Some called it a horrid hoax, others an outrageous scam, but the motivations behind the story of JT LeRoy — a popular literary figure from the late '90s who was revealed to not actually exist — have never been clear enough for either of those dubious descriptors. We may never know exactly why writer Laura Albert made up the personna. Was it a calculated plan to dupe people for the fun of it or for the fame she felt she'd never achieve on her own or, a crazy genius attempt to flesh out the tortured protagonist/author who brought her darkly poetic and achingly personal writing quite literally to life? Her narratives as JT LeRoy explored homelessness, sex work, child abuse, heroin addiction and living with HIV, and her style was precursory to the raw, victim-driven prose now de rigueur in personal essays and autobiographies. But back then, no one could have predicted how deeply the idea of LeRoy (the JT stands for “Jeremiah Terminator”) would resonate with readers, or how the lie might snowball to such Warholian heights.
In the new Justin Kelly film named after the fictional author, the story is told from the perspective of the person who helped Albert pull off the ruse, her boyfriend's sister, Savannah Knoop. Knoop (who identifies as gender fluid, so we will use the non-binary pronouns “they” and “them” in reference) was a young woman still trying to figure who they were when Albert thrust them into the spotlight, paying them to don wigs, sunglasses and masks to play LeRoy at parties and in photo shoots, in San Fransisco where they were based, then in L.A. and then around the globe.
There's a lot of meta-layers that can get a bit convoluted here, so bear with us. Kristen Stewart plays Knoop, turning in a subdued performance that gently but powerfully conveys Knoop's still forming identity. In the book, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, which the film is based on, it is explained that in pretending to be someone who didn't exist — the bisexual, biological boy/trans girl author — this bi-sexual biological girl began to discover who they really were, which ultimately they came to refer to as gender non-conforming. Knoop and Kelly wrote the script, which offers a much more balanced view of the infamous lie's progression versus the best known documentary about the subject, Jeff Feuerzeig's 2016 Author: The JT LeRoy Story, which is essentially Albert's personal story. Another doc, Marjorie Sturm's 2014 The Cult of JT LeRoy, took a more journalistic approach to the controversial story.
Albert is played in Kelly's film with astounding, award-worthy zeal by Laura Dern, conveying sociopathic tendencies and a compulsive nature that rings true and vulnerable even as it veers into crazy town. It's hard not to be reminded of some of Dern's most iconic roles watching this one, especially David Lynch's Wild At Heart, where the actress came off equally forceful, weird and multi-faceted. Though early critiques of Kelly's film seem to see it as villainizing Albert, it really doesn't. Albert's reasonings for her original lie, which of course begets more lies that end up lasting 6 whole years, make sense most of the time, even as she embellishes certain elements seemingly for the hell of it. She also created another personna for herself to play — LeRoy's British handler Speedie, who speaks for the literary star so Knoop doesn't have to when they go out in social situations. Speedie helped keep Albert in control of her creation, which obviously felt a little less hers once it was embodied by another. The secondary alter ego gives Dern a way to conjure desperation behind the guise, adding wacky nuances to Albert's personality. Watching the film, one needs to remind themselves, that yes, this stuff all really happened. They say truth is stranger than fiction, but in this case “fiction” was the truth, and yes, this is one of those stories that you just can't make up, which is why it fascinated even those who had never heard of LeRoy before the hoax was revealed via an exhaustive New York Magazine article.
At the press day for JT LeRoy in West Hollywood, Dern and Stewart did interviews together, explaining their attraction to the story and their respective roles. Neither had read LeRoy's works nor were they very familiar with the scandal at the time it broke. Both pointed to the script as what attracted them to the project.
“Diving into this story, we had deep empathy for not only Savannah, which was frankly easy, but for Laura too,” Dern explains. “To really understand why she felt she needed to do it this way … because clearly she's a great writer. So if you love the writing, you honor the artist. But I think it was in the discovery of why— why we perceive anyway — that she needed an alter or an avatar as she called it, that really kind of cracked our hearts open to her.”
“Our attempt at telling this story could only be, quote unquote, true because perception is such a subjective thing,” adds Stewart. “I always felt that Savannah's perspective of Laura was really enlightening for an outsider and very tender and admiring; always wanting to bring it back to the books and what a brilliant writer she was, to how hard she worked, how much pain she was in, how she translated that, how they shared a lot of similar pain, all of that. Even though the relationship became controlling and became codependent and dysfunctional in various ways, there was never any disdain or, like, leftover hate.”
Talking to Knoop alongside Kelly at the same press event, it's clear that Stewart really got to know the person she played. Knoop gives off an amiable enthusiasm that feels — ironically — extremely real and self-actualized. The writer admits to reservations about telling their side of the story cinematically at first, but trust, time and truth helped it finally happen. Part of the obvious comfort-level comes from the fact that Kelly and Knoop have known each other for 11 years, meeting when both lived in San Francisco. Kelly is an L.A. native (he grew up in Santa Clarita) and made a name for himself as a maker of short films and protege of Gus Van Zant, who was one of LeRoy's celebrity friends and fans. Three of Kelly's previous full-length films were based on controversial true stories, so this one is not unfamiliar territory.
“It happened very organically through sort of building a friendship,” Knoop says. “I think probably building the trust, too. ”
Kelly read Knoop's book (which came out about two years after the scandal broke in 2006) and was enthralled. The San Francisco film school student had followed the career of local celebrity JT even before his identity was revealed, and early into the friendship with Knoop he brought up the idea of co-writing the film together. Almost a decade later the project has come to fruition starring the actress they envisioned way back then as Albert (Dern) and arguably one of the hottest young actresses in Hollywood (Stewart), the latter proving herself just as right for the role for a number of reasons, including her understanding of what it's like to grow up in the spotlight, how major fame can lead to adoration as well as antipathy (thanks to the Twilight phenom) and her honest exploration of her own sexuality (she identifies as bi-sexual).
In the film, which begins after LeRoy's first book, Sarah, is already a New York Times best-seller, Dern's manipulation is the driving force of the story, but it also suggests that Knoop's portrayal of the writer in the flesh is what took the mystique to a cult level. Either way, Albert's decision to have a biological female play her “baby” was a bold choice. Clearly, she saw something in Savannah beyond an androgynous young girl, and she says so a few times in the film: JT LeRoy was brought to life not by one of them, but both of them.
Kelly and Knoop admit that they didn't consult Albert on their version of the story, though Knoop does say they spoke with the writer (who is no longer in a relationship with Knoop's brother) before writing the book on which it's based. The memoir has just been re-released with the Dern and Stewart movie promo on the cover.
“We move through the very complicated power dynamics of the Savannah character and the Laura character,” Knoop says. “We get into the nitty gritty of that and I think some people expect it must be a cat fight and who won and who lost, but actually it's neither. ”
Some might say that those who championed LeRoy lost a little bit, at least in terms of reputation. Everyone from Tom Waits to Billy Corgan to Courtney Love (who makes a winky cameo in the movie as a Hollywood bigwig) fell into the fawning/conning trap of LeRoy, with the biggest (possibly) being Asia Argento, who optioned LeRoy's The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and made it into a movie. She was rumored to have had a relationship with LeRoy, or rather Knoop as LeRoy. Dianne Kruger plays the Argento character in the film, and there is a scene where Stewart sexually pleasures her (an encounter that sees them remain clothed and therefore leaves gender feasibly hidden).
Of course, this part of the story became more complicated (as if the story wasn't already) by a stranger — and darker — recent turn of events. Shortly after her boyfriend Anthony Bourdain passed away, Argento, who was a vocal proponent of the #MeToo movement, was accused herself of taking advantage of the young male co-star (who played her son in The Heart Is Deceitful), and paying him to keep quiet.
Kelly says the Argento scandal has nothing really to do with his film — and it doesn't literally — but Knoop takes a more esoteric approach to the Kruger character (which we had to remind ourselves, they may or may not have had an actual relationship with).
“It's actually kind of at the crux of this story,” Knoop says. “The emotional interpersonal relationship between these characters. We thought it was important to have a character where you go into the JT world, you feel like you're connecting and really vibing with someone, but are they vibing with you? It gets at the meat of that kind of intimacy and the weirdness of feeling like you're not sure if you're a projection of someone or you're actually hearing and seeing each other. Even though it's a fictional compartmentalized world, that's relatable to everyone.”
Despite its outrageousness, the story of JT LeRoy touches on feelings and ideas we can all understand — not just gender identity but identity in general, as well as the pretentiousness of celebrity and the mob mentality that seems to drive social media and pop culture today. Maybe even more importantly, it illuminates how damage and struggle inspire art and why we connect so passionately with it even when we don't fully understand it. Albert created LeRoy when she was suicidal, calling hotlines as the boy character she invented. Desperate and longing for a connection she had too much shame to feel she deserved help as herself.
Stewart suggests that fans who felt anger when they learned it was all fake take a different perspective on the story, trying to understand that while the person may not have been real, the emotions were. “Those feelings were coming from the same place we've all felt them,” she says. “If you're actually able to step outside and see we've all been through some shit, you realize it all comes from pain.”
“That's why we're here,” adds Dern, whose layered take evokes mixed emotions in JT LeRoy. “We didn't sign up for this because we wanted to expose the hoax; that's already out there. And we didn't sign up to go, 'You guys are wrong and you're crazy to feel hurt by this deception.' We sought to examine the question of why so many people can't identify as who they are. For both of these characters at this time in their lives, it was impossible for them to just be in their own skin. That is fascinating.”
Kelly concurs, “In terms of how we all control how we want to be perceived, from our Facebook profile photo to what we post on Instagram, and put out there in real life, it's like we're all curating our lives. It's a wild story, but it's wildly relatable too.”