Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko earned attention with critically acclaimed features like High Art (1998) and Laurel Canyon (2002). Her latest movie, The Kids Are All Right , is a “personal film” about a lesbian couple raising teenagers. I spoke to Cholodenko about queer politics, explicit content, and keeping things lighthearted.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: Recently, there was a lot of controversy surrounding a Newsweek article, in which the author wrote about the difficulty of queer actors playing straight roles. I was wondering about your take on that, and on the opposite — straight actors playing queer roles. Is that something you even considered when casting?
Lisa Cholodenko: I’ll be honest, I was just told about this article and I didn’t read it. You know, I think it’s kind of weird thing to even discuss in a way, to me. Chiefly because I think actors’ personal lives — I just think people should have a private life, not that they should be in the closet, but that there should be a separation between professional life and personal life. And if a director feels like so-and-so, whether they’re gay or straight, would be good for a role, give them the role. What does it matter? As it turns out, I think gay people have more of an affect, whether they’re lesbians or gay men, that’s harder to camouflage in straight roles. Why that is, I mean, you could talk about that. I think it’s easier to go the other way. That’s just what it is. I say that without a value judgment. It is what it is.
SFBG: The Kids Are All Right has a same-sex relationship, of course, but it also has a fair amount of graphic sex and even a snippet of hardcore gay porn. Do you think it will shock a mainstream audience? Are they ready for it, and does that matter?
LC: I think it’s shocking in a sense that it’s portrayed in such a real way, that it’s not super arch, or it’s not like The L Word. This stuff has been on TV and in films. In a way, I’m not inventing the wheel at all. But I think the package that it’s coming in is going to be disarming to people. I think we tried and I think we were somewhat successful in making it so that you don’t realize exactly what you’re watching, the subversiveness of what you’re seeing. You can settle into watching it without that kind of discomfort of being super aware of, “This is something I’m not. I’m other and this is not my thing.” I think we figured out a way for people to enter it, and that was really important for us.
SFBG: I ask because I do feel like this shouldn’t be a big deal, that people should be able to handle it. And yet, the night before I saw your movie, I saw Sex and the City 2, in which there was a gay wedding. And as soon as the two men kissed, the camera cut away. There’s a lot of intimacy between Nic and Jules in the movie, so I was wondering particularly about that. Are people outside of San Francisco going to be apprehensive?
LC: Yeah. You know, I think we didn’t really know. I think we tried to write it and I tried to direct it in a way that the humor would be disarming enough, and the images themselves, if you really deconstruct it, would be tame enough. So it was more the suggestion of it. That would be the kind of twist. The people in the know would get it more than the people that were not in the know, maybe. I think we hoped that it would have a mainstream appeal to it, and that we could get beyond the people who would be apprehensive. There were questions about the gay porn and about how much sexuality we were showing, but we felt like, this is the fun of the film. It’s not going to be Spider-man 12 or something. It’s not going to be a multiplex film. But we hope it’s not going to be super rarefied art house film. So in terms of the Sex and the City thing, I think that they’re looking to go as wide as humanly possible, to every grandmother to every neck of whatever, so you can only take it so far.
SFBG: I want to touch on the humor that you mentioned, because I think it’s one of the movie’s real strong points. It’s so funny. What was your approach when you were co-writing to keeping the drama of the story but still making it fun?
LC: It was like a process, it was a real evolution. We had sort of a plot, a conceit for how the plot comes together, which was this thing about the kind of doofus friend wanting to watch the DVDs, and finding the porn, and blah, blah, blah, blah. So that all was funny, and then the kind of awkward conversation about trying to tiptoe around trying to figure out if their kid was gay, and that they would even care that the kid is gay, and how ironic that two gay moms are going to care that there kid is gay. And all that stuff. So it made us laugh, but there was a lot of other stuff in there that we took a lot more seriously and played a lot more seriously. I think as we went deeper into the drafts and moved along in the evolution of getting the film done, I really, really, really pushed for us to take whatever was potentially funny in there and just kick it up a notch. Stuart [Blumberg, who co-wrote the film] is a really funny guy — we have a similar sensibility. The same kind of stuff makes us laugh. So we knew if we were sitting there writing it and laughing, it was good. We had kind of gotten there.
SFBG: I think a lot of the humor comes from the fact that the film is so real and grounded. You have Laser, a 15-year-old boy, who talks like a 15-year-old boy, and that’s something we don’t always see in movies. And so it’s not stereotypical or preachy—it feels more organic than that.
LC: Yeah, we were really passionate about making it not politically correct and not sanctimonious and not super earnest and just hoping that there would be heart in it, simply because these were sympathetic and three-dimensional characters in a difficult situation.
SFBG: I wanted to ask about the character of Nic [played by Annette Bening], who could have been played very typically butch, because she has a masculine name and short hair and these traditionally “male” qualities. In terms of the writing and the directing, how did you make sure there was more complexity there?
LC: You know, I think that wasn’t super overdetermined. It’s really just kind of my worldview. I don’t live in a world where people are super stratified. I don’t feel like my partner and I are super — I kind of see the butch and femme in every lesbian I know. I know that there are lesbians who really kind of identify with that, and that’s there thing in the world, and that’s good. But it’s a personal film, so it’s written from my worldview. So there’s that, and then there’s also, you get Annette Bening and you get Julianne Moore, and they come with their own essence and personality. Julianne Moore has some butch in her and Annette Bening has some femme in her. They are who they are.
SFBG: There’s a great conversation early on in the film about the spectrum of sexuality and how it’s not so easily defined, which ties into Jules sleeping with a man. Were you concerned about an audience’s reaction to a lesbian having sex with a straight guy?
LC: I mean, it was a concern for me, but I felt like, you know what, oh well. I might be nailing the coffin. It might just be a bad choice. But in essence, the whole plot of the film revolves around that, so it was either, ditch the film or run with it and try to make it feel earned and interesting and viable and what not. In the early drafts I would show people — and when I started getting feedback in the early drafts, and “This is good,” I stopped being so uptight about that and just let myself kind of take it to the next place.
SFBG: It wasn’t an issue for me, but I think for a lot of people, they expect more rigid definitions. We don’t see a lot of queer characters on screen, and so when we do, many want them to be perfect: the queer voice, the lesbian, the gay man. And when they step outside those boundaries, suddenly it becomes an issue, politically.
LC: The calculated thing was that, I thought, a) I identify with this. This is something that I feel like, that makes sense to me. That makes sense to people I know. That makes sense to whatever. So it didn’t feel like some weird kind of conceit that I came up with that was like, that never happens. All lesbians are rigidly this and don’t go over that boundary. Because we know that’s not true. So there was that, and then I thought, I like this set-up and I like this plot, and also I feel like, it’s kind of an interesting intermingling of straight and gay. I felt like, if I really want this to be a mainstream film, that’s good. This is really inclusive of gay and straight, and I like that. I like that personally and I like that for this film. I was much more interested in reaching out to the male population than I was concerned about alienating a sector of the lesbian population.
SFBG: I wanted to talk about the title, The Kids Are All Right, and that focus on the children. How did the title come about? How do you feel about the role the kids play, and why is that central to the film?
LC: The film is about, you know, these women and their experience making a family. The family. The man who comes in and wants to be part of the family. Really when you’re talking about the family, it’s about the life of the kids. So it’s sort of an ironic title, in the sense that the kids are kind of doing better than the moms, in a way. And it’s also a kind of a wink to the notion that gay people can’t raise healthy, psychologically healthy children. Like, the kids are fine. Don’t worry about them. They’re just right.
SFBG: You talked a bit about what Annette Bening and Julianne Moore brought to the film, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on casting.
LC: Julianne was someone I had probably 10 years ago, just at some function somewhere. We had spoken about wanting to work together at some point. She was a fan of the first film that I made, High Art, and I was always a fan of hers, particularly in Boogie Nights (1997). So when Stuart and I wrote this, we asked ourselves several times, could Julianne play this part or that part? We were sort of on the fence. We thought she could play either part. So I sent it to her and I said, “Which part would you like to play?” And she picked Jules. Which, we weren’t surprised. We knew she’d want to play that part, but I thought I’d offer her the other one if she wanted it. And that was great.
Then finding her counterpart, the Nic character, was more difficult. It was kind of vexing. I just didn’t know what actor in that age group who had great acting chops, who was funny and dramatic and sexy, could be a good match for her. But when I stumbled on the idea of Annette Bening, I kind of got rabid about it. OK, this is it, this is the only person who can do it. So come hell or high water, she’s gonna do it.
SFBG: And then in terms of the younger actors — you don’t always see teenagers who actually look like teenagers.
LC: Well, they’re pretty close to the ages they’re supposed to play. Mia [Wasikowska] was like 19 at the time, and Josh [Hutcherson] was maybe 16, going on 17. So they were pretty close. Mia was someone that I had seen on an HBO series called In Treatment and thought she was interesting. I liked that she was Australian, not a typical American young actor, from LA or New York and wouldn’t have that baggage or affect that you might find in a lot of young actors from here. And he — I didn’t know his work, but I knew that he had done a lot of work. I was told he was an up-and-coming actor, so I was open to meeting him as well as other people, but when he came in and did the scene, it was just one of those things where you go like, “Oh, yeah.” I thought maybe Laser would be more of a Paul Dano-type kid, a little bit more twee, but when I saw him, I thought, oh, that’s good. He should be more boyish and more kind of robust, and just like a dude. I like that.
SFBG: There’s a lot of subtlety in The Kids Are All Right. I liked Nic’s drinking, which was fairly underplayed but came up several times. What was the thought process behind that? Does she have a drinking problem, or is that just the manifestation of the turmoil going on in her family?
LC: I think we felt like, oh, you know what? She’s kind of borderline. She’s a little bit of a lush. She’s kind of leaning on the wine too much, and this has become a thing and the other partner is now noticing. She’s drinking too much and she’s a stress case and she’s not dealing with it very well. She doesn’t have a good off valve. I think we tried to design it in a way that it felt like, this is something that’s coming to a head in their relationship. One partner’s seeing a behavior that’s making her concerned and the other one doesn’t want to deal with it yet, and she’s boozing it up.
SFBG: It’s also interesting because it’s easy to label Nic the control freak. But here’s Nic, who can’t control her drinking, and Jules, the free spirit, trying to get her to keep it in line.
LC: Right, right, right. Well, I felt like everybody has their ironies and contradictions and stuff. It’s endemic, I think, in all long-term relationships.
SFBG: There was another relationship that interested me, which was the relationship between Paul [Mark Ruffalo] and Tanya [Yaya DaCosta]. I was wondering if it was significant that it was an interracial relationship. In the sense that, 40 years ago, audiences might have been shocked by an interracial relationship, but now it plays naturally — and hopefully, the same will be true of same-sex relationships. Was that intentional, or am I reading into things too much?
LC: You know, I think it wasn’t totally consciously mediated, but at a certain point when I was thinking about casting, I had Erykah Badu in my mind for that role. I felt like, who’s the kind of person who Paul would be with? It seems like he’s the kind of guy who would be running after the most exotic person. That character to me was sort of gorgeous and exotic and whatever. And then, to go from that to Jules, who is totally exotic in her own way, because she’s who she is and she’s older and she’s beautiful and she’s a lesbian. It was this kind of motif of like, what’s exotic? The Tanya character, the black character, is clearly in love with him and would be devoted to him in a heartbeat. And the white character, who’s a lesbian and completely inaccessible, is not available at all.
I guess the second part to that question is, at a certain point when we were putting this together was, it’s not only that, in terms of the psychology of the character, but I think this is good to mix it up. You know, he’s screwing this black woman, and OK, compare that to the lesbians watching gay male porn. This is what people do in life. It’s not just white people and straight people. It’s mixed up.
The Kids Are All Right  opens Fri/9 in San Francisco.