In ’99, I spoke with then-badass-teen Jessica Campbell, who played Tammy Metzler — a Ross Perot-like lesbian in the holds-up-very-well comedy "Election."
Campbell's unexpected death at 38 was just announced.
Depicting an adolescent dyke
Actress Jessica Campbell on the challenges of playing a thoughtful and sensitive teenage lesbian in Election
By DANIEL KUSNER
An enormous number of recently released films depict the lives of high schoolers: Varsity Blues, Cruel Intentions, She's All That, Go, Jawbreaker, Rushmore, etc.
But Election, starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, has one character that'll leave queer moviegoers thrilled when leaving the theater.
Jessica Campbell plays Tammy Metzler, a rebellious teenager who challenges her brother in the race for school president when she finds out he's dating her ex-girlfriend.
Campbell, who was only 14 years old when she accepted the role, says she was uneasy about playing an adolescent dyke at first.
"I didn't know if I could do it. Because it was so beyond anything I've ever done — especially the whole lesbian thing," she says. "I live in a neighborhood where it isn't completely okay yet if you're gay. So even just to play a gay person kind of scared me."
Playing a lesbian became an easier decision when Campbell realized that her's was the most honorable character in the film.
"Once I read through the script, I realized that she was really the most stable, thoughtful, sensitve person in the whole thing. She's the closest one to a good person. So that made it okay," says Campbell.
Election is based on a novel by Tom Perrotta.
The story was inspired by two events: the 1992 Presidential Election campaign and an incident where a conservative high school principal in the South invalidated a prom-queen election because the winner was pregnant.
Perrotta found the 1992 election intriguing because of third-party candidate Ross Perot — a "wild card" who gained attention by attacking the entire system as fraudulent. So Perrotta evoked a similar outsider, third-party candidacy with the lesbian character Tammy.
Campbell says that her personality is altogether different from the rebellious Tammy — another factor that made the part challenging.
In one scene, the candidates deliver speeches.
When it's Tammy's turn, she asks the audience of students, "Who cares about this stupid election?"
"In reality, I'm really not that kind of person at all — I try to follow the rules," says Campbell. "I'm kind of a goody two-shoes. So just the thought of standing up and making that kind of speech in front of teachers and other peers was completely different from the kind of person I am."
Campbell got her start when she began taking acting classes in the second grade.
She quickly won the attention of a talent agent in her hometown of St. Louis and was cast in the lead role of the telefilm In the Best Interest of the Children, starring opposite Sarah Jessica Parker and Sally Struthers.
When asked what her family thought about her portraying a somewhat befuddled lesbian, Campbell says her mom encouraged her to accept the role.
"She was really excited about it. She really didn't care that the character was a lesbian; she was just worried about how I would take it," says Campbell. "My mom said something like, 'It would be good to do this. But if you're uncomfortable with it or feel like you may regret it later, then don't do it.'"
When her character Tammy first graces the screen, she's in a very intimate moment with her girlfriend, Lisa.
Director Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth) wanted to make sure the scene came across just right.
"Actually Frankie [Ingrassia, who played Lisa] and I were stressing out about it. Because they saved it for the very last scene to film. We were kind of freaking out when Alexander posed us in this really close position. But after the first scene, we got over it. And it really wasn't much more than hanging out with my cousin or doing something like that," she explains. "It took a lot of takes because Alexander was like, 'More tender. More loving. I'm not convinced.' It wasn't until the fifth or sixth take that he finally decided that we got the right feeling. It took a while."
Campbell admits that, at first, she was worried her classmates would harass her about playing a lesbian. She says she only has one gay friend, but many of her friends are bisexual.
Playing a lesbian, however, has actually made her more appealing to the boys at her school, she says.
"I haven't been getting teased at all. In fact, the guys — and this is kind of sick — the guys all get off on it," Campbell laughs. "They're like, 'Oh, my God! You kissed a girl?' I'm getting more attention from guys now than I ever have in the past. I can't believe I was ever nervous about it."
Jessica Campbell's "Election" screen partner — actress Frankie Ingrassia (who plays Lisa) — let me know that a Jessica Campbell Memorial GoFundMe is up to help Jessica's 10-year-old son, Oliver.