gina and I were in on that," she tells PAPER. "We knew that people don't expect to see us together. Don't expect that we would be friends or working together."
The result is what July describes as a "heist slash love story," as well as a "messy critique of capitalism." It merges the worlds of Old Dolio (Woods), the child of two chillingly brazen low-level con artists, and Melanie (Rodriguez), a bright-eyed stranger who accidentally then purposefully becomes complicit in the family's pettily sinister schemes. While Old Dolio hides behind baggy sweatshirts and lank hair, Melanie is manicured and cute. They make little sense together, even as acquaintances, but July plops them both into a teetering, brink-of-collapse Los Angeles then stands back to see what happens. As uncategorizable as any of her varied body of work, Kajillionaire pops and glitches with alternatingly cruel and joyful human moments. It's a pleasurable trip to the outer edges of a precarious world.
We paired actor Brigette Lundy-Paine with July to talk more about the film's quietly radical queerness, the concept of time during a pandemic, as well as their surprising shared connection to the Berkeley theater scene. Find a condensed version of the two artists in conversation, below.
Lundy-Paine: So, here we are.
July: Here we aren't.
Lundy-Paine: Here we aren't! I'm so — I just want to meet you!
July: I know. Wouldn't that be nice? I'm tired of being here in LA. I could come in right through one of those three doors behind you.
Lundy-Paine: You could choose any door you like.
July: I really am so different when I'm totally alone. My organization of time completely lives — I'm much more like my child, but when my child comes back, I have to be this other person. I set parameters, there's a clock. I don't like it, but we have to do it.
Lundy-Paine: I get really strict when I'm by myself. I've been watching The L Word, and no matter how much I love it, I'm only allowed two episodes. Then I'll furiously clean or read. How do you teach time to a kid? How do you do that?
July: That's funny, because they're literally learning time right now in school, so I have a very literal answer to that, which is: you don't explain that you're counting by fives around the clock. You just memorize quarter past, half past — you just memorize the positions. Time is such a construction anyways, and it was so hard for me to learn, that I'm like, "What does it matter?" It's so arbitrary. Just memorizing. I guess you could say that about language in general, but time in particular seems like a real taming of the air.
Lundy-Paine: We all must have been so affected by it, the pictures of what each position represents, breakfast being associated with a certain position on the clock. It's so weird that those patterns are incorporated so early. Your kid is non-binary, congratulations. What is it like raising a non-binary kid?
July: I feel super lucky. We're talking about how time doesn't exist but clocks do, and similarly gender doesn't exist, just the words for it. To have a living experience of that, not a theoretical-intellectual one, lived from this person coming out of me, shows that it's very much true. I thought I was advanced and open, but it is different when you're the mom of that person. Because you really need to understand it on a deeper level. You're responsible for this person. So I'm always having to keep in the present, you know? Keep my fear in check. Because the world is not how I want it to be. I don't know. You were recently a child…
Lundy-Paine: Realistically, it's been like 15 years since I was really a child, but I've been expressing myself in nonbinary ways since I was a kid. There was also a long period when I was strictly adhering, almost religiously, to a binary. I was a cheerleader in high school, and that was really feminine, and I was protective of that femininity. But some of my most happy memories as a kid — because I was always involved in the theater, and I would always audition for the boy in the play, and I remember auditioning for the role of Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance — are them asking who wanted to dance with the girl, and I wanted to dance with every girl! Even though it was an audition, and you only get to go once. I think there's so much non-binaryness and gender fluidity in childhood, in general. And it makes me so happy to see it being celebrated earlier and earlier, like you're talking about. Crafting a safety around it, creating zones that are gender-free, to grow in peace. I think it's so important.
July: So you saw Kajillionaire? What did it feel like?
Lundy-Paine: I felt seen. I felt so excited, in a deep way by it. By all the rules that are broken, the physical boundaries that are broken, it felt like this delicious creepiness that I really cherish and gravitate towards as an artist. I felt like it was growing, like a fungus, the delight in what is uncomfortable about being a human being. I really enjoyed watching it. I'm such a huge fan of your work as an artist in general. Did you want to write Old Dolio as a nonbinary character?
"We never called it a queer film. I'm happy that that's happening, but I think it would be too narrow. We were crazy about this world, as you are when you're shooting, and it would have been too limiting for us." — Miranda July
July: She was always that way, and I say "she" because that's what the other characters call her, it doesn't feel right to me, but who am I to say? She was that person from the get-go, and I have an early reference photo from day two of having the idea for this movie, and it's already this long-haired person. The long hair indicates a kind of butchness rather than femininity, and that was important. It's sort of inherently nonbinary, she couldn't be a short-haired butch woman. I've dated a lot of Old Dolio-esque women-identified people, who she was really an ode to. I felt like I'd never really seen that person as a hero of a movie, and yet that person has been my hero, at different times in my life, and always so attractive to me. I wanted to see a beautiful woman fall in love with her. So, managing that space and protecting that space without explaining it away and categorizing it for people. We never called it a queer film. I'm happy that that's happening, but I think it would be too narrow. We were crazy about this world, as you are when you're shooting, and it would have been too limiting for us.
"There's a way to tell queer stories that are completely outside of the buzzwords."— Brigette Lundy-Paine
Lundy-Paine: There's a way to put language to a queer storyline or queer film that calls to mind so much of identity politics and Instagram politics, and I think that takes away a little bit of the humanity of it. There's a way to tell queer stories that are completely outside of the buzzwords that we are always throwing at queer TV that sells and queer movies that sell. Kajillionaire is beyond that. Do you consider this a love story?
July: Yeah. I think a heist slash love story.
Lundy-Paine: Watching Evan's performance called to mind the experience of being assigned female at birth, and the repressive sexuality that is put on you, the un-achievableness of masculinity — how difficult it is to be perceived as you feel yourself, and how that almost strips you of being a sexual being. I wanted to ask what your experiences have been with finding femininity and sexuality in ways that haven't been gender fluid.
July: I'm bouncing around in my head between my own experiences and my experience creating Old Dolio and working with Evan. So one piece of it is Evan, and Evan, if you talk to her off-camera for any amount of time, you think, "Oh this person does really embody the duality." And because she's a working actress, we don't really get to see that, but she's completely comfortable with it and kind of just had that voice, even. The deep voice [in the movie] is her real voice.
"I'm shocked that I feel this exploratory. I feel as exploratory as I did when I was 21. And I thought I was figuring it all out then! I mean, I was a lesbian separatist at that time, how I thought that was going to function for my whole life, I don't know." — Miranda July
So there's that. And in terms of myself, one way that I survive is by getting to live different lives through my work. Which sounds a little convenient, or something, but this is all I'm doing here, for the most part. So it's not a small thing. It's a huge devotional practice that is my whole living self. It's too tricky to have all the conversations, but I feel like I am moving towards speaking a bit more plainly about myself and my sexuality and my gender and whatever, but I do appreciate the privacy that these fictions afford. Because the truth is, and anyone can relate to this, is that it's always changing, and that's what's so beautiful about it. So to get to keep evolving.
I'm shocked that I feel this exploratory. I feel as exploratory as I did when I was 21. And I thought I was figuring it all out then! I mean, I was a lesbian separatist at that time, how I thought that was going to function for my whole life, I don't know. But clearly it's ever changing. In the same way that you as an actor go deep into a part, and it's hard to say whether that's not real, because you really felt things in that role, and discovered real things that will serve you in real life, that is how it is for me and my work. I'm figuring things out this way. And the things I'm figuring out are entirely about how to be a person in a body in the world. Is that veiled enough?
Lundy-Paine: Perfectly veiled. Just enough to satisfy the readers. But you're so right, that it all is happening through the work. I am so conscious of what's on Instagram, what's my idea of myself that's out there, and what is my self that's alone? But letting it all be one big soup is the biggest relief. We can be whatever comes next. You were raised in the Bay Area, right? Berkeley?
July: That's right.
Lundy-Paine: I grew up there and now I live in Portland, where you also have spent some time. Both areas with great theater scenes.
July: One of the best things my mom ever did was buy season tickets one year to Berkeley Repertory, and that changed my life. I feel like I'm still being influenced by the plays I saw that one year.
Lundy-Paine: That's where I started working! When I was 11. I was in a Czechoslovakian opera. The Bay Area has a really special, brave community. As a theater artist yourself, how do you take that intimacy and bring it to a set?
July: Well, I'm newly starstruck that you were a Berkeley Rep child actor. Because as a teenager I'd watch those kids and be like, "Wow." Nothing was more impressive to me than the kids that were in those adult productions. But yeah, you don't. You don't have the magic of the live show. Just that feeling of when you have a show that night, and every night, and your whole day is dominated by that? Nothing is like that. Nothing is as terrible or wonderful.
Lundy-Paine: I used to beg my mom to let me quit, because I thought it was child abuse. For the first month. Then I fell in love with it, of course. The second play I had to be painted green every night, so I'd come to school with green tinges, all through second grade. There's nothing better!
July: And I will say, I have a rigor that comes from having to be vulnerable in front of an audience. You can tell what's working and what's not, and in the other worlds I'm in, some people are just like, "No, I don't take feedback." They have this whole other approach, which just seems like madness to me, coming from that live world. Where we really are making things in relation to an audience. There's a humbleness to theater that comes from the vulnerability, and I feel like I'm never too good. The movie's done, and the last time I saw it when it opened in theaters here a few weeks ago, I was still mentally giving notes for myself and the actors and the editor. It really was hard to accept it is done. You really aren't ever done, with a play.
Lundy-Paine: There's a specific feeling in a play, that last night of walking across a bridge as it burns behind you, you never really get that feeling with a film. Because you can always go back along the bridge. And even when it's released, doing press, figuring out how to present it. That becomes part of the texture of the film.
July: I've been wrestling with that the last few months. I feel like those of us who are best at speaking through this work are not necessarily and should not have to necessarily be very articulate about the work. I never signed on for it, but I'm not too good for it. I will do anything for this movie. It's just funny, the brain I've had to build to get through these interviews is entirely different from what I need to continue writing the book that I'm about to go back to.
Lundy-Paine: The tensing of the muscles. But you're right that it's part of it, a gift that you give to your project, almost.
July: It's very moving to me when I see the actors doing press and stuff. I'm grateful.
Kajillionaire is now showing in theaters and on demand. You can find all ways to watch here.
Stills courtesy of Focus Features