There are films with layers, and then there is JT LeRoy. Director Justin Kelly’s based-on-a-true-story drama is constructed with such an overwhelming and hmm-that’s-kinda-gross sense of layered meta-ness that it is reminiscent of Rachel’s infamous trifle recipe from Friends. Custard: Good. Jam: Good. Meat: Gooooood?
The movie’s sweeter layers might be found in the origin story of LeRoy, a young man who mined his tumultuous upbringing for a handful of salacious, semi-autobiographical Southern Gothic novels filled with drug use and sexual abuse. By leveraging the power of celebrity (Billy Corgan and Winona Ryder were fans) and the allure of personal mystery (LeRoy refused all early public appearances), the author became an instant star on the American literary scene, feted for his raw honesty and captivating prose.
The only problem – and here’s where that layer of unexpected, difficult-to-swallow meat comes in – is that LeRoy didn’t exist. Or, rather, he did exist. Just as two different individuals.
One was Laura Albert, who wrote the actual novels but also masqueraded as LeRoy in phone interviews with the media. The other was Savannah Knoop, Albert’s sister-in-law, who – hidden under a wig, hat and sunglasses – played LeRoy during in-person appearances and photo shoots. Oh, and Albert also adopted a second persona, that of LeRoy’s pushy British manager, Speedie. The deception is given new life in Kelly’s film – and the irony of professional performers now coming in to take on the roles of Knoop and Albert is not lost on the the stars tasked with such a chin-scratching job.
“Every aspect of this was meta,” says Laura Dern, who stars in Kelly’s film as Albert (and as LeRoy and Speedie, too). “This was about getting to play someone who invented someone else’s story.”
Yet that story, or at least the one depicted in Kelly’s film, is only half the tale. JT LeRoy, the invention, may have been the product of two people’s contributions and visions. But JT LeRoy, the film, is told from the perspective of just one: Knoop, who co-wrote the film by adapting her own memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy. Knoop was a steady presence on the movie’s set, met with her on-screen avatar Kristen Stewart and has been making the publicity rounds alongside Kelly. Albert, however, is not involved.
“[Albert] has had a lot of time to have her perspective heard. The [LeRoy novels] are her perspective, the documentary [2016′s Author: The JT LeRoy Story] is her perspective,” Stewart says in an interview alongside Dern. “The reason this movie is worth making is because we’re taking a look at the corner that’s been kept in the shadows. There was someone standing in the eye of this storm: Savannah. So what does she have to say?”
The answer, according to Kelly’s film, seems to be that Knoop was less the perpetrator of a malicious hoax than a somewhat unwitting player in an elaborate act of performance art.
“At the end of it, you can say that they really came up with something great, and that they found themselves in the making of it,” Stewart says. “It’s definitely hard to grapple with the idea that they knew they were lying, but I’ve talked with Savannah, and for me … it’s absolutely brilliant performance art.”
“There’s poetry to the fact that Savannah was our guide and muse here, and that it’s from her perspective on how she’s guiding us now, and how she was guided by Laura,” Dern adds. The actor – who plays Albert as half opportunist looking to exploit Knoop’s youthful naivety, half maternal figure to an aimless young woman – then goes a step further in theorizing what drove Albert to such alter-ego lengths.
It would be easy to dismiss the whole thing as a hoax, Dern says. But our understanding of multiple personality disorder is changing, she says, with “it now being deemed in the psychiatric profession as a real mental-health challenge, in fact a gift.”
“People 15 years ago might hear about this story and say, ‘Oh my god, this is manipulative,'" she adds. "But now, we can consider the possibility that here is this person who was trying to write about trauma and created this alter ego that culture might accept. Here’s this teenage boy’s experience, versus this 40-year-old woman being heard. There’s a feeling that we would write her off because she’s female, because she’s a victim.” (In Jeff Feuerzeig’s 2016 film Author, Albert denies having dissociative identity disorder.)
Dern and Stewart seem, though, to have a more intense fascination with these fault lines – the divide between performance and reality, and between opportunity and exploitation – than Kelly’s film itself. The work is enthusiastic about dissecting the relationship between Knoop and Albert, but determinedly uninterested in the roots of the entire affair. By the time the movie opens, Albert is deep into writing as LeRoy, and Kelly’s film couldn’t care less what motivated her to start doing so.
Also left frustratingly unexplored is how Albert and Knoop’s actions ensnared other artists, some perhaps more conscious of LeRoy’s true origins than others. Early LeRoy booster Courtney Love proves that she’s a self-aware sport by appearing in a small role (although not playing herself), but on the other end, Diane Kruger plays a thinly veiled version of Asia Argento, who adapted LeRoy’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things into a 2004 film. (“[It] wasn’t important to keep that character exactly who they were,” Kelly told Forbes.com recently.)
So, in the end, audiences are left with a three-layered confection: one JT LeRoy (the movie) that’s an interpretation of another JT LeRoy (the scandal) that is itself an interpretation of another, presumably final JT Leroy (the persona).
“Whenever you tell a story which should reflect the quote-unquote truth, it’s always your recollection based on your own perception and bias. It’s all the things you bring to it as a human being, it’s your expression,” Stewart says. “The truth of that is always going to be questionable.”
JT LeRoy opens May 3 in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton before expanding to other Canadian cities.