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Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart on Acting, Friendship, and J.T. LeRoy

The film takes us behind the scenes of one of the most bizarre literary hoaxes ever.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, JT LeRoy was a reclusive author with a devoted cult following. His three semi-autobiographical books garnered critical acclaim for their unflinching stories of a teenage boy surviving poverty, abuse, and addiction, while experimenting with sexuality and gender. Everyone from publishers to journalists to Hollywood wanted a piece of the talented wunderkind.

But LeRoy didn’t exist: he was the avatar of writer Laura Albert, who went on to recruit her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to be the public face of JT LeRoy. With Albert disguised as LeRoy’s British manager Speedie, the duo created one of the most compelling literary hoaxes of the past 20 years. But how did this happen? And what would possess an unassuming young person like Knoop to go along with such a charade?

These are the questions explored in J.T. LeRoy, which stars Laura Dern as Albert and Kristen Stewart as Knoop. The film is based on Knoop’s memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, and is directed by Justin Kelly (King Cobra), who co-wrote the script with Knoop. The film explores not only the creation and dissolution of J.T. LeRoy, but the complexities of sexuality, gender, and a nuanced but toxic partnership.

Our culture is currently having a moment with scammers: we seemingly can’t get enough of stories like Fyre Festival or Theranos, grand visions and ideas that crumble due to fraud, incompetence, and hubris. But J.T. LeRoy paints a more intimate, human picture of the people behind the scam. Dern and Stewart deftly explore the nuances of their relationship, and Dern (as always) is a standout as she vacillates from nurturing big sister to manipulative puppeteer.

Knoop discussed seeing their own story portrayed on screen, saying “It is very strange, and very meta. I feel grateful that it happened slowly [Kelly and Knoop have been working on the project on and off for nearly a decade], and that it’s also like plunking yourself, your experience, like becoming your own object, and watching the character as an ant moving across the table is liberating … and there’s something about that process and having the distance creates new understanding.”

Kelly discussed what he thought he knew about the story, versus what he learned through knowing Knoop and reading their memoir. “I read the memoir and I couldn’t believe the story. I lived in San Francisco during the entire JT saga, so I knew all about it, but people’s versions were ‘two women who wanted fame and money and created this fake character’ and reading the book I thought … this is such an incredible story, far more complicated than anyone thinks, and it made me really understand why they did it.”

Part of what makes the film so compelling is the chemistry between Dern and Stewart, who bring an immediate intimacy to their onscreen relationship. The two had 48 hours to prep before shooting began, and quickly connected to find the bond between Albert and Knoop.

Dern said, “I realize, when I talk about my friendship with you [Stewart], when you’re not around and someone brings up Kristen Stewart, it’s like ‘I own Kristen Stewart, I am Kristen Stewart, I know everything about Kristen Stewart!’, there’s an arrogance to it, and I realize that to do this, it was like ‘every part of your body I have to touch and be comfortable with, you get no say, I’m fucking taking you, and we’re doing this thing.'” Stewart agreed, saying “the thing is I liked it, so it’s okay.”

Dern continued, “We felt that Savannah/Laura connection. She was willing to go on that ride, and sense of self and body and ownership and boundary-lessness, and identity were all in the mix of what the story was about.” Stewart agreed, “It felt fucking great.”

Stewart also discussed playing Knoop, and what she thinks her character found so captivating about Albert, saying “On paper, you can understand why someone that age, Savannah’s age who had this creative impulse but felt like maybe who she was was confusing for people, and how to get that out was just, like unforeseeable at that point. And then you meet someone who goes, ‘God, I see every part of you and you should start running, you should start making stuff, and you should do it with me’, it’s crazy but it’s not like she was like, ‘we’re going to pull of the most extreme, crazy hoax of all time’. It didn’t seem that crazy in the beginning.”

Both actresses discussed working on female-driven projects (Dern had just wrapped the second season of Big Little Lies and Stewart just filmed Charlie’s Angels) and their enthusiasm for female-led content. Dern said, “I think continually, always longing to play characters, to tell stories that examine ‘the other’, whether it’s literally about representation and having voices be heard resoundingly in ways we haven’t seen before in film and television … we’re not one thing! We’re complicated, we’re manipulative, we’re longing, we’re desperate, it’s true it’s a lie, it’s all of it. We’re seeing that in the news every day. Just to get to play such flawed, broken, complicated female characters, which neither of would have, even as girls when we started.”

Stewart agreed, saying “It’s so expansive, so exciting actually, to be like ‘whoa there are so many things we haven’t acknowledged.’ It’s an exciting time in movies … we have so much more opportunity to tell strange stories … I’m really interested in ‘the coming of age’ story for a girl, we haven’t even, not even put a finger on it, so yeah, that’s exciting.”

J.T. LeRoy is currently playing in select theaters and is available on On Demand / Digital HD.

(image: Universal Pictures)

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Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. She currently lives in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband and two poorly behaved rescue dogs. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.