If you were a fan of edgy, youth-driven literature in the 1990s, you may remember books like Sarah or The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things by an author named JT LeRoy. Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy quickly became a literary sensation. But his story, like many stories that make it to film, is lovingly filled with both fantasy and fraud.
JT LeRoy was the penname for the talented author Laura Albert (played effervescently by Laura Dern in the movie). But Albert so loved her creation, much like Pinocchio, she wanted JT to be a real boy. Albert would regularly speak to interested parties on the phone as JT, using a deeper voice and Southern accent. But when she met the 19-year-old androgynous Savannah Knoop (superbly executed by Kristen Stewart), Albert convinced Knoop to begin doing photo shoots and make public appearances as JT. The new film JT LeRoy explores this true story that blurs the lines between art, authenticity, and the joy of making stuff up.
Director Justin Kelly wrote the screenplay with Savannah Knoop, based on her memoir Girl, Boy, Girl: How I became JT LeRoy.Both Kelly and Knoop spoke with me about making this incredibly personal film about a fictional character that lived larger than most people do in real life.
Kelly and Knoop started working on the screenplay back in 2009. “It started with an outline that was very long,” says Kelly. “Even though the memoir isn’t crazy-long, there’s still enough in it to make an eight-hour miniseries,” he says.
Both writers said they had to really pare down the events in Knoop’s memoir. For example, several photo shoots of JT could be combined into one for the movie, as well as JT meeting celebrities.
“It was about crystalizing that kind of stuff,” says Knoop, adding, “It’s such a compressed form and visual form, so we really tried to dig into the character and emotional trajectory. Sometimes we had to let logistics go.”
It took about eight years, but they were able to finesse the story into a character-driven piece about Laura Albert and Savannah Knoop that explores not only the question of how they pulled off the creation of a fake person, but also tries to answer why they did it in the first place.
Knoop says that seeing an actress play her on the big screen helped her better understand her own relationship to the fictional JT LeRoy.
“It’s wild,” says Knoop. “And it was kind of illuminating. Kristen is such an amazing performer – a lot of her acting is through her body. I had never seen archival footage of JT until that documentary Author: The JT Leroy Storycame out, but it was illuminating for me to see Kristen embody these two characters [Savanah Knoop and JT LeRoy] and see how separate they were, in fact. In the book I get at this feeling that where things get really blurred is after many years of playing JT and you’re not sure what’s yours and what’s theirs. That bleed gets messy. But seeing the film, it was just so clear that I was playing a role to the best of my ability and JT was not me.”
While Knoop can clearly see nowthat she is not JT, the film depicts a power struggle between Savannah and Laura – both feel ownership of this highly sought after “author.” Fame, sex and money are showered onto JT when Savannah inhabits him and Laura grows resentful and jealous. Actresses Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart feast on this dynamic and lose themselves completely in the intoxicating fantasy that is JT Leroy.
In the film, the lure of becoming someone else really resonates in a powerful way, perhaps, according to Knoop, “Because we live in a post-truth era. This story happened pre-social media, people didn’t even have smart phones. I remember getting a flip phone about half way through this journey. It encapsulates these feelings about having multiple personas.”
Most of us may not think we have multiple personas, but how many of us can say that our social media profiles are our authentic selves? And maybe the point of having a social media profile is to simply create a better, more enticing version of ourselves? We’re addicted to likes and clicks.
But maybe as filmgoers, we also enjoy the schadenfreude of people getting knocked off their high horses.
“In film and art,” says Kelly, “there’s always these organic zeitgeist-y things that happen. Last year’s movie Can You Ever Forgive Me, the Fyre Fest, the Theranos hoax – these are all stories people are really interested in. People want to know what happened.”
“This is the right time for the film to come out,” says Knoop, “because we’re in a place that is post-truth andpost-gender. The fixation is not on a person’s genitals, but we’ve accepted that a person can be non-binary and that was part of JT’s persona and partly why he was always in disguise. Laura and I were always saying, ‘We could be anybody!’”
But all con games – even literary ones – must come to an end. Knoop says she had mixed feelings when a New York Times article exposed the lies behind their story.
“JT,” says Knoop, “did become a sort of person in your life. And Laura and I and JT were sharing my body, all of us, sharing that character and when that unveiling happened in the Times, what had propelled us all forward together was gone. There was mourning but also some relief because at one point towards the end I thought, ‘Well, I guess I’m just going to do this for the rest of my life.’ The end was clarified explicitly and there was no way to go back.”
For Kelly, the biggest challenge in writing the screenplay for JT LeRoycame as the writers searched for the film’s emotional through-line.
“So much of the stuff you think is the most important parts of the screenplay, you end up cutting and it’s hard to remember that. In drafts one through the shooting draft, we cut about 80% of the information. The biggest challenge was to tell the story without the information being expository while trying to find the heart of the story and make it a character piece. Perseverance, lots of rewrites, showing it to friends and collaborators, hearing Laura [Dern] and Kristen’s [Stewart] ideas – it was a big reminder to stick to the emotions and worry less about the information.”
JT Leroy opens in theaters April 26.