Roland Emmerich — the city-smashing director responsible for such apocalyptic blockbusters as Independence Day, 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow — has now set his destructive sights on… Stonewall? Sure, sections of the titular LGBT watering hole in New York City were damaged after four nights of rioting in June, 1969 but it hardly qualified as a disaster.
As it turns out, the openly gay, German-born Emmerich has long wanted to tell the story behind this milestone event in LGBT history. His long string of hit movies finally earned him the Hollywood clout needed to do so. Emmerich’s Stonewall will open nationwide Friday following its world premiere this month at the Toronto Film Festival.
The historical drama stars 25-year old British actor Jeremy Irvine (War Horse, Great Expectations) as the all-American Danny Winters, a young gay man who flees his conservative home life in Indiana for uninhibited, 1960’s Greenwich Village. Other big names among the film’s cast are Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a leader in the local chapter of the Mattachine Society, Ron Perlman as Stonewall Inn manager Ed Murphy, and Matt Craven from the TV series Justified and Resurrection.
“When you get to work with people you grew up admiring, it’s always cool,” the in-demand Irvine said when he recently spoke with me via telephone from London. “I could be real with everyone in the cast.” I asked if this was especially the case between him and Rhys Meyers, with whom Irvine both dances and makes out in the movie. He laughed in reply. “Yeah, all my gay friends are quite jealous about that. I’ve done lots of straight sex scenes but this was my first gay one. (Rhys Meyers) was so relaxed and chill, he made it easy.”
Stonewall’s screenplay was written by Jon Robin Baitz, a successful playwright and creator of the television hit Brothers & Sisters (2006-2011). When the script first came Irvine’s way, he was familiar with the basic facts surrounding the uprising by LGBT patrons of the mafia-owned bar against police oppression but was surprised by how little he knew. “My first thought on reading the script the first time was ‘Wow, why doesn’t the global community know more about this story?’ It seemed like a story that needed telling.”
Upon Danny’s arrival in New York, he is befriended by a number of fellow gay and trans young people who have found themselves homeless and are forced to resort to prostitution. There is a title card at the end of the finished film referencing the large number of homeless youth who are LGBT. “That really moved me,” Irvine recalled. “I had no idea.” Given Stonewall’s subject matter and his rising stardom, I asked Irvine if he had any hesitancy in taking on the role of Danny. “None whatsoever,” he replied. “It was a brilliant script so it was really a no-brainer. I’m also a big fan of Emmerich’s films like Anonymous as well as his big epic movies, so I really jumped at the chance to work with him.”
Irvine (who was born Jeremy William Fredric Smith in 1990) has already had the opportunity to work with several world-class directors in his relatively brief career, including Steven Spielberg, Mike Newell and Emilio Aragon. When I inquired whether he deliberately seeks such filmmakers, he immediately responded “Absolutely! So much goes into the making of a movie, and only one person really shepherds the movie from when the script is written to when the movie comes out. The director is the captain of the ship.”
He continued, “I think we should choose the people we work with and be very picky. I’ve sometimes picked a movie on the strength of the script but you still need a director who will honor it.” Irvine describes Emmerich as being “very calm and subtle on set, which may surprise people who are only familiar with his big spectacles.”
A previous, 1995 independent movie about the Stonewall riots suffered somewhat from its low budget. This has been rectified in the well-financed new version, which boasts a larger cast and greater historic authenticity as reflected in its sets and costumes. In fact, this led to a particularly memorable moment for Irvine during production.
“One night, we were filming the main riot and there were these beautiful, restored cars from the 1960’s on set,” he relates. “Me and another actor, Jonny Beauchamp (who plays trans character Ray/Ramona), in the heat of the moment jumped up on one of the cars and they yelled ‘Cut! Cut! You can’t jump on the car!’ Turns out the owner had just bought it and didn’t fancy anyone jumping on it and throwing bottles. Go figure (laughs).”
I asked Irvine in what way or ways he is similar to his character, Danny. “He’s not the most comfortable kid growing up, and is still very much finding himself. He’s very much an outsider and I think we all feel like that sometimes.” Irvine has been public about the challenges he’s faced living with Type 1 Diabetes, which he was diagnosed with when he was only 6 years old and subsequently had to receive four insulin injections a day. He continues to be involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
On playing Danny, Irvine said “He goes through this wonderful journey of finding himself, and I felt honored to help show Danny’s journey.” Although his character is fictional and not to be confused with the late Danny Garvin, a real-life homeless gay youth who participated in the riots, Irvine revealed “he is based on someone I know personally but who wasn’t involved in Stonewall.”
Controversy over Stonewall erupted after its first trailer premiered this summer. Some viewers have voiced concerns that the new movie “whitewashes” history and doesn’t adequately depict the black, latino, lesbian and trans figures involved.
“You know, the trailer is two minutes as opposed to the two-hour movie,” Irvine responded when I asked him about the controversy. “The movie is very careful to include all the activists involved in the riots, including (black trans woman) Marsha P. Johnson; we really tried to do justice to the story and the people who were involved.”
Having seen the final cut of the film (which actually runs 129 minutes), I agree that these concerns are unfounded despite its mix of fictional and real-life characters. It also shows, true to the historical record but not always accurately dramatized, that a lesbian was the first patron to forcefully resist arrest and spark the riots.
Irvine, who will next be seen as poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in a new take on the Frankenstein story titled Mary Shelley’s Monster, is optimistic about Stonewall’s reception this month. “I hope it sheds a bit of light on the history,” he says. “Every once in a while, you get a film that is more than just entertainment. I was kind of shocked by how little I knew about (the Stonewall riots). It was a huge year for the civil rights movement and I think the time is ripe now for remembering it.”
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.