When Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader made its theatrical premiere in July 2000, it was entering a queer political landscape vastly different from the one we live in today. Over the last two decades, we’ve witnessed the rise of LGBTQ representation in mainstream film and television, the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S., and—just this week—the long-overdue prohibition of workplace discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual identity. Yet, as queer communities continue to fight for their human rights, Babbitt’s inclusive tale of love and self-discovery continues to feel transgressive and ahead of its time.
Based on both Babbit’s own experiences and ones she had read about, But I’m a Cheerleader playfully confronts the homophobic practice of conversion therapy. Natasha Lyonne stars as Megan, an effervescent, all-American cheerleader whose parents (played by cult icons Bud Cort and Mink Stole) begin to fear that she’s a lesbian and send her off to a reparative therapy center called True Directions. Under the leadership of Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), the young attendees are made to deconstruct their identities and adopt behaviors that reinforce stereotypical gender roles. A hot-pants-clad RuPaul teaches the men how to chop wood and repair the undercarriage of a car, while the women paint each other’s toenails, try on wedding dresses, and learn how to scrub a kitchen floor. But when Megan meets the lovable rebel Graham—played by Clea DuVall with a charming mix of vulnerability and sensuality—she awakens to her own desire. Employing kitschy, midcentury production and costume design, Babbit bathes the film in an atmosphere of high camp, highlighting the artificiality of the world True Directions seeks to create.
In celebration of But I’m a Cheerleader playing on the Criterion Channel this month, I called up Lyonne and DuVall, who remain best friends and collaborators. The two actors talked with me about how they first connected in Hollywood, their on-screen chemistry, and the devoted following the film has amassed in the twenty years since its release.
You’ve both been acting for most of your lives. I’m wondering when your paths first crossed and how you began working together?
Clea: We had the same agent, who kept telling us about each other. Then one day, when I was in his office, Natasha called and he was like, “Clea’s here, you should talk on the phone,” and we ended up talking for an hour. Natasha said she was coming to LA, and a week or two later we were both on a studio lot auditioning for the same movie. I remember I was walking to the office, and I saw this tiny dot at the very far end of the walkway and I could just feel Natasha. Then we walked closer and closer until we were right in front of each other, and she said, “What are you doing after the audition?” I said I didn’t have plans, and she was like, “We’ll meet at the Coffee Bean,” and I said okay. Then I did my audition and we met up and spent the entire day together, and our friendship just sort of was.
Natasha: That’s wonderful, but I don’t remember any of that happening at all. Was that the audition for Girl, Interrupted? I think it’s important that the record show Clea got the job. I was auditioning for another part in that movie, but I didn’t get it.
Clea: I didn’t want to bring up that it was Girl, Interrupted and that I got a part and you didn’t, but since you’re bringing it up, that is true.
Natasha: It’s worth noting that I was in Kate & Leopold, or as I call it, Girl, Interrupted 2. Okay, but then what happened was that we were driving around—Clea had a car, I was a New Yorker . . . how old were we then?
Clea: I was twenty, you were eighteen. You came up to visit me in San Francisco. The script for But I’m a Cheerleader was in my car, and you pulled it out of my backseat and said, “What’s this?” I said, “It’s a movie I’m doing,” and you said, “Can I be in it?” and I said, “I don’t know.” Then we laid in my bed and read the script together, and I called Jamie Babbit and told her that you wanted to be in the movie, and she said okay.
Natasha: And that is a time capsule of the nineties, okay? That’s how movies used to be made. I guess it’s not that different now, expect now people slide into each other’s DMs.
Had Jamie already seen you in something that made her say yes right away?
Clea: Slums of Beverly Hills had just come out.Natasha: That was bona fide, and still I was scraping up scripts from backseats—as an ingénue! [laughs] Clea had starred in Jamie’s short film, so they were already BFFs.
What was your initial sense of the film after reading the script? Considering that so much of its tone is conveyed through its visual language, was the camp factor evident on the page?
Natasha: I’m not sure if there was an awareness of the camp factor. I was already a John Waters fan, so Mink Stole and Divine were on my radar, but I don’t know if that was necessarily communicated in the script. I was dying to work with Clea, who remains my favorite person ever. I’ll be honest . . . at first, I don’t think I even realized that much that this was a gay movie. I was thinking more: oh my God, I get to star in a movie with Clea! The film was so clearly taking the piss out of anybody who would have a philosophy that was anything like that of Cathy Moriarty’s character. It was so evident whose side it was on.Clea: I’d been in Jamie’s short film [Sleeping Beauties, 1998], which had similar aesthetic elements, so I knew her visual style. Unlike with that film, where she had a character named Clea—which she wrote for me and still made me audition for—she didn’t make me audition for But I’m a Cheerleader. But the script changed a lot after I first read it, and she let me bring a lot of myself into the part. It was something I’d never seen before. There were similar kinds of girls in other lesbian stories, and I’d tried to connect with them before, but I hadn’t felt like my experience was authentically represented. Jamie was very generous and collaborative and allowed me to write my own lines and wear the clothes I wanted to wear and have my hair how I wanted it—to just be me.
Natasha: In general, this is a fuzzy time in my memory, but it’s funny that we were doing such different things. Clea, you’re describing infusing Graham with the truth of who you were at the time. But Megan is so far from who I was. I was always in black fishnets and black rave Marilyn Manson boots. There was a big drama when—for context, I was dating Eddie Furlong at the time, that’s how nineties this story is—I’d gotten a drunk Hollywood Boulevard tattoo, my first and only tattoo, the day before shooting. Jamie was so pissed off because I had to be in my sports bra doing the cheers, and she was like, “How could you do this?” and I was like, “I don’t know what happened!”
I was sort of actively taking the piss out of that type of person, this perfect blonde girl. What’s so great about Megan is that she becomes so much more than that. She’s actually discovering herself in the movie. This film also speaks to the idea that you can’t buy chemistry. The chemistry between Clea and me was so organic and just imbues the film with so much heart, and that trumps the camp in a way. Not too long ago, the famous drag queen Peaches Christ screened the movie at the Castro in San Francisco, and to see the movie on the big screen, on film—the heart of it was so palpable.
Given the dichotomy between the film’s artificial retro-pop aesthetics and its very real subject matter, how did you approach your performances?
Natasha: Clea and I were definitely peak-teenager, and by that I mean we wanted to bring Cassavetes-level integrity to the scenes. As silly as we’re being now, we were very serious about the acting. There was no fucking around with the scene work, and we enjoyed that. There was one scene outside, on the front lawn, and I remember both of us stomping around and smoking cigarettes, trying to nail it. There was a lot of “This scene isn’t the truth yet!” and trying to get to the heart of the matter. There were certain moments in the film where it was super organic to have it be really stylized, like when I’m calling my parents and I’m in the foreground while Cathy is in the background. That was very tripped out, and I remember feeling very in the pocket of that moment, within the tone of the film. It was easy to do that in the world of the rehab facility, but in the scenes with Clea and me, it would become more natural. Those scenes had to have real integrity, otherwise it wouldn’t work. Is that fair to say, Clea?Clea: Yeah! I was subtler and scared of comedy. Not that much of the comedy was really on my shoulders, but I was so self-conscious that Jamie had to push me to raise me to the tone of the scene. But in the scenes with Natasha, our connection just felt so real that it calmed me down in a way and made me less self-conscious because we were so in sync. We could do no wrong together. Every take felt good and right because we were so present with each other in a way that I can’t say I’ve been with very many actors in my career. That feeling came back when Natasha was in the first movie I directed. We played girlfriends, and it was that same kind of easy, lived-in feeling. Even in the scenes that were more challenging it felt like there was something there that doesn’t happen all the time.
Natasha: Being directed by Clea in her movie, The Intervention, and being able to fall back into that chemistry, was like a psychedelic experience. It was so special and so interesting that Clea was able to deconstruct the puzzle of what made that chemistry between us and turn it into her own movie. So basically we’re like Bogie and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn . . . [Laughs] Also, I’d like to give a shout out to Melanie Lynskey, who stars along with us in But I’m a Cheerleader and is also in Clea’s film.
Clea: I met her at the KISS concert at Dodger’s stadium.Natasha: Right, because she and I were in Detroit Rock City. And of course now she and Clea are best friends for life. But that’s just to say: Melanie was such a huge part of what became our triangle in But I’m a Cheerleader, and it would be very different without her. Not to mention RuPaul, a stroke of casting genius, and Bud Cort, who has been one of my personal obsessions ever since Brewster McCloud. I was a self-taught movie obsessive and couldn’t believe I was working with these people.
What are your memories of working with them?
Natasha: I remember that Bud Cort gave me this book. I can’t remember what it’s called. Something like Broken Hollywood—not Kenneth Anger, but something along those lines. And I thought, this guy really gets me. We’re still friends! We see each other at the local eastside diner in LA, and he still calls me “Poodle” like he does in the movie. He recently gave me a poodle necklace from a thrift store.
Clea, you mentioned wanting Graham to be a kind of girl you hadn’t seen on-screen before. What were you seeing at the time, in terms of queer cinema?
Clea: There was The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, which I was obsessed with, and All over Me, which had elements I connected with. I was also just watching girls who I wished were gay but weren’t. Why is the girl falling in love with him? Why isn’t she falling in the love with the girl like me?Natasha: It’s easier to contextualize now, but I think Clea was doing something that folds into a specific lineage in cinema. A Linda-Manz-in-Out-of-the-Blue type. We would always talk about how we should do a remake of Midnight Cowboy—Clea would be Jon Voight, always in her jean jacket, and I would be Ratso Rizzo, coughing and smoking, shuffling next to her. I always saw Clea, especially then, as this Steve McQueen figure. At that time, there weren’t James Dean–type rebels who were women; they didn’t have the bite that Clea naturally possesses. But there’s been a real shift. Pariah is actually a great contemporary movie that falls into this canon.
Twenty years on, the film continues to resonate with so many people. What was the initial reception like?
Natasha: I’ll never forget Sundance . . . which happens to be in Utah, a very rigid place, but I remember these girls came up to us after seeing it and they were crying and saying they’d never seen a movie like this and that it was a completely life-changing experience. I was so struck by that, and twenty years later, Clea and I continue to have the privilege of that very humbling experience. That was something that stuck in my mind—that it was actually helping people and making them feel less alone in this world, which is a huge thing for a film to do.
The movie originally got an NC-17 rating, and it was not well-received. Did people love Douglas Sirk when he was putting out his films? I’m not sure. But that’s just to say that Jamie was having an experience selling this film that was being considered an NC-17 dud, and yet here it was resonating so intensely with people. She had to fight to have an R rating, even though there wasn’t even anything salacious in it. The story she always tells is that she filmed the sex scene with Clea and me in the dark because we were prudes and wanted to keep our nightgowns on.
Clea: You know what it was . . . it was the scene where you were masturbating in the office and there was a cowboy shot of you where you could see your hand on your area. That’s the thing that gave it the NC-17. She had to cut to a tighter shot where you couldn’t see your hand.
Natasha: I thought the board decided that, because we were in the dark during our scene together, there must have been, like, full penetration happening. But when you watch it, it’s me and Clea in full fifties pink nightgowns just kissing. So that tells you a lot about the lack of equality in cinema. Last Tango in Paris had been out for almost thirty years at that point. It felt very biased.Clea: I recently watched Basic Instinct. Sex scenes from the nineties are so graphic! Our movie was so tame, and who knows what would have happened if Natasha and I weren’t shy. I think society at that time, and even still today, is terrified of female sexuality and female pleasure that doesn’t revolve around a man.
Would you consider the film a cult classic?
Natasha: I like to think of all my films as cult classics [laughs]. At the Castro screening, there was a drag preshow where all the drag queens were dressed up like the characters in the movie. That’s definitely in the cult realm.
Clea: I’m so bummed I missed that screening.
Natasha: It was very moving because it became the kind of thing where people were talking along with the movie and shouting out lines. Young people are rediscovering the movie all the time, and it’s taken on this great extended life of its own.
But it’s also worth noting the horrific other side of the coin, and how crazy-making it is that the film continues to feel relevant. You could say that’s the problem with the movie: every time there’s a Mike Pence in office, it takes on a fresh relevance. One would hope that the tone of it is such that you can’t imagine anything more ridiculous than this terrible idea of changing people’s core identity and humanity, and yet here we are, where questions of baseline equality are still up for grabs. It’s a never-ending cycle where people are hellbent on maintaining injustice. So the movie is not just this frothy, campy farce. It still feels devastating and prescient.
Now that you’ve both gone on to do so much great work, both as actors and behind the camera, do you still consider But I’m a Cheerleader a touchstone in your careers?
Clea: I definitely do. And as I make more movies and write more things, I think about what I want to put out into the world—movies that can fill a void for people give me a reason to keep doing it. I want to tell stories that are going to have an impact and mean something.Natasha: I would echo that by saying I’m forever trying to capture some spirit of the seventies, like a female-centered Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, where it’s me and Clea driving around San Francisco, finding scripts in the backseat and just being like, “Let’s make these movies, call Melanie Lynskey, get the team together!,” then going to set and telling the truth. I feel that sense of inspiration continues to be a driving force in the things I create.
But I’m a Cheerleader is playing on the Criterion Channel now through July 31, 2020.