“You’ll forgive me for saying this. But only a gay periodical in Dallas would publish an automobile guide. However, I loathe cars and have plenty of evil things to say,” Lypsinka cackles about the topic at hand.
When it comes to cars, John Epperson — the architect behind the enchanting, supernatural seductress, Lypsinka — knows what he’s talking about.
Growing up in a small town in Mississippi, at 14 Epperson had his learner’s permit, could change his own oil and got busted by his parents for sneaking into a drive-in movie to catch "The Killing of Sister George," which, at that time, was an X-rated feature. But the drive-in was where he got to see many of his favorite films ("Myra Breckenridge," "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," "Rosemary’s Baby," "A Clockwork Orange").
Cinema is the essence of Lypsinka.
Epperson is a undeniable film historian who scholarly discourses about early RKO movies to glam-a-thon campy delights like "Showgirls."
He avoids nearly every television program (“I don’t watch anything with commercials, except for 'Saturday Night Live.'”), but his immersion in all-things-Hollywood is impressive.
And in Lypsinka’s imaginary world, her car’s vanity mirror is bathed with klieg lights.
Epperson admits that he has mixed emotions about cars. When he lived with his family in Mississippi, he had to depend a car in order to get around.
“But I’m totally self-absorbed. And taking care of a car is like taking care of a child,” he complains. “I even resent having to put gas in the tank.”
When he decided to move from away home to pursue a career in entertainment, he knew it meant relocating to either L.A. or New York.
“So I chose New York because you don’t need car. And it’s an enormous relief not to have one,” he huffs.
But traveling is a big part of Lypsinka’s life. Currently, she’s touring her latest show, "Lypsinka: The Boxed Set," around the country. For this interview, Lypsinka is on the phone in Los Angeles.
“And when I’m in L.A., I rent a car,” she says. “If I ever lived here, I don’t think I’d buy one — I’d rent one because then, if the thing breaks down, you’re not responsible for it. You can call the rental company and say, ‘The thing fell apart. Get me another one!’”
The drag performer (“I find the use of the term ‘drag queen’ derogatory — like ‘nigger’ or ‘faggot.’ So ‘drag performer’ sounds more politically correct, if you don’t mind”) is currently tooling around in a rented, silver Buick Regal.
“My friends from Houston came to visit me and laughed at my car. I didn’t pick it myself. I’m just happy that it has power windows, air conditioning, a CD player and a tape player,” he says. “However, I will not drive a little Geo Metro — that little tin can on wheels — it just feels too dangerous.”
When she’s motoring in her rental, she relishes exploring country roads with the stereo on full-blast cranking out early Barbra Streisand hits.
“So you see, like everything else in life, I’m a contradiction. And I have contradictory feelings about cars,” she admits.
She knows that a guy can look like a supreme dream machine if he’s in the right car.
“I’ve made friends with Morrissey, the singer. And he drove up here the other day in a black BMW convertible. And I must say he looked very dashing. He has black hair, and I’m into color coordination. The black hair matched the car and probably matched his mood. He looked great in that car,” Lypsinka swoons.
And when it comes to vintage cars, Lypsinka reaches into her Obscure Film Knowledge file and whips out her grease-monkey smarts.
When choosing a mechanic, she looks for a man who resembles Catherine Deneuve’s dreamboat mechanic in "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964).
Of course, when hiring a chauffeur she prefers the Max von Mayerling-type (played by Erich von Stroheim in "Sunset Boulevard").
“Norma Desmond’s leopard skin-lined car was an Isotta Fraschini. ‘Cost me $28,000. All handmade,’” she mimics with vampy Gloria Swanson-like precision. “Max gets that old bus off its blocks, and they go to Paramount Studios who want to rent it for a Bing Crosby road movie. She drives up to the gate, and she goes ‘Jonesy! You there, Jonesy.’ I also think Isotta Fraschini would make for a great drag name.”
All this talk of vintage cars leads Lypsinka on a dissertation about a classic Bugatti connected to the first lady of modern dance, Isadora Duncan.
“Vanessa Redgrave starred in the film version of Isadora's life. Her performance is unbelievable — the best thing she ever did. Anyway, in the movie she keeps seeing this sexy guy driving a Bugatti — she doesn’t know his name Every time she sees him drive by, she screams, ‘Bugatti!’ Finally she meets him at a party, and she gets in his Bugatti and they drive away. And her scarf, which she’s famous for, her long scarf gets caught in spokes of the wheels and chokes her to death.”
As for Lypsinka’s driving skills, she claims she’s an expert driver and especially talented parallel parker.
“I’m also a musician. I worked at American Ballet Theaters and was a rehearsal pianist for 13 years before my career took off. Musicians are very mathematical, and parking is basically geometry. Once you’ve figured it out, it’s just done like a mathematical equation,” she boasts.
What’s inside Lypsinka’s glovebox?
“A tube of Chanel lipstick, insurance papers, a Valium and a gun!” she shrills.
And if she was in a drag race, she imagines she’d be decked out in some "Fast and Furious" ensemble, à la Thierry Mugler.
“Thierry’s usually dressed in clothes that look like racing-car clothes. And since he’s designed stuff for me before, I think I would go to him and have something custom-made,” she says.
Before she finishes the interview, Lypsinka wants to make sure she hasn’t offended any readers with her jabs at the automobile industry.
“I certainly don’t want to stop any car lovers from coming to my show if I ever make it to Dallas. And I know that if I ever get there, I’m going to want to rent a really nice car.”
When NBA superstar John Amaechi announced he was gay, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban got in the game.
Cubes told the Fort Worth-Star Telegram that any basketball player who comes out in 2007 should do so — because if they did, they’d able to cash in. And the idiot who scoffs at gay b-ballers had better watch their back.
Then retired player Tim Hardaway kept it real — really homophobic.
With shocking candor, Hardaway told a Miami radio interviewer that he “hates” gay people. And before you could scream, “Michael Richards in rehab!” Hardaway delivered a half-assed apology.
When asked about Hardaway, Cuban told The Dallas Morning News, “What the hell was he thinking?”
Cuban is fairly accessible via e-mail. Earlier this week, I dispatched four questions. Cuban responded in less than five minutes.
Play devil’s advocate: As a modern-thinking team owner, name one thing Tim Hardaway could start doing to save himself.
CUBAN: Donate 10 hours a week for a year to a local community center or organization that focuses on gay and lesbian issues.
Your comments about urging pro basketballers to come out echoed around the world. Have you completely ignored any negative feedback? Have you heard any rumblings of discomfort from corporate sponsors or fans?
CUBAN: I heard from a couple weirdoes that called me a “sissy” and some other choice names. But so what? I’ve heard worse.
Without naming names, how good is your gaydar? Can you say whether or not any Mavs players are or have been gay — but just not out?
CUBAN: [My gaydar is] not as good as it used to be when I would go dancing with friends at The Village Station on Wednesday nights. So I don’t know if we have had any gay or bi players.
With you’re reaction to Hardaway’s comments, you’ve officially been knighted as a hero to the gay community. Any chance the Mavs — or at least the ManiAACs [the Mav’s corpulent all-male dance team] — will be a presence at Dallas’ gay pride weekend: Sept. 23, 2007?
CUBAN: I don’t know if we've been asked. Anything is possible.
Next home game: The Dallas Mavericks play the Miami Heat Feb. 22 at 8:30 p.m. at the American Airlines Center, 2500 Victory Ave. Tickets start at $9. Mavs.com
ALEXIS — THE ARQUETTE DYNASTY'S GAY STAR: Pioneering out actor recalls first role as underage MTV darling caught in a tornado of cocaine and pedophilia; Describes balancing Hollywood royalty and being a gay queen
BY DANIEL KUSNER
From the Baldwins to the Zappas, nepotism and Hollywood go together like plagues and locusts.
Check out the Arquette line, which extends across three generations.
Clifford Arquette was a vaudevillian-raised comedian who regularly appeared on Jack Paar’s “The Tonight Show.”
Clifford’s son Lewis acted in “Waiting for Guffman” and” “The China Syndrome.” Lewis also produced a litter of talent: Rosanna (“Desperately Seeking Susan”), Patricia (“Flirting with Disaster,” “Lost Highway”) David (“Johns,” “Scream”) and Richmond (“Seven.”)
But Lewis' son Alexis (birth name: Robert) is the dynasty’s successor who brings queer roles to the silver screen.
His newest — the gay romantic comedy “I Think I Do” — premieres tonight at the USA Film Festival.
Alexis’ path to leading-man status is laced with stardust. His first on-camera gig seems like it was lifted from the teenage-wasteland novel “Less Than Zero.”
The role was for the music video “She’s a Beauty,” the 1983 hit song by The Tubes.
At the time, Toto’s 1982 hit “Rosanna” — which is named after Alexis’ sister — was climbing the charts. Rosanna heard that The Tubes needed a young boy for a video. So she brought Alexis to the casting call.
“And I got the part. I was 11 years old. I’m the little kid in the car that goes around the amusement park ride while sitting in some S&M lady’s lap. That’s why I’m so distorted,” Arquette laughs.
“I remember Rosanna being on set with me. So was the girl Jenny, who inspired Tommy Tutone’s song ‘867-5309/Jenny.’ When they met, they squealed with laughter because they both had trendy radio hits named after them. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is a pretty big moment — when Jenny meets Rosanna,” he continues.
“But that video shoot was the first time I saw anybody do cocaine. It was the chick who’s dressed up like the mermaid in The Tubes video. She was with the makeup crew, and they were all just snorting rails.
“They did a lot of cocaine during that shoot — right in front of me, very boldly. And the choreographer — or ‘ballet dancer’ — was hitting on me. Again, I was only 11 years old,” he says.
Was the choreographer a man or a woman?
“He was a man. And he kept ‘fluffing’ himself right in front of me. He’d do a little pirouette and then, like, grab himself. He also kept trying to dance me into a corner while they were waiting to get the next shot,” Alexis remembers.
That sounds like an intense memory to process.
“You’re right. But you know what? I was such a cool kid that I was just, like, whatever. I always pretended that I’d seen it all. I’d just slyly turn my head away. I think a lot of kids do that,” he says.
Maybe exposure to haute dissipation at a tender age enabled Arquette's hardworking career.
After The Tubes video, Alexis made his first gender-bending role.
He had a bit part in the 1986 Bette Midler and Richard Dryfuss vehicle “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” — as one of the young character Max’s flamboyant friends.
But at the age of 17, Alexis’ star brightened considerably when he landed a role in the excellent but depressing period-piece “Last Exit to Brooklyn.”
He played Georgette, a sassy drug-fueled transvestite hooker who chases rough trade.
While Patricia Arquette was considering the film's lead role of Tralala — a streetwalking tough who’s brutally gang-raped — Alexis struck up a conversation with director Uli Edel.
“I told him that I read the book in college and that I loved the role of Georgette. We talked about the script adaptation, which I thought made Georgette seem like a victim. I thought Georgette was cooler than that. She was someone people would want to sit in a circle and listen to. The next day, he called and asked if I’d like to read for the part. Patricia went home [the role went to Jennifer Jason Leigh]. But I stayed and got the job,” he says.
Was Arquette worried that a gay role would pigeonhole his career thereby making it tough to land mainstream work?
“When ‘Last Exit’ came out, there was a buzz about me. And that was good. People assumed that I was straight because they thought, ‘Wow. A straight actor playing this gay role?’
“This was 1987, and ACT-UP was huge. People were coming out left and right. And somebody asked me about my sexuality. I felt it was important — not that I’m a gay role model or that I wave a flag. But I just wanted to be honest.
"So I was honest.
"But once they know you’re gay, they’re afraid to let you play anything but that,” he says.
Arquette didn’t have to worry about securing work. At the age of 28, he says he’s appeared in, “Including the crappy ones? Probably 30 or 40 films.”
His credits include “Of Mice and Men” with John Malkovich, “Grief,” “Threesome,” “Frisk,” “The Wedding Singer” and “Pulp Fiction.”
Has his last name helped his career?
“People don’t understand. They think that the Arquettes are all joined at the hip.
“David and I had the same agency. At a meeting, they were talking about my career. But since they just cast David in the second biggest movie of the winter, somehow that meant they did something for me. Which is total crap.
“I know for a fact that I’ve never gotten a job because my of siblings. I mean, who gets hired because of their sibling? Who wants to work for a director that hires somebody just because you’re Corey Feldman’s little brother?
“It hasn’t worked for Bruce Willis’ brother or for Frank Stallone,” he says.
Weren’t Rosanna and Alexis both in “Pulp Fiction?”
“I knew Quentin Tarantino because I met with him for ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ And I stupidly didn’t show up to my callback,” he admits. “It was for role of the cop who gets his ear cut off. I was young and stupid. A friend of mine read the script and told me it was shit.’
“And I listened to my friend. Don’t ever listen to people.
“When ‘Pulp Fiction’ came around, Quentin said, ‘Come on. I really wanted you in the last one, and you weren’t there for me.’ So that’s how I got ‘Pulp Fiction.’”
Alexis also flexes his chops as the drag artist Eva Destruction.
In “Wigstock: The Movie,” Eva serves as the documentary’s roving commentator who interviews Joey Arias and Patricia Field boutique’s wigmaster.
Arquette says his sisters enjoy Eva’s drag performances. But he admits that drag — and even being gay — can be challenging for the Arquette clan.
“My family is very artistic and liberal. But Mom always hoped that I’d marry and have kids,” he says. “Patricia was a little upset that I didn’t tell her [that I was gay] first. At the time, I was 15 or 16. This was before I even acted on it. But it did set me apart from the rest of my family — in an alien kind of way.
“Years later, they felt like they hadn’t gotten to know me as well. And all of them sort of came at the same time and wanted to be a part of my life and know more about me.”
Arquette’s acting has earned “I Think I Do” critical acclaim — singling out his comic flexibility, “physical goofiness” as well as his “awesomely pendulous lower lip.”
His performance is being touted as his best since “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” But “I Think I Do” is more upbeat.
“It’s ’30s-styled screwball comedy with smart-and-quick dialogue. It’s about a group college students who were involved in little love triangles. Years later, two of them get married. And when they come back, all kinds of hijinks happen. It’s really sweet and cute. And it’s a gay movie without AIDS, without bashing. It’s light, which is rare for a gay film. It’s the gay movie you could take your nephew to,” he says.
He says already he’s wrapped 10 more films — including “Fools Gold,” which was filmed in Austin, AND “Love Kills” with Mario Van Peebles in which Arquette and Donovan Leitch play boyfriends.
But Arquette warns “Don’t go see ‘Children of The Corn: Part V’ just because I’m in it. I really respect the horror genre. And I always think that I can somehow can elevate these horror scripts with intelligent and outrageous campy humor. But I’ve had to fight for every funny line in horror movies.
“Humor and camp always wins in horror movies. ‘Carrie’ is one of my favorite movies. They were nominated for Oscars because they didn’t take themselves too seriously. They enjoyed the humor. You’ve gotta have gags and jokes in there. Otherwise, what are people in Harlem gonna scream at? They really enjoy their horror movies. And they want them to be funny.”
HOT CHRISTIAN MESS: So-called gay icon Tammy Faye goes on record as ‘disagreeing’ with gay community, insists Bible is against same-sex marriages
BY DANIEL KUSNER
In her memoir, “I Will Survive … And You Will, Too!” (Diane Pub Co, 2003. $14) Tammy Faye Messner offers T-shirt-like slogans about overcoming hardships.
These cutesy little tidbits are called “Tammy-isms,” which match her baby-voiced approach to life.
After a recent phone interview with the former Queen of the Electric Church, one Tammy-ism seemed to ring especially true: “People are like tea bags — if you want to find out what’s inside them, just drop them in hot water.”
Ever since the RuPaul-narrated documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” was released in 2000, Tammy Faye has become a queer icon by making appearances at a number of gay pride events.
In 2001, she charmed Dallasites in Lee Park following the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade.
Wearing a black military-style jacket with gold fringe and a bright red wig, Tammy Faye told a story about a rainstorm erupting while visiting Disney World. As the Disney employees handed out yellow waterproof jackets to everyone, Tammy Faye made a salient observation — race, gender, color and sexual identity were suddenly invisible.
“That’s how God sees us,” she told everyone in Lee Park. “God sees all of us as if we are in a yellow raincoat.”
Until recently, Tammy Faye had backed away from commenting on issues important to gays and lesbians, such as same-sex marriages. But "I Will Survive" might startle gay readers — especially those who heard her “little yellow raincoat” sermon.
In Chapter 47: “The Gay Community,” the First Lady of Televangelism recalls how she showed compassion by reaching out to a gay man dying of AIDS. After the PTL scandal erupted, it was gay men who first reached out to a financially and emotionally depressed Tammy Faye.
“They helped pay my bills while Roe was in prison,” she writes, noting that one gay fan gave her $10,000 — tax-free! “They sent me beautiful things — clothes, jewelry, flowers. They overwhelmed me with the love I no longer felt from the Christian community.”
She returned the kindness by ministering in gay churches and attending AIDS benefits. But Tammy Faye also writes that she doesn’t “even pretend to understand the gay lifestyle,” and when she discusses the Bible and sexuality that her gay friends “allow me to disagree with them.”
With 35 years of experience on live television, sermonizing and singing, Tammy Faye has her act down to a science.
When she’s not playing the tear-stained victim, it’s hard not be won over by her sparkly wit and spunky demeanor. But in a recent phone interview, she repeatedly flew into hysterics like the little girls from The Crucible — especially when it came to clarifying her beliefs on same-sex marriages and trying to figure out what her “disagreement” with gays and lesbians is all about.
“I don’t think there should be gay marriages. I think that marriage is between a husband and wife. I think the Bible decided that many years ago. I feel sorry for the gay people, but I think that there can never really be a marriage between gay people. That’s just my opinion and a billion other people’s,” she says.
Does the Bible actually say anything against marriages between people of the same gender?
“I just think that that is not how God meant it to be — as far as getting married. I know people who have lived together forever but they didn’t take it as far as getting married. They just lived together and loved each other and cared about each other,” she says.
As the interview continued, Tammy Faye shows her agitation by launching into a hyper-shrill response that almost seems rote. And she constantly repeats that she doesn’t want to “argue.” Instead of commenting further on gay marriages, she offers “You can read it in the Bible yourself, honey.”
Isn’t she a preacher? Isn’t it her job to proclaim the gospel?
“Well, what do you think?” she throws the question back into my lap.
I explain that I’m trying to figure out Tammy Faye’s message for gay people regarding salvation. Is her philosophy “love the sinner, hate the sin?” I ask.
“I don’t have a message. I tell them to read their Bibles and seek the Lord. That’s exactly what I tell them. And I’m not going any further on it,” she says.
Why does discussing this topic upset her so much?
“Because it’s all I ever get asked about,” she says.
Gay people have been asking her these questions?
“I’m not saying gay people — I’m asked by the straight people about this all the time,” she says. “I am trying to bring the gay world and the church world together. So that they love each other and care for each other and realize that the gay people are wonderful people and they should be allowed in the churches.”
Is it “gay sex” that she thinks is sinful?
“Listen, if it were me, I would never be gay because I’m a heterosexual. I don’t understand it at all. I think that the gay community and I… We have agreed to disagree. And everywhere I go, we talk about this. And they say, ‘Well, Tammy, that’s fair,’” she explains. “The gay community knows I have a disagreement. I got right on Larry King and I told him, 'The gay people and I have agreed to disagree. I am heterosexual. I do not understand the homosexual life. But I agree to disagree with them and I love them. And we’re going to work together.’”
When it comes to being gay, what is it that she doesn’t understand?
“Listen, this interview is over. And I’m sorry it didn’t go better than this,” she says before she hangs up the phone.
Tammy Faye was scheduled to bring her "cabaret show” to Dallas in mid-October, but those plans have been scrapped because she’s planning to bring “Tammy’s House Party” back as a daytime talk show in 2004.
In the meantime — since these questions are constantly haunting her — maybe she can come up with a more poignant response in reconciling her fundamentalist beliefs with the gay community.
Because she’s returning to daytime TV, Tammy Faye cancelled her “cabaret show” that was scheduled to stop in Dallas on Oct. 11.
BY DANIEL KUSNER
On March 15, 1991, Dr. Nick Bellos saw his first patient living with HIV. The gentleman had an ulcer on his lower extremity. After a biopsy, Bellos began treating his first case of Kaposi's sarcoma.
He refers to the early ’90s as “the dark ages — when we had no drugs. Now we have 24 licensed drugs,” Bellows explains.
In 2005, he opened a 26,000 square foot practice on Lemmon Avenue that contains a clinic, a laboratory, a pharmacy and clinical trials wing. Bellos oversees 26 employees who treat more than 2,800 patients, and Bellos is currently accepting new patients.
“We have a rule. I have to see each patient at least once a year,” he explains.
If patients are coming in for routine viral load and T-cell results, they can see a midlevel provider.
“But if they want to see me, they see me,” he says. “And the biggest thing I’ve learned is to listen to patients’ concerns — if they’re worried about how they look or how they feel. If they’re concerned about their lipids. If they want to talk about their breakup with their boyfriend. If their meds are causing erectile dysfunction …”
About 90 percent of his practice is focused on HIV primary care.
“I’ve been doing this since day one. When I was a medicine resident, we couldn’t get nursing for HIV-impacted patients. We had to give total care, which included bathing and feeding. Because the nurses wouldn’t do it,” Bellos remembers.
But times have changed.
“Now HIV is a chronic manageable illness. But there’s an art to the management,” he explains.
Some of his artistry comes second nature.
“Like aggressively treating patients with multiple opportunistic infections and getting them through those illnesses … It’s interesting to see these kids who are coming out now. They’ve never had that experience — never had that experience when we had no drugs,” Bellos says.
BY DANIEL KUSNER
You almost expect Judge David Young to slam down his gavel and yell, “Listen, Mary!”
His syndicated courtroom show premieres Monday on KDFI. And it’s built on the same platform as Judge Judy’s.
“I admit, there’s a little Judy in there. But I’m more compassionate than she is,” Young said earlier this week in a telephone interview. “A lot of these programs show judges yelling for yelling’s sake. Instead of pulling people apart, I’m hoping to bring them together.”
Young came to national attention in 2005 during the trial of two America West airline pilots, whom he sentenced to jail time for attempting to operate a plane while intoxicated.
His history of being tough on addiction garnered him three awards from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Young attended Tulane University and the Miami School of Law. He also served as Assistant State Attorney in Miami-Dade County under Janet Reno. He lives in Miami with Scott Bernstein, a his partner of 12 years who also happens to be a judge.
“I go to Dallas every year,” Young says. “My partner’s cousin sits on the Dallas board of DIFFA. She had a daughter who died of AIDS. And last year I bought a jacket.”
During his 26-episode inaugural season, some of the small claims cases Young ruled on include a bi-racial lesbian couple suing their landlord for a security deposit, a gay rap group suing a promoter over contract dispute and dog owners suing veterinarian for poor care.
Since we had the judge on the phone, we put the diva to the test:
Some cases have surfaced where people are getting arrested for not disclosing their HIV status.
David Young: Those cases could be tried as attempted murder. But I would look at contributory negligence.
Are people taking proper precautions?
Have they asked?
Have they been tested?
Have they thoroughly investigated the situation?
Or are they partially liable for contracting the disease?
It happened in my family. My cousin died of AIDS. She had four sexual partners in her entire life. The second guy she ever slept with was an intravenous drug user. She had no idea about it. They were a couple, and they had unsafe sex. And lo and behold, she got HIV and got AIDS.
She was an upper middleclass Jewish girl. She was engaged and she gave it to her fiancé, who is thankfully still living.
People have to take personal responsibility for their actions. And if they don’t, shame on them.
I know at least two people who were in long-term — in what the other partner supposed was a — monogamous relationships. And they contracted HIV.
And in that situation, I think the law would definitely apply. But in a casual sex situation, if you’re not protected, you’re just an idiot. And you have a death wish.
TUNE IN: “Judge David Young” begins airing Sept 10 at 1 p.m. KDFI.
STIPE’S SECOND COMING: R.E.M. singer follows passion to bring stories to the screen that ‘don’t suck’
BY DANIEL KUSNER
LOS ANGELES — Michael Stipe waits to enter a conference room while CNN cameras follow him for “A Day in the Life of a Film Producer” profile.
The R.E.M. singer is promoting his latest project, “Saved!” an independent film about Christian teens that opens today in theaters across the country.
I tap Stipe on the shoulder and tell him that I brought him a gift. I hand him a rainbow-colored bracelet, and stitched down the middle are the initials for “What Would Jesus Do?”
He slides it on his wrist and says, “Courtney Love gave me one that had WWMD written on it. She said it stood for ‘What Would Michael Do?’”
I ask him, “Does that mean you’re the new messiah?”
Stipe looks at me with exasperation.
I add, “Was Courtney’s bracelet in gay-pride colors?”
Stipe laughs and turns on his heel to follow the CNN producer to another room.
Hardly the anticipated savior, Stipe is a fascinating and prolific cultural figure. While singing for R.E.M. for 24 years, he’s cultivated the persona of Mysterious Rock God better than Jim Morrison and Prince.
Through his sometimes-mumbled articulation, Stipe will ultimately be recognized as one of rock’s most talented lyricists. For decades, R.E.M. fans have banged their heads against stereos trying to decipher his allegorical and rhythmic verses.
When he came out as queer in a 2001 Time magazine interview, the news sent no shockwaves through the media. Stipe explained that he was pressured — and “being made to be a coward” about his sexuality.
Instead of emerging as the gay-rights champion, Stipe came off more like a reluctant gay hero, which is understandable.
Like his lyrics, much of Stipe’s allure is about dropping small clues to unravel a sphinx.
Coming out wasn’t achieved entirely on Stipe’s terms.
In 2000, young author-poet Douglas A. Martin penned “Outline of My Lover,” a passionate story based on his six-year relationship with Stipe, which ended in a painful breakup.
When the book was released, Martin — still bitter — said in interviews that he resented the need to be quiet about his relationship with the famous, then-closeted rocker. So when the enigmatic singer finally confirmed that he preferred the company of men, some would argue that part of Stipe’s sexy riddle lost its charm.
But rock stars were never meant to age gracefully. The lyric “Hope I die before I get old” comes to mind.
Now in his mid-40s, Stipe’s role as a film producer seems more fitting than watching him jump around stadiums like Michigan J. Frog. And the films he’s helped bring to the screen (“American Movie,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Being John Malkovich” and “Saved!”) are infinitely more refreshing than R.E.M.’s recent albums.
So why after 20 years did Stipe pick Hollywood as an additional career?
“It picked me,” he says. “I’m a huge music fan. I was drawn to music out of a very naive 15-year-old desire to make it myself. I was 27 when I started my first film production company with the desire that I wanted to make movies that didn’t suck. That has been my personal mandate ever since. And without sounding arrogant, I think I’ve got a pretty good track record.”
Bringing “Saved!” to fruition was a long and arduous path for Stipe and coproducer Sandy Stern — the team that produced the wildly imaginative “Being John Malkovich.”
Even with a stellar cast that included Cameron Diaz, getting that oddball film off the ground was no small task — especially with then first-time director Spike Jones helming the project.
Although “Malkovich” was a box-office hit and received three Academy Award nominations (including best director), Stipe says getting investors interested in “Saved!” was a hellish ride.
“This film was our problem child,” Stipe says.
Written and directed by Brian Dannelly, “Saved!” is an ensemble comedy that centers on Mary (Jena Malone), a seemingly perfect Christian high schooler with the seemingly perfect figure-skating boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust). When Dean tells Mary that he might be gay, she attempts to “save” him by sacrificing her virginity.
But when Dean’s parents find his copy of Honcho magazine (featuring Dallas’ Chris Steele on the cover), he’s sent to Mercy House for “degayification.”
To her horror, Mary ends up pregnant and begins to question everything she’s believed in — especially when her group of upstanding Christian friends turn against her.
“Saved!” combines religion, sexuality, comedy and high school. Stipe saw the film’s potential when he read the script three-and-a-half years ago. And his own past might explain why the story resonated with him.
“I come from a very religious family. Going all the way back to my great- great-great-great-grandfathers. They were all ministers. My father kicked the traces of preachers in his line by joining to the Army. And I became a pop star,” Stipe says. “But like so many other people, I was an outsider in high school. I’ve read thousands of scripts, but I had never read a coming-of-age story like ‘Saved!’ which is about people who feel like outsiders.”
Stipe’s foremost concern was the cast.
“I refused to make a Hollywood film that was set in high school with 26-year-old actors playing 17 year olds. I just would not produce that. You see enough of that, and I find it intolerable,” he says.
With the exception of teenybopper Mandy Moore (who was an inspired last-minute addition), the ensemble cast was preselected long before the production schedule was booked.
In 2002, the cast and crew were only four days away from shooting “Saved!” in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Sets were built. Costumes were pulled. And all the actors had cleared their schedules for production.
“Suddenly, the financing fell apart. We were already on location, and the film had to be shut down,” Stipe remembers. “And we had this limited window of time for these kids to still be kids. We couldn’t regroup two years later, so there was a ticking clock.”
Five months later, Stipe and Stern were able to secure financing, and the production moved to Vancouver for a 28-day shoot.
As a celebrity producer, Stipe was able to pull some strings in the music biz for the soundtrack — even getting Brian Wilson to authorize the rights for “God Only Knows” to be revamped by Mandy Moore.
“One of the advantages of being an artist-producer is the trust factor of working with other artists,” Stipe says.
Getting the rights to a Beach Boys song is one thing. Getting the trust of Christian bands was impossible.
The prom scene in “Saved!” was to include a performance by a popular Christian rock group. But when the band’s management heard “Saved!” was a satire about teen spirituality, they pulled out. Attempts to get a popular Christian replacement act proved fruitless.
Jerry Falwell, who saw only a trailer, has blasted “Saved!” as a “hateful, politically correct movie” that “ridicules Christians.”
With faith-inspired films like “Passion of the Christ” and the rerelease of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” Stipe’s film seems to be in the right place at the right time. Ultimately, Stipe hopes that “Saved!” will win over the Christian conservatives.
“Any controversy may or may not help the film. Personally, I don’t see anything controversial or subversive about the film at all,” Stipe says. “I feel that anyone who is secure enough in their faith and has a sense of humor will not be offended.”